The Brain Science Behind Fear

Understanding the science of fear and how the brain interacts with threats is relevant now more than ever.

As you know, cases of COVID-19 are beginning to rise in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world, and naturally, many people are experiencing some fear. Will I get sick? Will my family get sick? How bad will our case be if we do get sick? These are all scary questions to contemplate right now.

Outside of the pandemic, concerns of terror attacks, political turmoil, and the health of the planet, compound everyday irrational fears like a fear of flying or spiders.

The Brain Science of Fear

Fear is an interesting thing. It’s awful to experience fear, but it’s actually very adaptive. It’s our minds’ best tool to do its #1 job: keep us safe and alive.

Out of all the brain regions, one of the key areas of the brain involved in fear is the amygdala. This area of the brain is evolutionarily old, it runs nearly automatically, and it goes into overdrive in situations that are unfamiliar to us. Many of you know this area as being responsible for your fight or flight response. 

When this area of your brain lights up due to a perceived dangerous situation, it can cause your heart rate to increase, blood pressure to rise, and the release of stress hormones. Repeatedly having your amygdala triggered can cause quite a bit of discomfort or even lead to anxiety disorders. 

Sounds a lot like what’s happening right now, doesn’t it?

The amygdala LOVES familiarity. Routine. Predictability. These characteristics are a signal of safety. So, when things get unfamiliar, unpredictable, when we deviate from our routine, the amygdala flips the panic switch, makes our heart rate go up, and leads to the fear and anxiety response all of us are so familiar with.

Now here’s the thing. Normally, we would tell you to counter the amygdala’s automatic fear response by using a more deliberative or intentional part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex.

Normally we would ask you to intentionally and systematically appraise your fear to help balance out your thinking. In most cases, that leads us to realize that, even though the situation we’re in seems scary to the amygdala, there really isn’t an actual threat out there. We can sort of rationalize our way into being a bit calmer when we aren’t actually facing dangerous activity. 

Here’s the kicker: there is a real threat these days. The virus is real, and it’s spreading. So, not only is your amygdala on an overdrive roller coaster right now… You’re outside of your normal daily routine, you’re likely feeding it a diet of news and social media, the future seems uncertain…all the things your amygdala HATES. But, your prefrontal cortex can point at actual evidence that a threat exists. 

So now what?!

In times like these, we would still ask you to balance your thinking using deliberate, intentional thought processes. 

The news focuses on extreme, salient cases where people had very bad outcomes because that’s what sells. That’s not an accurate representation of the virus, as a whole. A common-sense approach to the actual threat level is the best we can hope for but it’s hard to drown out the noise.

Dr. Ashley’s post last week touched on the importance of appraising the problem that’s in front of you right now rather than trying to predict the future. People enjoy feeling in control, and when you take the time to appraise the problem, your sense of control will return. 

But beyond that, here’s one more technique you can use: become more of an observer of your own thoughts. Put some psychological distance between you, the core human being that you are, and the thoughts you’re aware of. 

By taking the position of the observer, you’re distancing yourself from the rumination and emotion that can come from our thoughts, particularly when we’re afraid. 

I know that sounds easier said than done, but with dedicated practice, it can be done!

Build Your Psych Strength

At Peak Mind, we are dedicated to helping you build your psych strength. We have free resources, like our podcast as well as digital programs, like ASCEND, our comprehensive psych strength building program. Inside of ASCEND, you’ll develop the skills to see your thoughts as thoughts, rather than getting wrapped up in them – and so much more! This is such an uncertain and difficult time for many people, but psychological research shows us that it is possible to THRIVE through adversity. We want to help you do just that.