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This is Your Brain on Fear

The Neuropathology of Fear and How to Cope

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Nearly all of my psychotherapy clients, who I now see only on screens, describe feeling increasingly tired, fatigued or unmotivated. Many say they want to nap during the day but can’t. They are tired, but awake. I can relate. In the six months I have struggled to get enough sleep and find myself wide awake when I do not want to be.

Most clients also report difficulty getting things done. Work, bills or stacks of laundry remain in front of them during the day, and it seems utterly daunting to muster the energy and focus. At least half of my practice has bemoaned something like “Why can’t I just do the basics?” This state feels foggy or like walking through molasses. Another client shared, “I feel like I’ve gotten dumber.”

For many, these experiences prompt a wave of judgment or self-criticism. I have so much more time on my hands, I should be more productive. Why am I so tired all of the time? This isn’t how I should be feeling. They try to identify what they are doing wrong or label this state as bad. Others fear the onset of something darker, a guest that they have entertained before like depression, or possibly something worse. One client who forgot our session time twice in a row jokingly asked if she might have early onset dementia. We laughed, but I heard a kernel of genuine concern.

There is a simpler explanation. One we all need to understand.  We are collectively living in a state of perpetual fear. The good news? Our brains are doing exactly what many thousands of years of practice trained it to do.

The better news? There are ways that we can train it to respond differently.

When my golden retriever hears a sound outside, the first thing that happens is that his ears perk up, even if he is half asleep. Depending on the sound, he’ll follow by sitting up very straight and staring insentiently in its direction. If the noise is attached to a person walking up to our house, he’ll bound to the front door and start barking.

The instantaneous process of perceiving, assessing and responding to threat is one that our brain has down pat. This neuro-mechanism, the “fight or flight” response, comes from the most ancient part of the human brain, and it served as the ultimate evolutionary currency for the many millennia we had to worry about being some other animal’s lunch.  

When our mind receives information that a threat is present, our own neurological ears perk up. A very quick process then ensues. The brain releases chemicals- adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol- that prepare our body to get out of danger. This means that resources are directed to areas and systems that promote vigilance and physical activation. Our heart rate goes up, and blood flow is sent away from our trunk and to our limbs. At the same time, resources are taken away from processes that aren’t needed in an emergency, like digestion and building immunity.

Our cognitive functions take a big hit from fear. During fight or flight, the sole purpose of the mind is to avoid death. Our mental functions strip down to very simple and quick communication among a few key players. The amygdala, our internal smoke detector, first assesses a stimuli and then mobilizes a response. If the trigger is deemed a safety threat, it sends signals to neighbors in charge of motor functioning:  Get in gear! Be ready to move! It is also in charge of deploying those chemicals that keep our sensory functions on high alert. See! Hear! Smell!

Many other areas of our brain are completely sidelined. The slow down starts with the newer parts of our brain that are responsible for complex thinking, storing and pulling information from long-term memory, or the ability to articulate our experience through language. During a fear state, decision making is quick and reactive, as our brain is operating on the assumption that it doesn’t have time for higher-level processes. Take action, don’t think!

All of this would be well and good if we were experiencing an immediate threat. A burst of flame. A swerving car. That’s the way we were meant to experience fear, in short and effective bursts. That’s not how the virus scares us.  It is there all day, every day.  

The threats we face — to our physical safety, personal freedom and economic livelihood—aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Not only that, but the reminders are constant and inescapable: in the news, on social media, when we brace ourselves to go to the store, or see our neighbors walking around in masks and gloves. Triggers, every one of them, reminding our brains to stay on guard. 

Worse, humans have the unique capacity to experience fear even when there is no acute threat. A hypothetical danger alone is enough to generate fight or flight. If we imagine being chased by a tiger, our heart rate may start to go up, even if there’s not a tiger within fifty miles. We don’t know yet if we’ll be financially ruined, but we could be. We may not know someone who has died from COVID-19 yet, but it might happen. How much will my world change? Who knows, but the worst-case scenarios take little imagination. With reduced access to reason, our brain produces the same level of fear as if worst were truly happening.

Our bodies, via our brains, are now interpreting the entire world as a scary place. This means that we are bracing- mentally and physically- for the next bad thing to happen. In short, we are simmering in a pot of adrenaline and cortisol. That impacts us numerous ways. It can make it difficult to wind down and get restorative sleep, leaving us feeling generally unrested as parts of our brain remain vigilant.  We may feel less motivated to do work or complete tasks that require mental bandwidth. At points it may seem difficult to do anything but sit and stare. It can also be challenging to express ourselves or find words to describe what is going on. When a neighbor on the street asked me how I was doing, I searched for words. “Weird” was all that came to me.

The threats presented by this current period of destabilization are real. Feeling fear is appropriate and normal. Again, our brain is doing exactly what it is designed to do. However, it’s overshooting the mark. We can’t fight or escape this danger. In fact, the most effective way to ensure our safety is less action and more sitting still.

Recognizing fear and naming it is a first step to encouraging our brain to pump the brakes. Labeling our internal experiences and saying them out loud activates the prefrontal cortex as well as broca’s area, two parts of the brain that are skirted during a fear state.

Saying aloud “I feel scared” or “I notice my heart racing” is a start to calming the nervous system down. Try it.

Directing our attention to the current moment—when there is no immediate threat–sends safety signals to our mind. We can do this by using our five senses to orient ourselves to the here and now. Try naming five things you see around you, walking deliberately with awareness of the solid ground that is holding you steady, or cooking something fragrant and comforting.

Remaining present also keeps us from getting hooked by those powerful anticipatory fears that keep the fight or flight response churning. As Mark Twain aptly wrote, “some of the worst things in my life never happened.” We deprive ourselves of the opportunity to find safety or comfort if we are stuck in our heads, playing out our worst fears.

The reality we are all living through does come with fear and loss. But, wait, it is in this same  present moment, not in the past or future, that we have the opportunity to connect with others, experience love and appreciate the equally real ways that the sky is not falling. 

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