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Why the Memory of Fear is Seared Into Our Brains

Author: John Assaraf | 2022

What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you?

Was it a close brush with death in an accident, or an encounter with someone who wanted to harm you? Regardless of what happened, chances are you still vividly recall these intense memories of fear—even clearer than happy memories!

There’s a good reason that memories of fear sear themselves into our brains—it’s evolutionary. When our distant ancestors lived outdoors, without houses to keep them safe from animals or the elements, they had to be on their guard much more than we do. If they went through a scary experience—like a run-in with a bear or nearly falling from a cliff—it was to their benefit to remember it as clearly as possible in order to avoid similar situations in the future.

The problem is that we don’t face the same threats that our prehistoric ancestors did, and our brains aren’t always the best at determining whether we need to recall scary memories as vividly as we do. Scary memories can be recalled when they’re not wanted, interfering with our daily lives, and can be really difficult to shake. If this is a problem you’re coping with, read on to see what the latest neuroscience discoveries say about overcoming fear.

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How the Amygdala Reinforces Scary Memories

The amygdala has a well-established link to fear. This small structure in the middle of our brains plays a role in emotional processing and regulation—including the processing and regulation of fear. It helps us process what’s going on around us, how we feel about it, and how we’re going to react.

A fascinating new study by neuroscientists at Tulane University describes a possible mechanism by which the amygdala makes memories of fear a permanent part of our brains.

To conduct their research, Dr. Jeffrey Tasker and his team measured the brain activity of mice in frightening situations. They found that in response to fear, the brain secretes a wave of norepinephrine, a well-known stress hormone. This causes a certain group of neurons in the amygdala to leap into action, generating repetitive pulses of electricity.

These pulses alter the brain wave patterns of our amygdala, pushing the waves from resting and into a high-frequency pattern that promotes memory formation. Tasker and his team suggest this is why memories of fear are so vivid compared to other types of memory.

This finding is a real advancement in the field of neuroscience: It demonstrates a possible mechanism for how memories of fear are engraved in our brains, and why we can recall them so vividly! But when these memories do more harm than good, how can we work with our brains to keep fear from interfering with our lives?

Taking Back Your Life: Overcoming Memories of Fear

While our brains are powerful, they’re not perfect. Imagine you were in a car accident, you’re okay, and have escaped with only minor injuries. But during the experience, a memory of the fear you felt was burned into your brain, and now, anytime you get behind the wheel, you feel overwhelming anxiety.

It doesn’t matter how many statistics you read about how unlikely it is to be in a serious car crash, the fear of driving is much more powerful, and it’ll be a real challenge to overcome it!

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But this phenomenon doesn’t only happen with life-threatening accidents. Sometimes, fears of things like public speaking, being under pressure, social interaction, or competition can be seared into our brains the same way, especially if we have a vivid memory of one of those things going badly in the past.

These memories can really derail you from the road to success if fear and anxiety start to interfere with your efforts at work or school. In order to take back control over this part of your life, you need a different approach.

That’s where Innercise™ comes in. Our brains are plastic, or moldable—that’s why they can recall memories of fear so strongly! When it comes to overcoming fear, we can take advantage of this neuroplasticity to train our brains to respond differently to the same stimuli.

While memory can be made permanent in just a few seconds, overcoming scary memories takes time and dedication. But it is possible.

Innercising™ can help reinforce new associations between your brain and your environment that are helpful, instead of harmful! The key is to do it every day to make sure that new associations can overcome the old. Consider doing your daily Innercises™ while you have your coffee in the morning, or right after you do your exercise routine!

If you have a scary memory to overcome, read on for a couple of Innercise™ exercises to help you get started overcoming fear and taking back control of your life. While you should Innercise™ every day to build the habit into your routine, you can also break out these exercises anytime you feel you need them.

Innercise™ #1: AiA (Eye-Ya)

This Innercise™ helps boost your self-control and awareness, allowing you to keep your cool in the face of fear. For instance, if you struggle to answer questions under pressure because of a scary incident in the past, but you have a really important job interview to get through, going through these steps can really boost your confidence!

Before you get started with this Innercise™, paraphrased from Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brain’s Inner Power, take a few deep breaths to steady yourself. Better yet, use the Take Six: Calm the Circuits Innercise™ technique to make sure you’re in control of your emotions before you start!

The Innercise™ works out the three main “neuro-muscles” in your brain—awareness, intention, and action. Just like you’d do a dumbbell routine to work out your biceps, triceps, and shoulders, doing this every day will help you strengthen these muscles over time.

To do the Innercise™ :

  1. Awareness: After taking deep breaths and getting yourself into a calm, relaxed state, be aware of everything you’re feeling: The anxiety, the stress, and the worry, as well as your physical state. Are you tense or uncomfortable? What were you doing or thinking right before you started the exercise?
  2. Intention: Ask what you intend to be doing and feeling in this moment. If you have to make a stressful phone call, is your intention to be ruminating on how it could go wrong, or is it to calmly get through it?
  3. Action: Ask how you could put that intention into action. For the phone call example, you take a minute to stretch and calm yourself, then dial the number to make the call.

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Innercise™ #2: Eight Steps to Overcoming Fear

This Innercise™ is a bit more advanced than the last one, but it will help you change the associations your brain makes with the situation that scares you. Let’s say, for example, you had an important presentation go very wrong back in college and you’ve had anxiety around presentations ever since. But today you have to do an important presentation for a potential client at work. If you succeed, you’ll get the company a big contract—with a bonus for yourself as well!

You might feel like you’re going into fight-or-flight mode as you get in the car to go to work the day of the presentation! That’s the norepinephrine and other stress hormones your brain is secreting to prepare you for “danger.” The “danger” here is whatever negative outcome you’re anticipating for the scary situation!

The goal of this Innercise™ is to start associating the scary situation with the best-case scenario instead of the worst. Doing these steps daily, and whenever you need, will help you change your mindset about the fear-inducing situation in order for you to be optimistic, keep a clear head, and succeed!

  1. Imagine the situation that scares you. Take your time and really picture the experience. Take three deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth, before moving on to the next step.
  2. Next, imagine the worst possible outcome to the situation—to use the presentation example, imagine you bomb the presentation, lose the contract, and your boss is really upset. Keep breathing in slowly, deeply, and evenly, even if you start to feel anxious.
  3. Keep up the deep breathing while imagining the best possible outcome of the situation. Imagine how happy you’d feel securing the contract for your company, and the feeling of accomplishment you’d get from nailing your presentation.
  4. While still deep breathing, entertain both of these outcomes in your mind. Try to look at them objectively. Which one would you prefer to come true? Which one would you prefer to think about?
  5. Take a moment to reflect on how you are ultimately in control of the outcome here. You can change what brain structures are in play by which outcome you choose to focus on.
  6. While continuing to breathe deeply, think about the positive outcome, and the calm, collected attitude you’re going to need to achieve it.
  7. For the next five or six breaths, continue to imagine yourself achieving the success you’re hoping for at each step of the process. Really try to focus on the joy you’ll feel when you succeed.
  8. With your focus fixed on how you’re in control of the situation and how you have the power to achieve your preferred outcome, you’re ready to get out there and face your fears with confidence.

 

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When To Seek Help

Unfortunately, sometimes a memory of fear goes beyond just a memory. Sometimes, experiencing something terrifying, or even witnessing it happen to someone else, can cause a person to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

People with PTSD experience extreme reactions to stimuli that remind them of their trauma, like nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks, as well as intrusive thoughts about the experience throughout the day. They may also struggle with anxiety or depression as a result.

If you just can’t shake a scary memory, even with the help of Innercise™, and if it’s affecting your quality of life beyond a specific situation, there’s no shame in reaching out for professional help from a doctor, psychologist, or other medical professionals.

Final Thoughts

Memories of fear are hard to shake, and they can really interfere with our daily lives.

Almost everyone knows someone who’s afraid of dogs, heights, or water because of a frightening experience as a child, but these fears don’t have to be a permanent impediment, just as fears of performing under pressure or speaking in front of groups don’t have to keep you from achieving the career success you’ve dreamed of.

With a little awareness and a little Innercise™, anyone can make their brain’s plasticity work to their advantage and overcome those pesky fears in their way.

About The Author

John Assaraf

John Assaraf is one of the leading mindset and behavioral experts in the world, with a unique ability to help people release mental and emotional blocks that keep them from achieving their life’s biggest goals and dreams. He's written 2 New York Times Bestselling books, appeared on Larry King, and was featured in 8 movies, including "Quest For Success" with Richard Branson and the Dalai Lama. Now, he is the CEO of NeuroGym, a company dedicated to using the most advanced neuroscience-based training to help individuals and maximize their fullest potential.

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