The Brain Circuits that Manage Fear

When information comes into the brain from the sense organs, it is processed in two different ways: emotionally and cognitively. Cognitive processing involves conscious thoughts about that which we are experiencing. The purpose of emotional processing, according to psychologists, is to alert us to those events that are important in a positive or negative way. Psychologists and medical researchers have discovered the brain circuits where cognitive and emotional processing take place. The amygdala is an important part of the brain which is involved in processing emotions.

The amygdala consists of two small, extremely complex, almond shaped structures which are located on either side in primitive parts of the brain. When an individual experiences something that is fearful or unpleasant, a strong memory of this is then stored within the amygdala. If this situation or object is encountered again, then an immediate fear response is triggered. This fear response leads to the individual experiencing anxiety, and via the sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response.

The amygdala is an extremely important part of the brain and is designed to overreact to possible and potential signs or threats of danger. To give an example, someone who lives in a part of the world where there are poisonous snakes in the locality, will rapidly learn to associate snakes with danger. The amygdala will then immediately trigger the fight or flight response whenever any object or threat that may be a snake is noticed or perceived. If you are out walking in an area where poisonous snakes may be present, it is much safer to mistake a a stick for a snake, than a snake for a stick. It is important to remember that all this takes place rapidly at an unconscious level. This brain circuitry means that we are able to react very rapidly to dangerous threats without the need to consciously think about what is happening.

Unfortunately, objects and and events that pose no risk may become associated with danger and then trigger a fear response when they are encountered. This unconscious interpretation of harmless everyday situations as dangerous threats plays an important and major role in in anxiety related problems. Understanding that the amygdala stores memories of fearful situations very strongly is important when knowing how to treat anxiety.

I have emphasised the words “very strongly” in order to make the point that once emotional memories are formed they are hard to erase. This partly explains why treating emotional problems is so difficult.



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