Due to a traumatic childhood illness that quarantined me in a hospital room for several weeks, I used to find it tough to feel calm and relaxed in a hospital setting. From the moment I crossed the hospital threshold, I’d start to shake, my mind would go numb, and I would shut down emotionally. This was an involuntary reaction. Why? Because fear memories not only hardwire emotions but also associate the environment of their origin with those emotions.
As a species, we’re hardwired to learn from fear. In fact, our survival depends on it. From the caveman who learned to run from a tiger to your own negativity bias—a psychological phenomenon that causes you to more easily and quickly recall unpleasant experiences than positive ones—we’re genetically predisposed to heed fear to prolong our lives. The problem comes when that fear unnecessarily causes disruptions in normal functioning. My grandmother was terrified of boats and large bodies of water because as a child she’d nearly drowned in a lake.
Anxiety disorders and PTSD create so much stress on the mind and body that they lower immunity and can actually contribute to shorter life span. So, what begins as a hardwired survival mechanism can become enormously detrimental to survival itself.
Is there a way to stop all that from happening? Approaches like Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) offer processes that recondition subjects to experience a fear-inducing event in a new way. Through PE’s behavior and cognitive behavioral therapy, subjects are taught to engage rather than recoil from triggers. They re-experience fear-inducing and traumatic events through imagination, memory, virtual programs, or actual return to the location. Working through this process several times allows people to become desensitized to the memory, and eventually agitated responses dwindle and even vanish. While PE is a popular program, the process itself can be very uncomfortable, which is why new research about inhibiting fear learning sounds very interesting indeed.
The journal Science recently reported that researchers have identified and isolated a specific structure that ties fearful events to their environments. The usual process of memory works like this:
The hippocampus contains neurons that regulate whether the memory of a place or certain context is connected to feelings of fear based on a negative experience. Called “interneurons,” they act as conductors between afferent (sensory) neurons, which receive information from the peripheral nervous system, and efferent (motor) neurons, which transmit signals from the brain. Located only in areas of the central nervous system that need to connect, interneurons process a fearful memory and pass it to another part of the brain that associates it to content, context, or location.
Working with mice, Columbia University researchers conditioned the animals to fear being placed in a box due to the consistent experience of being shocked while in it. Then, the team deactivated interneurons in a specific area of the hippocampus necessary for contextual memory retrieval. The inhibition of these interneurons allowed an increase in a specific type of excitatory cell that prevents fear learning. Result: The mice exhibited no fear when placed in the box.
The researchers suggest that inhibiting the interneuron’s ability to transmit impulses received from other cells will prevent uncomfortable stimuli from being included in how the hippocampus tags contextual representations during the fear learning process.
Bottom line: This experiment further unravels both how we form and retrieve memories, plus how we can undo some couplings that actually work against positive outcomes for survival. Anxiety disorders and PTSD create so much stress on the mind and body that they lower immunity and can actually contribute to shorter life span. So, what begins as a hardwired survival mechanism can become enormously detrimental to survival itself.
As Susan Jeffers eloquently explained in her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway! (Ballantine Books), at the base of all fear is the pervading sense of “I can’t handle it!” As a post-trauma coach and trauma survivor myself, I tremendously value the effort involved when any of us do the work required for learning to mitigate emotional and physiological responses to the past. Such exercises are a prime process for mining the ore of post-traumatic growth.
The idea that we might find a way to help the brain work more efficiently in the area of fear is intriguing, especially if it allows us to evolve one step closer to discovering ways to make our brains update their survival mechanisms. I worked hard to rewire my hospital memories so that I now feel calm and in charge when I’m at the hospital. Proof that conscious rewiring succeeds!
I can attest to the ability to desentize our triggers as well. You, Michelle, have found the joy of breaking those ties to the fear response. I’m continuously grateful you are so candid about your own journey to help others understand that healing can come. I have complex multi-trauma PTSD. I have experienced multiple single traumas in my life and a few chronic traumas. I used to be triggered by just about everything in my environment.
Now, I rarely experience the fear response in relation to a memory that is triggered by something I see, feel, smell or hear in my environment. It took tons of hard work going through exposures (starting small until I could tolerate more intense discomfort), but it is happening! I do believe that we MUST feel safe in the confines of a supportive and competent therapist relationship or with another trusted and wise other person in our life before we go through the desensitization process. If you don’t have some place safe to go, someone safe to keep coming back to when the distress gets intolerable, I believe it can cause more retraumatization. (At least that was my experience before I began working with an incredibly resourceful and competent trauma therapist.) We really can be free of the fear response of triggers! Sometimes life can suck us back under when another trauma occurs, but once we have been through the success of desensitization, it is not so hard to get back to groundedness and keep on moving on. Great article!
@Soul — Bravo! And thanks for sharing your experience with me. You and I and so many others are proof to the naysayers that we can change after trauma, and that we can live positive, meaningful, productive and non-triggered lifestyles. Here’s to educating others by sharing our success stories. I admire your resilience!
I have found through my own experience that nothing about our species is “hard-wired” no emotions including fear will remain with us if they are not used. We change our environment to abolish fear and make our world a “safer” place and in turn natural evolution will remove our fear. After all who needs a “Self preservation mechanism” if we don’t need to use it. The term PTSD can also be reinterpreted. people can reach such a damaging environment where they have no choice but to either evolve or die, some die, but some change and they cannot be changed back, these changes can be small or so large that it would be difficult to use the term “Human” to describe them. Believing that our “Fear” our “Self preservation mechanism” is hardwired and that we can do or think what we want and that won’t be affected is complacent to say the least and is the biggest threat to the survival of our species
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