We All Have A Barking Dog

Dogs bark for a number of reasons, not all of which are completely understood.  Dogs may bark to: protect their perceived territory; protect themselves, especially when they are startled by noise; express and manage unhappiness/anxiety at being left alone; guard food; and possibly to protect a valued relationship from infringement by another dog or animal, something akin to jealousy or envy.  (This view is controversial, but has its scientific supporters, based on observational research and the fact that dogs produce oxytocin, the same hormone we produce that helps us manage love and jealousy.)  

When dogs sense a potential loss in one of these domains, they react like dogs are designed to react. Fear pathways in their brains/bodies are stimulated and they often bark to try to influence their world to protect valued assets. Experts who have studied dogs report that they can distinguish different types of barking for the varying situations that might trigger a fear/threat episode.

Turns out we're not so different, though it appears very likely that we have a more complex relationship with fear and the possibility of harm/loss since we have more to lose than territory, food, our physical health, and affection from others.  We can also lose a sense of justice and the respect of others, more mentally complex domains about which we care deeply (though it's possible dogs have this fear of fellow doggie disapproval, too).  

Perhaps the most distinguishing difference between us and dogs is that we can project potential loss far into the future.  Dogs (and we) may worry that some creature is going to take their territory or harm them in the immediate future, but we can worry that our yet to be born grandchildren won't get into the right schools to ensure our family legacy of prestige and reproductive success remains intact, or that we'll never find love for the rest of our lives.

When we're faced with a perception of harm - a loss or potential loss in important domains - even if slight, and even if well off into the future, we come face to face with our own barking dog - our amygdala.

Your Brain on Fear

The amygdala is a small, complex structure deep inside everyone's brain.  In fact, it's an ancient structure found in every mammal and reptilian brain.  It's often thought of as the seat of fear, though it's also involved with all emotional processes and sensory body/brain processes.  Many of these sensory processes, vision for instance, engage the amygdala along a pathway that involves the cortex, the part of our brains involved in sensory perceptions and conscious thinking.  As renowned emotion and brain researcher, Joseph LeDoux, explains, "The visual cortex connects directly with the amygdala, and (is) one route by which the (visual) information can get in: retina, thalamus, cortex, amygdala."  

The amygdala appears to be involved with all sensory perceptions because all sensory perceptions - sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste - are potentially emotionally significant.  They can be clues to our very survival, including the clues that keep us pursuing good things.  The amygdala appears to be involved with all emotional learning, both the good and bad, forging pathways that help keep us safe and prospering.

Perceptions of significant danger, however, can bypass our conscious thinking brain region, the cortex, and be carried along a circuit that goes directly to the amygdala, producing a response we're all familiar with - unease to terror - before we even have time to think about what danger lies ahead.  We just "know" danger is present and we're primed to react for safety (fight, flight, or freeze) until we can analyze the danger we may, or may not be, facing.  This processing is so fast that fear perceptions can trigger our 3 fs response without any conscious input.  We can be afraid without remembering or understanding what has caused our fear reaction.  

"It may be that, through various kinds of experiences," LeDoux states, "the low road gets potentiated in a way that it's activating fears and phobias outside of conscious awareness and that doesn't make sense in terms of what the conscious brain is looking at. . . or hearing in the world."  We then often keep our fear and anxiety alive by faulty analysis, overestimating the danger we face and underestimating our ability to cope with fears and negative experiences.

Of course, our analysis is not always faulty. Some experiences are more dangerous that we can cope with and thus warrant a healthy dose of fear and appropriate actions to keep us safe.  But how do we know if a perception or experience of possible danger is magnified in our brains, or is as dangerous as we perceive? 

If a current experience or perception is similar enough to an experience that once created fear in us, whether residing in our conscious memory or only in unconscious processes, a fear response is triggered based on the earlier experience we may or may not consciously remember having once scared us. If we were frightened before developing language skills, we will likely never consciously remember the original experience.  

Without working through our past fears and/or the fears they generate about our futures, these similar enough experiences will continue to leave us concerned to terrorized.  If you're afraid of actual dogs, especially friendly ones, it's very likely you've had a bad experience with a dog in the past, remembered well, or only held in non-conscious parts of your brain because the incident happened before you had language skills.

We Seek Safety Before We Seek Truth

Perceptions triggering the amygdala, whether conscious or not, are not always perfect representations of reality, however, and can, in fact, be way off the mark.  We can all think of a time when we we scared but then learned we had little to fear.   Our processing of these perceptions of potential danger are often designed to err on the side of caution, likely as means of raising the odds we won't make a fatal mistake by misperceiving a truly dangerous situation for a benign one.  

As the old saying goes, it's better to mistake a stick for a snake than a snake for a stick. Better to live in some fear, even of things that won't actually harm us, but live another day, than to live in ignorant bliss, succumbing to dangers we didn't perceive before we can reproduce or better ensure the reproductive success of our descendants.  We can thank our ancestors who stayed alive via fear perceptions and reactions, even if sometimes unwarranted, for that process.  

So fear/anxiety in the form of caution and concern will always be with us, both from realistic and unrealistic perceptions, but that doesn't mean our fear has to rise to the level of chronic anxiety, anxiety attacks, panic attacks, or even depression from the fear that we're so incompetent or unloveable that we'll never be okay or find happiness.  

The fear response also creates in us an urge to act in ways that have kept us alive (those 3 fs again) and a strong urge to avoid the fear provoking situation in the future.  You could call this avoidance urge a "pre-flight" response, avoiding situations where fear and our flight response might get triggered.  If we perceive that our fear and our response to it got us out of trouble once, e.g., kept us alive or kept damage from being worse, then it will likely work again, even if we're really not in the danger we think we are.  

If you've developed an aversion to dogs, seeing any dog, even a friendly one, can trigger the amygdala to send out its fear signals, giving you an urge to avoid the dog.  That urge may keep you safe, but it also takes away the possibility of enjoying an interaction with a friendly mutt or developing a bond with an amazing animal.

Chronic misperceptions and fear can become our lot, with all their associated costs, but at least we're still alive to extract some pleasure in life and hope for better days. Hope may drip away, however, as we begin to avoid more and more situations that trigger fear, but could also bring fulfillment to our lives if we could just get a handle on those fears. When we see danger everywhere, especially social dangers of not fitting in, our lives can become restricted and unfulfilling at best, or tremendously emotionally challenging at worst.

Some fears may even be part of our evolutionary memory.  We can fear snakes, spiders, tightly closed spaces, and heights, not because we've personally experienced these dangers, but because our ancestors regularly did, creating fear pathways passed down to us to keep us vigilant the first time we encounter these dangers.  Chief among these likely evolved fears is the fear of abandonment by others, something that has potential life and death repercussions for a species as social as we are.


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Your Barking Dog - Help or Hindrance?

Whether you've lived with dogs or not, you've experienced a barking dog.  Even if you've never seen or heard a dog in your life, you've known a barking dog.  That dog would be your own, the one who lives inside you, keeping you protected from harm and loss, or at least what it perceives to be harm or loss.  But protection always comes with a cost.  Do you know your barking dog, what scares him, and the price you pay to keep her feeling safe?

I've had dogs throughout the majority of my life, so I think about them often.  I also live near a levee that borders a residential community and a wooded parkway along the American River.  It's a narrow but long stretch of nature, where coyotes, rabbits, beavers, possums, skunks, snakes, squirrels, and raccoons coexist, and a great place to exercise a dog.

Many of the residents along the levee have dogs.  As my dog and I walk or run along the levee, some of the neighbor dogs pay us moderate attention with no apparent distress as we pass by. Some even seem eager to engage or play.  Most however, run to the fence to explore, often barking at least a few times, monitoring us carefully to ensure we've gone.  Some, however, bark immediately and excessively upon detecting us until we're completely out of their range. Many years ago, a couple of Doberman Pinchers were particularly fierce, growling and barking very aggressively on every occasion, and with everyone (I could hear them bark often throughout the day as others walked by).  The fence looked sturdy, but I always feared what would happen if they were to bust loose.     

I also wondered why they kept barking at us. Shouldn't they have learned after all our encounters that we were no threat?  Why put themselves through all that stress when they didn't need to? Doesn't a fear response diminish in the absence of a real danger?  I doubted they had been through any trauma that would provoke such a response, so what was their deal?  Turns out I was a little ignorant, partly because back then, I had a dog that rarely barked. Now, however, I have one that barks frequently.  And as my knowledge of dogs has grown, so has my knowledge of the workings of the brain. I learned that a barking dog's brain doesn't work like I had reasoned. I also came to see how a dog's brain is more similar to ours than we may think.

Steve Mackey is a cognitive-behavioral, exposure based, and motivational coherence-based mental health counselor and psychotherapist who offers individual  counseling and psychotherapy services for issues related to anxiety, depression, fear, mood problems, low self-esteem, anger, habits, and relationship struggles  for adults at 2020 Capitol Ave., Suite 5,  Sacramento, CA 95811, serving the Sacramento, Elk Grove, Folsom, Roseville, Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Carmichael, Davis, and Galt communities. For more information contact  916 549-5772.

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The Other Side of Fear - Courage and Reasoning

All fear pathways also "compete" with evolved pathways that encourage the risk-taking we often need to pursue valued goals - love, friendship, status/influence, justice, or improved health. Pursuing these goals bring risk because they could also result in failure, in loss, but if we're successful, these goals ultimately keep us safer and thus happier and more satisfied.  Everyone is a unique mix of fears and courage, both genetically and experientially influenced.  Everyone is a unique perceiving and emoting snowflake, and I mean that in the most neutral of terms.  

Fortunately for us, our ancestors evolved not only risk taking pathways, but also brain processes that allow us to be experimental scientists to help manage the risks we face.  We're able to test our assumptions of danger and opportunity, and our abilities to cope, so that we don't have to be stuck in chronic fear or anxiety. We can take appropriate risks that can lead to greater happiness and fulfillment, even if uncomfortable in the immediate moment.  We don't really know if our perceptions are accurate and our responses are appropriate for our long-term wellbeing until we define and test out those perceptions and the predictions and assumptions they generate. 

This uncertainty about our perception, assumptions, and predictions, is why doing something different in the face of fear - a necessary condition to test beliefs and assumptions that can lead to reducing or extinguishing the fear and anxiety we produce - can seem so dangerous.  We need to find out that our assumptions of danger and coping ability were off base enough to change our fear responses, but we're conditioned to react to fear in ways we have reacted in the past that have kept us alive, even if miserable. Reacting/behaving differently could lead to disaster, we think and feel in our bodies. And we can rarely be completely convinced that this assumption is not off base, at least until we test our assumptions. Testing our fears by behaving differently in the face of them will always feel at least a little risky.

Doing something different could possibly lead to greater immediate harm or loss. We might experience physical harm, disapproval, even rejection in going for what we want.  Dangers of all sorts exist and there are no guarantees in life. But we also might learn that disapproval or rejection isn't fatal or even that harmful, that we can progressively cope better if we face those often debilitating fears head on, and that we can hone our skills, social and otherwise, for better future results. Only through testing our assumptions in ways that don't risk lasting damage, will we know whether our fears are warranted, or can be modified by the amygdala and it's fear pathways for a more satisfying or peaceful life.  

Our ability to test our predictions of danger and coping, and to reduce our fear when we find out we were at least partially wrong about those predictions, explains how we change, and explains why those Dobermans (Dobermen?) never stopped barking.  To them, their fear response and barking solution worked well enough.  No one dared approach them to threaten them or take over their territory.  To a more primitive mind that has little in the way of conscious thought processing, barking must have seemed like the very answer to protecting themselves. Every time someone walked by, barking "caused" the person to keep on going. Likely no one was ever going to walk into a yard with two strange Dobermans, but barking guaranteed it.  The dogs never had the opportunity to learn that nearly all people would do them no harm, and that some would love to pet or play with them if they weren't so aggressive.  They lost out on potentially good things because they didn't have the executive function, the cortex's thinking processes, to consider other possibilities and experiment with other ways of responding (and it didn't appear that they had owners interested in helping in this process to overcome their frequent stress response.)  Nor could they think or learn that all that barking might not be good for their long-term health.

And it's not just dogs who have excessive fears, but all mammals, including the ones I mentioned above who live on the parkway.  I have never been able to convince one of them that I'm a peace loving guy who would do them no harm (I really am).  They all run away with a near immediate flight response when I get too close.  And you can imagine some humans who would do them harm, out of cruelty or the love of hunting.  From these animals' perspective, better safe than sorry.  No reason to test whether I just want to pet them or harm them.  

Fortunately, because of our cortex, we can both test our behavioral strategies in the face of fear to see if we're actually missing out on good things happening, like getting petted! (or at least hugged), and also question our fears' effects on our health. Unfortunately, however, our cortex is often not aware of what it can do to tame the amygdala's "barking" - the bodily response of increased sweat, elevated heart rate, butterflies in the stomach, constriction in the chest and in our breathing, desire to evacuate our bowels, or the heavy sense of despair and low motivation and corresponding desire to avoid situations where any of these reactions might get triggered - in addition to angry, threatening verbalizations we sometimes create when scared.  

As importantly, our amygdalas bark out more than just bodily sensations and urges to act; they also contribute to the barking out of conscious thoughts and beliefs that can sustain our emotional reactions and bodily processes described above.  Just as a trained observer of dogs can detect different barks for the different threats dogs face, we too can observe the different thoughts our fear produces when we sense differing kinds of losses in different important domains.  

When faced with the thoughts of loss or harm in areas such as love, we often bark out anxious and jealous thoughts (I can't be happy without her, What does he have that I don't?  I've got to do something); when love has been lost we often bark out thoughts of unworthiness and hopelessness (Something's wrong with me, I'll never find love and happiness); when in danger of losing status and respect from others, we bark out thoughts of unworthiness or the need for perfection (I don't have what it takes, I've got to do this just right and impress others, What's the use); when faced with loss of justice, we tend to bark out moral and judgmental beliefs (He should't have done that, What an ass, She's gonna get what's coming to her); and when threatened with loss of our physical powers, we bark out thoughts of danger or despair (I'll be ruined, Get out of here, Life will never be the same).  

Our "barks" in all of their many cognitive and bodily manifestations are a necessary part of being human.  They alert us to the danger of loss and can motivate and guide us to make corrections so that we can return to the path the keeps us thriving and away from this emotional and physical disruption.  

But for many, at some point in their lives, due to the unique combination of genetic proclivities and adverse life experiences, these barks become excessive, debilitating, and can keep us trapped in so much fear that we fail to even consider evaluating wether they represent reality and/or our long-term interests in wellbeing.  We often tenaciously believe our emotional reactions and corresponding beliefs are a true measure of reality, just as the Dobermans seemed to believe that imminent danger from others was their constant reality. That's when the help of a friend, confidant, or therapist can be utilized to great benefit, if we're willing to consider the possibility that our perceptions are not a full representation of reality.

We need our amygdala, our barking dog.  It helps protect us and guide us. When my own real-life dog barks excessively as someone passes on the levee or rings the doorbell, it's annoying.  Sometimes I wish she were more easy-going.  Fortunately, she responds well to commands and her barking stops, until the next person approaches.  But truth be told, I'm much more often glad I've got a dog that barks a bit excessively.  I know that when we're not home, she can help protect our property if anyone does have any bad intent.  I just hope the neighbors don't get too annoyed.

Similarly, a reasonable and motivating bark from our amygdala can be a great thing.  We just don't need it barking at every stranger or new situation that comes our way.  Some people passing by or knocking at the door might represent good opportunities.  It may do us well to check it out before we react reflexively with fear.  We may not find we've just won the Publishers' Clearinghouse sweepstakes, but we may find a friendly neighbor with whom to have a nice talk or learn something important that's going on in the neighborhood.  

So use your cortex, your ability to pause and analyze what has scared you, to check whether your amygdala is spot on, or needs some good training experiences to make it wiser, more useful, and less dominating. Keep track of your experiments and keep the training up even if there isn't a huge immediate payoff in terms of anxiety reduction. Emotional (and amygdala) perfection isn't possible (and who can define that accurately, anyway), but meaningful progress is.  Any training of your amygdala, just like an actual dog, will take patience and more than one or two new experiences with facing the potential for some risk of loss.  It will feel uncomfortable, but if done right, it's the pathway to changing for good.

I am indebted to Dr. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey for the inspiration of the barking dog metaphor.  All other ideas are my own.  

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