Any sufferer of panic attacks, agoraphobia, derealization, depersonalization, generalized anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress, or obsessions and compulsions is likely to have a pretty good feel for the concept of fear. Perhaps an understatement, right? Heck, as I was writing this article I opened my panic attack recovery eWorkbook and ran a “find” on the word “fear.” It appeared 270 times! So I’m thinking there’s a lot of it floating about.

Now, any number of experts will proclaim fear is a matter of thought, and others will refer to it as an emotion. No matter now, because for the sake of this article we’re going to consider fear as purely a learned phenomenon. And the lesson is learned through association with some sort of unpleasant event that occurred in the past. But, just how does this biochemically occur? And why is having the answer to that question important to us? Stay tuned.

Well, it seems as though neuroscientists have now located the very neurons that are responsible for fear learning in mammals. Using a highly sophisticated imaging technique called Arc catFISH (FISH is an acronym for fluorescence in situ hybridization) researchers at the University of Washington have traced all sorts of neural activation in the brains of rats. And they’ve pinpointed the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala as central in the dynamics of fear encoding.

The amygdala, situated equally in both brain hemispheres, is an almond-shaped grouping of nuclei approximately one-inch long, located just a few inches from each ear, inward and in a direction toward the forehead. Being the chairman of the board of our fear circuitry, the amygdala communicates with a variety of anatomical structures, including the sensory/messenger hub of the brain, the thalamus; and our executive functioning headquarters, the prefrontal cortex.

Now, it’s really of no great surprise that the amygdala has been found to be so deeply involved in the presentation of fear, as it, and its limbic system mate, the dorsal hippocampus, have been considered for quite some time to be the playing field of cue synthesis, leading to the formation of fear memories. But, this new work reveals the role of the hippocampus as one of stimuli processing and transmission to the amygdala. So the bottom-line is the dynamics of fear learning can be exclusively attributed to the action of neurons located in the amygala. And, by the way, processing, transmission, and reaction occurs very quickly, as learned responses are crucial to survival; especially if you’re a rat or lived as a human in a cave thousands of years ago.

As a sidebar, I find it so interesting that the primary fear behavior observed by the researchers was freezing, which is the most common measure of fear in rodents. But, if you’re an anxiety sufferer, have you ever experienced the sensation of being frozen or immobile? I know you have!

Okay, so we’ve learned yet more about why we feel what we feel, think what we think, and behave how we behave; within the context of fear. Well, that’s great, but entirely meaningless if we can’t somehow use this knowledge to our advantage. Well, how ‘bout this? If we come to deeply understand the very anatomical and physiological dynamics of fear learning, won’t we be all the more able one day to devise psychotherapeutic and/or biochemical strategies to weaken our conditioning potential, or make it go away entirely?

I’m thinking so.

Author's Bio: 

After a winning bout with panic disorder Bill found his life's passion and work. So he earned his counseling credentials and is doing all he can to lend a hand to those having a tough time.

Bill authored a panic attack education and recovery eworkbook entitled,
"Panic! ...and Poetic Justice," which is available on his website. And he now has a blog up and running, which is accessible through his website. Lots of good stuff going on and much more to come.