Kevin Ochsner - The Science of Managing Fears

By Kevin Ochsner
During times of stress and difficulty – whether economic or personal – it is easy to feel afraid, uncertain and just plain overwhelmed. Making choices about your future from a place of strong


emotion – whether its fear, anxiety or panic – may not result is the best solutions. To help cope with such trying times it is useful to know first what your emotional response is – what is it telling you and why – and second, what you can do to bring yourself back to an even keel.

What is an emotion? Emotions are complex responses to life events that include changes in how you feel, act, and how your body responds physiologically. You brain is constantly assessing what life events mean for you in terms of your goals, wants and needs, and emotions are its way of telling you whether that event is good or bad and mobilizing you to act appropriately. Seen in this way, emotions are can be very useful guides for what to like or dislike, or whom to trust or mistrust. But when very strong, and especially when you are threatened or fearful, they can overwhelm you decision-making abilities and lead you to make choices on the basis of very short term needs to escape from fear.

Let’s take a closer look at fear. The brain has many systems for quickly assessing whether something you see, hear, touch, etc. is potentially threatening – i.e., it could do you harm. As needed, these systems trigger a cascade of reactions commonly called the ‘fight or flight response’.

Chief among these systems is the amygdala, an evolutionarily very old brain structure that lies just underneath your temples. When it detects a threat:

· It heightens your senses to locate and track potential the threat. This is why your eyes widen and your nostrils flare when afraid.

· It causes your heart to race, your blood pressure to go up, and your palms to sweat, as it readies you tofight or flee.

· It changes how you act - making you freeze or become aggressive, depending on whether you the threat seems overwhelming or can be overcome.

· It promotes short-term goals that enhance immediate survival over any other long term plans you might have.

The upshot of all this is that you may successfully avoid potential threats – but you do so at the cost of compromising your capacity for long-term planning, insight, and seeing the big picture. This is, of course, costly if you have to make choices best made from a calm, cool, collected place.

A key is to remember that the brain evolved the emotion of fear many millions of years ago when our human ancestors were trying to avoid being eaten by predators. To keep our ancestors safe, fear became a powerful, all-encompassing emotion that tries to take control over what you’re doing and feeling in order keep you safe no matter what. In today’s modern world, we don’t have to run away from tigers and lions, but we do have to manage many other threats to our safety and well-being. Whether it’s a tough economic times or an argument with a loved one, our brain can interpret these everyday threats as every bit as dangerous as was the attack of a tiger for our human ancestors.

What can I do to be less afraid? Luckily – we aren’t completely at the mercy of this fight or flight response. We can take control of it rather than letting it control us. In fact, we can regulate it in many ways – and our ability to do this depends critically on a part of the brain that is relatively new in evolutionary terms – the prefrontal cortex – which lies right behind your eyes/forehead. Three of the most effective regulatory strategies are:

1. Change the situation. If you’re overwhelmed with your emotional response to something or someone, reduce your exposure to that thing or person. This could include not being around other people who are afraid of the same thing you are – whether its the stock market or something else – their fear can be contagious and trigger your fearful reaction all over again. Occupy yourself instead with activities that are calming and soothing.

This is useful in short-term to lessen the immediate emotional burden, but it may not help when thoughts of the distressing event come back to mind later, and it does not work if it is impractical or impossible to physically get away from whatever scares you (e.g., if you’re at work when the stock market drops and you can’t get away). In that case, you can…..

2. Get perspective. You can get some mental breathing space not just by physically distancing yourself from the situation, but by distancing yourself mentally. You can do this by imagining the fearful event happened to someone else, or even that it happened to you – BUT – as it happens, you’re watching it unfold from the bird’s eye view of a camera on the wall. This sense of psychological distance has been shown to lessen depression, anxiety and negative emotion more generally – both in the moment and when people recollect bad experiences that happened in the past. It esp. works well when done in combo with the 3rd technique, which is…..

3. Reappraise or reinterpret what happened. We all learned this from old aphorisms like, “look on the bright side,” that point the way towards reinterpreting bad events in more upbeat way. Our research has shown that this is a very effective way of shutting down the amygdala. It is in many ways the most difficult and mentally effortful strategy for controlling your emotion, but it is also the most powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it is the backbone of some of the most effective cognitive therapies for treating clinical disorders of emotion like depression, panic, and phobia.

The key here is to find a way to think about the context of what happened or the consequences that follow from it in a way that lessens the emotional punch. How you do this depends, of course, on what the threat is. For example, if you’re afraid for the health of a sick loved one, you might think of what makes them a hearty, strong individual, and that they will likely get better soon and return to health. If it’s a fear about the poor health for the stock market, you might also focus on what historically has made it strong, resilient, and able to bounce back, taking the long view that it will return to health and rise again after a momentary fall.

A tip: Keep in mind that these strategies can be used in combination for optimal effctiveness. You can, for example, change your situation in older to quell your immediate fears and give you the mental space needed to get erspective and rappraise the situation effectively. To make this more concrete – imagine that that you are using strategies 2 and 3 in tandem to cope with fears about the roller coaster stock market. You could imagine a big drop happened in a movie, which might give you the emotional space to think things through and reappraise the situation as one where – as a character in the film – you have the opportunity to capitalize on an economic downturn in the ways described by Donny and his other guests.

For more information about your emotions and how you can regulate them, visit the website of my research laboratory at Columbia University ( To enter, click on the image of amygdala activity in the brain in center of the page.