Redrawing the Map on Fear

The neuroscientist who originally coined the amygdala the "fear circuit" of the brain has recanted. He now states that the map is more complicated than he initially believed. Joseph LeDoux, who put out his new book on anxiety last year (supported by this study), attributes the current lack of efficacy of anxiety treatments, in part, to his initial misdiagnosis. The problem appears to be a minor one, however, LeDoux insists the distinction is an important one.

Popular interpretation of science would suggest that the fear circuits lead directly to the feeling of fear and anxiety. Joseph LeDoux's book, titled "Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety", outlines how the feeling of anxiety comes about as a composite of many brain regions. He also discusses the ways that the simplified interpretation of anxiety has led treatments so far astray. He concludes with the hope that this new map can serve as a guide for more effective treatment.

The Key To Human Anxiety

Understanding how and we get anxious is the key to why anxiety is more complicated than the animalistic defence system found in the amygdala. Being unable to sleep because you're worrying about exams or stressed over your career path is a uniquely human experience. Therefore it only makes sense that the brain activities associated with these kinds of worry are more complex as well. The amygdala does contribute to the initial subconscious detection of a threat, however, the emotion of fear only comes after that initial alarm spreads and triggers other areas of the brain.

What does this mean for people who struggle with anxiety? For starters, these findings place a greater importance on the role of consciousness in how we experience anxiety. The feeling of anxiety occurs when the rest of the brain processes the subconscious alarm signal from the amygdala. This means anxiety is caused by the brain's ability to conceptualize the distress signal as anxiety. Additionally, the brain needs to have the lexicon to identify the feeling as anxiety, and then draw from thought processes and memories to contextualize the fear. In other words, these are things that can be more easily treated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). What's more, this can serve as a partial explanation for those who have tried various forms of anti-anxiety drugs and found them to be ineffective.

The problem is not that the drug doesn't work 

LeDoux claims that the drugs successfully target the exact areas in the brain they are designed to target. The problem is that these areas are insufficient in suppressing the entire emotional response of anxiety. Separating anxiety treatments into two stages, subconscious and conscious, should result in more effective treatments in the future.

In the meantime, try to focus on making positive changes to the way you perceive anxiety.