Extinction is Good – in This Case

Remember when you were a teensy little baby in a general state of learning, of absorbing into your brand new memory unit everything going on in your world? You didn’t know what the hell it all meant, but you had 3 distinct feelings: pleasure (food, warmth, touch), discomfort (hunger, pain, angst) and fear (startle).

When we pop out, everything is new and potentially dangerous. We’re probably afraid of everything because we’ve never experienced it before. As time passes, we learn that we don’t have to fear certain things (food sources, warm caresses).  In one very important way, our lives are reduced to the simplicity of two tasks: 1. Learning to fear certain things, and 2. Learning to stop fearing certain things. Learning to stop fearing things is called “fear extinction” by social and brain scientists. It’s verrrrry important, that stopping part, and it’s what agoraphobes aren’t good at.

I never really thought of getting over a fear in terms of “extinction,” but that’s in fact what has to happen, in a structural way, in a pact with your brain team – the amygdala, the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex (aka “Big” and “Brains”). In order for you stop fearing something, there has to be a committee meeting in your brain. I’ll set it up for you.

You are startled one morning on a walk you have to take regularly.  A dog in a yard leaps, snarling, as you pass. Your adrenaline alarm goes off, partly because you’ve been bitten by a dog, and partly because your fight or flight system works the way it’s supposed to. You were in danger and you froze, planning your next move.  You understand the fence will probably protect you, so you circle widely and pass to the diminishing sound of barking. Well, hell. Now what? Who knows who owns the dog in that big apartment building? The next morning, there’s no dog, but the day after your nearly serene walk is shattered once again by that bloody dog. Now each time you leave the house with anxious feelings, not knowing. This business has wrecked your mornings.

You watch a TV movie one night about a jewel thief who throws a big bloody steak to the estate guard dogs and the next morning you take along some dog treats, turning the barks to wags. You are not at all afraid of the neighborhood dog any longer. Why? The pre-frontal cortex created the notion of taking doggie treats and began to romanticize the positive outcome of it all, completely forgetting there’d been anything about fear.

The hippocampus had passed along the memory to Big after the first incident and kept the master mind informed. When “Brains” thought up the treat idea she had to then convince the hippocampus to eliminate the fear memory. Hippocampus isn’t as sophisticated as Big, but can understand that a smiling dog poses little risk. The amygdala started it all, of course, jumping back from the fear-provoking event and calling out the alarm to all systems. It’s sort of like that horn blasting chaos when everybody’s running around on the deck of a submerging submarine.  WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP!

In mili-seconds everybody in the body knows there’s a lunging, barking dog and is ready to fight it – or whatever – thanks to the amygdala. After the doggie treats worked, hippo had to tell amygdala that from now on, no matter how many times the dog appeared, nobody else in the brain was going to worry about it, so amygdala might as well not also. When the guard at the gate, the amygdala, has cancelled a fear memory, that baby is EXTINCT.

You know what your problem is? You neglected to kill a few memories.  So now we start the process, and this research is part of your process.

I’ve come across several medical journal articles about that very subject – the extinction of fears. I’m not a science type, but I enjoy reading brain science and will pass along to you links to articles about the nature of anxiety as it pertains to you, as well as a summary of what you’ll be reading. Science articles can be difficult to read, but by doing so you’ll increase your knowledge of what afflicts you and help you figure out how to overcome it.

This article from the “Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders” online journal reveals results from a study of the relationship between early, childhood abuse or trauma and structural changes in the brain. It was written by four medical researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.  It may reveal something to you about the roots of your anxiety; at least it will deepen your understanding of you.



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