Tears and Fears

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Fear is a strange thing:  why is it fun for some people to watch a horror movie, but not at all fun to see a tiny spider?

Fear is primal. It’s one of those emotions governed by the Limbic System, one of the oldest parts of the brain – a part shared with crocodiles and rats.  To say someone is “Fearless” is to say that he is “inhuman”, “damaged”, and “Missing essential components of sanity”.  A sense of fear is a very healthy thing:  it keeps us on our toes in uneasy situations, helps us run faster, fight harder, and just generally try to safeguard our fragile little lives!  Sadly, fear is so primal, that for many people, it utterly overwhelms the rational mind – think of that idiot in the horror flicks, who gets so afraid of the dark, where a monster might be lurking, that he runs the other way down an equally dark corridor, where said monster is lurking!

(Ok, yeah, horror flicks aren’t real, but a good one has some authentic behaviors in it, so hush!)

If you’ve lived such an amazingly wonderful life that you’ve never been frightened – by which I actually mean terrorized, and certain you’ve come face to face with the Grim Reaper – let me describe it for you:

First there’s the taste. Bitter, like the fuzzy skin of the persimmon, drying your mouth and making you want to retch at the same time. This is one of the many effects of adrenaline, (also known as epinephrine): the super-fight-or-flight hormone, released when the brain encounters something that registers as “Lethally Dangerous” in the Crocodile Plexus. Adrenaline is produced mainly in the Adrenal Glands that sit atop your kidneys – pretty much centrally located, where it can be rushed throughout the body in instants – because when we’re scared we need this stuff freaking now, and not a few seconds after  we’ve been killed by a drunk driver straying into our lane. As it spreads through the body, it basically transforms us from rational, reasonable, soft, civilized human beings, into razor-edged ultra strong, ultra fast, ultra perceptive fanatics of the cult of staying alive – whether that means running like hell, or kicking the living snot out of whatever is scaring us so badly!

Athletic performance (such as for instance, running the hell away, or fighting for your life) depends very largely on three factors:  Oxygen SaturationBlood Pressure, and Muscular Performance

Let’s start with Oxygen:  any runner will tell you that you have to be able to breathe to run well … Adrenaline kicks the bronchial tubes wide open, letting far more air than usual into the lungs, and expelling far more CO2 – and that’s going to be important in a few seconds, because Adrenaline also kicks metabolic rates through the freaking roof!  It mostly constricts blood vessels, driving Blood Pressure, and Heart Rate up (but it cunningly relaxes and dilates some blood vessels, permitting greater flow of nutrrients, and oxygen into those areas, specifically the brain) … The Liver produces more Glycogen – the raw molecule that powers our muscles … it also triggers a system-wide break-down of fats into ketones, which can also be burned by the muscles, if they get low on Glycogen … it stimulates the Pituitary Gland to release more ACTH – a master hormone which causes release of tons of other stress hormones that make the boy more capable of fighting or fleeing … and it triggers chemical changes in the muscles that increase their tone, making for sharper, faster, more powerful movements …

It also greatly dulls pain. Greatly.

I’m sure you’ve heard of people getting shot, and never feeling it till after the excitement was over, or a mom lifting a car off her baby, or a guy punching his way through a car window, not minding that he’s broken all his knuckles, because it got him out of the car before it sank into the river and he drowned … None of those things would be possible with the full sensation of pain:  pain is another primal motivator, even more ancient than fear … some pain never even makes it to the brain, being interpreted at the level of the spine, and appropriate action taken – such as, for instance, when you burn yourself, and don’t actually feel it till your hand has been snatched away from the flame:  the spine read the nerve signals, sent immediate orders to move the hand, and then reports its meddling to the brain …

Adrenaline released into brain tissue has several effects:  first, it massively speeds up the rate of neuronal firing – this has the effect of making everything seem to be moving slowly … it’s not, of course, your brain is just running so fast that it has lot’s and lots of time to notice every facet of the train bearing down on your stalled car … oh, and when I say detail, I mean freaking detail:  the sensory centers of the brain get turbo-charged along with everything else, so not only have you got more time to notice things, you tend to notice things in far greater detail than normal … you’ll see every dent, every scratch, every trivial detail of that train’s front-end than you would have just walking by it, while it was stopped. And then, finally, there’s the numbing … pain receptors in the brain are largely turned off (ok, they aren’t, really:  think of them as a socket into which you could plug a cable that reports pain … adrenalin triggers production of neuro-transmitters that block that port, so the message never gets through … happy? Can we go on, now?)

The numbing effect extends far beyond physical pain, for most people:  it can also encompass emotional pain.  A man can see his wife and child swallowed by a tornado, process it, understand that they’re gone, and yet feel no sorrow or grief while his own life is still in danger.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, the effects of adrenalin are not permanent, or even very long lasting:  within a few minutes, the sense of time dilation fades, our senses return to normal, we can suddenly feel pain again, both physical and emotional, and, oh, yeah, wow, I seem to be bleeding …

Often times this is followed by the blood vessels expanding a greatly as they once contracted, causing an instantaneous loss of Blood Pressure, followed by Oxygen starvation of the brain … we feel a buzzing sensation, may lose color vision, may feel nauseated, break out in sweat, and, if we don’t sit down, the body will correct the various imbalances by putting you down on your back. You’ll faint.

Of course, the various sensations involved can be heady … even stimulating for some.  Welcome to the world of the adrenaline junky! This guys will do whatever it takes to get his adrenaline buzz, gradually getting more and more extreme as he becomes habituated to fear:  personally, I think they’re seriously damaged fucking idiots, on a par with pain junkies.

A final aspect of this whole thing is experienced by Bi-Polars, like me, and people with major depressive disorder … at times, this entire damned mechanism back-fires, fooled by our imbalanced neurotransmitters … we taste the bitterness, feel the time-dilation, feel the numbness to pain, the sickness, or the agitation … the actions of adrenaline aren’t meant to be lasting:  cortico-steroids blasting into a persons system for that long have some seriously f*cked-up consequences, which may include trying to make yourself feel pain, to dispel the numbness …

And, like the idiot in the monster movie, we can end up running from a monster that doesn’t exist, into one that does:  our own unhealthy imaginations…

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~ by dourscot on March 15, 2013.

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