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What are you afraid of? Snakes? Turbulence? Spiders? Thunder? Speaking in front of a crowd?

All of us get scared, and all of us have different thresholds for what makes us afraid. Some of us enjoy the thrill of horror movies, and some of us (like myself) thought the fire scene in Bambi was too frightening.

Whatever it is that scares you, what we can agree on is that fear causes our bodies to react. Hearts pound. Palms sweat. Muscles freeze. Knees shake.

Well, if you are experiencing these symptoms, you have your amygdala to thank. The amygdala is the part of the brain that rests behind the eye and over from the ear. There are two of them, and they are tiny and almond shaped, but don't let the size fool you. Without the amygdala, humans would not have survived throughout history. The amygdala is a brain's alarm system.

Consider the amygdala as your own onboard 911 operator. It is waiting for bad news to come in. From the body's point of view, that bad news comes in the form of inputs like sight, sound, taste, touch, and pain, and this 911 operator then dispatches a signal for the body to respond by increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration. A surge of stress hormones will also be pumped into the bloodstream. And this chain reaction in the brain happens within fractions of a second.

We can learn quite a lot from animals about how we respond when we are frightened. When an animal is in fear, its body freezes, the heart rate increases, and stress hormones enter into the blood. In the animal kingdom, this is helpful because a potential predator cannot see potential prey if it isn't moving. So remaining still can be a lifesaver. And the increased heart rate and stress hormones prepare the body to flee if all else fails. The amygdala, along with other parts of the brain (the thalamus, hypothalamus, and hippocampus), are key to our fight-or-flight reaction.

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