Disgust and Fear are Closely Related

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Many people experience discomfort at the mere sight or thought of blood, injection, or injury. A client of mine fainted every time he saw the sight of blood. For another, taking a flu shot was nothing less than being subjected to torture. Many postpone or avoid altogether a simple blood test or a medical procedure because of their excessive fear of blood, injection or injury. It can present a serious health risk, so let's try to answer this question:

Does one suffer with the problem because of the disgust one feels of the "icky" stuff or due to the fear of pain? Does it matter whether it is fear or the disgust? Yes, it does, if you are seeking relief from the problem. But, first let us analyze the emotions of disgust and fear and examine the purpose they serve. They are there for our safety and survival.

Fear, disgust, anger, sorrow and happiness are the five basic emotions and all other emotions are derived from them. Feeling "mad," "bad," "sad," "glad" or "scared"--these five emotions are universal, found in all cultures and societies. We express these emotions by involving different muscles of our face including those of the eyes.

These basic emotions are so important for our survival that they can be identified without involving the use of spoken language. For example, you can go to the other side of the globe. You don't have to know the language or anything else about the culture of the people living there, but when they smile, you'd know without any confusion or uncertainty that they are happy. Likewise, you'd know if they are mad or sacred of you. And, I hope it never happens, but if they are disgusted with you, you'd know that too. The face and eyes tell it all.

The purpose of the basic emotions is to assist us with the three basic responses to the environment, to fight, flee or approach. Anger moves us to fight or attack. Happiness or joy, including love, moves us to approach, seek, or get closer to a person or an object. The emotion of sadness or sorrow says to us something like, "Do nothing. Lie down, give up and submit." The emotion of disgust or fear is aroused when we perceive a threat from an object but each emotion leads us to a different course of action. Fear says, "Run. Run as fast as you can.." The emotion of disgust says to us, "It's bad (or harmful). Don't touch it. Don't get close to it."

The course of action is different for the two emotions, fear prepares us to run and disgust prepares us to avoid contact with the object of disgust. Therefore, in fear, our heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and skin temperature go up, saliva dries up, muscles tense up along with other physical changes that help us in the action of running. But in disgust, the opposite happens. For example, instead of an increase, heart rate, blood pressure and skin temperature register a decrease. Saliva, instead of drying up, is over produced. This is why it is so tempting to spit at the person or the object we are disgusted with.

Let's look at some of the differences in the facial expressions of both these emotions. In fear, we raise our eye brows and widen our eyes. In disgust, we raise our upper lip and wrinkle our nose, like when you smell something bad. Some say that the disgust response comes right out of our "nose brain," the oldest and most primitive part of our brain. A lot of things that smelled bad were really bad for us, such as being poisonous, infected, or rotten. Most people experience a disgust response to human excreta for the obvious reason, lest they become contaminated.

Our escape response to large animals, especially such predators as lions and tigers is obviously governed by the emotion of fear. But, the avoidance response of small animals or insects such as spiders, mice, or bugs is governed mainly by disgust or, in some cases, a combination of disgust and fear. Likewise, the avoidance response to blood, injection, or sight of injury is governed by disgust alone or the combination.

It appears that people with the phobia of spiders, insects, blood and injection have greater "disgust sensitivity" than the people who do not have such phobias. Disgust sensitivity is a fancy term for saying that people who have it get disgusted more easily and quickly, and to a lot more things than the people who do not have it.

In the mental health field, excessive fear for such things as blood, injection, injury, spiders, insects, etc. is referred to as "specific phobias." Phobia is another name for fear. However, phobia is not an accurate term for this condition. A more accurate term, at least in the majority of cases, may be disgust of such things as blood, injection, injury, insects, etc.

If you suffer from this problem, you should first try to understand whether it disgusts you or scares you. Be aware that your response may not be the same for everything. For example, you may feel disgust for a roach but fear towards a spider. It is also possible that you may experience disgust or fear towards the same object at different times. In some cases, people first feel mild to moderate fear and then predominantly disgust.

Understanding your response is likely to give you a degree of control over your reaction. Watch your facial expression or ask someone to help you with it. For example, do you make a "disgust face" or a "fear face" when confronted with the object of your avoidance? If your disgust or fear response is mild, you may be able to help yourself by steadily changing your feeling and facial expression. Others may need professional help.

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Copyright 2000, Mind Publications 


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