Understanding Fear & Anxiety

Moving Beyond the Fears
and Anxieties that Keep us STUCK (Part 1)

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Self-Health Series

FEAR: The primal emotion most studied in neuroscience


The study of fear has consumed many hundreds of researchers for decades. The events following 9/11 and the war in Iraq has only bolstered this field of research. 

Finding new molecules that erase traumatic memories (or enable soldiers to keep from feeling fear) are research priorities in the United States.

~ Dream Life of Rats: Pure Science Specials (season one, episode six;
originally aired on 5/29/2013)


Platitudes Begone!

Troll the internet – or browse the shelves of your local library – and you will find a blue-million self-help offerings with advice to help you conquer “fear.” The majority of them hold out the promise that they can teach you to “feel the fear and do it anyway” or “stop fearing change to change your fear,” and other related blather. 

These ways of working may help with lack of activation or with task anxiety but they will rarely make much of a dent in fear.

They’re lightweights, those offerings – their authors really don’t understand the extent to which many people experience FEAR. Most of them are, metaphorically, pushing anti-heartburn remedies to help with heart attacks. They’re talking about situationally-induced moments of anxiety that our self-help culture mislabels “fear.”

If you are one of the many who are periodically frozen by anxiety disorders, reeling from a recent and dramatic accident, suffering from flashbacks related to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and other more extreme situations that prompted more extreme emotional responses, pouring through those offerings looking for HELP will only increase your feelings of helplessness, which will very likely increase your feelings of fear.

  • Throwing those simplistic offerings in the garbage is the first step toward real healing.
  • Understanding what’s going on is the second step.
  • Allowing yourself to reach out to professionals who specialize in PTSD or TBI is certainly worth considering seriously, and
  • Patience is the fourth key: giving your nervous system time to heal as you reframe your approach to life and de-condition your fear response.

By the way, if you are among the majority of folks who are currently stopped by one of those “situationally-induced moments of anxiety that our self-help culture mislabels ‘fear,'” the information in this article can help you, too (but you might want to hang on to those other offerings to read later).

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Hover before clicking for a box with more info

Understanding the cycle of fear

Fear evolved to keep us alive – to help us deal with danger.  No thinking!  React NOW to save your life: run, fight, freeze! Anxiety is fear’s paler cousin – almost like a fear of fear itself.

According to an article about fear on the McGill website, “from a psychological perspective, fear, anxiety, and anguish are three different things. But they are related and may be regarded as three different degrees of the same state: the one that people experience when their sympathetic nervous system impels them to act, but action is in fact impossible.”

As anyone who suffers from an anxiety disorder can tell you, it can be crippling when it spirals out of control and becomes chronic – far beyond what most of us experience as “mere” anxiety or a moment of anxiousness.

Attempting to “think your way out” using your rational mind rarely works as expected.

“Emotions are very good at activating thoughts,
but thoughts are not very good at controlling emotions.

~  Joseph LeDeux

LeDeuxSnapCognitive neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux is a professor and a member of the Center for Neural Science and Department of Psychology at New York University. His work is focused on the neural mechanisms of emotion and memory. He is also the director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety, a multi-university Research Center in Manhattan using research with rats to understand the mechanisms of pathological fear and anxiety in humans.

In addition to articles in scholarly journals, he is author of “The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life” and “Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are.”

Our crowd would probably like him a lot.

He’s a creative guy who could easily be one of us, alike in his diversity of interests and how much he tries to weave together and pack into his non-stop life.  Unlike many of us, however, his follow-through skills appear to be excellent!

In addition to running LeDeaux Labs, writing, teaching, speaking and presenting in various formats – and wandering through New York City by subway – he is also a singer/songwriter in his rock band The Amygdaloids.

According to the group’s bandsite, it is “a New York City band made up of scientists who shed their scientific garb at night and take to the stage with songs about love and life peppered with insights drawn from research about mind and brain and mental disorders.”

They have recorded two CD’s with titles that delight the neuro-geeks among us: Heavy Mental (October, 2007), and Theory of My Mind(June, 2010).

Looking through LeDoux’s lens

It seems that the problem with mastering our emotions is that the “master regulator” – the prefrontal cortex [PFC] – is not optimally connected to the “generator” – the amygdala.  We don’t understand the parameters exactly, but we do know that once fears are aroused, they tend to remain in our minds.  We also know that some of us are more easily sensitized to fearful experiences than others, and that repeated experiences that activate fear can increase that sensitivity in most of us.

LeDoux’s research on rats since the 1990’s has shown that fear can be linked to a formerly neutral stimulus relatively easily, and that stress can amplify the fear response to that formerly neutral stimulus.  Stress comes in many sensory “flavors” in our crazy/busy society.

Psychology has long been working with ways to reduce or eliminate that amplification — similar to what the coaching field refers to as “reframing.”  Neurologists like LeDoux have taken on the challenge of working on blocking the implantation of the fear stimulation in the first place.

Wiping out the physiological effects of fear

LeDoux and his NYU colleagues have demonstrated that learned fear depends on storage of an emotional memory trace in a particular part of the amygdala, the lateral amygdala, which, according to James McGaugh, Ph.D., at the University of California, Irvine, makes emotionally significant events memorable. [Source here]

LeDeux‘s desire is to find a way to act on the amygdala as soon as possible after a traumatic event, to prevent it chemically from “memorizing” the trauma, UNlinking it to a fear response, rendering it unavailable for reactivation.

  • This kind of approach could be very useful in the recovery process of survivors of the terrors of rape or violent muggings, extreme vehicle crashes and other accidents, national disasters, returning soldiers and other victims of the horrors of combat.
  • Combined with fear de-conditioning techniques, this new treatment could help to heal older traumas as well, freeing patients from after-effects like traumatic flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety attacks and phobias — even autonomic responses like profuse sweating and trembling.
  • The big idea is that the implicit memory of the trauma could be erased, short-circuiting the handicapping effects of fear.

Science is still quite a distance away from having the ability to formulate that neurochemical eraser.  It also brings up more than a few issues of ethics to ponder and sort out.

However, if we are able to better understand the mechanisms of memory linked to emotional responses, thought, will and decision-making, we will also be better able to impact our unconscious reactions in a manner that can be “adjusted” by the use of our conscious mind over time.

So what’s going on?

For some time, science believed that the cortex, that most recently evolved, wrinkly outer portion of the human brain, was required for the processing of any kind of conscious experience, even those triggered by a sensory input resulting in an emotional response.

Thanks to the work of LeDeaux and his colleagues, we now know that there is another way that this information can be sent through the brain, a pathway that bypasses the cortex and allows for the triggering of emotions unconsciously, faster than the speed of thought.

Two different pathways connect our emotional responses to the stimuli that activate them – slow and fast.

In LeDeaux’s language, there is a “high road” that involves the most recently evolved portions of the brain, the “thinking,” detail oriented parts of the brain (the cortex), and a “low road,” emotionally linked, but traveling through the older, interior portions of the brain.

After signals related to fear reach a forebrain region called the thalamus, they take one of the two routes in the brain to impact our reactions to the signals. One set of signals goes directly to the amygdala (the low road), while other signals travel first to the cerebral cortex for cognitive processing and then to the amygdala (the high road).

Information traveling the low road is perceptually immediate, and primarily “unconscious.”
Information traveling the high road, involving the “thinking” portions of the brain, is significantly slower.

  • The road through the cortex gives you the details, the one more directly connected to the amygdala gives you the automatic, rapid, emotionally laden responses like fear.
  • Susan Strider of The Rockefeller University believes that the faster route may relate to our primitive emotional reactions to fear and the slower one to our fearful thoughts. [Source & infographic here]

This explanation helps to explain why a lot of people have “irrational” fears, phobias and anxieties about things they don’t understand or can’t logically trace to a source. They don’t consciously know why they’re chronically afraid or anxious, or why they are suddenly afraid at a particular time.  When the low road gets potentiated, the emotional reaction might not make sense in terms of what the conscious brain is experiencing.

It is also possible that variances of emotion’s effect on certain neurotransmitters could result in an impaired inhibitory response (underactive serotonin neurons), or in excessive excitation in regions implicated in panic disorder (overactive norepinephron neurons).[Source here]

Hormones and Fear

CRH (corticotrophin releasing hormone) is produced by neurons in the central nucleus of the amygdala, that part of the brain that sounds the danger alarm and marshals resources to keep us alive. CRH not only modulates behavioral responses to fear, it also triggers the stress hormone axis that runs from the hypothalamus to the pituitary to the adrenal gland.

When this axis is triggered, steroidal hormones like cortisol pour out of the adrenal gland, mobilized to help the body deal with stress and fear.

Hormonal mechanisms that originate with CRH in the human amygdala can either relieve our stress or heighten our anxiety, depending on our emotional history. The effects of cortisol on behavior depend on whether levels of adrenal stress hormones are activated occasionally or are chronically and repeatedly elevated.

  • When they are not called on chronically the effect of cortisol is restorative, bringing the body’s systems back from an emergency state toward a normal one, central to the process of the extinction of a learned fear response.
  • When the exposure to fear and stress is chronic, the adrenal hormones are called on again and again without a recentering and calming of the nervous system.  In that case, cortisol can have the opposite effect, amplifying behavioral responses to fearful stimuli and increasing our feelings of fear, further entrenching our learned fear response. [Source here]
  • THAT’s when fear turns chronic and nasty, leading us to develop anxiety disorders of many types, including PTSD, which we’ll cover in Part Two of this article.

Don’t miss the next part: When Fear Becomes Entrenched & Chronic, auto-posted next week while I was away.  It discloses my own up-close and personal experience of entrenched fear, and explains what’s going on with PTSD.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

14 Responses to Understanding Fear & Anxiety

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  7. Lynn Fontaine (Shih Tzu) says:

    I want to know your opinions on the new thought of CBD for anxiety and panic attacks? My dr. is giving me trouble about giving me the medication (clonazepam) that I have been on for almost 14 yrs which is putting me in a panic by itself. I am on meds for depression which I have been for over 35 years.


    • Hey Lynn – I’m thrilled to see you’re reading here. How ARE you (and how’s Sawyer)?

      The prelim on CBD as an anxiolytic is positive for a number of conditions, including social anxiety. (Cannabis sativa, cannabidiol – for readers who aren’t familiar). I have no personal experience, nor have I read many studies.

      It supposedly works by augmenting the endocannabinoid system (mediated by the 5-HT1A receptors – i.e., serotonin, familiar to those on well-known depression meds: SSRI = Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibiter).

      Unlike recreational marijuana, apparently there is no such thing as the “paranoid” kind – but all substances have person-specific side effects and each individual is different. I have spoken with people who successfully self-medicate by smoking, but I’m ethically bound to inform them that are taking a big risk breaking the law.

      The DEA must be clamping down – I’m hearing about a lot of long-term successfully medicated patients having to wean or change – even a few with doctors who don’t even know enough to know these meds MUST be tapered. More than a few doctors, according to my community, are afraid to prescribe Valium or Xanax.

      Your best bet would be to search for a study. The nasty-spirited and ill-informed “war on drugs” hasn’t gotten to the scientists – YET!

      Here’s a link to a page with other links to studies and information:



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