The Affects (4) Fear – Terror
In a previous post, I have discussed the Affects System. Today, in the fourth of a series, I look at ‘Fear- Terror’ (i.e. the range from fear through to terror).
Affect and brain activity
We have seen in previous blog-posts how people’s affects are linked to their brain activity. Simplistically, brain activity can be in one of three patterns; increasing, remaining steady or decreasing. Fear-Terror is one of those affects where the brain activity is increasing, and it is increasing at a rate that is much too fast for comfort. This makes sense – this is often how it actually feels. It feels like the stimulation is getting worse, and getting worse at a rate that is too much for us.
Previously I have mentioned another affect, ‘Interest-Excitement’. This affect also has a typical brain pattern that responds to a rising level of brain activity. The difference is in the rate of increase. Interest-Excitement has a level of increase in brain activity that we can tolerate and that doesn’t threaten to overwhelm us – Fear-Terror does. Not only is the stimulation too much, but it is increasing with no relent in sight.
This fits with what we know already – that at low levels (down in the bottom left corner of the graph) excitement and fear are closely related.
No distinction in stimulus
It is really critical to note that Affect Theory makes no distinction between the type of stimulus that we are exposed to – it doesn’t have to be something inherently frightening to us. All it has to be is a stimulus that presents itself too quickly and seems to be getting worse. This makes a lot of sense – we don’t want to take our time to consciously try to figure out if the increasing stimulus is a good or bad thing. We want to be able to react instantly, get ourselves safe, then work out if we were right in being afraid. When Kelly says “stimuli did not have to differentiated from one another before triggering the appropriate affect“ (Kelly, 2009) he is saying that when faced with something potentially dangerous, our automatic response is a fear-induced protective action.
It’s also important to understand the high survival value of Fear-Terror. Like other so-called negative affects, Fear-Terror has the capacity to cut through the other things we are feeling. This is how we’d want it – Fear-Terror is a priority message that needs to get through and over-ride other affects so we can take action, consciously or reactively, to remain safe.
Some forms of drugs and alcohol have the effect of reducing fear, despite the undesirability of their other side-effects. Their effect of keeping us relaxed will be effective to the degree that they suppress brain activity and keep it from increasing at too high a rate. Through this suppression, stimulus that some people find frightening will be, to the sedated, merely interesting. The down-side of course is a severely degraded ability to take unconscious and conscious protective action.
Children and brain activity
It is also interesting to note that young children often have high levels of brain activity. The things that we adults find cause for us a steady state of brain activity may cause for a child an increasing level of brain activity; the things that moderately increase an adult’s brain activity may dramatically increase a child’s. The upshot? The things we find uninteresting may be interesting or exciting for a child, and the things that we find interesting or exciting, they may find frightening.
What you can do
So what can we realistically do to deal with this affect? Since we have seen the link to increasing brain activity, our approach should be linked to what we can do about this. One approach would be to break things up. Some scenarios;
- You are going to see your boss and you’re afraid he is going to be critical of you. Before the meeting, try to take a break, and put your attention onto something else that is relatively unchanging – nature is a good choice. In the meeting itself, do what you can to say some of the things you want to say, or include other aspects of your job in the conversation. This might decrease your level of increasing brain activity a little and allow you to be less afraid.
- You need to do some public speaking, and it’s making you afraid. Again, the idea is to slow down your increasing level of brain activity. The more you are familiar with what you are going to say the less thinking you have to do about it. Similarly, if you arrive at the venue early, you have more time to make yourself familiar with it (again slightly slowing down the increasing rate of brain activity). Anything that slows down your increasing brain activity will help your fear turn into excitement.
Reference: Kelly V. C. (2009) “A Primer of Affect Psychology”
Nathanson D. L. (1992) “Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self”, Norton, New York