Why do we all get so frightened?

Why do we all get so frightened?
Have you ever thought of why we get so frightened? What part of the brain has this function to make us feel frightened?
Flight or fight is the natural instinct that we human beings possess so that our brain can quickly notify our body to make biological changes to save our life. Usually we only notice some physiological changes when we are fearful or running away such heart bounding, breathing rate increases, clammy hands, and butterflies in our stomach, difficult to breathe, tight chest, etc. Usually we only focus on our behaviour rather than knowing how it works in the brain and why it happens like this. Where does this fear message come from? Let’s look at which particular part of the brain does the alarm job to heighten our awareness to “fight or flight”.

The emotional part of the brain comprises of the limbic system, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the basal ganglia.

The limbic system is the main areas for the experience and control of feelings. It sets the emotional tone of the mind, which filters external events through creating emotional coloring. It tags events as internally important, and stores highly charged emotional memories.

Although we know that generation of emotion is located in multiple areas and interconnected, we only focus on the amygdala, the limbic system, the hippocampus and the basal ganglia in here.
This critical task is processed by the structure called amygdala, which is regarded as the “fear centre” of the brain. It belongs to a small region of the brain called temporal lobe and is located at a point a line goes through your eye and your ear that intercepts with each other. It plays a key role in activating emotion. When it receives information form other parts of the brain, it will assign a level of emotional significance to whatever is going on and rings the alarm bell. For example, when a dog is fiercely barking at us, and is running towards our direction and appears to attack us, the fear centre will send sensory information to the other part of the brain and notify us to “escape or fight back”. At this time other body system will activate the release of the stress hormones cortisol for us to respond to this threat.

In addition, the amygdala also helps us remember a traumatic experience. Take the dog attack as an example. Next time when we see a barking dog coming to our direction even not showing any intention to attack us, we will flee to avoid the threat.

How does the connection work? The amygdala is connected to the hippocampus and runs like a circuit. The hippocampus is involved in storing highly charged emotional memories, both positive and negative. The amygdala is involved in negative emotions and the hippocampus is involved in aspects of memory. When we experience a threat, the memory is being registered in the hippocampus. Next time when a similar event happens, the hippocampus will send the sensory information to the amygdala to alert us that a threat is imminent. This process is going to promote survival in instinctual ways.

Sometimes a situation occurs when the circuit connecting between the amygdala and the hippocampus is dysfunctional. It may produce interference in stopping the amygdala or hippocampus within the limbic area, and as a result it cannot differentiate real from unreal information (Bradley 2000, pp259-260).
The basal ganglia are a set of large structures surrounding the limbic system. It is involved in integrating feelings, thoughts, and movement, as well as helping shift and smooth behaviour. It is also believed that the basal ganglia are involved in forming habits.

Research suggests that the basal ganglia are involved with setting the body’s anxiety as well as forming habits. When we are excited the basal ganglia will cause us to jump; when we are nervous it causes us to tremble; and when we are scared we will freeze.
When the basal ganglia are overactive, we are more likely to be overwhelmed by stressful situations and have a tendency to freeze or become immobile (in thoughts and in actions). To soothe the basal ganglia, research demonstrates that practising mindfulness skills would be able to slow down the activity of the basal ganglia and hence it calms the basal ganglia down, and thus our anxiety reduces.

Tips to calm our amygdala and other parts of our brain include:
1. Start using diaphragmatic breathing. This is the link from the youtube teaching diaphragmatic breathing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgTL5G1ibIo
2. Meditation – research has shown meditation can calm stress and enhance brain function
3. Remove caffeine and cut down sugar will help reduce a high lactate/pyruvate ratio’s connection with anxiety.
4. Vitamins B1, B3, and B6 help decrease anxiety by increasing the body’s ratio of pyruvate to lactate.
Gabriel Wong
Clinical Psychologist
References:
Amen, D. (2016). Change your brain change your life. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Lazarus, P. (1995). Healing the mind the natural way. New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.