The Paradox of Fear


Since I’ve been diagnosed with PSTD, and am about to embark on treatment specific to this issue, I feel compelled to research what this means.  EMDR, the current treatment for PSTD, addresses the connections in the many components of our brain.  I will be undergoing the same treatment as a soldier returning from war, or the child raised in a violent home. How is it that my 25 years with a narcissist can be likened to these experiences?  How can I begin to compare what I lived to that of the woman who was beaten every day, or to the soldier who survived a battle many of his fellow troops didn’t?  This sounds crazy to me.   And yes, the irony of this statement is not lost on me; I have been called crazy for 25 years, and here I am in a way admitting it’s true.

Apparently, the neurological process for all 3 types of trauma is exactly the same.   And, it is really, really complicated.   The more I read, the more I feel like I’m part of the Skeleton song:

the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone……  Remember that song?

As I research my brain on fear, here’s what I keep reading

“the amygdale’s connected to the fear response, the fear response’s connected to the cortisol, the cortisol’s connected to the hippocampus, the hippocampus’s connected to the memories, the memories are connected to the amygdale.   Arghhh…!!!


If I understand correctly, the amygdala responds to fear by secreting cortisol.  Fear is a powerful emotion.  Fear must be experienced to ensure survival, so our amygdala does it’s job and responds by secreting cortisol. The cortisol though, chips away at the connections in our hippocampus.  Our hippocampus is in charge of memories, and the more often the hippocampus is triggered to experience fear via cortisol, the more it remembers fear instead of other memories.  The more fear, the more cortisol, which leads to more memories of fear, more anticipation of fear and so on.   It’s exhausting just writing about it.  I can’t believe I lived it for as long as  I did.

It also appears that long term exposure to lower levels of fear (i.e. long term abusive relationships) leads to the same impact on the amygdala and hippocampus as the short, yet horrific experience of active battle.  (And again, I am in no way comparing my situation to that of an active duty soldier or physically abused person)


When we are in a long term relationship with a narcissistic, or any other abusive relationship, our beautifully prepared brain does exactly what it’s supposed to do.  It responds to fear by excreting cortisol, the cortisol is sucked up by the hippocampus, and instead of learning how to properly process, or deal with fear, the constant repetition programs us to anticipate and react to fear more intensely.  We are like a keg, primed and ready to explode with fear (not beer).

Trust me, I know I’m missing a bunch of steps here.  It is much more complicated.  There are other factors and biological responses at play.

What this means thought, is that we get stuck on the merry-go-round from hell.  Our brain is doing exactly what it is meant to do.  It is responding to fear and, after sensing it repeatedly, it is on the look out for fear, while simultaneously ignoring the fun.  And, to add insult to injury, cortisol takes a physical toll on our bodies, leading to autoimmune issues and other ailments.

This process, I believe, is why it so difficult to reconcile the fact that in my 25 year relationship, there were Fun Times.  I remember them.  I can picture them in my brain.  I can look through my photo albums and see them.  Smiling faces, birthday cakes, Halloween costumes, new babies, Christmas’s, all of which were fun.

If I can remember these times, and if I can admit they were there, and even admit that there were at least as many, if not more, then the bad times, why do they pale in comparison?  The negative reinforcement, criticisms, silences, accusations that I was crazy, and put downs were less frequent, yet much more memorable.

Unfortunately we are programmed from birth to remember more clearly negative experiences.  The release of cortisol ensures that when faced with a potentially dangerous, or fear inducing event, we will remember this much more intensely then the adorable birthday party we just had for our 1 year old.

In some ways this is comforting.  This assures me that while there were good times, they were less significant then the bad times, but not because I am a bad person.  This is a human imperative, we are programmed to experience life this way, for our own Survival.

What I glean from this is that reducing negativity is more important then the occasional happy events.  It appears, in fact, that increasing  fun times will have no lasting impact on our experience of fear and the resulting merry-go-round it puts us on.

If I understand this correctly then, the message is that the good times will never compensate for fear, so if you are feeling fear – Get out.   The next holiday, or birthday, or vacation, won’t help.


First things first.



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