As they entered the creepy forest in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale nervously asked the Tin Man, “Do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?” He replied sagely, “… mostly lions, tigers and bears.” Now, if Dorothy were in genuine danger, she would have every right to be quaking in her ruby slippers. Some of us might feel content never choosing to find out if the danger is real or not and that’s OK. Others may feel that fears like this negatively impact their life.
Exposure Therapy has been shown to be the most effective anxiety treatment for people with many anxiety disorders. While it involves practicing with what you fear, in order to become less afraid, it is not simply about “getting used to” the fear. It’s about retraining your brain to stop sending the fear signal when there isn’t any actual danger. People struggle against phobias because they recognize that their fears are illogical. They try to talk themselves out of it, but when that doesn’t help, they avoid the fear, which only intensifies it.
The amygdala is the part of our brain responsible for fight or flight decisions. The amygdala works quickly because speed is vital in protecting you against threats. The intellectual area of our brain, the cerebral cortex, may be well suited for speechwriting and philosophy, but is not fast enough to keep us safe from danger. By the time your cerebral cortex processed your circumstances you would be lion, tiger or bear food. Contrarily, your amygdala’s response would be so swift that you would only become aware of it once you felt its effects in your body (panic sensations) and in your behavior (duck, run, escape). Therefore, if you experience phobias and anxiety attacks, and want to overcome them, it is the amygdala you need to reprogram.
The amygdala learns by association. It may associate, heights, enclosed spaces and wild animals with danger. It doesn’t learn by conscious thought, which is why you can’t simply talk yourself out of a phobia. The fear memory is stored as a conditioned fear and can only be diminished by more conditioning, not logic or reason. Since your amygdala only learns when it spots something it considers dangerous, it can only learn new lessons when you are afraid.
If you run away from your fears, you are teaching your amygdala that you should avoid your fears to be safe. To teach your amygdala something new you have to expose yourself to a trigger that gets you afraid. You will be teaching your amygdala that it had gotten you all worked up for no reason. With time and repetition, it will develop a new conditioning that lets you get on with your life unencumbered by this phobia or anxiety attack.
Jeremy Skow, LMHC, CASAC, MBA, maintains a private practice in Great Neck and can be reached at 516-322-9133. For speaking engagements or media inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.mentalhealthcounselingny.com.