Dopamine is well known as the ‘reward’ neurochemical as we get a boost of it when we have an experience worthy of praise or pleasure.
Research on dopamine’s role in the body also now shows that conditioned fear responses are directly lessened by dopamine release. Called a fear extinction event.., this is where the release of dopamine engages learning in a way that eliminates the fear.
Researchers discovered that when dopamine was disabled from doing it’s job in tests, conditioned fears stayed present over time even though the initial fearful event was not repeated.
With the dopamine re-introduced.., the conditioned/learned fears disappeared quickly.
So it seems that moving from fear to safety and unlearning conditioned responses naturally requires dopamine neurons to be active.
Traditional therapies for anxiety and fear often involve exposure therapy which introduces small amounts of the fear trigger in a controlled environment. By adding this knowledge of dopamine to the equation, therapists can engage a reward activity during a controlled fear response and speed up the process of unlearning fear.
A useful little trick.
And interesting to note, is that studies show that people with higher levels of light exposure have a corresponding higher level of activation of dopamine receptors leading to improved mood. So it’s not just serotonin that is boosted by light exposure (Hence SAD lamps for depression), but also dopamine which as just seen, has the ability to reduce fear.
So it’s a win on both counts.