Calming And Healing The Fear Brain

Our fear brain, the amygdala, processes information about a situation four times faster than our thinking brain. This can result in rather difficult behavioral tendencies.
Dr. Kate Truitt is a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist
Dr. Kate Truitt is a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist

On my blog, I have often emphasized the fact that as humans, 90 percent of our present moment is informed by experiences from our past. As a trauma survivor, I have learned to recognize when my survival brain, also known as our fear brain, is throwing up warning signs from my past. This ability, which can be intentionally developed over time, can allow you to decipher these warnings in the context of what is happening in the present moment. It empowers you to deepen your relationship with yourself and develop methods for finding balance between what your fear brain would have you do, and what you would choose to do. In this article I want to show you some of those tools for resilience and explain how they work.

Understanding The Role Of The Fear Brain In Our Lives

Let’s talk about fear and get to know our fear brain a little better.

I call her “Amy,” the amygdala of our brains—our fiercest protector and the heart of our fear brain. All of those experiences from our past—whether good, bad, ugly (or even unconscious!)—are locked up inside Amy, until she recognizes the perfectly relevant present moment in which to have them make their appearance. This is often not a bad thing, because our fear brain’s Spidey sense, and memory system, deserves much of the credit for the fact that each of us has stayed alive for as long as we have. A split-second decision made by our primal survival brain can keep us from stepping off of a cliff or running out into traffic to our deaths. At the forefront of this process is Amy, overriding our thinking brain in our brain’s information processing.

On the flip side, when we are living with increased stress, anxiety or fear, Amy’s constant hyperawareness of threat can take on an overpowering role in our brain’s information-processing sequences. The problem comes when something that Amy fears from 20 years ago that is no longer a problem in our current lives sets off Amy’s threat assessment algorithm and its subsequent choice of action before our thinking brain can be involved in helping to choose a course of action. When Amy finds something that is threatening enough to her to be memorable, she no longer has a sense of time, and her evaluation of the threat level can plunge us into less-than-preferable behaviors like lashing out in anger, withdrawing from other people, or choosing to ease our stress and anxiety with alcohol or other substances.

Calming The Fear Brain

Amy doesn’t speak English, French, ASL, Mandarin, or any other spoken language. If you’ve ever tried to talk yourself out of your anxiety, then you know what I mean.

In order to calm Amy down and get our prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain) to come online in our information-processing sequence, we need to understand the language of electrochemistry, which is the only one Amy understands.

The Workings Of The Amygdala

Amy is first to jump in on that information-processing sequence at 75 milliseconds—about four times faster than the blink of an eye. The thinking brain gets in much later, at 350 milliseconds (assuming Amy lets it in at all).

The amygdala is processing information about the situation four times faster than our thinking brain is even aware it is happening.

This is what information-processing looks like for Amy:

On the right side of the diagram, we see the timing of the information-processing sequence. Something happens to trigger one of our five senses and the amygdala is first to assess the situation and react to it.

On the left, in the alert levels, you can see that your thinking brain is fully involved in the information sequence if Amy is not alerted—that is, if she doesn’t assess the situation to be a threat. If Amy is alerted at 30 percent, the thinking brain is still there but is only involved at 70 percent. So if Amy is alerted at 100 percent, she takes over completely. And Amy’s relationship with you goes deep: encompassing not only your brain, but your whole body as well.

Amy just wants you to survive, and concerns about your quality of life play no role in her designing a split-second solution to what she deems a threat. That’s O.K. if a mountain lion suddenly jumps into the path ahead, coming at you, and Amy causes you to instinctively remember that you should wave your arms wildly, make yourself look as big as you can and make as much noise as possible. What’s not good is when Amy causes you to scream, cuss, honk, step on the accelerator, and tailgate someone on the freeway at 70 miles per hour because they just endangered you by cutting you off in traffic.

Because, as noted before, our thinking brain often has little control over what the fear brain does in moments of stress, we have to initially work on the process of calming Amy down outside of these moments so we have resilience-building tools to use in those times when the warning lights start flashing.

Resilience is a process that we can work on continually every day in our lives and calming the fear brain is part of that process.

CPR For The Amygdala

CPR for the Amygdala, which stands for Creating Personal Resiliency for the Amygdala, is designed to help you regain physical and emotional balance when you find yourself in times of stress. With CPR for the Amygdala, the self-havening touch is combined with “brain games,” that can distract your amygdala and the working memory from the amygdala’s tales of stress.

In this 12-minute video, Kate introduces you to CPR for the Amygdala and explains how to use self-havening on your palms, upper arms, and face to generate slow, calming delta waves in the brain.

On Insight Timer, Kate has also shared a guided meditation to Create Personal Resiliency with neuroplasticity to help soothe your anxious brain:

  1. Meditation To Create Personal Resiliency For Your Amygdala Dr. Kate Truitt 12:36

After we get Amy to calm down and feel safe by using CPR for the Amygdala and we are able to give the working memory a new job, we then want to look to creating new possibilities for how we would like to feel in certain moments, and for new overall pathways we would like to have in our lives.

The Creating Possibilities Protocol is an opportunity for building those new neural pathways and supporting us in sustainably having the brain we would like to live in going forward—the sense of self through which we would like to navigate the world. The following 8-minute video shows how to create possibilities by using positive memories.

  1. While Havening, assess what emotion you would like to currently be experiencing and/or would like to carry with you into an experience. Recall a time where you felt that emotion.
  2. While Havening, focus on that emotion and say the statement “What if I was _______”; repeat the statement 5 times.
  3. While Havening, focus on that emotion and change statement to “I deserve to be _______”; repeat 5 times.
  4. While Havening, focus on that emotion and change statement to “I am _______”; repeat 5 times.
  5. Repeat the cycle of the three statements until the desired feeling is present.

This article was first published on Dr. Kate Truitt’s website and republished with her permission.

Meditation. Free.