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Is fear in the body or the brain?

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Have a think about this scenario:

It’s dark. You hear a noise. You begin to feel scared, and your heart starts pounding.

And now think about this one:

It’s dark. You hear a noise. Your heart starts pounding, and you begin to feel scared.

Which is true?

Well, in reality, both are true.

The body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ system reacts to the noise - for example you might ‘feel’ your stomach clench in fear as the body moves blood away from the gut towards the muscles in your arms and legs to prepare you to either face the danger or run away.

But your brain also reacts to your body’s responses and helps you to understand the emotion - that is, it helps to you to understand that you ‘feel’ scared. For example, your brain notices that your heartbeat has sped up, and it knows that a pounding heart often happens when you’re scared, and so it tells you that you’re scared. This is one of the reasons why loud noises can make you feel on edge even if you know the noise isn’t scary - like when you’re watching fireworks.

Your brain and body are in a constant feedback loop. The loud noise triggers your fight-or-flight response, but your brain keeps the cycle going. This means that the physiological state of the body influences how we feel.

Understanding this feedback loop can be really useful as it gives you a wider range of tools to deal with a scary situation. Just as the brain understands your faster heart rate as fear, if you can slow your heartbeat down, it will help you feel more relaxed sooner.

One way to bring your heartbeat back down to its resting rate is to take deep, slow breaths.

When you breathe deeply, you’re mimicking the way you feel just before you fall asleep or when you first wake up - two of the moments when the body is most relaxed. Your brain responds to these physiological signals and your heart rate and blood pressure will begin to fall. It doesn’t matter that you’re not in bed, the feedback loop between your brain and body is an innate biological link and it will help you to calm down.

At doppel, we’re incredibly interested in the link between brain and body - and how this in turn affects your emotions. We work with leading academics who specialize in psychophysiology (the study of the relationship between the brain and body) to help us understand how you can use the power of your brain to change how you feel.

It’s not always easy to take a break and do breathing exercises - especially if you’re in the middle of something you find scary like giving an important presentation. But knowing that your body isn’t completely in charge and that you can ‘trick’ your brain to feel calmer might help you out the next time something scares you.


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