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The Brain On Fear

Updated: Feb 20


I remember the day I did not have anxiety - and it stunned me. I was in Egypt on a learning adventure in a place where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have any control over what was happening. I was at the mercy of others - and had zero anxiety. My lack of control was so evident that my brain decided to finally let go. And it was glorious. No fear of being lost, no fear of being judged for saying the wrong thing, no fear of something bad happening. I enjoyed the journey and enjoyed the first span of any brain peace that I could ever remember. And when I got back? The mental chaos started again.


At the root of anxiety is usually fear. This is part of the natural process of the way the brain works. When we feel anxiety, our brain goes into fear mode, and the amygdala lights up. All the energy drains from the frontal lobe into the amygdala. This results in us going into either fight, flight, or freeze mode.


This is perceived anxiety-fear, not real-fear of something that is literally about to happen. Fear is really about the brain setting you up for success because it thinks you are in danger, even though you are not. We fear failure, judgement, and vulnerability. Where does this fear come from?


Common types of fear

Feeling vulnerable

Strong connections are created by being vulnerable with other people. But, unfortunately, people are often scared to be vulnerable because they might get hurt. Our brains “decide” in advance that this is too painful so we just don’t go there with others. We give them the mask of perfection or the mask of “I’m good”. Vulnerability can lead to rejection and that isn’t “safe”.


Fear of failure.

One of the things that I struggle with is the fear of failure. It speaks to my perfectionism and translates into lots of attempts to try to control things that aren’t controllable. If you're like me and trying to be perfect all the time, you probably don’t see failure as a positive thing. However, failure is fundamental for growth; without it, we wouldn’t learn essential life lessons.


Other common types of fear:

  • Fear of being alone

  • Fear of financial issues

  • Fear of rejection

  • Fear of medical issues


The fear seeps in, our amygdala decides to do its job and protect us, we can’t access the executive function part of our brain to reason through the fear and off we go into a chaosnado of “what if’s” in our head.


When this process starts happening, several tools, such as breathing and simultaneously counting backwards from ten in your head, can help you calm your amygdala enough to problem solve and be intentional about listening to your thoughts and feelings. Click here to learn six mindfulness tools I recommend to all my clients.


The most important thing I do when I work with my client’s fear is locate their core beliefs.


Getting down to the root of the fear is often so automatic that we aren’t even aware of the thoughts we tell ourselves in our brains. Getting to the core belief that causes the fear takes intentionality and, at times, someone to walk you through the process. Here’s what this looks like in practice:


What am I afraid of?

I'm afraid of going to the doctor tomorrow, and they're going to tell me bad news.


Why am I afraid of going to the doctors?

I'm afraid I'm going to be sick. And I'm not going to be with my family.


Drill it down again; what does that mean?

It means I have a fear of abandonment myself, and I'm afraid of abandoning my family.


It's a process of trying to drill it all down to pinpoint your core belief. It's not easy, and it will take practice and patience to challenge your mindset and build new neural pathways.

What’s your next step in changing the way your brain works? Not sure? Schedule a free consultation and let’s talk about it.


Mattie Cummins is a brain-loving neuro-social worker/journey coach/counselor and owner of Cerebrations LLC. She specializes in helping clients with neuro-issues and anxiety live their best life through functional coaching and brain education. By empowering you to harness the power of your brain and body connection, Mattie can help you understand what is happening in your brain, rewire your thoughts and reactions, and find your best life.


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