The memory of fear is seared into our brains. Our brains have a powerful way of protecting us from harm. But what happens when we fail to take the same precautions? We’re reminded every time we return to that same place or recall our worst experiences. It is true that the memories of traumatic events can be permanently imprinted on our memory.
But did you know it’s more likely to remember the frightening parts than the calming parts? A study found that recalling fearful events is more likely to imprint than recalling peaceful or neutral events, even though both are equally likely to leave an impression. The American Psychological Association explains what happens when our fear memory is seared into our brains.
Reasons Why Fear Memory Is Seared into Our Brains
Brains Struggle to Forget The Fear
Everyone experiences fear of varying degrees. For some, fear is a fleeting emotion, whereas, for others, it happens virtually every day. Fear, as well as anxiety, are emotions that can keep people from being as productive and joyful as they want to be. The good news, however, is that there’s a way to overcome these feelings of dread, and it involves changing the way you think about it.
There’s Too Much Adrenaline.
Memories of traumatic experiences are stored in the brain as a flash of fear and the intensity of fear depends on how much adrenaline is released during a particular event. Though some people argue that these memories can be erased, many scientists believe that memories of fear, once stored, are engrained so intensely that they can’t be rubbed out.
Our Brains Fear Death.
Our brains are wired to fear death. In fact, our memory is so tied to it that our brains have trouble separating fear from actual danger. That fear of death is constant, and that fear is so deeply ingrained that our brains have trouble separating the two.
The Reward System
Our brains are wired to remember negative experiences. Fear and danger trigger the “fight or flight” response, which is the body’s way of preparing itself for a potential threat. While the actual threat is not always apparent, the adrenaline rush triggered by the fight or flight response can remain in our system for the rest of the day or even for our entire lives. This response, in which cortisol is released into the blood, causes us to experience increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, loss of appetite, and changes in our sleep and mood.
One of the ways in which the brain physically changes as we get older is by atrophy, which means the brain shrinks. Though this usually happens naturally or as we age, it can also be caused by illness or disease. However, the shrinkage isn’t even. Certain parts of the brain shrink faster than others, and certain areas of the brain are more easily damaged by stress.
Fear of the unknown is a primal human instinct that keeps us safe. Just as predators prepare to eat us, fear prepares us to be protective against potential threats. This fear is hardwired into our brains and bodies. But traumatic experiences can imprint fear into our memories, creating a lasting fear of specific triggers. These triggers, such as loud noises, tight spaces, or flying airplanes, can cause us to experience anxiety or panic. Even something as simple as remembering that a certain smell or taste triggers can lead to anxiety.
The findings suggest that the neural representation of fear can be etched into our brains long after the original event has passed. The resulting memories are vivid, persistent, and resistant to extinction, which is a problem as most people eventually want to forget fearful memories.