Article: Fun Fact About How Fear Works in the Brain

For all you fellow science geeks out there, here is a recent study about how fear works in the brain. I don't know about you, but understanding the mechanics of how the brain works makes it easier for me to accept and make room for not-so-fun emotions (like anxiety) by objectifying the experience a bit. It reminds me that feeling anxious (or angry) isn't "me;" it's an emotion that is generated by a very primitive area of the brain.  

For quite sometime scientists have known that there is an area of the brain devoted to helping humans process external threats so that it can trigger the body's fight or flight response, enhancing our chances of survival. That region of the brain, the amygdala, has become known as the fear center and is responsible for interpreting a charging bear as a reason to run. What scientists have only recently uncovered is that even people without a functioning amygdala can experience panic attacks and anxiety. It appears that the human body can recognize dangerous situations "organically" and subconsciously, even unconsciously, based on changes in breathing and blood chemistry. Am I the only one who has woken up feeling alarmed and gasping for air because I fell asleep face down in my pillow? This "alarm" occurs because we aren't getting enough oxygen, or getting rid of enough carbon dioxide, and our blood chemistry starts to get a bit wonky. Not awake, not a problem; the body can trigger the fight or flight response anyways. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty grateful my brain has the good sense to wake me up when my pillow is trying to suffocate me.  

Recent research has used a chemical called isoproterenol to artificially induce changes in heart rate and breathing patterns. In one study, two twins with an exceedingly rare disorder that essentially renders the amygdala useless, were given doses of isoproterenol to see if those changes in heart rate, breathing patterns, and blood chemistry would trigger a fight or flight response. Sure enough, the two test subjects both experienced high anxiety and one of them experienced full-blown panic. The researchers also discovered, quite unexpectedly, that while the participants were very aware of the fearful emotions, they had no awareness of their increased heart rate and shortness of breath like a healthy individual would. It appears that the amygdala may also be responsible for that internal awareness.

Long story short, an amygdala lobotomy isn't the answer to "curing" anxiety.