Written by Katie Steck, Education Coordinator at The Younique Foundation
It’s just after midnight and you decide it’s time to turn in for the night. You enter your bedroom where dim light from the street lamp outside bleakly illuminates your space. As you pull back your covers, you notice something dark, indiscriminate, about the size of a quarter jump across your sheet. You feel a sudden rush of panic as your heart rate soars, your muscles tense, and your thoughts race to images of a spider you thought you had killed last week.
After another moment of contemplating a battle to the death with whatever unwelcome intruder this is, you suddenly realize it’s just a piece of FUZZ! Cursing the fuzz and vowing to never watch Arachnophobia before bed again, your heart rate returns to normal, your muscles relax, and you continue your bedtime routine.
Why do we feel fear before we can even identify what is making us afraid? And how does this relate to sexual abuse we may have experienced in the past? Research into how fear is processed in the brain can shed light onto how a small fuzz can create a large fuss in our brains and bodies, particularly if the fuzz relates to past trauma.
Fear takes two simultaneous pathways in the brain; one is fast and one is slow.1 When your body receives visual signals from the outside world, it creates a basic representation of the object and sends a quick message to a place in your brain called the amygdala.2 Here, our brain asks, “Is this thing a potential threat?”
Comparing the major features of the object to what you’ve encountered before, your amygdala makes a snap judgment of whether the body needs to get ready for battle. If the amygdala deems the fuzz has enough similarities to a spider (or a similar threat), it activates other battle systems in your body, even without fully knowing what the object is. Stress hormones are released, your sympathetic nervous system is kicked into high gear, and your thoughts may retreat to the effectiveness of a flame-thrower as a defense tool.
Meanwhile, the slow pathway of fear is routed to a part in the front of your brain where the prefrontal cortex begins a full-scale investigation into what the object is and whether you should really be afraid of it in this context. If it turns out to be just fuzz and not a spider, then your prefrontal cortex sends a signal to your amygdala saying, “Shhhh, it’s okay, amygdala. No threat here.” This will, in turn, relax those battle systems that the amygdala activated and you can safely put away your flame-thrower.
In those who have experienced childhood sexual trauma, the amygdala is especially sensitive to threatening signals.3,4 Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex has fewer resources to manage fear signals and is less able to communicate when something is not a threat.3,4
This is why when we encounter the everyday fuzz that either consciously or unconsciously remind us of our traumatic past (smells, situations, sounds, etc.), we are extra responsive to the fear that comes through the fast pathway, while the slow pathway through the cortex may not be able to get messages to our amygdalae to say, “Don’t worry, we are safe from the fuzz and you can put down the flame-thrower now.”
You are not alone in the struggle with fear. You aren’t out of your mind because certain places, people, or smells make it hard for you to feel safe. Your brain has adapted to survive and may only need some redirection to help keep you on a path to healing and happiness. The good news is that you can do it, and we can help.
- Méndez-Bértolo, C., Moratti, S., Toledano, R., Lopez-Sosa, F., Martínez-Alvarez, R., Mah, Y. H., … Strange, B. A. (2016). A fast pathway for fear in human amygdala. Nature Neuroscience, 19(8), 1041–1049. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4324
- LeDoux, J. E. (1998). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996). https://doi.org/10.2307/3953278
- Thomason, M. E., & Marusak, H. A. (2017). Toward understanding the impact of trauma on the early developing human brain.Neuroscience, 342, 55–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2016.02.022
- Dannlowski, U., Stuhrmann, A., Beutelmann, V., Zwanzger, P., Lenzen, T., Grotegerd, D., … Kugel, H. (2012). Limbic scars: Long-term consequences of childhood maltreatment revealed by functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging. Biological Psychiatry, 71(4), 286–293. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.10.021
Katie Steck’s passion is applying psychophysiological science to improve everyday life. With a master’s degree in clinical psychology, Katie has experience working with trauma survivors and individuals with severe mental health issues. Currently at The Younique Foundation, she empowers parents and caregivers to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse.
To challenge the myth that art and science cannot coexist, Katie also works as a professional face painter at carnivals, corporate events, and birthday parties.