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!