Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Although this statement has gained much attention in the political world since the early 1900s, I don’t necessarily agree with FDR here. When analyzing this statement from a scientific, but specifically psychological perspective, one would note that fear is a truly prevalent, and real, emotion that most people experience during their lifetime.
For decades now, psychologists have been interested in studying different aspects of emotions and how they impact us, as well as those around us.
Today, we are going to focus on fear, and the ways in which repeated experiences of fear at a young age may be impacting our health through adulthood.
Before getting into the neurological implications of fear, I want to remind you that emotions typically consists of three response systems (Lang, 1968).
- Subjective states and cognitions associated with those states (i.e., verbal-cognitive responses)
- Behavioral changes
- Physiological states
All three response systems are triggered when an individual experiences fear. Once exposed to a fearful stimulus, the hypothalamus signals the “fight or flight” response. Once certain hormones are released, they effect us in a multitude of ways to prepare the body to respond to the fear evoking stimulus (Image 1).
Okay, so then experiencing fear isn’t so bad, right?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Sometimes memories we form while experiencing fear at a young age (which can range from fear of rejection to an unexpected encounter with a bear in the woods) might have the ability to impact our health later on in life.
Because of the neuroplasticity of young brains, children are sensitive to environmental stimuli, and early experiences can have lifelong effects on cortical-subcortical circuitry and behavior (McEwen, 2003). Because fear learning emerges early in life (Gullone, 2000; Moriceau & Sullivan, 2006) it is important that the fear provoking cues are addressed and desensitized so that anxiety and other stress-related disorders do not develop in adulthood (Pattwell et al., 2011).
Recently, 12 neuroscientists including Conor Liston (a graduate student of Bruce McEwen’s) conducted a study that illuminated the importance of contextually based fear extinction learning for adolescence by pinpointing anatomy related to fear and memory. Specifically, they found that connectivity between the amygdala and the prelimbic regions of prefrontal cortex is stronger in adolescence than in preadolescence and adulthood (Pattwell et al., 2016). In other words, through their animal model, the researchers identified new strategies that create dynamic neurodevelopmental changes during adolescence with the potential to extinguish pathological fears implicated in anxiety and stress-related disorders.
The multitude of scientific research pertaining to fear has led me to the conclusion that because fear is processed through the brain, the consequences of it fall victim to the interconnectivity within the brain. Too much stimulation of certain parts of the developing brain can result in the dreaded, “wear and tear” of our this vital organ.
So, maybe the next time you engage with an adolescent who is seeking advice, substitute the phrase “don’t be afraid,” for something like, “respect your fears, but don’t give them more attention then they deserve.” Additionally, if they are experiencing reoccurring situations of fear (socially, physically, ect.) refer them to a psychologist to address the neurological consequences of these fearful stimuli before it is too late.
Gullone E. The development of normal fear: A century of research. Clinical Psychology Review. 2000;20:429–451. doi: 10.1016/S0272-7358(99)00034-3.
Lang P.J. Fear reduction and fear behavior: Problems in treating a construct. In: Schlien JM, editor. Research in psychotherapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1968. pp. 90–103.
McEwen, Bruce S. “Early life influences on life‐long patterns of behavior and health.” Mental retardation and developmental disabilities research reviews 9, no. 3 (2003): 149-154.
Moriceau, S. & Sullivan, R. M. Maternal presence serves as a switch between learning fear and attraction in infancy. Nat. Neurosci. 9, 1004–1006 (2006).
Pattwell, S., Liston, C., Jing, D. et al. Dynamic changes in neural circuitry during adolescence are associated with persistent attenuation of fear memories. Nat Commun 7, 11475 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms11475
Pattwell, Siobhan S., Kevin G. Bath, B. J. Casey, Ipe Ninan, and Francis S. Lee. “Selective early-acquired fear memories undergo temporary suppression during adolescence.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 3 (2011): 1182-1187.