The amygdala and fear: can we use fear for positive change?

woman in gray tank top looking frightened

Is fear instinctual? Is there a reason we fear? Can fear be used for positive elevation and change? The elements of fear are genetic, cultural, environmental, physiological, and psychological. The fear response starts in a region of the brain called the amygdala. In this article, I’ll explore the role of the amygdala and how it affects our relationships with family, friends, and society at large.

topless man sitting on brown and black block in fear
Photo by Anfisa Eremina on

What is the amygdala?

The amygdala is a part of the brain that triggers a response to our environment, specifically as it relates to danger or threat. The amygdala sends signals to other parts of the brain, such as the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then releases hormones into your bloodstream that triggers a fight-or-flight response. This response is more than just an automatic reaction; many other factors are at play. For example, you may have developed chronic anxiety if you grew up in a violent household with an abusive parent. These types of early childhood experiences create neural pathways in the brain that stay with us throughout adulthood. When faced with a similar situation as adults, these neural connections cause us to experience anxiety again without any actual physical danger present. Though it’s possible for these neural connections to be broken through psychotherapy and medication, some people find success by engaging their fears instead.

How does the amygdala affect fear?

Anxiety is a form of fear that causes apprehension, worry, or unease. It is often related to an individual’s belief about events or the future. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States. Many different types of anxiety disorders can affect anyone at any age. The main goal when treating anxiety is to reduce the patient’s feelings of anxiety so they can function well again in their daily lives. Many treatments are available, like cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes like exercise. Some people find it helpful to talk to a therapist who understands what they’re going through or even keep a journal of thoughts that make them anxious.

Can we use fear for positive change?

Fear is an instinctual emotion that has been ingrained in humans for centuries. This fear response starts in a region of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala has several functions, but its job is to help keep us safe from harm by reacting to danger. Fear can be utilized as a motivation for positive change if used correctly and with love rather than hate. Below are some steps to help raise your vibrations and turn fear into something more constructive.
1) Recognize when you feel fearful and identify the feeling without judgment. 2) Release negative thoughts or feelings related to this feeling- do not hold onto them or let them control your actions. 3) Change your focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want. 4) Take deep breaths from the diaphragm and release any tension from the body. 5) Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Imagine yourself surrounded by light. Think about what made you feel happy earlier in the day. 6) Think of someone who makes you happy or loved and spend time talking to them (this can even be done mentally). Try repeating their name over and over again during this meditation. 7) Repeat these steps every time you feel fear coming up until it no longer affects how you react to situations.

The five elements of fear

Fear is a response to a perceived threat. It has five elements, which are genetic, cultural, environmental, physiological, and psychological. The first element of fear is genetic. Some people have an innate sensitivity to specific triggers that others don’t. In other words, their amygdala is more reactive than others. The second element of fear is cultural. Different cultures have different levels of tolerance for risk or danger. People in the US typically tolerate more risks than those in countries with lower levels of economic development. The third element of fear is environment. For example, living in poverty may make you less likely to take a risk because you’re working so hard to get by day-to-day. The fourth element of fear is physiological. For example, someone who’s just experienced violence will be less likely to do something risky, like go outside at night, because they’re experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Finally, the fifth element of fear is psychology. Your thoughts about what could happen when you do something risky determine how fearful you are. So if your thoughts tell you that there might be a possibility of being hurt if you walk down the street alone late at night, then it will feel scary to do it, and your amygdala might fire off even without any real external threats.

How to start using fear for positive change

Fear is an instinctual emotion, but it is also a form of intuition. When you’re feeling scared, there’s usually something to be afraid of. Fear is your brain telling you I don’t know what this is, but I’m scared, so I need to protect myself. What’s important to remember about fear is that it doesn’t have to be debilitating. It can be a powerful motivator for self-improvement or even just a wake-up call reminding us to take necessary precautions. For instance, if you’re feeling fearful in a new place, you might recognize that as an unfamiliarity and decide to explore the space instead of retreating. If your gut tells you something is wrong in your relationship, listen to it and ask questions rather than ignoring the red flags. If someone has been asking too many probing questions about how much money you make at work or who sent those texts on their phone last night, they might not be trustworthy enough to work with going forward.-MM



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