The Brain’s Response to Threat

November 20, 2014

Hodges - The Brains Response to Threat

Hodges - The Brains Response to Threat

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the fourth of a four-part, week-long blog mini-series by Charles D. Hodges, Jr., M.D. These posts will follow the theme related to the use of research in our thinking about life struggles. You can read Part One at Chemical Imbalances and Depression, Part Two at Hope Is a Very Good Thing, and Part Three at Depression and Exercise. Dr. Hodges is a family physician who practices medicine in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Medicine, board certified in Family Medicine and Geriatrics, and is a licensed marital family therapist. Dr. Hodges is also a trained biblical counselor who has been counseling people with mood problems and other family issues for twenty-five years. You can learn more about Dr. Hodges and his book, Good Mood Bad Mood at his website here. You can also view Dr. Hodges’ plenary presentation at the Annual Conference of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) at their blog site here. Today’s blog is re-posted by the BCC with Dr. Hodges’ permission, and you can also read the original post on his site here.

New Research

It is always great when someone in research science spends time and money to prove something that we knew all along. In a study done at the University of Exeter, researchers have found that the brain response to a perceived threat is stopped when we are reminded that we are loved and cared for! Who knew?[i]

Forty-two healthy patients were studied using MRI brain scans to look at an area in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala changes on the MRI scans when an individual is shown pictures of threatening situations. The changes that occur with the threat did not occur when the patient was shown pictures of other people receiving emotional support and affection before being shown the threatening pictures.[ii]

Similar responses have been seen in research that looked at brain scan changes in individuals who have pain. The brain response was reduced in patients who were shown reminders of being loved and cared for. This response in pain and for those who fell threatened is particularly seen in anxious individuals.

Old Truth

We could have told them this 2,000 years ago! Yes, Paul said it in multiple places and ways and so did John the Apostle. John said, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us” (1John 4:18-19). There is the answer 2,000 years before an MRI brain scan could show us a picture. The one who know that he is loved by the sovereign God of the universe does not need to fear!

Paul would tell us further that nothing could separate us from God’s love! “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

There we have it. Nothing can separate believers from the love of an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, sovereign God! Believers who come to understand this have nothing to fear from life. And, we have the brain scans to prove it! Teaching those who struggle with fear and worry about the grace of God and His sovereign power in their lives is the most effective way I know of to help anyone stop worrying.

This concept and research show us a great opportunity in biblical counseling. We can help those who struggle with PTSD and anxiety disorders. We can help by teaching them what the Scriptures say about the God who loves them and who wants to cast out their fears. As Paul would say, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31).

Join the Conversation (Added by the BCC Staff)

How does the truth of God’s love and care impact you when faced with external threats or internal feelings of anxiety?


[i]L. Norman, N. Lawrence, A. Iles, A. Benattayallah, A. Karl. “Attachment-security Priming Attenuates Amygdala Activation to Social and Linguistic Threat.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2014; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsu127.

[ii]University of Exeter. “Brain’s Response to Threat Silenced When We Are Reminded of Being Loved and Cared For.” ScienceDaily, 7 November 2014.

One thought on “The Brain’s Response to Threat

  1. I think its very important to clarify terms in the “anxiety” discussion. For example, the Greek word for “anxious” in PH 4:6 is more commonly translated in the NT as “worry” or “concern” (with a view to needed provisions, life, etc. eg Mt 6) and thus it is not 100% synonymous with physical panic symptoms, anxiety feelings in the body and such that are seemingly unrelated to worry. In my case, my spontaneous panic attacks et al were probably caused by chronic overwork and insufficient sleep in middle age – I’ve never doubted God’s love for me, His provision for me, etc., or worried about such – but I sure experienced chronic panic issues in my mid-40s. We are fearfully and wonderfully made – so in dealing with medical/physical complaints where all the science is not well understood, I think caution and grace are in order unless the Bible speaks directly and clearly to that issue as sin – that is, it is a sin not to trust God’s provision, but it is not a sin in and of itself to experience physical panic symptoms – and its often not helpful or sound counsel in my judgment when (i) someone tells me I must have hidden sin in me or I wouldn’t be feeling panicky, or (ii) just focus on God’s love and that fixes the bodily sensation – but that’s the bulk of the counsel that comes my way.

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