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Stress and Fear

It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him.  Amos 5:19, New International Version

 

Fear gets in the way of clear thinking and problem solving. There are literally two parts of our brain that compete for control when we face danger and stress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In times of moderate, manageable stress, these two parts of the brain can work together in some kind of balance. During times of extreme stress or fear, the amygdala’s response is so strong that it takes over, hijacking the whole brain. It becomes impossible to think clearly, and our emotions take over easily.

Prefrontal Cortex

  • Upstairs Brain

  • Requires relative calm to function

  • Rational thinking 

  • Reasoning

  • Self-control

  • Long-term planning

  • Memory is generally normal

  • Thinking ahead to consequences

  • Takes time to think

Amygdala

  • “Downstairs Brain”

  • Releases stress hormones

  • Basic Survival

  • Fight/Flight/Freeze

  • Focused on the immediate moment

  • Memory is affected

  • Fear takes over

  • Reflexive reactions before you can think, such as jumping at a loud noise

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Sometimes the fear or the stressful situation is short-lived. The classic example is coming face-to-face with a hungry bear. We take care of the situation (throw stones at the bear until it runs away), or realize there’s no need to fear (the bear is in a zoo behind glass), and our brains go back to normal, with our prefrontal cortex in the pilot’s seat.

 

But when fear or stress is repeated, or long-term, the stress hormones just keep coming. The hijacker, the amygdala, stays at the wheel. This leads to difficulty sleeping and eating, lack of focus, and anxiety. It affects our physical health, both short-term (such as lower immunity) and long-term (such as increased risk for cardiac disease).

 

Other threats can cause just as much fear as an immediate threat to physical survival. Our brains are hard-wired to recognize the reality that humans depend on other humans to survive. Anything that makes us feel alone, defenseless, or cut off from other people can create intense stress. Hardly anyone in a family affected by sibling sexual trauma escapes fear:

  • Fear of invasion of bodily privacy

  • Fear of public humiliation or stigma

  • Fear of guilt being exposed

  • Fear of being separated from the family, physically and/or emotionally

  • Fear of the whole family falling apart

  • Fear of rejection by family members

 

The Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal lists four factors that contribute to stress:

  • Novelty--something you have never experienced before

  • Unpredictability--something you had no warning would occur

  • Threat to the Ego--your competence and/or identity is called into question

  • Sense of Control--you have little or no control over the situation

 

Experiencing sibling sexual trauma, or discovering it in your household, checks off all four factors, in spades. No wonder you are stressed and anxious. It is a natural human response to your situation.


The usual antidotes for stress and anxiety, the ones aimed at a bad day at the office or getting stuck in a traffic jam or having a spat with your partner, may seem inadequate to what you are facing. It is unlikely you will be able to return to a normal level of fear and stress anytime soon, but there are some steps you can take to lessen it and deal with it.

A word about courage. Feeling fear does not mean you are weak. It does not make you a coward. True bravery is feeling fear and moving forward in spite of it, doing what needs to be done no matter how afraid you are to do it. Every time you feel fear and face it, you are growing in courage.

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