Irrational Fear? Chill Out!

While the whole world was masquerading in scary and outrageous costumes during Halloween, a team of scientists was making progress with the latest study on irrational fear. Results of this study are expected to expand current knowledge about treatments for major medical problems concerning irrational fear.

“We’re taking all of what we learned from the basic studies of animals and bringing that into the clinical practices that help people. Things are starting to come together in a very important way,” said Stephen Maren, a psychology professor from the University of Michigan.

The National Institute of Mental Health revealed that about 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders. Being a basic primal emotion, fear is a key to evolutionary survival which we share in common with animals. Aside from genetics, traumatic events are closely associated with the development of overwhelming and needless fear.

Ted Abel, a fear researcher at the University of Pennsylvania considers fear to be a funny thing. “ One needs enough of it, but not too much of it,” said Abel.

According to Armi Rowe, a Connecticut freelance writer and mother, she used to be one of those rational types who are usually calm under pressure. She is not afraid to downhill ski the treacherous black diamond trails of snowy mountains. One day, however, while coping with some serious illnesses in her family, she felt fear closing in on her while she was driving alone. She thought that the stab of pain on her chest was a heart attack and called 911. Later on, it was learned that what happened was an anxiety attack.

With the help of counseling, self-study coping exercises and introspection, Rowe learned to manage such attacks early on. David Carbonell, a Chicago psychologist specializing in treating anxiety disorders, said that there’s a trick to panic attack. “You’re experiencing this powerful discomfort but you’re getting tricked into treating it like danger”, said Carbonell.

There is a possibility that by learning how fear runs through the brain and body, scientists can improve on how to dampen fear.

Amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the deep brain, is the fear hot spot. New York University psychology and neural science professor Elizabeth Phelps said that amygdala is not the one responsible for all fear response but acts like a burglar alarm that connects to everything else.

It was found that a certain chemical reaction in the amygdala is vital in the way mice and people learn to overcome fear, according to Emory University psychiatry and psychology professor Michael Davis. Mice never learn to counter their fears when that reaction is deactivated.

D-cycloserine, a drug already used to fight hard-to-treat tuberculosis, was found to strengthen that good chemical reaction in mice. When combined with therapy, it produces the same effect on people who have a fear of heights, and is now being tested in survivors of the World Trade Center attacks and the Iraq war.

Recent studies have shown that people easily recognize fear in other humans faster than other emotions. Other studies have suggested that bodily functions change just by being very afraid. One study found that very frightened people can withstand more pain than those not experiencing fear. Another found that experiencing fear or merely perceiving it in others improved people’s attention and brain skills.

According to Carbonell, since the normal response for dealing with a real threat is either to flee or fight, the best way to deal with fear when the threat is unreal is to do just the opposite: “Wait it out and chill.”