The amygdala is activated by danger, that is true. It does not result in the phenomenon of “fear” as we know it. That is a more sophisticated process. The amygdala is part of the ancient limbic system in the brain, the part we share with most other living creatures responsible for keeping us alive.
The Wizard Behind the Curtain
The sensations of fear actually occur higher up in the Prefrontal Cortex, where complex thought is processed. By subliminally messaging people with things that scared them, they found no conscious experience of fear.
Some people had such severe arachnophobia that they could not engage in the commonly-used approach of Exposure Therapy. The process of demonstrating it is not as dangerous as they believe. This allows them to create new mental associations.
They, instead, flash images of spiders so quickly you cannot consciously see it between video clips of unrelated (and unscary) things.
At the same time they run a functional MRI (fMRI) to see where the brain lights up. The amygdala lights up as expected but they do not self-report any experience of fear and their Prefrontal Cortex stays ‘low-activity’. This subliminal messages still over time conditions the amygdala to have a less severe response.
The fear is the awareness that this thing is happening to you. It is only through conscious recognition of ourselves as an ‘entity’ that we can experience fear.
Knowledge is power
The reason I bring this up, is that the knowledge of how this works can help when we feel this fear coming on. To know that it is not a true relationship to the event but our perception of it in complex thought that brings on the actual painful fear can allow us to roll with the waves of this ocean.
Our greatest strength of complex thought is likely humanity’s greatest weakness. Mental health poses our greatest risk as a species.
Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.
But understanding how the blacksmithing worked, allows you to use it to the best of your ability.
The fact that fear is separated in this manner, gives a lot of power back to you. We spend everyday sharpening our mind, learning and executing on plans. For many people meditation is a way to put a handle on the blade. So that you can control it without cutting yourself.
By training your Prefrontal Cortex through structured meditation over time you can retrain the conscious fear response.
I highly recommend watching the full interview with Joseph LeDoux, a deeper exploration of this topic – his area of speciality. Not mention to explanation of how current medications (Benzodiazapines and SSRIs) work to combat these effects.