Trauma Recovery: Unlinking Fear and Danger in the Brain

Person looks over shoulder while running“Why do I feel scared even when I’m not in danger?”

This question, or something approximating it, is one of the most commonly asked by people seeking treatment for trauma, many of whom describe an intense fear when they encounter something that isn’t, in reality, a threat to their safety. These people are aware of this fact cognitively. They can articulate the truth of the situation, but it doesn’t take away the intense symptoms that are experienced.

There is a very good reason for this—and it lies within the structure of the brain and nervous system.

First, let’s talk about fear and its function. Fear is a hard-wired emotion in the brain. We are born with it, and thank goodness. Think of fear like an alarm system. It alerts us to threats in our environment so we can respond effectively and keep ourselves safe. This comes in handy when there is an actual threat. When there is a risk to our safety, the fear circuit is naturally engaged to alert to danger.

Under normal circumstances, we are able to check in with the situation to determine if there is a real threat. For example, if you are walking down the street and hear a loud sound that startles you, your body responds and you look around to see what made the sound. If you discover it was a car backfiring, you see there is no threat and you are able to continue on, recognizing that your safety is not compromised. If it is something truly threatening, such as someone with a gun, you go into survival mode of flight, fight, or freeze. Once the threat has passed, ideally you would be able to talk about what happened, process through it, and know that even if you weren’t safe at the time, you are safe now that the threat is gone.

Although the fear response is normal and key to survival, the fear circuit can get stuck in a type of feedback loop and over-coupling with danger, which tends to cause a person to experience the common symptoms associated with trauma. When a traumatic event is experienced, certain structures of the brain go offline because traumas are intense and the brain goes into survival mode. As a result, the traumatic memory is not stored like a normal memory. It is instead stored in an isolated, fragmented, and frozen way. Because it is isolated from other memory and knowledge, when one is triggered by something that reminds the brain or nervous system of the memory, that information does not have the ability to readily connect with other information in the brain, which makes the nervous system believe the person is in danger.

When a traumatic event is experienced, certain structures of the brain go offline because traumas are intense and the brain goes into survival mode. As a result, the traumatic memory is not stored like a normal memory.

The nervous system then does its job very well, trying to alert the person to danger, even if there is none. Keep in mind this process in entirely unconscious. We can’t think ourselves out of the nervous system’s automatic response.

It is common, post-trauma, to see an over-linking between fear and danger because of the brain process described above: the person has frozen fragments of the trauma that are maladaptively stored in the brain, which means there are also maladaptive linkages. The brain does not know it is safe because parts of it are frozen in time. The over-coupling of fear and danger is even more severe when a person has experienced pervasive trauma throughout life.

Once people understand this process, it is usually relieving to know they are not “crazy” and their nervous systems are simply trying to promote survival. Understanding the dynamic that is happening in the body is the first step to uncoupling fear and danger. Some of the work in uncoupling is done with specific interventions such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy, somatic experiencing, and/or ego state therapy. However, between sessions a person can aid this process by simply paying attention to the moment. Paying attention to body sensations, emotions, reactions, and the environment is a big part of the work. Periodically checking the environment for safety can be especially helpful. Noticing what it’s like to be triggered, have fear, and still notice you are safe takes it to another level and can advance the uncoupling process.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Mick

    March 10th, 2016 at 10:39 AM

    You still feel that pain and danger because that is what your brain will associate with certain actions and situations. That is nothing that is uncommon but it could be oh so helpful if you could unwire or retrain I guess that part of your memory and sort of cause yourself to have a different sort of reaction to those same circumstances.

  • Kristin

    March 13th, 2016 at 8:54 AM

    Your brain can be retrained! It’s called Prolonged Exposure Therapy. Very effective.

  • Brooke

    March 10th, 2016 at 8:18 PM

    This makes sense. I am trying to be supportive of my teenage daughter recovering from anorexia.Due to absent local resources, she went out of town for inpatient and day treatment. The follow up local treatment (with her returning home, 5 months ago) seems lacking, but she participates in what’s available. All of the sudden,(for the last week or 2) she texts me almost daily about being “scared” and “feeling unsafe” (or self concious, doesn’t want people to look at her) and wants to come home while she is at school, the symptoms usually last until she has left school. (yes),I have signed her out of school for this.

    Usually (at home) when she has weird feelings, we discuss them and she has an idea of why she may have weird feelings; with these sudden frequent texts, she elaborates when i ask only to “generally unsafe”.

    (and she LOVES school)

  • Kristin

    March 13th, 2016 at 8:53 AM

    Find someone trained in Prolonged Exposure Therapy and/or Cognitive Processing Therapy. Her brain needs to be retrained to correctly interpret danger signals. It’s possible. Good luck!

  • Beverly Mason

    March 19th, 2016 at 4:45 PM

    Perhaps it’s the crowd or close proximity that makes her jumpy. Is she being bullied or made fun of? She needs a good therapist. A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist can help. Sounds like she’s being triggered by something at school.

  • Tina

    March 11th, 2016 at 7:16 AM

    So while for those of us not experiencing that pain or fear it seems quite irrational but I guess to that person there is a clear reason behind it even though it may not be clearly evident.

  • Laura Owens

    March 12th, 2016 at 8:56 AM

    My brothers worked hard to scare me half to death practically all the time so now I stay pretty skittish.

  • Beverly Mason

    March 19th, 2016 at 4:39 PM

    After you advise your brother of the damage he did out of meanness find an EMDR therapist and get rid of the trauma. No point in living with it.

  • michael b

    March 14th, 2016 at 7:29 AM

    You don’t think about those triggers that you may have until one just reaches right up and smacks you. And then the reality sets in that this is something that very much resonates with you

  • Constance

    March 15th, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    Can there ever be finality to hurt like this?
    It seems that the people that I know who have gone through a traumatic experience are constantly checking over their shoulder, thinking that this is going to happen to them again.
    I would like then to have some closure and resolution.

  • Beverly Mason

    March 19th, 2016 at 4:35 PM

    Yes, peace can happen. EMDR therapy is used by military psychologists and therapist to work through the trauma of war. It is very effective. I have used it numerous times and had great success.

  • Anjy

    August 14th, 2016 at 11:34 PM

    But none of this will work if the trauma happened before birth and was firmly reestablished through childhood.

  • Kelly

    August 15th, 2016 at 12:19 PM

    I’ve been in therapy for many years, and now I see my teen going thru trauma similar to mine. Ty for suggesting the EMDR therapy. Going to look into it.

  • Kathy G

    August 15th, 2016 at 11:42 PM

    So how exactly do they “reprogram” your brain?

  • anna

    August 16th, 2016 at 10:12 PM

    Thank you so much for this!

  • Martha

    August 18th, 2016 at 1:55 PM

    Can EMDR be used on a toddler that has suffered trauma since being in utero? If not is there another therapy that can help a 3 year old over come fears.

  • Heather

    November 6th, 2016 at 1:21 PM

    Intensely grateful for the access to resources and more from a site and organization without having to wonder or worry about credibility, thank you for all the time and efforts given in providing your professional information and so much more because what all it offers & provides globally is immeasurable!!

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