The Neuroscience of Panic and Fear

by Feb 23, 2013Anxiety Treatment, Neuroscience, Panic

Before you seek help for your for panic or fear, know the brain-based differences between the two. Then you can get help that works.

Jaak Panksepp is a researcher who has delineated two places in the brain which process different kinds of fear and call for different approaches by your therapist,your psychiatrist and you. He calls one the FEAR system and the other the PANIC system. The FEAR system refers to what is generally known as the “fight, flight or freeze” response to threats from the outside. The PANIC system lights up in response to our fears of separation and fluctuates with the quality of our attachments.


Your therapist will need to work with you on how you perceive threats and adjust distortions. Your psychiatrist may prescribe a benzodiazepine, and that medication should help. An SSRI, in this instance, will not help. Oftentimes, fearful people will have found that alcohol helps these symptoms, and they are at risk for alcohol abuse.


Your therapist will need to work with you on your connections to people in your life past and present. In depth work (two or three appointments per week), the therapist will pay close attention to how you experience her. Your psychiatrist may prescribe an SSRI since this type of fear is helped by a serotonin boost. Alcohol does not help this kind of fear.

Jaak Panksepp’s 2012 book on neuroscience written for non-scientists is called “The Archeology of the Mind.”

Elizabeth Singer is a therapist and anger management specialist in New York City

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