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How Fear Can Alter the Brain

Fear can trigger different responses in people’s brains. It often depends on the perceived threat and the response that a person has been conditioned to use. With new threats, the response can vary in unpredictable ways. Fear, especially when introduced for long periods or in traumatic bursts, can alter the brain. 

Is Fear Real? 

Ralph Adolph’s essay on “The Biology of Fear” points out that fear could be a psychological construct, rather than a real threat response that can be repeated through scientific investigation. The thought behind this theory is that, although humans will feel fear as a threat response and react to protect themselves from said threat, humans do not always know when to actually feel fear, or when it is perceived. 

For example, when a person has a nightmare featuring an inanimate object, they may hold a level of fear of that inanimate object, though it poses no real threat. The perceived threat and threat response drive the fear, rather than the object itself. 

How scientists define fear as a testable construct is also challenging. Fear within Adolph’s explanation is best summed up in Box 1 of his essay. In summary, Adolph says that fear may be “caused by particular patterns of threat-related stimuli, and in turn causing particular patterns of adaptive behaviors to avoid or cope with the threat”. This leads us to ask the question: is fear real? Is fear something valid as an emotion that helps survival or is it a psychologically constructed category? 

Fear’s Alteration of the Brain

Despite fear’s validity as a psychological construct, the emotion has validity in the fact that it can keep a person safe, but fear can also do significant damage to the brain if it’s running a person’s everyday thought process. Fear, when at the forefront of a person’s thought pattern, can develop into mental health issues like anxiety, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 


Anxiety is a common experience for all people. This is typically a worry or fear of the future, or an upcoming event or unlikely scenario that has not actually happened. In order to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, one would be experiencing major bouts of anxiety at least six days a week for six months. Those with anxiety disorders may feel restless, on-edge, easily fatigued, irritable, difficulty sleeping, difficulty with feelings of worry or fear, and sleep problems. 

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is technically a type of anxiety disorder. Panic disorder is defined by a series of sudden, painful, and intense panic attacks that can last several minutes or longer. Panic attacks are often characterized by a fear of danger, disaster, and threats that are not actually present. That is, fear is there, but the actual danger is not. 

Panic disorder can sometimes run in families, but many who have anxiety seem to be prone to panic attacks. Symptoms of a panic attack include sudden repeated attacks of anxiety and fear, fear of being out of control, fear of death of oneself or another, intense worry about the next panic attack, and feeling that a panic attack will kill the person experiencing it. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder triggered after times of significant stress and danger. People of any age can develop PTSD, including small children or elderly people. Some people do not need to experience a dangerous event to develop PTSD. Some who know that a loved one experienced something horrible, like rape, near-death experiences, accidents, or trauma, can develop PTSD from a fear that their loved one will be in danger. 

Symptoms of PTSD often begin about three months after the significant event that caused it, but this can vary. Symptoms range from flashbacks, distressing thoughts, panic attacks, and reliving the trauma or distressing thoughts. Those suffering may also experience sleeplessness, depression, worry, irritability, and feeling tense or easily startled. To cope, some people may abuse substances, engage in risky behaviors, or isolate themselves from others. Sometimes children with PTSD will react to trauma by wetting the bed, forgetting or being unable to talk, or being unusually clingy. 

Fear and Survival

Those who have to endure fear every day must go into survival mode. This is also known as the “fight, flight, freeze” threat response. Flight means that fear will trigger someone to run away or remove themselves from the danger. Fight means that fear will induce someone to fight back against danger in order to protect themselves. Freeze means that the subject is too afraid to move or speak even though the danger is near. 

The more a person is forced into fear/threat responses, the more the brain will wire itself to avoid or eradicate that fear, causing behavioral changes or mental health problems for an affected person. 

Fear can be an important part of survival and can keep a person safe from harm. The activation of the fight, flight, freeze threat response can be beneficial to help a person to stay away from danger. Fear can also be misplaced or misjudged, leading to problems. Those who are struggling with chronic fear may face copious amounts of psychological damage and trauma. At RECO Intensive, we understand that fear is a valid emotion that can be rooted in places that aren’t a real threat. Chronic fear is hard to deal with and may lead to PTSD, anxiety, or panic disorders. Those who use substances to escape their fears may face issues with addiction and substance abuse. At RECO Intensive, we can help with substance abuse disorders, as well as fear-related disorders. We want to help you live with a healthy mind in your life. Call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533. Let’s get back to a brighter future. 

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