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Neuroscientists Discover How to Keep Us From Freaking Out

New findings could change how our brain processes fear

 Photo by Callie Gibson on Unsplash
Neuroscientists are studying how to keep your brain from freaking out when it's not necessary.
Source: Photo by Callie Gibson on Unsplash

Your brain is hard-wired to react in lightning speed when you're startled or threatened. The fight-or-flight response activates certain brain circuits, causing your heart and breathing to speed up so you can escape danger.

Imagine, for example, you’re weeding your garden and you see a coiled water hose but you think it’s a snake. Fear is your friend--an indispensable reaction that protects you by helping you flee life-threatening situations. And your brain's fear-processing circuits always err on the side of caution. The fear-processing circuits in the brain know from past threats which ones you need to escape from and which ones are safe. So if the scare comes from a water hose instead of a snake, you’ll probably recover quickly. But if the coiled object is a poisonous copperhead, your brain’s fear response can be critical for your survival.

Neuroscientists know that fear memories are made in the amygdala—an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain, considered the main library for fear processing. Researchers are studying the brain circuits that underlie fear, unraveling the mystery of how circuits are connected and interact in the learning and processing of fear. More lucid knowledge of the different roles of brain circuits and how they interact with one another has the potential to help people with overactive or inappropriate fear responses such as anxiety disorders or those who suffer from panic attacks and post traumatic stress disorder.

Suppose, for example, your boss walks by your desk. You hook eye contact with her, smile, and nod. She looks straight at you, but doesn’t acknowledge your presence. She might as well be staring at the wall. “Holy cow,” you say to yourself. “I must be in hot water.” You shrink inside, ruminating over what you might have done to deserve this. Your heart races, and you feel shaky. It’s just a few days before your performance review. Sleepless nights stalk you. You toss and turn as your brain circuits spin with worry over job security. This is your amygdala in action, making up a story from its library to help you survive.

The day of your evaluation, your boss calls you into her office, and your stomach flip-flops. You tremble the way you did in sixth grade when you were summoned into the principal’s office. But, to your dismay, she greets you with a smile and gives you a glowing performance evaluation. Not only are you not in hot water, she calls you a highly valued team member, a laudable success—the exact opposite of what your anxiety predicted and a feather in your career cap.

All that worry and rumination for nothing. But it has already taken a toll on your mind and body and your job performance. Studies show that 90% of the worries that our brain circuits scare us with are false alarms that never manifest. Still, the amygdala catalogues, prioritizes and remembers the negative experiences in an attempt to prevent life’s unexpected curve balls from ambushing you. If you’re like most people, you believe the library of memories from the past as they show up in the present moment.

But had you “thought about it” (been able to keep your prefrontal cortex or rational brain online) you might have realized there are a number of benign reasons your boss didn’t acknowledge you when she walked by your desk. Perhaps she was distracted by her own worries, deep in thought over an upcoming meeting or simply just didn’t see you. But our brain circuits in the amygdala jump into action, focused only on the disastrous possibilities, blowing your thoughts out of proportion sending you into spirals of rumination. And you fell for it hook, line and sinker just like all of us do.

The amygdala was once thought to have the exclusive role of processing fear. But as scientists explore its role in more depth, new research from Stanford University, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, reveals that the fear-processing circuit spreads beyond the amygdala in more complex ways than once understood. Moreover, they found that the amygdala has connections with the globus pallidus, a regulator of movements. This newly-discovered circuit, previously not known to play a role in fear processing, might help your brain distinguish between those situations in which you're faced with a coiled snake or a coiled water hose.

Although this research employed interference with the brain signals in mice, the findings could have wide implications for people with anxiety disorders or those suffering from stress or burnout or others who are simply harried or overwhelmed. Eventually, this knowledge could be used to mitigate overactive brain circuits and inappropriate reactions to perceived threatening situations. This would allow people to worry less and focus more on the task at hand, which could potentially escalate their peace of mind, job performance, and overall happiness.

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Giovanniello, J., Yu, K., Furlan, A., Nachtrab, G. T., Sharma, R., Chen, X., & Li, Bo. (2020). A central amygdala-globus pallidus circuit conveys unconditioned stimulus-related information and controls fear learning. Journal of Neuroscience.“ 40 (47), 9043-9054. DOI:

Michalowski, J. (2020, November 3). How does the brain process fear? Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory News.

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