The Brain and Fear

By Peter S. Silin, MSW, RSW

This article explains some basic physiology of fear/panic/anxiety. At the bottom of the article is a diagram of a few of the areas of the brain. Please look at it, and refer to it as you read the article.

One way to understand what happens in our brain during panic or fear to think of having two parts to our brain, a rational and an emotional part. The amygdala, embedded in the central, more "primitive" area, is the emotional part of our brain. The cortex, the outer layer that covers the brain, is the rational brain. It is the place where reasoning, insight and judgment reside. Think of them as the General and the Professor. The General reacts to danger, and the professor reasons things out. The General is in the more primitive part of your brain; in terms of evolution it has been there longer than the higher functioning or reasoning parts.

When you are having fear or panic, the amygdala, is firing, telling you there is threat. With phobic fear reactions, it is a misperception—there is no "real" danger, but your amygdala does not know that until it thinks you are safe.

The amygdala is faster to react and stronger than the cortex. That is why it is so hard to calm yourself down when you are having full blown fear or panic. The professor has to catch up and he cannot act until the general has begun to call off the troops a bit.

For example, if you were to see a stick in the road that looked like a dangerous snake, your amygdala receives the message that there is danger and the General, gets engaged. When you look again, your eyes signal your brain that it is a stick, the General begins to call off the troops, and only then can the cortex (the Professor) get involved and take over. The General has gone back to the barracks fairly fast, and you feel an overwhelming sense of relief. But if it were a dangerous snake triggering intense fear, your amygdala would keep on firing.

But before you start cursing your amygdala, remember that it is the amygdala which has saved the collective bacon of human beings to allow us to get this far. Think about what would happen if you did not have the ability to react swiftly or be on guard when there is danger. You wouldn't last very long.

What has happened in the above example is a threat that was perceived by one our senses-- vision, hearing, smell, or touch-- was relayed a message to the thalamus, which then sent a direct signal to the amygdala. The amygdala got the message, triggered, and acted—the general sends out the rapid deployment force.

A triggered amygdala sends signals to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is divided up into two subsystems, the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is what controls body functions such as heart rate and breathing when you are relaxed or functioning in a normal state. When the amygdala is triggered, it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system.

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the professor has gone offline, and the general is in action. The sympathetic nervous symptom triggers the pituitary gland and adrenal gland which release hormones such as norepinephrine, noradrenalin and adrenaline. Cortisol is released, increasing your blood pressure, blood sugar, and it also suppresses your immune system. Your muscles get primed for action. Your heart starts beating faster and you take in more oxygen. You begin to perspire. You stop thinking clearly. Your body stops the digestion process to save the energy (and sometimes will release what is in the bladder or bowels by relaxing those muscles.

Sound familiar?

Basically your defense force is ready for a fight. Or for a flight.

Except that when you have a phobic reaction, you are not fighting. You are in flight. The flight takes you to safety. At some point, when your senses signal your brain you are safe, the amygdala begins to stop firing, your sympathetic nervous system lets go. Or as we said above, the Professor comes back online only after the General has gotten everyone ready. The General/ amygdala is much faster to be triggered and it can overwhelm the Professor/cortex.

Another way to think of all of this is to imagine your amydala as your dog that starts barking when it sees something outside the window. The cortex is you trying to get Rover to calm down. If Rover sees something that excites him and is already barking and barking and all excited and running around, it is extremely difficult for you to get him to listen. You keep yelling, "Rover, down boy," but he is having none of that until whatever it is has passed. Then he will listen. But if you get to Rover just as his ears flick back, and he jumps up, quivering and still, ready to start barking, you can tell him, "Rover, calm down," and Rover will listen, and calm down faster, and maybe not start barking at all.

How To Face The Fear.

When your amygdala is triggered to act, it is because somewhere it has learned somehow that something is dangerous and when that memory is triggered the amygdala reacts. The memory is stored in the hippocampus, another part of the brain connected to the amygdala. It does not matter how or where you learned this. The hippocampus stores the memory, the amygdala processes it. The cortex can call up the memories and thoughts and send messages to the amygdala. But… What you need to do is help the amygdala relearn that whatever is causing you distress is not in fact dangerous so that it can process the memory differently. It can do this. But it has to do it slowly. And it can only "learn" through experience.

To start, notice that you find some things or events more frightening than others. This means that when you encounter these events or situations, your amygdala is less triggered—it is not all or nothing. The General is sending out some scouts, not a whole platoon. You probably can tell yourself in these situations where you are not very frightened or triggered, "there is no danger here." At low levels of stimulation, the General listens to the Professor. As the degree of fear increases, that becomes more difficult to do.

The situations where you experience less fear are those where you can begin to train your amygdala to know that signals it is receiving in this situation are NOT in fact dangerous, and you do not have to fly or fight, so it does not have to trigger the sympathetic nervous system.

The tools you need to train your amygdala are deep breathing and deep relaxation. The better you can do this, the more success you will have in retraining. Relaxation is the opposite of panic. You cannot be panicking and relaxed at the same time. You can be in transition from one to the other, but those are times when on of the nervous systems are taking over from the other, one is letting go, the other is revving up. Relaxation and deep breathing will help you keep your parasympathetic nervous system engaged, so you do not experience the fear or panic.

Because the amygdala can only learn through experience, you allow it to experience, gently, situations that teach it something different from what it knows. You slowly expose it to situations, thoughts, events, or stimuli.

  1. You start with the ones that are least threatening.
  2. You hold it's mental hand by breathing slowly and deeply, by muscle relaxation.
  3. You talk to yourself, replacing unconscious thoughts (I am going to die) with other thoughts ( This is scary, but I can handle this).
  4. You stay emotionally and intellectually present. Your amygdala stops being triggered by this stimuli, event, etc. so there is no experience of danger and it learns something new.
  5. Then it is ready to face something a little more frightening, and it can learn that that is safe too.

Eventually, the general will stop sending out the scouts or the troops, or if it does, it can pull them back quickly. Thus, it is learning by experience. And you are facing and handling your fears.

For a more technical explanation and a more complete diagram see this link:


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