Everything that is unknown captures attention and curiosity and requires discovery, identification, or clarification, because you have no knowledge of it. From birth, your whole life is a process of learning and apprehending new things. Children are the clear example of this: everything is a discovery, they are attracted by every object around them, and touch it is the first way to get to know it. Their attitude is to be amused and surprised by diversity and the undiscovered. However, when you become an adult, your approach to the unknown changes and different emotional reactions are registered among people facing it.
What is different between adults and children? Certainly adults, during their entire life, have created their knowledge of the world and this process gives them a sense of being in control and safe. When they encounter something unexpected during their life, different emotional reactions are registered. For instance, someone might find it easier to manage the unknown in their professional and not in personal lives, or vice versa. For example, in a work situation, a new colleague might arrive, you might be required to change position or to decide about a new job proposal. All these situations involve something new, unexpected and not immediately under your control, because a process of discovery and clarification is necessary. At the beginning, the unknown is out of your personal field of knowledge and control, and this may lead a sense of discomfort or fear.
In what ways do the brain and emotions communicate during this process?
First of all, when the brain receives an input from the external environment, a message goes from the sensorial to the rational system to activate the attention. The nervous system collects information from the environment, processes the information obtained, and then reacts in an appropriate manner. Furthermore, the response of the brain to unknown situations is governed to a large degree by your personality traits and your ability to have an adaptive response to unexpected events in your life. This means that the person who enjoys discovery and diversity will be fascinated and attracted by the unknown, and will see in it a way to challenge their own limits. On the other hand, the person who is scared of the unknown will be reluctant and overwhelmed by the sensation of bring powerless when everything is not immediately under control. Specifically, the emotional reaction will be to believe that nothing you can do to change the situation in a positive way.
In fact, the core emotions that appear when people deal with unknown situations include anger, anxiety, and fright. The brain activates an archaic response, that it is to fight in front of a dangerous situation. The fear of danger let you anticipate threats to your safety. Professor Paul Elkan, an American psychologist and a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relationship to facial expressions, describes the different states of fear, from less intense to more:
- Trepidation: anticipation of the possibility of danger.
- Nervousness: uncertainty as to weather there is a danger.
- Anxiety: fear of an anticipated or actual threat and uncertainty about one’s ability to cope with it.
- Dread: anticipation of severe danger.
- Desperation: a response to the inability to reduce danger.
- Panic: sudden uncontrollable fear.
- Horror: a mixture of fear, disgust, and shock.
- Terror: intense, overpowering fear.
The consequent unconscious behavioral response is to avoid, freeze, hesitate, ruminate, scream, withdraw, worry. Instead of an intentional response, there is an active attempt to enact change, to reframe, be mindful, to breathe, and to distract. An adaptive response to dealing with the unknown involves acceptance of your fear in the service of complying with further evaluation and testing of the unexpected situation.
In conclusion, we can state that the fear is an emotion that is part of human nature; it is a way to defend from an attack or danger. According Paul Elkman, we should develop a kind of awareness, called attentiveness, so we know when we are becoming emotional before a lot of time has elapsed. This attentiveness is a skill that everyone should develop in order to be able to regulate their emotional reactions, and relieve their feeling of powerless in the face of the unknown.