Why the Fear Only Seems to Grow: How a Feedback Loop Primes Your Brain for Terror
Have you ever felt like you were stuck in a mental rut, like your thoughts always seem to run in the same direction all the time, and you just can’t stop thinking about certain things? Are those things your mind gets hooked on things that worry or scare you? Humans are creatures of habit, but sometimes our habits are not helping us thrive on the inside. Sometimes our minds focus too much on the darkness and miss the sunshine.
Scientists have a name for this: Negativity Bias. If you imagine our ancestors way back in cave-people days, living off the land, trying to get themselves some lunch and not end up in the stomach of some saber-toothed neighbor, you can easily see how having a brain that focuses on the frightening would help keep you alive. You look out across the landscape and see nine bushes that seem normal enough, but you spot a pair of eyes looking out at you from one bush. Naturally you would want to focus on the one that could be a threat. If you stand around wondering if the other bushes hide more well concealed predators, while you are thinking about it the one real predator might be pouncing on you. Lunchtime for kitty.
But we don’t live on the savannah any more, and unless you are in a really nasty neighborhood, we don’t have to deal with life-threatening predators on a regular basis. But our brains still act like it’s the Stone Age. What mostly threatens us? Bills, angry bosses looking for excuses to fire us, bumper-to-bumper traffic, a spouse that might want to break up with us, all things that aren’t going to jump out and kill us in an instant, but our brains act like they are.
Whenever something scares or threatens us, our brain sends a signal down to your adrenal glands, ordering them to pump out two chemicals. Adrenaline everyone has heard of, it’s what gets you going and ready to fight or run away. The other one is not so well known, but it sure should be. Cortisol is our primary stress hormone. It does lots of things to our brains and bodies that are usually good things if you need to jump out of the road before the teenage driver makes you into road pizza. But too much cortisol for too long does a huge list of very bad things. I want to focus on one specific thing it does, because it is really important.
There are two little structures, one on each side of the brain, called the amygdala. Funny name, I know. It sounds like it should be the name of a character out of a George Lucas movie. The amygdala is the brain’s main processing center for fear and aggression. If you feel fear or aggravation very often, it is these parts that are busy running the show. The problem is that the more times your amygdala is exposed to cortisol, the more sensitive it becomes to it. What happens is that cells inside the amygdala grow more of the receptor molecules that the cortisol molecules attach to. This means you need less threat for the amygdala to send a fear signal and light up the alarms all over your body. So the next time your boss looks over your shoulder, your fear reaction gets stronger. It creates a vicious circle, where every time something threatens us, we become more sensitive to threats, to the point where just hearing the bosses name gets you riled up. The more often you are scared, the more easily you get scared.
This feedback loop leads to disaster. People who have anxiety disorders like PTSD are caught in this loop. When something threatens them in nay way, their amygdalas go into overdrive, leading to anxiety attacks where they lose control of themselves. An anxiety attack can look a little like a seizure, but it is in these attacks that people often commit suicide. It’s not that they choose to, it’s that their brain is malfunctioning. The disease is choosing suicide, not themselves, but in a way their minds are trapped, along for the ride, while their bodies shake like a crooked accountant in front of an IRS board of inquiry. And since their brains have effectively been wired by their environment to do this, they have an extremely hard time overcoming these attacks. Medications, meditations and being surrounded by warm, caring people can all help, but even then it can take years for the attacks to subside, as their brains slowly pull back those extra receptors, slowly healing itself. It’s not something you can “just get over” as if anyone would choose this. It’s a genuine malfunction in people’s brains. If you know anyone having this kind of problem, don’t think that telling them to chill out is going to do the trick. They need professional help just as much as if they had a blood clot or a broken leg.