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Jonathan Alpert

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Why We Feel Nerves

Posted: 06/13/2012 8:49 am

Despite popular belief, nervous sensations are actually quite useful. They date back thousands of years ago to a time when most of what humans didn't know, didn't understand or couldn't predict could literally get them killed. If early humans were fearless enough to walk onto an unfamiliar grassy prairie, for instance, they ended up becoming dinner for a wild animal that was lurking in that grass. If they were fearless enough to eat a lot of an unfamiliar food, they poisoned themselves or got sick.

So humans and other animals developed a built-in fear of the unknown. In a dangerous, uncertain world, it was quite helpful for early humans to be able to react to danger quickly and effectively. This fear response was wired into the nervous system. It is designed to give you a great deal of strength, smarts, and speed when you are under attack. When early humans were confronted by dangerous wild animals, for instance, their fear response helped them to run and hide. It also helped them to find the strength needed to club an animal over the head. It even helped them to play dead, if needed.

We rarely confront wild animals in modern times, but the fear response remains. When you are startled, nervous or stressed, your brain turns on your sympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine. From here a cascade of reactions result. These include:

  • Increased energy and strength. Your heart rate and breathing rate speed up in an effort to provide more oxygenated blood to your muscles. It pumps sugar into your blood stream so your brain and muscles can burn it easily and quickly, allowing you to run away from or fend off an attacker. This surge of energy and strength has, for instance, allowed mothers to lift cars off their trapped children.
  • Sharper vision and hearing. This allows you to see and hear better so you can more easily spot dangerous predators.
  • More endurance. During the fear response, the body sweats. This serves as a pre-cooling mechanism so you are better able to run without getting overheated.
  • Less pain. During the fear response, the body turns down your perception of pain. It's for this reason that a gunshot victim might not realize he or she has been shot. The pain eventually does kick in -- and in a big way -- but not until the injured person has gotten to safety and the fear response has subsided.

When your fear response is flipped on, your entire body is mobilized to do one thing and one thing only: survive. Many people think of the fear response as a negative response. They want to eliminate it. Your fear response, though, can actually become a strength, one that you can harness and use to your advantage. Isn't it great, for instance, to know that you are capable of much more physical strength than you realize? If you were stuck under a heavy object, that extra strength generated by your fear response could surely come in handy. And if a tidal wave were coming your way, isn't it good to know that you might be able to run faster than you have ever run in your entire life? It's the same if someone were chasing you. You could have speed that you didn't even know you had.

The fear response can also come in handy during non-life-threatening situations. You can turn fear into a strength when delivering a speech or keeping the conversation going during a first date. Rather than being fearful of this response, embrace it and turn your biggest fear into your greatest strength!

For more by Jonathan Alpert, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

 

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