Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Fear, Neurobiology, and Complex Trauma
March 2017
In This Issue

CEI brings it's STEM/STEAM training to you!

Dear Educators,

As we are doing heart centered work in schools, we are finding that teachers are interested in the latest brain research. They want to know about neuroplasticity and ways that they can help students handle stress, focus more, and in general, feel better about themselves and their lives.  In Wow! this month, Meghan Wenzel writes about how fear impacts the brain and impedes learning. Grace Rubenstein has written a related article, this time concentrating on the "limbic system" and its relationship to emotional self-regulation. Lastly, this month, Rachel Kelly provides an important update on how schools can help children who experience reoccurring or complex trauma - such trauma affects a child's social and emotional development.

Fear and the Brain
By Meghan Wenzel, CEI Intern
Editor's Note: This article provides an important summary of the science and neurobiology related to fear. It contains more technical information than many CEI articles-- yet, given the extent of toxic stress and trauma and its impact on children, we believe this is vital information for educators.

We all know the feeling of fear - heart pounding, palms sweating, muscles tensing, breath quickening. Maybe we're scared of giving a presentation in front of the entire class, a big test that determines our opportunities for the future, or a walk home through a rough part of town. We all have faced fear, but we all have different thresholds for fear, different coping abilities, and different emotional regulation and maturity that impacts how effectively we deal with stress.

Why it is Important for Teachers and Administrators to Understand Fear

During the last few decades schools have operated with little conscious awareness of how children in their schools are impacted by fear. Whether it is fear because of a crisis in a community, fear over an upcoming exam, or fear because of a classroom bully, students are impacted by fear in numerous ways, day in and day out.  When fears are minimal, and students have a healthy background and understanding of life, students, like all of us, are often able to handle their fears without long-lasting detrimental effects.  However, fear is impacting all of us.  By better understanding fear, teachers and administrators are in a better position to offer the supports students need to enhance and expedite their learning.

When Fear is Beneficial vs Chronic Fear. Fear in small doses is beneficial, as it is a survival instinct. In the short term, fear and emotional responses can sharpen our perception, support rapid action and decision-making, and enhance our recollection of events (Hartley & Phelps, 2010). Fear can help us focus our attention on the most pertinent threats and quickly learn important associations in our environment, like the importance of avoiding the wrong area of town or not messing with a harmful spider. However, if fear becomes more frequent or severe, it can have a negative impact on our memory as well as physical and mental health.

A little fear and stress before a big final exam can improve our focus, attention, and performance. However chronic fear and stress of our home life, family stability, and neighborhood environment can have negative and long-lasting impact on our mental and physical well-being. Working past our fear of public speaking, for example, is important and necessary, however one particularly traumatic presentation could set back our progress and make us clam up the next time.

Fear Conditioning

The fear response is an innate survival instinct that allows us to react automatically to perceived threats. The brain devotes more resources to fear than to any other emotion. Through fear conditioning, a form of classical conditioning, we come to associate various stimuli with aversive outcomes: 
  • A neutral stimulus, such as a tone, is paired with an aversive unconditioned stimulus, such as a foot shock.
  • Then, when the subject hears the tone, he or she will react fearfully, even if there is no foot shock (Panzer, Viljoen, & Roos, 2007).
  • This associative learning can occur after only one pairing of the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus, yet it can last a lifetime. "Fear learning is quick, powerful, and long lasting" (Fitzgerald, 2005).
Fear, the Amygdala, and the Hippocampus

The amygdala is the fear center of the brain (Panzer, Viljoen, & Roos, 2007). It receives sensory input from the cortical areas and thalamus, and it is an important sensory relay station within the brain, connecting to the hypothalamus, a region known to mediate fear responses. Research has shown that patients with impaired amygdalas do not exhibit the typical fear response. They can verbalize the connection between the stimulus and aversive outcome, but they do not show the physiological consequences. 
Studies have also found that subjects begin to associate the general context a negative event occurs with the aversive outcome itself. For example, if a mouse hears a tone and receives a foot shock in a certain chamber, it will already show fearful behavior when it is first placed in the chamber. The context does not elicit as much fear as the tone itself though, because the context is present both before and after the shock (Fitzgerald, 2005). The hippocampus is involved in spatial memory, so both the amygdala and hippocampus are involved in fear conditioning. 

Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis

The fear response is mediated through the hypothalamus and brain stem. There is a relationship between the HPA-axis, the amygdala, and the hippocampus that impacts the fear response. An aversive emotional stimulus activates the amygdala, which activates the hypothalamus, which releases a hormone (CRH) that acts on the anterior pituitary, which also releases a hormone (ACTH), which causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol makes the hippocampus act as a negative feedback regulatory mechanism, as it inhibits further release of CRH, which stops the cycle. However during severe or chronic stress, the stress hormones can cause glucose depletion in the hippocampal cells, which makes them sensitive to damage (Panzer, Viljoen, & Roos, 2007). Thus prolonged stress can have negative impacts on declarative memory consolidation and spatial recall. 


Sensitization occurs when a person's fear pathway is hyper responsive. This means that harmless stimuli might still activate the fear response. This might be caused by genetic and/or environmental factors. Certain alleles might cause greater amygdala neuronal activity and more anxiety. Early life stress or other environmental factors might lead to persistent sensitization of fear circuits and lay the foundation for anxiety disorders later on.

If mothers are unable to comfort infants due to structural limitations within their own brain, the infants will have greater corticosteroid output in response to a novel stimulus and will be less able to terminate the stress response (Panzer, Viljoen, & Roos, 2007). This might help explain the cycle of poor self-comforting abilities of individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Fear Memory

Implicit emotional memory is encoded by the amygdala, while explicit declarative memory is encoded by the hippocampus. Additionally, emotional features of fear memories are stored in the right hemisphere, while the narrative version of what happened are stored in left hemisphere (Panzer, Viljoen, & Roos, 2007). Severe stress leads to high levels of corticosteroids (steroid hormones produced in the adrenal cortex), which are toxic to the hippocampus and impair the encoding of declarative memories, resulting in poor memory of traumatic events. Fear memories may reside below conscious awareness until something related to the fear provokes the fear response (such as a loud noise).


Once we learn an association or conditioned response, our work is not done. We must constantly adapt to the changing environment around us. We might find that a previously learned stimulus is no longer associated with danger, and we must learn to update our react to it. When a conditioned stimulus is repeatedly encountered without the unconditioned stimulus, extinction normally occurs and we no longer fear the conditioned stimulus (Panzer, Viljoen, & Roos, 2007). When extinction occurs, it does not erase fear conditioning, it simply replaces it with new learning.

Consequences of Fear

Increased cortisol levels that result from chronic HPA-axis activation can have detrimental effects on memory consolidation and spatial recall. Chronic fear can lead to hypertension, fatigue, depression, and poorer health outcomes. Fear can also impact behavior, encouraging one to avoid certain stimuli. Chronic stress leads to atrophy of hippocampal neurons, which impairs memory, and hypertrophy of amygdala, which enhances emotional responsiveness to trauma-related stimuli. Having an overactive amygdala can make someone hypersensitive and easily emotionally aroused, making him or her more susceptible to a variety of disorders the amygdala is involved in such as PTSD, certain phobias, panic disorders, depression, and schizophrenia.

Fear and Emotional Regulation

While fear, like stress, is beneficial in small bursts, it is detrimental to mental and physical health if it becomes chronic or severe. Regulation then is an important skill to develop and refine. Changing how you think about a situation or event, refocusing your attention to more positive thoughts, and developing coping mechanisms that work for you are all ways to regulate fear and emotion. There are four types of regulatory processes: extinction, cognitive emotion regulation, active coping, and re-consolidation (Hartley & Phelps, 2010).

During extinction, repeated exposure to a previously threatening stimulus that is no longer associated with danger can decrease fear. Cognitive emotion regulation involves using mental strategies such as reappraisal, selective attention, and suppression to modify a fear response. Active coping involves regulating fear through the performance of behaviors that reduce exposure to fear-evoking stimuli. And re-consolidation involves disrupting a fear memory after it is recalled through pharmacological or behavioral manipulations (Hartley & Phelps, 2010). Thus through proper practice, one can learn to acknowledge, accept, and overcome his or her fears and live a healthier and happier life.

Implications for Education

As teachers, we can educate ourselves on the effects and consequences of fear.
  • We can be more understanding of a stressed and fearful child, acknowledging that his or her cognitive and physical resources are being taxed.
  • We can work to teach emotional regulation, healthy coping mechanisms, maintaining a positive mindset, and reappraising a situation to make it less scary.
  • Instead of notifying students of a huge exam that will significantly impact their grades, we can give them periodic quizzes or assignments to encourage them to regularly assess their comprehension level and stay up to date on class material, and we can hold review sessions and provide study guides to increase their confidence and sense of control.
  • If students are dealing with fearful situations at home, we can connect them to available resources or offer our ears, comfort, and advice.
By stopping to understand and acknowledge fear and its widespread effects, we can become more informed and pragmatic educators. 

Fitzgerald, M. (2005). Fear conditioning: How the brain learns danger. Brain Connection. 
Grossmann, T. (2013). The role of medial prefrontal cortex in early social cognition. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 340.

Hartley, C. A., & Phelps, E. A. (2010). Changing fear: The neurocircuitry of emotion regulation. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35(1), 136-146.

Panzer, A., Viljoen, M., & Roos, J. L. (2007). The neurobiological basis of fear: A concise review: review article. South African Psychiatry Review, 10(2), 71-75.

The Dana Foundation. (2015). Fear and the brain, an introduction.
Keeping Their Minds in Mind: Redirecting Children's Emotions to Enhance Their Education
By Grace Rubenstein, CEI Intern
If a child is struggling in the classroom, or exhibits a lack of engagement, chances are that the limbic system is playing a key role. One of the more primitive regions of the brain, the limbic system is the primary site of emotional integration. No singular area of the limbic system is fully responsible for any one function; rather, they all play a part, but each has its major strength.
  • The amygdala rises to the spotlight when we perceive and process external events, helping assign importance and priority to what should be given attention.
  • When you see an object out of the corner of your eye that resembles a snake, your amygdala makes the split-second decision to react quickly, causing you to leap in fright.
  • Only after that immediate reaction subsides do your higher functions step forward and notice that the snake is actually a stick!

Our Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Emotions   


The labels that the amygdala attaches to our experiences come in the form of emotions, such as fear and excitement. These emotions often seem to be out of our control, because the processing happens so quickly in one's subconscious. Once a negative memory is tagged in that light, future reminders will bring the connected emotion u p to the surface. The hippocampus takes ownership over this function, by cementing our memories in their emotional context so as to aid in better recall in the future. This sorting system can sometimes be beneficial when it comes to retaining new knowledge.

Emotionally-charged Situations and Memory

I remember a psychology class I took in high school, when my teacher wanted to impress upon the class this very idea. He wrote the number "320" on the whiteboard, and then suddenly burst out into song! This was very shocking and out of character for him. Afterwards, he explained that this emotionally-charged situation would lock the number "320" into our brains very effectively. He was right; to this day I cannot forget the image of my teacher kneeling on the ground in song, nor the small numbers scribbled on the board.

Another insight that this understanding of neuroscience can afford educators comes into play with the proverbial struggling student mentioned earlier.
  • Since the emotional context of a situation is integral to one's mental performance at that moment, a student will experience strikingly different outcomes from a positive frame of mind compared to a negative one.
  • While this argument may seem obvious and even moot, the scientific reasoning behind it is helpful to delve into.
  • Throughout the evolutionary history of humanity, our brains have developed strategies to prioritize survival and avoid risky behaviors.
  • With the amygdala as the intermediate between our outside environments and our internal mindset, everything that reaches our consciousness already comes with its subconsciously labelled emotion.
  •  An emotion like fear, distrust, or disgust will discourage someone from pursuing the related stimuli.
  • However, a stimuli which inspires interest, curiosity, or comfort, for instance, will move on up in the chain of command to our active minds.
  •  As put by Priscilla Vail, an author on this topic, emotion functions as a figurative on/off switch for what we choose to focus on. So when the button switches to off, a student is far less inclined to tune into the topic at hand.
Executive Control

Control by the amygdala is not a hopelessly irreversible aspect of the human condition. We are more than the sum of our primitive predispositions; the executive control which sits in the prefrontal lobe has the power to redirect the track our mind is headed down. The phrase "mind over matter" seems appropriate here. In subjects that some people may struggle to connect with on a personal level, searching for an extension that gives it that importance to an individual will prime them to be motivated to learn about it. If we do, indeed, think more deeply about that which we care about, we have the ability to search far and wide for some emotional significance that can substitute for such innate interest. For a student averse to math, perhaps he needs to explore a mathematical concept in the context of one of his favorite passions.


We cannot pry apart our cognitive selves from our emotional selves. They are intertwined so much so that each must be functioning healthily for the other to stay on track. Some youth with particularly positive experiences and/or resiliency may find that emotions and cognition both are available to support their everyday well-being. For others,  once youth end the battle between their emotional side and their cognitive side, they may open their brains and capacity to achieve impressive academic and extracurricular feats. At the same time, this harmony between cognition and emotions may add to their overall health and quality of life.

Sylwester, R. (1994).  How emotions affect learning. Educational Leadership, 52(2), 60-65.  
Vail, P. L., MAT. (2016). The role of emotions in learning. Great Schools.
Neuroscience News. (2015). Emotions directly influence learning and memory processes.
Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Why emotions are integral to learning. Mind Shift.

Rayner, G. (2016). The emotion centre is the oldest part of the human brain: why is mood so important? The Conversation.
Complex Trauma and the CLEAR Model
By Rachel Kelly, CEI Intern
"I hope he is absent today."

These are the words that my cooperating teacher regularly said during my student teaching. She did not want a certain student with behavioral problems to show up because he was difficult to handle. Many classrooms have that one student who is disruptive and throws off the balance of the whole class. They make running an efficient classroom seem nearly impossible. The student's behavior can create a strained relationship between the teacher or other students in the class. But what if it isn't the child's fault? What if they have gone through some kind of experience that has made them unable to function normally and form healthy relationships?

The child could be a victim of complex trauma.

Complex trauma is defined as recurring trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, that affects a child's cognitive and social development. This can hinder the way children form relationships and attachments with others, which can negatively affect their participation in a school. Students that have experienced complex trauma also tend to have trouble controlling their emotions, and can be overly sensitive, fearful, or aggressive.

Other signs and symptoms of complex trauma include:
  • Not being able to manage behavior, emotions, stress, or conflict
  • Having dissociative episodes and not being aware of their immediate surroundings
  • Experiencing unwarranted feelings of shame and lack of worth
  • Lacking a sense of well-being, and being more at-risk to health problems exacerbated by stress
  • Having issues with trust and fear of rejection
  • Exhibiting self-destructive behaviors, such as self-injury.
However, according to a report by Christopher Blodgett from Washington State University and Joyce Dorado from University of California San Francisco, there are practices and techniques that teachers and schools can implement in order to help students suffering from complex trauma. The model is called Collaborative Learning for Educational achievement and Resilience (CLEAR) and it addresses social emotional learning.

CLEAR outlines the basic things that these children need in order to start healing and developing healthy behavior.
  • First, whatever trauma they are experiencing should be stopped or minimized.
  • Next, supportive relationships need to be built between the children and their caregivers.
  • From there, students should be taught how to manage and regulate their behavior, and supported as they face new challenges. 
Children that have experienced complex trauma can learn these skills from a psychologist, school counselor, or other support services.

What Teachers Can Do

Many teachers are not trained in psychology, or taught about trauma or mental illness. However, there are simple, but effective approaches that teachers can do in the classroom to make things easier for children with complex trauma.


The right atmosphere can help traumatized children function better and create positive relationships. Because of this, an encouraging and practical classroom setting is essential for supporting these students:

  • To help create this atmosphere, the CLEAR model suggests that teachers have clear, effective rules and expectations, accountability for all students, and fair, consistent discipline practices.
  • Teachers can also demonstrate what healthy teacher-student relationships look like and teach the children responsibility.
  •  The classroom itself should be physically arranged in a way that supports social learning and smooth transitions.
Outside of classroom management, teachers can further help children who have experienced trauma by having them participate in social emotional learning (SEL). SEL is "an umbrella term for activities in schools intended to help students' development of social emotional competence and to create civil and safe school environments." According to Blodgett and Dorado, the main components of social emotional learning are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

Resilience Training

One beneficial part of SEL that teachers can practice with their students is resilience training. Resilience is "an individual's ability to function competently in the face of prolonged adversity and struggles with resulting trauma." Resilience training will teach children to face their problems, instead of running away or avoiding them. If students become more resilient, they will be able to function better in everyday life, and still interact with their peers, even if they are stressed.

Schools Implementing CLEAR and Related Programs

Several schools in Washington state and California have recently adapted the CLEAR model into their school curriculum to help students suffering from trauma. Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates, a children's right organization, have created a program called The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) to help children. They have published a book called Helping Traumatized Children Learn that gives educators advice on teaching and helped children who have experience complex trauma.

Many teachers are not aware of the hardships student face in their family lives. Instead of criminalizing students with emotional and behavioral problems, instructors may achieve better results by being empathetic and teaching students to skills they need to function socially. The CLEAR model gives teachers a toolkit for this and teaching children about social emotional learning will benefit them and education in the long run.

Schools In Washington Implementing CLEAR


Blodgett, Christopher & Dorado, Joyce (2016). A Selected Review of Trauma-Informed School Practice and Alignment with Educational Practice. Child and Family Research Unit.  
Calming Brains, Breathing Deeper, Sleeping Better

Today there is a lot to fear - the fear of change, uncertainty, and new approaches. There is the fear we all experience when we are uncertain of "how well we will do," the fear of failure, the fear of success. And unfortunately, some of our children are facing the fear of being returned to their home countries or the fear of being separated from parents who may be deported. Fear can also have a snowballing effect, where one fear leads to another. Sometimes there may not be much that schools can do to help; however, research tells us that there are ways to "calm the brain"  and create more nurturing and supportive environments for children and youth. What do you and your teachers know about these methods?


Christine Mason 
Center for Educational Improvement