The Biology of Fear

Fear is a primary emotion many trauma survivors and people in recovery struggle with. Many try to flee the reactions and sensations it triggers through addictive or other self-destructive behaviors. I work with my clients to be mindful that experiencing fear (like all emotions) is invaluable to our health and survival. The thoughts and reactions that fear triggers always pass, but in fearful moments it can be difficult to access the part of the brain that will ensure us of this. I recently came across the blog post Scared Stiff: The Biology of Fear by author and clinician Tian Dayton, PhD. It is an article that has resonated with, and been helpful to, many of the people I work with. For this reason, I would like to share it here:

Scared Stiff: The Biology of Fear

By Tian Dayton, PhD.

Our painful emotions are inextricably tied up with our survival system which is triggered into action through our fear response. When we understand this, we can take a step back when we’re feeling triggered. We can ask ourselves questions like:

  • Am I scared about something that is strictly in the present?
  • Do I need to breathe, quiet down and get my balance back before I act?
  • Do I need to leave or protect myself?
  • Is my past history getting triggered and getting mixed up with this present day situation, making it feel more intense than it might otherwise feel?
  • Is a painful relationship dynamic from the past getting triggered by a relationship dynamic in the present?

The Two Pathways of Fear: One with Words; One Without

It takes words to drag feelings up from an unconscious level, we need words so that we can translate what we’re feeling into language, so that we can think about it, talk about it and reflect on it.  Without words, without language, we have no way of making conscious sense of our experience. Rather, it remains part of our vast web of “body memories” and “sense impressions”, experience that is recorded in us but remains unprocessed.

The imprint of trauma or highly frightening experiences doesn’t ‘sit’ in the verbal, understanding part of the brain, but in the much deeper regions of the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and brain stem, which are only marginally affected by thinking and cognition.

This is why our fear related memories can be so unconscious. They were never processed by the thinking part of the brain but only by the feeling/sensing part of it. Our cortex shuts down when we’re very frightened. Consequently, our frightening experience doesn’t get thought through, understood and integrated. But even though the cortex is not operating normally, the sensing/feeling parts of our brain/body system are still functioning. That’s why fear related memories can be stored by the brain/body system with no reasoning attached to them. They have never been elevated to a conscious level. As adults, when these memories get triggered, we can feel shaky or queasy but not know why, we don’t realize that some of that stored fear from the past, is getting triggered in the present, making the situation today feel more overwhelming and unmanageable than it might otherwise. As our feelings of fear get more intense, the context or situation we’re in can feel threatening but we don’t necessarily know why. Then we erroneously decide that whatever is triggering is the source of our fear, we do not realize what from our past may be leaking into our present.

The Unconscious Fear Pathway: Why Our Body Remembers but Our Brain “Forgets” The Adrenaline Rush

When we get scared, there are two primary pathways that our fear runs along. One is conscious and the other is unconscious. One pathway, the implicit or unconscious pathway, is associated with our amygdala. Our sense of danger performs the task of activating the amygdala. When we get scared, the amygdala’s discharge patterns activate our body’s fear circuits, which increases our heart rate and blood pressure. We get sweaty hands, dry mouth, and tense muscles. In order to respond quickly to a threat, to flee or fight, for example, the body tries to divert blood flow from the digestive areas and the face, head and neck so that it can be used elsewhere. This has the effect of elevating heart rate and blood pressure and increasing respiration.

Second Pathway: Why We Get Retriggered in Contexts That are Reminiscent of Previous Hurts

The other pathway, the explicit or more conscious pathway, is associated with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the brain structure that supports our explicit or conscious memory and, provides the context for experiences. It allows us to learn about and assess our surrounding circumstances along with their level of threat or friendliness. The hippocampus is particularly sensitive to the encoding of the context associated with an aversive or painful type of experience. This is a small bit of information that has large implications in terms of relationship trauma. It is because of the hippocampus that not only can a stimulus become a source of conditioned fear, but so can all the objects surrounding it and the situation or location in which it occurs. This is how painful memories from old relationships can become generalized or projected into new ones. Say we were shouted at as a kid and we associate that shouting with the family pain and chaos that we experienced as a child. We grow up, our husband shouts at us and our brain completes the picture. We freeze and wait for the roof to cave in as it did when we were children. Or we want to fight or flee just as we did then.

When we’re frightened our hippocampal and amygdalic memory record the sensory and feeling aspects of the memory and the context surrounding them but not our reasoned thoughts about them. Remember, the cortex doesn’t come on board till around eleven or twelve o’clock. t is the cortex that can reason out the situation and figure out how frightening it really is. Without the help of the cortex we record context and emotion but not mature reasoning.  Our memories are recorded with child-like thinking and feeling surrounding them.

The body doesn’t discern between physical danger and emotional distress.  Fearful thoughts can produce the same physiological changes as evidenced in an actual fear situation. If we are regularly exposed to frightening situations and we aren’t able to process, understand or gain comfort for our fears, if we become stuck in chronic fight/flight state, our bodies can become sensitized and wired for overreactions. We become easily triggered into a fear state and experience physiological changes associated with the fear response, then we get afraid of the physiological changes.  That is our bodies may tighten up or shiver and shake, our heart may race, our stomachs get queasy and our palms sweat. But this can then trigger even more fear in us, we get afraid of being afraid; our own body responses send us deeper into our feelings of fear. This can send us into a vicious cycle where the physiological changes we’re experiencing make us more afraid, which can produce even more physiological changes. As an attempt to protect ourselves or avoid these uncomfortable feelings we may start to live small.

Recovery is about learning to sit with painful feelings as they arise rather than running from them, acting out or self-medicating. Learning to make sense of them rather than letting them determine how we live.  If the feelings you are experiencing in response to a given situation in the present are far more intense than may be appropriate to what’s actually happening, we need to stop, look and listen. To allow the shadowy figures in our minds to lead us to the origins of this inner conflict that is exploding inside of you. You are the carrier of your inner world. If, out of fear, you are projecting the unhealed contents of past relationships onto present relationships, let your fear lead you toward healing rather than digging you further into a hole. Let your over reaction or your “transference” send up a red flag marking the spot of previous, unhealed pain.

Why Do I Feel I Cannot Survive My Triggered Feelings?

Children are wholly dependent on their parents for survival. This means that the survival part of the brain is fully in gear in that parent/child relationship. If children displease their parent, they get scared. If their parent is not available to them, they get scared. If their parent screams at them and makes them feel that they are one big problem, that without them life would be much easier, they believe it. And children are magical thinkers. They create meaning through the mind of a child, not the maturity of an adult. In recovery, that child mind warms up and feels those feelings that were previously banished out of consciousness because they were too frightening to feel. This can be a disequalibrating experience. Seismic rumblings from deep within the self, threaten to move great emotional platelets from their psychic sediment. We can feel shaken at the roots. Don’t worry, it’s part of the process, you’ll survive your own feelings.  I cannot emphasize enough that recovery from relationship trauma needs to happen in order that we do not recreate the pain that we experienced in our childhood relationships in our relationships in the present.

If we want change, we will need to be willing to allow those emotions that we have shut out or shut down to be felt in the here and now where we can make mature sense of them. We will need to understand where they got set up to begin with, why we keep getting stuck in the same old emotional place.  There is no outsmarting the symptoms of relationship trauma, codependency or the disease of addiction. The mind/body doesn’t really work like that. We need to elevate our unfelt inner world to a conscious level so that we can use our thinking to help us process what it is that we carry in emotional shut down and silence. If we do not, the past will come in like the undertow of the ocean.  When this happens, we feel like we are losing our breath, like we are sinking into murky waters and that is precisely when we load our guns and hide out behind our most sturdily built defensive walls. That is when we dig in our heels and feel incapable of change. Our mind and body get locked into that fight/flight state and we lose our ability to reason.  That’s because we’re locked in our fear mind, we’re overwhelmed by unprocessed emotions and fear messages from our limbic world and our mature thought is shut down. Our defenses are getting us nowhere, but we have lost access to our thinking mind because it has become overwhelmed with fear. We’re stuck.

At this point, most people want some sort of magic bullet that will relieve them of the pain they’re in as quickly and painlessly as possible. But when it comes to emotional healing, the quick way can be the slowest. It can be just what locks us into shallow, defensive and superficial solutions that never quite work. We go for novelty rather than cure. For momentary relief rather than long term change and gain. This is why it is critical that we undertake recovery as a rational and long-term process. In group therapy and one to one, this same fear can get triggered. But this time we are in a situation designed to help us to observe ourselves in action so that we can say, “wait a minute, I’m doing just what I do at home, with my son, daughter or partner. I’m closing down, my body is flooding with all sorts of feelings that make me want to race out of the room, scream at someone or shut down and disappear. I’m queasy and shaky. Wow, I’m scared. And this is what I’m like when I’m scared. And this is what scares me, where my tender spots are.”

Quick Fixes

Wanting a “quick fix” is sort of natural. We feel stupid when we can’t figure out our own emotions. We feel like kids who can’t get it. And it doesn’t fit with the fact that we may be fully adult in all other ways. So we want to hide this part of ourselves, to read a book that will fix the problem, to get an insight that will make it all go away.  But if we can understand that having these blind spots is perfectly natural, that we all, in fact have them, we can begin to use our mature reasoning to slowly and patiently work our way out of them. Once we accept this fear reaction as nature’s way of protecting us from harm, we can stop feeling embarrassed by it and start to heal our own sore spots.

We want quick fixes but through understanding, we can find a better way, the way of understanding.  Why do we see quick fixes as so desirable?  We for starters, we’re embarrassed, we don’t want anyone to see us as weak or immature so we hide rather than heal our sore spots which makes them get worse, it deepens problematic grooves rather than allowing them to see the light of day where we can see, feel and heal them.  We get emotionally, psychologically and physically run down and we want to feel better NOW, FAST.  We are in a chronic fight/flight state, living in our survival brain and we lose the cortex capabilities of long-range planning, we cannot conceptualize the gradual changes we need to make in order to heal our sore spots. We are deregulated in our limbic systems and have trouble tolerating intense emotions such as disappointment, rejection, even excitement; which make it hard to change slowly. We have a low tolerance for frustration.

What gets in the way of our ability to change? We simply don’t understand how the unconscious fear response works so we project pain from yesterday’s relationships onto relationships today, which gets us stuck all over again. We reenact rather than heal our pain.  We have a degree of “learned helplessness,” when our fear gets mobilized so do old feelings of helplessness to get anything to change.  We freeze or dissociate, we’re not in our bodies, we’re gone. We’re frozen in our limbic mind and have no access to our thinking mind.  We lose the ability to conceptualize change, to envision a different solution or future outcome.  Our low frustration tolerance makes us want to change fast, and if we don’t, we want to give up. There is a loss of trust and faith that accompanies trauma, we lose faith that things can work out for us, we lose hope that we can change our lives.  Rigid defenses that we have relied on to “keep us safe” can get in the way of our making changes. We hunker down, dig our heals in and do whatever we have always done. We don’t want to feel out of control or overwhelmed with the kinds of feelings that we imagine change will engender.

Partially excerpted from Emotional Sobriety, Tian Dayton, Health Communications