Fear is one of our most basic instincts it's enough to get the heart rate pumping and the adrenalin racing. But why does fear make us feel this way? And is there anything we can do to control it?
Our reporter Giaan Rooney finds out more.
As terrifying as it is, fear also has huge potential if we could exploit it we'd have a very powerful tool.
Physiologist Dr Robert di Nicolantonio can help us learn more about fear: "There are two major components of fear. One is psychological preparedness for action and there's physiological preparedness, where your body feels a fear-like state where it's getting ready for action."
Now imagine yourself on the plains of Africa. You've spotted a rhinoceros and then he turns and spots you how is that going to make you feel?
Giaan: "So if that rhinoceros is coming towards me, what happens to my body?"
Dr di Nicolantonio: "Well maybe rather than me explain it to you, why don't I demonstrate it."
Giaan: "What are you going to do to me?"
He's not revealing anything just yet but the doc takes Giaan's blood pressure and pulse.
Dr di Nicolantonio: "We can see that your blood pressure is 117 on 65 and your heart rate is a very low 64."
Next, he measures Giaan's grip strength, which is 34 kilos.
"She is stronger than me!" says Dr di Nicolantonio.
Now that the doc's got his baseline, he plays his trump card he shows Giaan two large spiders in a jar!
Dr di Nicolantonio: "What do you think about these?"
Giaan: "Are you going to put that on me?"
Dr di Nicolantonio: "Yes."
He empties out two huntsmen spiders onto Giaan's abdomen, these huntsmen spiders aren't poisonous but Giaan is terrified of them. Dr di Nicolantonio knows this and he's using Giaan as a guinea pig to demonstrate human reactions to fear.
"If this thing runs to my face I can't guarantee what I'm going to do," says Giaan.
Giaan feels an incredible urge to run away that's the fight or flight response kicking in. This is how it works when we see something that's scary, our brain signals to release adrenaline. It acts like a turbo charger increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, making our muscles stronger, our pupils dilate to make sight clearer, we think clearer with all that adrenaline running around we're ready to fight or take flight.
This time Giaan was braced for a fight it's a classic human fear reaction. The doc took some more measurements and found that Giaan's blood pressure shot up to 123 on 89. Her grip increased by four kilos to 38 kilos but her heart rate virtually stayed the same. How so?
Dr di Nicolantonio: "That's because she is such a finely trained athlete, she has got an athletic heart, which means a heart which has a massive reserve."
But first, let's look at people who not only like being scared, they go out looking for it. Australian thrill-seeker Dr Glenn Singleman enjoys base jumping off massive mountains.
"It's the danger of what we are doing that is right in your face. It's those mental barriers that are much more potent than the physical ones," he says.
Mental barriers? What's he talking about?
To find out, Giaan visits Dr Kim Felmingham of the Brain Dynamics Centre, at Sydney's Westmead Hospital.
"The brain actually works in two ways. What we have initially is a very rapid automatic fear response that goes through the amygdala," says Dr Felmingham.
The amygdala is our threat detector. It raises the alarm, before our conscious mind has had time to assess the threat. But the amygdala can be overruled by another part of the brain.
"We also have a second pathway which is more involving the cortex and what that does is it analyses the threat stimulus. Now if it perceives it's not, say it's a snake, it's a stick, it will then shut down that automatic fear response," Dr Felmingham says.
So the cortex is that part of the brain which helps us reason and people like Dr Singleman who do base jumps use it to combat their natural instincts.
"I find that the challenge of adventure helps me practise overcoming my fears and it builds the pathways and allows me to do things that seem outrageous," he says.
So how can we tap into this love of fear and use it to help those of us who are scared a little or a lot?
So far we've learnt how fear can affect us, both physically and mentally. The next thing is to find out how can we control fear in our day to day lives? Can we turn a negative into a positive?
Remember, some people thrive on fear and others, like Joanne Brown who is terrified of snakes, are almost paralysed by it. Psychologist, Anthony Gunn, specialises in helping people overcome their fear and then using it to their advantage. He's been working with Joanne to help her overcome her fear. After weeks of preparation, Joanne's finally able to touch a python but it wasn't easy.
Anthony: "Would you have though it would of been possible for you to touch a snake before this?"
Joanne: "No way."
Anthony: "This is all new ground, well done, congratulations!"
"The way I help people manage phobias is I teach them how to take control of themselves. So what I do is, I basically introduce them to the situation and take very small steps so they slowly build up their confidence levels," says Anthony.
So how did Anthony work out how to help people like Joanne? He interviewed a hundred extreme risk takers for a book he wrote about fear.
"They see their fear as a good thing which is totally different from the vast majority of the population. The second thing is they try to control themselves in a fearful situation whereas, most of us, we try to control whatever's going on around us. What they'd aim to control is their own reaction to the fearful situation and thirdly they'll never face a fearful situation alone," he says.
From his research, Anthony came up with a list of fear harnessing techniques that could be used in everyday situations such as when you have to do some public speaking.
So here are Anthony's tips on how to turn your fear into your friend:
- Know that fear is normal.
- Try and control your reaction.
- Take small steps to face your fears, like practising in front of the mirror (for public speaking).
- Share your fear with a professional or a close friend.
The good news is most people can harness their fear so that it works for them.
- Who scares more easily men or women? The answer is women. A study at the Brain Dynamics Centre found that women had a heightened fear response possibly because they are physically smaller than men and feel the need to be more alert. Women are also biologically more prone to anxiety.