How Can Neurology Help Overcome Fear?

The Basics of Fear

Everyone has experienced fear before whether it was a pure terror, a panic attack, or a slight discomfort. Fear comes in many levels and forms, however, what all types of fear have in common is the neurology behind them. A study of the Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland defined fear as an interruption of the normal relationship between the peripheral nervous system and the brain. The human brain is constantly a person’s environment for threats. Normally, the brain scans sensory information and sees other people, other objects, a person’s environment, and everything a person knows. The eyes take what they see, the ears take what they hear, the nose takes what it smells, the skin takes what it feels, and the tongue takes what it tastes. All of a person’s senses come together and send their information to the brain which puts together a picture of their surroundings. When a person’s brain perceives a threat within that information, it sets off an alarm which causes a set of chain reactions within the brain.

The chain starts with a person’s senses. A detailed explanation of the chain of connections can be found in the book Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry, but this article will provide a summary. They will see, hear, smell, feel, or taste, something that their brain perceives as threatening. For example, say that a person sees another person running towards them. Their eyes will see the image and their ears will hear the footsteps. That information is then sent to the thalamus, the part of the brain that takes in and sorts sensory information. When the thalamus perceives a threat it sends the sensory information to both the amygdala, an almond-shaped collection of nuclei in the brain, and the cortex, the largest part of the brain, for more processing. The amygdala receives the information first because it is a shorter pathway, however, the picture the amygdala produces is not as accurate as the picture the cortex produces. Regardless, when the amygdala detects a threat it produces neurochemicals that will create a fight, flight, or freeze response. The amygdala knows what is threatening because it stores emotional memories of what has caused a person harm in the past and even if a person does not remember why they fear something their amygdala does.  Meanwhile, the cortex also receives the information and creates a more accurate picture. The cortex will either agree with the picture that the amygdala created, or it will see that the amygdala accurately perceived something non-threatening as a threat (like seeing a coat hanger in the dark and thinking it is a person). If the cortex agrees with the amygdala, it sends a signal to keep producing the neurochemicals that cause a fear response. However, if the cortex sees that the amygdala’s image was incorrect is sends out neurochemicals that negate the effects of the amygdala’s neurochemicals. As one can see, both the amygdala and the cortex play an important role in fear. However, there are two different types of fear, one is based in the amygdala and the other is based in the cortex.

The Two Types of Fear

Amygdala fear comes from the memory of fear. The amygdala’s job is to create memories based on sensory information and recognize patterns within that information that commonly lead to threatening situations. Amygdala based fear is built on the memory of being unsafe. For example, the book Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry. Don was a WWII veteran who often experienced amygdala-based fear. Everytime that Don went to shower, he started to panic. For the longest time, he could not figure out why it seemed that he was afraid of showering until he realized that his wife had started buying a new brand of soap and it was the same soap that he was using while he was overseas. When his amygdala detected the scent of the soap, it associated that with the memory of being unsafe and set off the fear alarm, even though there was no actual threat. While amygdala-based fear works under the memory of being unsafe, cortex fear works on the memory of being safe.

Unlike amygdala fear, cortex based fear doesn’t set off an alarm because something looks like a threat; it sets off an alarm because something is interrupting its picture of a safe environment. For example, if someone had never had a bad experience with someone following them, seeing someone following them would create cortex-based fear instead of an amygdala-based fear. There would be no memory for the amygdala to connect the threat to, but the cortex would set off the alarm because someone following them does not align with its memory of being safe. When experiencing these types of fear, there is very little difference in what a person will experience. Amygdala fear is more likely to lead to a panic attack. Also, people may not know why they are afraid, like Don, but not all amygdala fear has an unknown trigger, such as being in afraid to drive after a car crash. Therefore, the most effective way to figure out whether a person is experiencing amygdala fear or cortex fear is to look at whether they are afraid of something that interrupts their idea of safety, or something that they remember as being causing danger. Once a person has targeted what type of fear they are experiencing, they can use different exercises to calm down their amygdala or their cortex.

Fighting Amygdala Based Fear

The three ways to soothe the amygdala are through relaxation, exercise, and exposure therapy. When a person relaxes, the relaxation activates their parasympathetic nervous system and counters the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, shutting down that active fear response. There are many ways to relax, however, there are three that are proven to be the most effective in soothing the amygdala. The first method of relaxation is deep breathing. The suggested breathing form is deep breaths through the diaphragm, and not holding the breath at all, just breathing in slowly and out slowly until a person feels their fear going away. The second method of relaxation is through muscle tension inventory. A person starts at their feet and works their way up their body, tensing and releasing each muscle. This relaxes the muscles and ensures that the person is not subconsciously tensing certain muscles, which creates stress.  The third and final way to relax and fight fear is through meditation. People started meditation over 3,500 years ago, and the art of meditation is still being used for many things today, including fighting fear. Whether a person prefers guided meditation or to meditate on their own, studies at the NYU LedouxLab state that as little as ten minutes of meditation a day can reduce overall levels of daily fear.

Another popular way of fighting amygdala-based fear is through exercise. When a person exercises they burn off the extra adrenaline produced by the flight, fight, freeze, response. This affects the chemistry of the amygdala and reduces its response while reversing the effects sympathetic nervous system. Another perk of using exercise to fight amygdala-based fear is that it creates lasting effects. The NYU LedouxLab also showed that with every twenty minutes of exercise, a person’s amygdala is more relaxed for an hour. This means that an hour of exercise provides three hours of lessened fear. All exercises can be beneficial to fighting off fear, but the most effective are cardio and exercises that activate a lot of muscles. The cardio burns off adrenaline and when muscles are activated, they signal a chemical release that calms down the amygdala.

The last way to fight amygdala-based fear is through exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is when a person faces their fear to retrain their amygdala to stop recognizing this as a threat. However, when done wrong exposure therapy can worsen the fear and lead to panic attacks, so it should always be done by a professional. There are two types of exposure therapy: flooding and systematic desensitization. Flooding is when a person is thrown directly into what makes them afraid. For example, if a person with a fear of heights were to go skydiving. When undergoing systematic desensitization a person is slowly exposed to their fear. For example, a person with a fear of snakes would look at a picture of a snake, be in the same room as a snake, slowly move closer, touch the snake, and eventually hold the snake. Flooding works faster, however it can lead to unpredictable results, so systematic desensitization is the more popular approach. Two important things to remember for exposure therapy are it must be the exact fear a person is afraid of. Even if it is a similar fear, different pathways will be used in the amygdala and the therapy will have no effect on the desired fear. Second, it is extremely important that a person does not leave in the middle of the exposure, this will teach the amygdala that when that threat is detected fleeing is the right response and heighten the fear of that threat.

Fighting Cortex Based Fear

There are three ways to fight cortex based fear: cognitive reconstruction, avoiding catastrophizing fearful scenarios, and replacing thoughts. Cognitive reconstruction is basically a fancy way of telling people to change the way they think and use logic to fight fear. There are three steps to reconstruct a person’s thinking. First, they should start to think optimistically and not pessimistically. If a person believes that everything will go wrong they are more likely to fear new things. Next, they should tell themselves that they can handle the outcome of the situation. Most times a person is not actually afraid of something, they are afraid that they cannot handle the outcome of the scenario. For example, a common fear is public speaking but that is not the actual fear. What they are actually afraid of is that they will not be able to handle it if they misspeak. In reality, if they do misspeak, the world will not end, they will correct their mistake and continue presenting. Once a person can convince themselves that they are able to handle the outcome of a scenario they will see their many of their fears dissolve. The final step to cognitive reconstruction is knowing that the cortex can misinterpret safe scenarios as dangerous. The existence of the thought that something is dangerous does not always make it true, it might just be something new that a person’s cortex is not used to seeing.

Another important thing to consider when fighting cortex based fear is a person’s tendency to catastrophize events. Catastrophizing events is imagining that the worst possible scenario will happen every time. For example, say that a person is waiting in line to get on a rollercoaster. As they watch the ride before them, they convince themselves that when they get on the rollercoaster will roll off the tracks, there is no other outcome. This connection of an event to being exactly the way a person thinks of it is called cognitive fusion and it is something that a person wants to avoid. They want to be able to separate their thoughts of catastrophe and the reality of getting on the rollercoaster. If a person has a great tendency towards cognitive fusion it can be a very tough thing to break. It takes time and practice, however, when they are successful in separating their mental image of the event and the reality of the event, they will see their level of fear greatly lessen throughout their daily lives.

The last step to fighting cortex based fear is to replace bad thoughts, not erase them. Trying to erase thoughts does not work. When someone tells a person not to think of a pink elephant, the image of a pink elephant will pop into their head. The same logic applies to negative thoughts. If a person is going skydiving and they tell themselves not to think of a hole appearing in their parachute that is all they will think of. So instead of trying to erase their negative thought, they should replace it with a positive one that distracts from the negative one.  Instead of thinking of the hole in the parachute, they should think of the great views they will see when they jump out of the plane. This thought will get rid of the negative one, and make them excited for what they are about to do instead of being afraid.

Final Things to Remember

The most important thing to remember is to actually use these techniques. That may seem like something so simple it’s not worth saying, however, many people will freeze when they are afraid and forget to use these techniques. It is also important to choose techniques that a person will be able to use. If someone is afraid of public speaking, but they only use deep breathing to combat fear that will not work. Sure they can take deep breaths before their presentation, but they cannot stop in the middle of their presentation and take a few deep breaths. The best technique is the one that works for the fear they are trying to overcome. Also, they should not feel the need to overcome every fear they have. If they are afraid of snakes, but live in the middle of the city far away from most nature, that is not a fear that they need to target. They should find the fears that have the greatest effect on their ability to live their life and target those first, then they can worry about the other fears.

There are many benefits to overcoming these fears that make the struggle worth it. Overcoming fears gives people more courage and confidence in their life, not only in that particular fear but in all areas of their lives. It allows people to live in a more authentic way, not inhibited by the things that scare them and lets them live with fewer obstacles. Once a person overcomes one fear, it becomes easier for them to overcome others, letting them expand their comfort zone and unleash their full potential. Finally, once a person overcomes their fear of failure, or not being able to handle the responsibility that comes with succeeding, they will be able to go after more opportunities that will improve every aspect of their lives, letting them live a more exciting and fulfilling life.