Tag Archives: #fear

How Micro-circuits in the Brain Regulate Fear? (Neuroscience)

The brain mechanisms underlying the suppression of fear responses have attracted a lot of attention as they are relevant for therapy of human anxiety disorders. Despite our broad understanding of the different brain regions activated during the experience of fear, how fear responses can be suppressed remains largely elusive. Researchers at the University of Bern and the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel have now discovered that the activation of identified central amygdala neurons can suppress fear responses.

Fear is an important reaction that warns and protects us from danger. But when fear responses are out of control, this can lead to persistent fears and anxiety disorders. In Europe, about 15 percent of the population is affected by anxiety disorders. Existing therapies remain largely unspecific or are not generally effective, because the detailed neurobiological understanding of these disorders is lacking.

What was known so far is that distinct nerve cells interact together to regulate fear responses by promoting or suppressing them. Different circuits of nerve cells are involved in this process. A kind of “tug-of-war” takes place, with one brain circuit “winning” and overriding the other, depending on the context. If this system is disturbed, for example if fear reactions are no longer suppressed, this can lead to anxiety disorders.

Subdivision of the mouse amygdala. The cell types studied are located in the central amygdala (red). © Rob Hurt / Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Recent studies have shown that certain groups of neurons in the amygdala are crucial for the regulation of fear responses. The amygdala is a small almond-shaped brain structure in the center of the brain that receives information about fearful stimuli and transmits it to other brain regions to generate fear responses. This causes the body to release stress hormones, change heart rate or trigger fight, flight or freezing responses. Now, a group led by Professors Stéphane Ciocchi of the University of Bern and Andreas Lüthi of the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel has discovered that the amygdala plays a much more active role in these processes than previously thought: Not only is the central amygdala a “hub” to generate fear responses, but it contains neuronal microcircuits that regulate the suppression of fear responses. In animal models, it has been shown that inhibition of these microcircuits leads to long-lasting fear behaviour. However, when they are activated, behaviour returns to normal despite previous fear responses. This shows that neurons in the central amygdala are highly adaptive and essential for suppressing fear. These results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Disturbed” suppression leads to long-lasting fear

The researchers led by Stéphane Ciocchi and Andreas Lüthi studied the activity of neurons of the central amygdala in mice during the suppression of fear responses. They were able to identify different cell types that influence the animals’ behaviour. For their study, the researchers used several methods, including a technique called optogenetics with which they could precisely shut down – with pulses of light – the activity of an identified neuronal population within the central amygdala that produces a specific enzyme. This impaired the suppression of fear responses, whereupon animals became excessively fearful. “We were surprised how strongly our targeted intervention in specific cell types of the central amygdala affected fear responses,” says Ciocchi, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Physiology, University of Bern. “The optogenetic silencing of these specific neurons completely abolished the suppression of fear and provoked a state of pathological fear.”

Important for developing more effective therapies

In humans, dysfunction of this system, including deficient plasticity in the nerve cells of the central amygdala described here, could contribute to the impaired suppression of fear memories reported in patients with anxiety and trauma-related disorders. A better understanding of these processes will help develop more specific therapies for these disorders. “However, further studies are necessary to investigate whether discoveries obtained in simple animal models can be extrapolated to human anxiety disorders”, Ciocchi adds.

This study was carried out in partnership with the University of Bern, the Friedrich Miescher Institute and international collaborators. It was funded by the University of Bern, the Swiss National Science Foundation and the European Research Council (ERC).

Featured image: The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located in the center of the brain and is part of the limbic system. © Life Science Databases / Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 2.1 JP)

Publication details:

Nigel Whittle, Jonathan Fadok, Kathryn P. Macpherson, Robin Nguyen, Paolo Botta, Steffen B. E. Wolff, Christian Müller, Cyril Herry, Philip Tovote, Andrew Holmes, Nicolas Singewald, Andreas Lüthi  & Stephane Ciocchi: Central amygdala micro-circuits mediate fear extinction. Nature Communications, July 6, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-24068-x

Provided by University of Bern

Bacteria Are Connected To How Babies Experience Fear (Biology)

New research from MSU shows that an infant’s gut microbiome could contain clues to help monitor and support healthy neurological development

Why do some babies react to perceived danger more than others? According to new research from Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, part of the answer may be found in a surprising place: an infant’s digestive system.

The human digestive system is home to a vast community of microorganisms known as the gut microbiome. The MSU-UNC research team discovered that the gut microbiome was different in infants with strong fear responses and infants with milder reactions.

These fear responses — how someone reacts to a scary situation — in early life can be indicators of future mental health. And there is growing evidence tying neurological well-being to the microbiome in the gut.

The new findings suggest that the gut microbiome could one day provide researchers and physicians with a new tool to monitor and support healthy neurological development.

MSU associate professor Rebecca Knickmeyer © MSU

“This early developmental period is a time of tremendous opportunity for promoting healthy brain development,” said MSU’s Rebecca Knickmeyer, leader of the new study published June 2 in the journal Nature Communications. “The microbiome is an exciting new target that can be potentially used for that.”

Studies of this connection and its role in fear response in animals led Knickmeyer, an associate professor in the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, and her team to look for something similar in humans. And studying how humans, especially young children, handle fear is important because it can help forecast mental health in some cases.

“Fear reactions are a normal part of child development. Children should be aware of threats in their environment and be ready to respond to them” said Knickmeyer, who also works in MSU’s Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, or IQ. “But if they can’t dampen that response when they’re safe, they may be at heightened risk to develop anxiety and depression later on in life.”

On the other end of the response spectrum, children with exceptionally muted fear responses may go on to develop callous, unemotional traits associated with antisocial behavior, Knickmeyer said.

To determine whether the gut microbiome was connected to fear response in humans, Knickmeyer and her co-workers designed a pilot study with about 30 infants. The researchers selected the cohort carefully to keep as many factors impacting the gut microbiome as consistent as possible. For example, all of the children were breastfed and none was on antibiotics.

The researchers then characterized the children’s microbiome by analyzing stool samples and assessed a child’s fear response using a simple test: observing how a child reacted to someone entering the room while wearing a Halloween mask.

“We really wanted the experience to be enjoyable for both the kids and their parents. The parents were there the whole time and they could jump in whenever they wanted,” Knickmeyer said. “These are really the kinds of experiences infants would have in their everyday lives.”

Compiling all the data, the researchers saw significant associations between specific features of the gut microbiome and the strength of infant fear responses.

For example, children with uneven microbiomes at 1 month of age were more fearful at 1 year of age. Uneven microbiomes are dominated by a small set of bacteria, whereas even microbiomes are more balanced.

The researchers also discovered that the content of the microbial community at 1 year of age related to fear responses. Compared with less fearful children, infants with heightened responses had more of some types of bacteria and less of others.

The team, however, did not observe a connection between the children’s gut microbiome and how the children reacted to strangers who weren’t wearing masks. Knickmeyer said this is likely due to the different parts of the brain involved with processing potentially frightening situations.

“With strangers, there is a social element. So children may have a social wariness, but they don’t see strangers as immediate threats,” Knickmeyer said. “When children see a mask, they don’t see it as social. It goes into that quick-and-dirty assessment part of the brain.”

As part of the study, the team also imaged the children’s brains using MRI technology. They found that the content of the microbial community at 1 year was associated with the size of the amygdala, which is part of the brain involved in making quick decisions about potential threats.

Connecting the dots suggests that the microbiome may influence how the amygdala develops and operates. That’s one of many interesting possibilities uncovered by this new study, which the team is currently working to replicate. Knickmeyer is also preparing to start up new lines of inquiry with new collaborations at IQ, asking new questions that she’s excited to answer.

“We have a great opportunity to support neurological health early on,” she said. “Our long-term goal is that we’ll learn what we can do to foster healthy growth and development.”

Note for media: Please include a link to the research article in your online coverage: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-23281-y

Reference: Carlson, A.L., Xia, K., Azcarate-Peril, M.A. et al. Infant gut microbiome composition is associated with non-social fear behavior in a pilot study. Nat Commun 12, 3294 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23281-y

Provided by Michigan State University

Virtual Reality Helping To Treat Fear of Heights (Psychiatry)

Researchers from the University of Basel have developed a virtual reality app for smartphones to reduce fear of heights. Now, they have conducted a clinical trial to study its efficacy. Trial participants who spent a total of four hours training with the app at home showed an improvement in their ability to handle real height situations.

Fear of heights is a widespread phenomenon. Approximately 5% of the general population experiences a debilitating level of discomfort in height situations. However, the people affected rarely take advantage of the available treatment options, such as exposure therapy, which involves putting the person in the anxiety-causing situation under the guidance of a professional. On the one hand, people are reluctant to confront their fear of heights. On the other hand, it can be difficult to reproduce the right kinds of height situations in a therapy setting.

This motivated the interdisciplinary research team led by Professor Dominique de Quervain of the University of Basel to develop a smartphone-based virtual reality exposure therapy app called Easyheights. The app uses 360° images of real locations, which the researchers captured using a drone. People can use the app on their own smartphones together with a special virtual reality headset.

Gradually increasing the height

During the virtual experience, the user stands on a platform that is initially one meter above the ground. After allowing acclimatization to the situation for a certain interval, the platform automatically rises. In this way, the perceived distance above the ground increases slowly but steadily without an increase in the person’s level of fear.

Advanced level of the virtual reality app. (Image: Bentz et al., NPJ Digital Medicine 2021)

The research team studied the efficacy of this approach in a randomized, controlled trial and published the results in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine. Fifty trial participants with a fear of heights either completed a four-hour height training program (one 60-minute session and six 30-minute sessions over the course of two weeks) using virtual reality, or were assigned to the control group, which did not complete these training sessions.

Before and after the training phase – or the same period of time without training – the trial participants ascended the Uetliberg lookout tower near Zurich as far as their fear of heights allowed them. The researchers recorded the height level reached by the participants along with their subjective fear level at each level of the tower. At the end of the trial, the researchers evaluated the results from 22 subjects who completed the Easyheights training and 25 from the control group.

The group that completed the training with the app exhibited less fear on the tower and was able to ascend further towards the top than they could before completing the training. The control group exhibited no positive changes. The efficacy of the Easyheights training proved comparable to that of conventional exposure therapy.

Therapy in your own living room

Researchers have already been studying the use of virtual reality for treating fear of heights for more than two decades. “What is new, however, is that smartphones can be used to produce the virtual scenarios that previously required a technically complicated type of treatment, and this makes it much more accessible,” explains Dr. Dorothée Bentz, lead author of the study.

The results from the study suggest that the repeated use of a smartphone-based virtual reality exposure therapy can greatly improve the behavior and subjective state of well-being in height situations. People who suffer from a mild fear of heights will soon be able to download the free app from major app stores and complete training sessions on their own. However, the researchers recommend that people who suffer from a serious fear of heights only use the app with the supervision of a professional.

The current study is one of several projects in progress at the Transfaculty Research Platform for Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences, led by Professor Andreas Papassotiropoulos and Professor Dominique de Quervain. Their goal is to improve the treatment of mental disorders through the use of new technologies and to make these treatments widely available.

Featured image: In the virtual reality app, users gradually rise to greater heights and can indicate the degree of their fear at each level. (Image: Bentz et al., NPJ Digital Medicine 2021)

Reference: Dorothée Bentz, Nan Wang, Merle K Ibach, Nathalie S Schicktanz, Anja Zimmer, Andreas Papassotiropoulos, Dominique JF de Quervain
Effectiveness of a stand-alone, smartphone-based virtual reality exposure app to reduce fear of heights in real-life: a randomized trial
NPJ Digital Medicine (2021), doi: 10.1038/s41746-021-00387-7

Provided by University of Basel

Studies Use Mathematics to Analyze the Semantics of Dream Reports During the Pandemic (Neuroscience)

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people’s behavior everywhere. Fear, apprehensiveness, sadness, anxiety, and other troublesome feelings have become part of the daily lives of many families since the first cases of the disease were officially recorded early last year.

These turbulent feelings are often expressed in dreams reflecting a heavier burden of mental suffering, fear of contamination, stress caused by social distancing, and lack of physical contact with others. In addition, dream narratives in the period include a larger proportion of terms relating to cleanliness and contamination, as well as anger and sadness.

All this is reported in a study published in PLOS ONE at the end of November. The principal investigator was Natália Bezerra Mota, a neuroscientist and postdoctoral fellow at the Brain Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), in Brazil.

The study was part of Mota’s postdoctoral research and was supervised by Sidarta Ribeiro at UFRN and Mauro Copelli at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), both of whom are affiliated with the Neuromathematics Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center (NeuroMat).

Neuromat is hosted by the University of São Paulo (USP) and is one of many Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) supported by FAPESP.

The results are consistent with the hypothesis that dreams reflect the challenges of waking-life experience during the pandemic, and that the prevalence of negative emotions such as anger and sadness during the period reflects a higher emotional load to be processed, the authors write.

According to Mota, the findings are corroborated by those of other studies published later by researchers in the United States, Germany, and Finland.

The Brazilian study was initially reported in May in a preprint posted to medRxiv, and not yet peer-reviewed at that time (read more at: agencia.fapesp.br/33664). “It’s the first study on the subject to look empirically at these signs of mental suffering and their association with the peculiarities of dreams during the pandemic,” Mota told Agência FAPESP.

For Ribeiro, the authors of the study managed to document the continuity between what happens in the dream world and people’s mental lives, especially psychological distress. “This is interesting from the standpoint of dream theory,” he said. “Another point worth highlighting is that they did so quantitatively, using mathematics to extract semantics.”

The group deployed natural language processing tools to analyze 239 dream reports by 67 subjects produced in March and April 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic.

According to Mota, researchers at USP, UFRN, and the Federal Universities of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) are conducting a multicentric study involving the analysis of data collected during a longer period (from the start of the pandemic through July) to see how dreams are affected by the deaths of family members, loved ones, friends and co-workers. “The plan is to publish the findings as soon as they’re ready so that mental health strategies can be based on this knowledge,” she said.


For some time the researchers have been developing and using computer software that analyzes language to diagnose mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and adapting similar tools to perform cognitive assessments.

Dream accounts recorded by the volunteers using a smartphone app were transcribed and analyzed using three software tools. The first focused on discourse structure, word count, and connectedness.

The other two focused on content. One ranged words in certain emotional categories against a list associated with positive and negative emotions. The other used a neural network to detect semantic similarity to specified keywords, such as contamination, cleanliness, sickness, health, death and life.

In their PLOS ONE publication, the researchers say “the significant similarity to ‘cleanness’ in dream reports points towards new social strategies (e.g. use of masks, avoidance of physical contact) and new hygiene practices (e.g. use of hand sanitizer and other cleaning products) that have become central to new social rules and behavior. Taken together, these findings seem to show that dream contents reflect the different sources of fear and frustration arising out of the current scenario”.

Mota noted that more suffering was expressed in the dream reports submitted by female volunteers, although this was detected indirectly. “There are studies on gender difference in the literature. Women report more negative dreams and nightmares. I think this has to do with women’s history and daily lives, with working a double or triple shift, and the heavier mental burden entailed by concerning themselves with a job plus the home and children. The pandemic has made this worse,” she said.

The article “Dreaming during the Covid-19 pandemic: Computational assessment of dream reports reveals mental suffering related to fear of contagion” can be read at: journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0242903#abstract0.

Featured image: Researchers at a center for neuromathematics say dreams reflect the fear and anxiety fueled by the disease (photo: Engin Akyurt/Pixabay)

Provided by FAPESP

Triggering Original Fear Memories Could Treat Phobias and PTSD (Neuroscience)

In a lab in Amsterdam, arachnophobes have volunteered to encounter their eight-legged nemeses to help researchers hoping to conjure and obliterate fear memories. These studies, as well as new understanding of overlooked brain regions, are revealing how fears linked to PTSD or phobias work, and how they may be treated.

In upcoming clinical trials, Professor Merel Kindt at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, plans to expose volunteers to fleet-footed spiders and tarantulas to provoke their fear memory. Afterwards, they will receive an approved drug to try to thwart their spider fears. She believes that her ‘recall and erase’ strategy can be used to treat all sorts of phobias, but also life-changing clinical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Through a project called ErasingFear, her Emotional Memory Lab will shortly also begin clinical trials with Dutch war veterans and medical staff traumatised by experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof. Kindt is a clinical psychologist who began her research on modifying fear in 2008, inspired by earlier work with lab animals. That research convinced her that it was possible to trigger fear  memories and destabilise them using certain drugs.

The strategy is different from cognitive behavioural therapy where people who fear spiders, for example, are exposed to a fear cue, and learn through direct experience that their fear is not realistic. But the relapse rate is relatively high, says Prof. Kindt.

‘During and after exposure, people form a new memory, an inhibitory memory that competes with the original fear memory, but the fear memory remains intact,’ she explained. Prof. Kindt’s approach is different. She aims to recall the original memory and destabilise it, the drug propranolol interferes with the otherwise resaving – or rewriting of the same memory  for long-term storage in the brain.

‘It seems possible to target fear memory itself so as to weaken the root of the anxiety disorder by weakening or even erasing the fear memory,’ said Prof. Kindt.

She does this by giving the beta-blocker drug propranolol in conjunction with the fear memory being triggered. This approved drug slows down heart rate and is prescribed to people with high blood pressure or anxiety, usually before a stressful situation. Prof. Kindt is using it in an entirely different way for phobias – by administering it after someone is exposed to a fear stimulus in order to interfere with the restabilisation of their fear memory.

If propranolol is given two hours or more after a brief exposure to a spider, this does not work. ‘Timing is important, and we only give the drug once,’ Prof. Kindt said.

It seems possible to target (the) fear memory itself so as to weaken the root of the anxiety disorder by weakening or even erasing the fear memory.

— Prof. Merel Kindt, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands


The idea of recalling and then eliminating a memory came from research that Prof. Kindt noted in animals more than a decade ago. Drugs that blocked protein synthesis were used to erase memories, but these are too toxic for people. Propranolol, an approved drug, has few side effects. It blocks adrenoceptors in the brain. These are docking sites for neuro-adrenaline, a chemical messenger involved in memory-making. By blocking them, the drug interferes with stabilisation of the memory and dulls the strength of the memory and therefore the fear response underpinned by that memory.

In other words, memories are not being wiped out. People will still recall that they were afraid of spiders, but the idea is that by weakening the memory we erase or weaken the bodily fear response next time the person encounters a spider, she explains. ‘After 24 hours, the drug completely washes out. If you then observe a striking reduction in fear, this is not because that drug is still onboard,’ said Prof. Kindt, referring to the weakened memory reducing fear. So far, since she first started testing it with spider phobias in 2013, the treatment is an all or nothing affair – it either works or it doesn’t work at all for spider phobias in individuals.

If the fear is gone a day later, they know the procedure has worked, she says.

She has video recorded sessions and taken physiological measures, such as heart rate, to try to discover a predictor of treatment success, one that can tell her whether a fear memory has re-stabilised or not.

She is now doing several trials with spider phobias to better understand optimal conditions to ensure memory triggering and rebuilding.

Prof. Kindt has also begun pilot studies of Dutch veterans who served in Afghanistan – using burning smells and battlefield noises to recall the memories that underpin a soldier’s PTSD. This is more difficult than spider phobias, because usually there are highly specific memories that underpin such complex traumas.

She will also begin a clinical trial with medical personnel who had to deal with the psychological difficulties of patients passing away without the support of family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research led by Prof. Kindt could help the doctors and nurses who have been traumatised by the difficulties brought on as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image credit – Alberto Giuliani/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0


The brain is such a complex organ that scientists still struggle with basic questions about what is happening where inside our brain, and why. To better understand how fear works, scientists are attempting to map out what fear looks like inside the brain, an extremely challenging task.

Scientists can scan the human brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to see where blood flows. This can highlight which areas of the brain are most active when a person looks at a fearful picture, for example.

But these brain images do not have the resolution to peer into the most ancient and mysterious parts that lie deep at the bottom of our brain, says Professor Cornelius Gross, neurobiologist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Rome, Italy.   

His COREFEAR project sought to find which brain circuits were activated when mammals face predators or stressful social situations, such as encounters with bullies.

This, he suggested, would be very different from many fear experiments. Historically, experiments usually involved rodents being conditioned to expect (and fear) a brief electric shock each time they heard a buzzer sound. These experiments pointed to the epicentre for fear and anxiety as the amygdala, two almond-shaped structures found in the relatively recently evolved forebrain of mammals. But Prof. Gross thinks the textbooks need to be amended.

‘We argue that the amygdala is just a gateway to real fear centres deep in the brain,’ said Prof Gross. ‘The part of the amygdala that has been most studied for fear in the lab is irrelevant for fear of a predator or social threat.’


His research results suggest that the hypothalamus has been overlooked in human fear and anxiety. This is a deep brain region the size of your thumb that’s most well known for releasing hormones.

He notes that in an experiment where the part of the hypothalamus that controls predator fear was stimulated, a person had a full-on panic attack. ‘They had a conscious experience of fear and dread and a feeling like they were going to die,’ explained Prof. Gross, who was not involved in this study.

Still, other areas of the brain, such as the seahorse-shaped hippocampus, are probably also involved in our innate and learnt fears. Human behaviour is also complicated by our having a much more developed cerebral cortex, which makes up the largest part of our brains and allows us to suppress our fear responses.

The EMBL lab in Rome recently released a preprint study showing that the mouse cortex can dampen inbuilt defensive behaviours of the rodent to threats. Our own highly developed cortex allows us to consciously control our own behaviours.

Prof. Gross also recently reported on special hypothalamus cells that can map the spatial coordinates of where an animal encountered an intimidating rival. These cells fired whenever the animal returned to that spot, a social fear memory that encodes context and spatial memory. This was the major discovery he made in the COREFEAR project.

Such memories and fear of social defeats by rivals are likely to be important in territorial animals, which includes many rodents and also primates. Prof. Gross now plans to pursue these findings to fill in the many blanks in our understanding of how fear is stamped onto human brains. This could eventually help patients with behavioural and psychological disorders, including anxiety.

Featured image: By triggering original fear memories, a researcher hopes to weaken them to help treat phobias. Image credit – Islander Images/Unsplash

Provided by Horizon

How Fear of the Unknown Influences Decision-making (Psychology)

Fear of unknown is a risk factor for addiction.

The dictionary definition of uncertainty is experiencing an unknown, unpredictability, and unfamiliarity. We live in a world filled with uncertainty. It is hard to predict what will happen to us in the future.


The capacity to tolerate unknowns fuel the experience of anxiety and worry. Individuals with high intolerance of uncertainty (IU) are vulnerable to increased worry and distress in the face of uncertainty. Experiencing “what if” questions are common among those who experience severe anxiety, which is a source of impairments in their lives (Carleton, 2016).

Anxiety is an emotion caused by unpredictable potential threats that may occur in the future. Anxiety is potential harm rather than certain harm. Uncertainty impairs our ability to prepare for future events. Anxiety felt in the face of uncertainty can result in maladaptive behaviors such as impulsive decision making and unhealthy behaviors.

Intolerance of uncertainty is a cognitive bias that affects how a person perceives, interprets, and responds to uncertain situations. For example, if you have social anxiety, you are uncertain how you may look asking a question. The negative experience of uncertainty could lead you to exaggerate the threat (e.g., I am going to look stupid and will be humiliated). People who are the most intolerant of uncertainty are more likely to take efforts to try to control the situation or avoid uncertainty (McEvoy & Mahoney, 2012). This explains why a shy student may not volunteer to ask questions.  

Higher IU is associated with a tendency to make hasty decisions to alleviate distress in stressful situations. Waiting in uncertain situations tends to be perceived as highly unpleasant, leading to poor choices (Luhmann et al., 2011). Not surprisingly, IU has been linked to indecisiveness.

Higher IU is a risk factor for developing an addiction if substance abuse is used as a way of coping in the face of unavoidable uncertainty. For example, drinking alcohol is used as an avoidance strategy to cope with worry and distress (Gorka, et al., 2016). Those who have the tendency to find uncertain outcomes distressing and unpleasant are likely to find alcohol use to be highly motivating which sets the stage for continued and escalated drinking (Kraemer et al., 2015).

IU can also lead to an eating disorder in attempts to control the anxiety (Kesby et al., 2109). For instance, women with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) experience significantly higher degrees of IU compared to women with other types of eating disorders. Food restriction in AN may, in part, represent an attempt to avoid the fear of gaining weight and/or obsession with thinness. Thus, the fear of the unknown in individuals with AN represents a vulnerability factor for the inflexible mindset.

The capacity to tolerate unknowns is likely to be determined and maintained by a complex interplay of many factors, such as genes, temperament, and self-efficacy (McEvoy and Mahoney, 2012). Intolerance to uncertainty is a personality trait that runs in the family. A meta-analysis found that 40% of individual differences in personality traits have genetic origins. It is possible that genetic factors predispose one to develop IU. These genes may also interact with environmental factors such as stressful life events, parental neglect, and abusive parenting styles.  

The intolerance of uncertainty also varies with control (or self-efficacy). Control can be thought of as the belief that one has at one’s disposal a response that can influence the aversiveness of an event. People with a high level of fear of unknowns will likely have limited perceptions of self-efficacy, and a greater need for predictability.

In sum, the presence of uncertainty is often unpleasant, and individuals’ reactions vary along a continuum in terms of the extent to which they are comfortable with uncertainty. Research shows that treatments designed to increase acceptance of uncertainty and exposure to uncertainty are successful in increasing tolerance for uncertainty (Olatunji, 2019).

References: (1) Carleton RN (2016). Into the unknown: a review and synthesis of contemporary models involving uncertainty, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, vol. 39, pp. 30–43. (2) Gorka SM, Hee D, Lieberman L, Mittal VA, Phan KL, Shankman SA (2016) Reactivity to uncertain threat as a familial vulnerability factor for alcohol use disorder. Psychol Med 46:3349–3358. (3) Kesby, A., Maguire, S., Vartanian, L.R., Grisham, J.R (2018), Intolerance of uncertainty and eating disorder behaviour: Piloting a consumption task in a non-clinical sample. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry; 65:101492. (4) Kraemer KM, McLeish AC, O’Bryan EM (2105). The role of intolerance of uncertainty in terms of alcohol use motives among college students. Addict. Behav. 42:162–166. (5) Luhmann C, Ishida K, Hajcak G (2011). Intolerance of uncertainty and decisions about delayed, probabilistic rewards. Behav Ther. 42(3):378. (6) McEvoy PM, Mahoney AEJ (2012). To be sure, to be sure: Intolerance of uncertainty mediates symptoms of various anxiety disorders and depression. Behav Ther.;43(3):533–45. (7) Olatunji BO (2019). The Cambridge Handbook of Anxiety and Related Disorders. Cambridge University Press.

This article is originally written by Shahram Heshmat, who is an associate professor emeritus of health economics of addiction at the University of Illinois at Springfield. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses

Using a Video Game to Understand The Origin of Emotions (Neuroscience)

Emotions are complex phenomena that influence our minds, bodies and behavior. A number of studies have sought to connect given emotions, such as fear or pleasure, to specific areas of the brain, but without success. Some theoretical models suggest that emotions emerge through the coordination of multiple mental processes triggered by an event. These models involve the brain orchestrating adapted emotional responses via the synchronization of motivational, expressive and visceral mechanisms.

The transient synchronization between the different emotional components corresponds to an emotional state. Credit: UNIGE/LEITAO

To investigate this hypothesis, a research team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) studied brain activity using functional MRI. They analyzed the feelings, expressions and physiological responses of volunteers while they were playing a video game that had been specially developed to arouse different emotions depending on the progress of the game. The results, published in the journal PLOS Biology, show that different emotional components recruit several neural networks in parallel distributed throughout the brain, and that their transient synchronization generates an emotional state. The somatosensory and motor pathways are two of the areas involved in this synchronization, thereby validating the idea that emotion is grounded in action-oriented functions in order to allow an adapted response to events.

Most studies use passive stimulation to understand the emergence of emotions: they typically present volunteers with photos, videos or images evoking fear, anger, joy or sadness while recording the cerebral response using electroencephalography or imaging. The goal is to pinpoint the specific neural networks for each emotion. “The problem is, these regions overlap for different emotions, so they’re not specific,” begins Joana Leitão, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Fundamental Neurosciences (NEUFO) in UNIGE’s Faculty of Medicine and at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA). “What’s more, it’s likely that, although these images represent emotions well, they don’t evoke them.”

A question of perspective

Several neuroscientific theories have attempted to model the emergence of an emotion, although none has so far been proven experimentally. The UNIGE research team subscribe to the postulate that emotions are “subjective”: two individuals faced with the same situation may experience a different emotion. “A given event is not assessed in the same way by each person because the perspectives are different,” continues Dr. Leitão.

In a theoretical model known as the component process model (CPM) – devised by Professor Klaus Scherer, the retired founding director of CISA- an event will generate multiple responses in the organism. These relate to components of cognitive assessment (novelty or concordance with a goal or norms), motivation, physiological processes (sweating or heart rate), and expression (smiling or shouting). In a situation that sets off an emotional response, these different components influence each other dynamically. It is their transitory synchronization that might correspond to an emotional state.

Emotional about Pacman

The Geneva neuroscientists devised a video game to evaluate the applicability of this model. “The aim is to evoke emotions that correspond to different forms of evaluation,” explains Dr. Leitão. “Rather than viewing simple images, participants play a video game that puts them in situations they’ll have to evaluate so they can advance and win rewards.” The game is an arcade game that is similar to the famous Pacman. Players have to grab coins, touch the “nice monsters,” ignore the “neutral monsters” and avoid the “bad guys” to win points and pass to the next level.

The scenario involves situations that trigger the four components of the CPM model differently. At the same time, the researchers were able to measure brain activity via imaging; facial expression by analyzing the zygomatic muscles; feelings via questions; and physiology by skin and cardiorespiratory measurements. “All of these components involve different circuits distributed throughout the brain,” says the Geneva-based researcher. “By cross-referencing the imagery data with computational modeling, we were able to determine how these components interact over time and at what point they synchronize to generate an emotion.”

A made-to-measure emotional response

The results also indicate that a region deep in the brain called the basal ganglia is involved in this synchronization. This structure is known as a convergence point between multiple cortical regions, each of which is equipped with specialized affective, cognitive or sensorimotor processes. The other regions involve the sensorimotor network, the posterior insula and the prefrontal cortex. “The involvement of the somatosensory and motor zones accords with the postulate of theories that consider emotion as a preparatory mechanism for action that enables the body to promote an adaptive response to events,” concludes Patrik Vuilleumier, full professor at NEUFO and senior author of the study.

Reference: Joana Leitão et al, Computational imaging during video game playing shows dynamic synchronization of cortical and subcortical networks of emotions, PLOS Biology (2020). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000900 https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3000900

Provided by University of Geneva

Tokophobia Is An Extreme Fear of Childbirth. Here’s How to Recognise And Treat It (Psychology)

Many pregnant women worry about birth. Some, however, suffer from a much more serious condition called tokophobia: a severe and unreasoning dread of childbirth, which is sometimes accompanied by a disgust of pregnancy.

At its most extreme, tokophobia can lead to:

  • an obsessive use of contraception to prevent pregnancy
  • termination of pregnancy
  • not attending maternity care appointments
  • post-traumatic stress disorder and/or other mental health disorders and mother-baby bonding difficulties.

Tokophobia comes in two forms: primary (in women who have not had a baby before) and secondary (women who have previously had a baby). Women with tokophobia in a previous pregnancy are more likely to have it in a subsequent pregnancy, resulting in a potential cycle of anxiety and depression.

Julie Jomeen’s new paper, published in the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, reflects on a recent meeting of researchers and clinicians about what’s missing from the way they identify and treat tokophobia.

Hard to define, hard to screen for

It’s hard to say how many women are affected by tokophobia; it’s been defined and measured using different questionnaires. One research paper estimated the prevalence of tokophobia at 14% of pregnant women worldwide.

Screening for tokophobia is not common practice around the world. Screening questionnaires sometimes ask the woman questions about her mood, whether she has fears for herself or her baby, about feeling so afraid of childbirth she’s considered terminating the pregnancy, or feeling fear so overwhelming it interferes with eating, work or sleep.

In other words, tokophobia goes beyond normal childbirth concerns and worries, and becomes an intense and irrational fear of pregnancy and/or labour.

It’s important women with this condition are identified as soon as possible but that often only happens when they seek specialised professional help. This can sometimes (but not always) take the form of a request for a termination of pregnancy or caesarean section.

Treatment options

Treatment for tokophobia remains patchy but should be determined based on factors such as the woman’s level of fear, stage of pregnancy and her individual wishes.

Early conversations about fear of childbirth — and understanding exactly what those fears are — may reduce negative impact and prevent anxiety.

For women with birth trauma (and potential secondary tokophobia), helping them prepare for uncertainty and building trust in themselves and their caregivers can result in a future positive experience.

Approaches that may help include:

  • additional midwifery support to discuss the birth, with continuity of care, which is where the same midwife and/or midwifery care team sees the woman throughout pregnancy and labour
  • involvement of the obstetrician in decision-making around birth
  • extra education about childbirth
  • the involvement of the birth partner,
  • supported visits to the delivery suite, and
  • the development of a supportive birth plan.

Pathways of care

The way childbirth is often depicted in the media may play a role in setting birth up in women’s minds as a negative experience. But it’s important women share birth stories – the good and the bad. Like-minded peer support mechanisms, including parenting forums, which can be really helpful for some women.

During pregnancy, women should be encouraged to share their fears with their maternity care provider and ask questions.

Their understanding of fear of childbirth has undoubtedly increased, and some pioneering “pathways of care” for women with tokophobia already exist.

But there is much work left to do if they have to understand and identify when standard worries deviate from expected levels to problematic levels.

They owe it to women and babies everywhere to find better ways to support women with tokophobia and maximise their chances of a positive birth experience.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to Be Yourself in a Relationship? (Psychology)

Tina Gilberson given some tips which would help you lose the fear but, not your identity.

For some people, a new relationship is both exciting and terrifying. It usually begins well, but very soon, you start to feel a bit lost.

Your friends might notice you act a little differently around your partner. 

You yourself notice you’re not quite as happy as you think you should be—especially if this person could be the love of your life.

You’re just not the relaxed, carefree version of yourself that you wanted to bring to the relationship.

You find yourself managing your interactions. Should you respond to a text right away, or make your partner wait for a response? You wonder what your behavior says about you.

Should you tell your new squeeze how you really feel about his favorite series on Netflix, or pretend you like it too?

Don’t lose your identity by over-focusing outside yourself. Instead, try the following tips to stay grounded in your relationship:

1. Think first about yourself, then about your partner.

Hopefully it’s obvious that this advice is only for those who get too caught up in their partner’s experience at the expense of their own—folks who barely notice how they feel about anything because their attention is always on the other person.

If this is you, practice checking in with yourself *before* paying attention to your partner.

2. Be authentic.

Don’t second-guess your feelings and behavior. Without trying to hurt your partner, insist on behaving in a way that’s true for you, based on your own feelings and needs. 

If your partner does something that bothers or confuses you, don’t play the role of The Perfect Partner Who Never Complains. Speak up; ask questions. You’re a full partner, not an employee or a fan.

If your relationship’s success is based on how well you pretend not to be upset by anything your partner does, it’s not much of a relationship. 

3. Take some risks.

Be vulnerable and honest with your partner. Part of why you feel lost may be that you’ve been unconsciously hiding your real self. 

If your partner rejects you based on what you share with her, it will hurt. But you’ll find out you’re incompatible (or that she’s cruel) sooner rather than later. Then you can move on and find someone who will love those vulnerable parts of you.

The fact that you tend to lose yourself in relationships won’t change by itself, or because you find the right partner.

But it’s also not something you have to learn to live with. By taking the bold steps above, you can break the pattern. It’s entirely up to you.

This article is originally written by Tina Gilbertson, who is the author of Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child and Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them. She also hosts the Reconnection Club Podcast for parents of estranged adult children and offers consultation by distance. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses. Click here to read original.