Brain’s Threat Response Calmed by Seeing Love & Support

By Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on November 10, 2014 Brain’s Threat Response Calmed by Seeing Love & Support

New research suggests that being reminded of being loved and cared for can reduce the brain’s hypervigilant response to stress.

University of Exeter (U.K.) investigators found that observing pictures of others being loved and cared for reduces the brain’s response to threat. The findings may aid the treatment of anxiety-related disorders and conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the study, scientists discovered that when individuals are briefly shown pictures of others receiving emotional support and affection, the area of the brain responsible for responding to threats, sharply reduces its activity level.

Moreover, after viewing emotional support, researchers discovered the brain region called the amygdala does not respond to images showing threatening facial expressions or words. This occurred even if the person was not paying attention to the content of the first pictures.

Investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to study the brain response among 42 healthy individuals who participated in the study.

Mitigation of the brain’s hyper-alertness may aid more effective brain functioning during stressful situations and better activation of soothing resources after the stress abates. Researchers found this to be particularly true for more anxious individuals.

Previously, research has shown that brain responses to pain are reduced by similar reminders of being loved and cared for, but this is the first time the same has been shown for brain responses to threat.

Psychologist Dr. Anke Karl of the University of Exeter, senior researcher of the study, said:

“A number of mental health conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterized by hypervigilance to threatening information, which is associated with excessive negative emotional responses, amygdala activation, and a restricted ability to regulate these emotions and self-soothe.

“These new research findings may help to explain why, for example, successful recovery from psychological trauma is highly associated with levels of perceived social support individuals receive. We are now building on these findings to refine existing treatments for PTSD to boost feelings of being safe and supported in order to improve coping with traumatic memories.”

Following the results of this study, researchers are performing new investigations that measure responses of the body (heart rate, sweat response) and brain (electrical brain waves measured by EEG) among different populations.

Their objective is to understand related mechanisms in different populations such as highly self-critical individuals, individuals with depression, and survivors of psychological trauma such as severe car accidents, assaults, and natural disasters.

Source: University of Exeter

APA Reference
Nauert, R. (2014). Brain’s Threat Response Calmed by Seeing Love & Support. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2014, from

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