The Brain Science Behind Fear

Mar 22, 2020

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.

The Brain Science of Fear

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

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 over-drive in situations that are unfamiliar to us. 

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 race, and leads to the fear 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 pre-frontal 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 more calm. 

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 in over-drive 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 though 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. 

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. 

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 (below) 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.


 

Get more great content delivered straight to your inbox!

Each week, we send out actionable tips and tools for building psychological strength within the context of a busy life. Join our mailing list, and you'll never miss out.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.