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How to Stop Fear in Its Tracks

How to Stop Fear in Its Tracks

What is fear? A primal neurobiological process? A constructed emotion? Or a figment of our imaginations? And why are so many of us paralyzed in its presence? Understanding the nature of fear can help us overcome even our most debilitating phobias and to chase our dreams and goals with less anxiety and apprehension.  

Zombies. Clowns. Ghosts. 

Believe it or not, those entirely imagined phenomena are amongst America’s top ten fears. 

The number one fear? 

Glossophobia. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that the fear of public speaking affects 73% of the population.

From agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) to claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), many of us live with fears we know to be irrational. 

They creep up when we least expect it. 

They may be a nuisance. 

They may sabotage our careers. 

It all depends on how well we’ve trained our brains to respond to anxiety-inducing stimuli. 

Our culture also plays a part in shaping the nature of our fears. Chinese may avoid phone numbers and addresses with “4” because the words “four” and “death” in Mandarin differ only in tone. If you live in Alaska, you may have a legitimate fear of grizzly bears. If you call the Gulf of Mexico home, hurricanes may be the scariest things that fall on your radar. 

To make matters more complicated, sometimes we fear things for which we have no conscious awareness. Without understanding what we fear (or realizing that we’re afraid in the first place), we run the risk of acting in ways that are against our best interests.

Is It Possible to Have No Fear?

For all the bad rap that fear gets, a healthy human brain simply cannot function without it. It’s a critical component of being human and one of the most potent survival tools we have. 

The closest case on record to true fearlessness in a human brain is that of “S.M.” (also known as SM-046), an American woman whose affliction with Urbach-Wiethe disease led to bilateral damage to her amygdala. 

An almond-shaped amalgamation of neurons in the midbrain, the amygdala’s job is to evaluate stimuli from the outside world and ascribe meaning to events, objects, and situations. Communicating with the thalamus, the amygdala works in conjunction with the brain’s memory systems. It influences many of our raw emotional responses to the world and leads us to act with conditioned split-second reactions. The amygdala is one of many brain systems that enable you to learn how to behave in your environment.

In short, fear is the result of the memories and meanings you’ve formed in response to certain stimuli.

When researchers first observed S.M. in 1994, they exposed her to all kinds of scary stimuli.  Snakes, spiders, haunted houses. Since her amygdala had been damaged, she hadn’t ascribed meaning to any of those things. The Blair-Witch Project, The Shining, and The Silence of the Lambs (three of the scariest films released in the 1990s), likewise triggered no fear response in S.M.’s brain. 

As you might expect, S.M. was socially uninhibited. Extremely outgoing, she approached strangers in moments when others might feel wary. She lacked any response to negative social cues. Incredibly trusting of others, she couldn’t read feelings of mistrust. 

On the plus side, S.M. experienced few negative emotions; she had an incredibly positive outlook on life. 

On the downside, her tendency to engage indiscriminately in physical contact led some to feel uneasy around her. Since she was incapable of appreciating sad and scary tones in music, some have considered S.M.’s experience of life to be one-sided. Since human memory tends to rely on the depth and power of associative feelings, S.M. was also impaired when it came to storing events of her life in long-term memory. 

However, not even S.M. lived in a complete state of fearlessness. Once deprived of oxygen, S.M. experienced a severe panic attack. Even with severe bilateral damage to the amygdala, she still felt fear. 

The Purpose of Fear

If fearlessness is biologically impossible, there must be a reason that we’ve evolved to feel afraid. After all, the fear of a barking dog is not an abstract mental experience. Physiological changes happen. Muscles tense up. You freeze. You may run away. It can be difficult to speak or think rationally when faced with an aggressive animal. 

Neuroscientists Joseph LeDoux and Lisa Feldman Barrett draw a line, however, between those bodily states of fear (sweaty palms, increased rate of heartbeat, and muscle tension) and the overriding concept or cognitive labeling of fear. Both argue that the emotion we call “fear” is merely an idea that we’ve superimposed onto a pre-cognitive biological response to stimuli. Our physical response to danger precedes our cognitive awareness of “fear.” 

Other theorists, like William James, say that our physiological changes follow our cognitive perception of what we’re experiencing. Still others consider fear to be a subcortical core emotion: Fear takes place in our brains without much interference from our higher cognitive processes. Jaak Panksepp and Paul Ekman argue that genetically-dictated brain systems mediate our affective-emotional processes. According to Panksepp and Ekman, the systems of “rage” and “love,” like “fear”, are the same in all mammalian brains. 

Whether our experience of fear originates in precognition, post-cognition, or pure physiology (whether it’s a universal, primordial reaction or a social construct), one thing is clear. The main function of fear is to signal us to danger, conflict, or threat, and to trigger the appropriate adaptive responses. 

The problem is not that fear exists. It’s that we’ve learned to react to situations automatically and unconsciously in ways that our parents, teachers, and televisions have trained us to. 

If you grew up in a household where your mother met intense anxiety at the mere thought of getting on a plane, you may have inherited her fear of flying. My sister, for example, is petrified of flying. If she’s booked a seat three months in advance, she worries about it for those ninety-some-odd days. She’s passed on her aviophobia to her  sons, who now in their 20s and 30s hesitate to get on a plane. 

How did my sister develop her phobia?  As in the case of most automatic fear reactions, my sister’s brain had been conditioned by a memorable life experience. Once upon a flight to Israel, my sister’s plane ran into turbulence (a patch of unsteady movement of air). Although the phenomenon is common and usually benign, the unexpected jiggling of my sister’s seat and watching how a few other passengers reacted, was to her a portent of death. Flying has freaked her out ever since.  

She’s not alone. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) tells us that airplane accidents happen on average once every four million flights. Forty percent of Americans, however, still fear “the friendly skies.”

Just to give you a fair comparison, you would need to fly every day for more than 10,000 years to be in a fatal plane crash.

On the other hand, the chances of dying in a car collision are about 1 in 101, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

If our parents didn’t pass on their aviophobia, we might catch it from the news. “Six People Killed After a Plane Crashes Into a Field in California.” “Allegiant Air passengers and Crew are Injured in a Turbulent Florida-bound Flight.” Headlines alone can kindle our worst nightmares.  

While I have no fear of flying, I used to struggle with intrusive thoughts of being buried alive. Soon after moving to California, our family woke up to the house trembling. Running to my son’s bedrooms, I stood in shock as their beds, toys, nightstands and dressers shook. The area is susceptible to earthquakes. Since we were living on the bluff, an especially powerful earthquake might send me tumbling a hundred feet down into the pacific ocean. When in 2002 I read of the debris of 9/11 burying New Yorkers alive, my fears intensified.

However, like any intrusive thoughts, fears, or phobias, there’s always a cure — and it begins with you. You can “rewire” your conditioned, automatic reactions. In my case, I trained myself to overcome my fear of being buried alive by exposing myself to sensory deprivation tanks. Once inside, I Innercised my brain. It worked!

How to Stop Fear in Its Tracks

Once in a while, I’ll lead a Zoom call of a hundred people to demonstrate how acutely we’ve all trained our brains to respond in their own way to “distressing” stimuli. 

After a couple of deep breaths, I ask the participants to imagine, wherever they are, a 200-pound python about a foot away slithering towards them ready to coil around and squeeze the life of them with no way to escape its ferocious stranglehold. 

“What are you experiencing right now?” I asked them to type their answers in the chat. 

Half of those hundred call participants type: “Stop! I can’t handle this!”

Then there are those few who say they want to take a selfie with the python for their Instagram account. 

For half of those people, the snake is a stimulus that triggers what I call “cells of recognition.” Those people attribute fearful feelings to the python. Those imagining their snake selfies are ascribing different meanings to the python; hence, their reactions and emotions are different. 

Whatever theory of fear you subscribe to, accept that eliminating the automatic fear reaction is impossible. The neurobiological reactions that happen in the brain and body when we are afraid happen in a tenth of a second or less. There’s not much you can do to combust the engine of fear when its train has already started to roll.

What you can do, however, is train your brain how you respond intelligently when the fear train starts its engines. You can learn to bring higher-level brain processes in when you need them most. You can learn to recognize what underlies your fear. To act calmly in response to it. To reframe it.

The SEAL Method

Imagine you’re sitting in a bistro in Brooklyn and your dining companion is a Navy SEAL. 

A gunman walks in. 

People duck under the table. Some freeze. A few scream. A handful start crying.

The Navy SEAL, however, responds in the way she’s been professionally trained to.  Years of practice have taught her how to regulate her breathing and moderate her self-talk. She deactivates her fear circuit and activates her “calm-to-respond” circuit. She pays attention to cues in the gunman’s behavior. Is he violent? Controlled?  Medicated? Sober? 

Whatever the situation might be, the Navy SEAL prepares herself. She’s practiced how and when to disarm and how and when to shoot.

How we react or respond to fear depends entirely on our highest level of training under stress. 

We can’t all join the Navy, but we can train our brains to turn fear into our hyper-focused fuel. We can take the epinephrine and the cortisol and use it to propel us in the opposite direction. We can apply our physiological and neurological responses to stimuli to help us stop fear in its tracks.

The Navy SEAL has learned to unlearn her natural conditioned responses and to relearn new empowering ones. She ascribes new meaning to scary situations, so she can control her response. 

If you were to take a Navy SEAL approach to your glossophobia, for example, you’d realize that99% of people are not afraid of public speaking. They’re apprehension to get on stage is an aversion to the possibility that they might feel embarrassed, ashamed, ridiculed, judged or rejected. Glossophobia is more about protecting one’s learned expectations and underlying self image.

Along the same lines, none of us truly fear spiders or ghosts. Experience may have taught us that spiders may bite. Ghost stories have told us that phantoms can terrorize us. What we fear is the potential pain and the uncertainty, not the arachnids and the apparitions. 

So here’s an Innercise that you can apply to any of your fears. 

In the face of fear, be your own Navy SEAL. Use the 4R Innercise process: Recognize.  Reframe. Release. Retrain.

  1. Recognize the fear conditioning for what it is.

When you notice that something has triggered your fear system, see non-judgmentally.what’s arising. Understand that what you’re experiencing may be an automatic physio-biological response, but you’re ultimately the one in control of how you feel and act. Regulate your breathing. That helps to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system and turn down the intensity of your fear. 

  1.  Reframe the situation

If you think you’re afraid of snakes, look deeper and reframe. Is it snakes that freak you out, or the meaning you’ve ascribed to snakes? Is it fear or dislike of something slithery? Or is your fear system just trying to protect you from being bitten or killed? Do you need to be protected from all snakes? 

If you’re afraid of failure, reframe what “failure” means to you. If you’re afraid of being a failure, consider the ways that you might be taking failure too personally. What if you reframed failure as a learning experience that helps you grow and get smarter and better? Doesn’t that remove the fear somewhat?

Remember that the meaning you give anything determines how you will feel.

  1. Release the fear. 

Instead of falling into submission of your automated fear system, release the energy in a prosocial and proactive way.

Use the adrenaline response to focus and get things done. Tap into your superpowers, and express your courage.

Take six deep breaths: Breathe slowly in through your nose and gently out through your mouth.

Focus your self-talk on exactly what you want to say to yourself. “I am in control.” “I can do this.” “Just one small step at a time”.

  1. Retrain.

To turn your fears into a thing of the past, retrain your brain again and again to adopt new responses to triggers and fearful stimuli. Innercise anytime you feel afraid. Learn like a Navy SEAL to stop fear in its tracks. 

Remember: You can always take three minutes out of the day and practice the following: In a calm state, visualize yourself overcoming any obstacle or fears and generate the feelings you want to feel. Simulate the feelings you’ll have when you achieve what you want to achieve.

Visualize as if you’re training for the Olympics. Practice again and again, just like an Olympic athlete.

See the end result you want.

Feel the fear.

See yourself taking action.

See yourself reigning victorious over fear.

When you do this, you create and reinforce new neural patterns.

The wires you practice firing will be there when it’s time to fire for real.

Practicing with that inner wiring, those inner visualizations, repeatedly puts you in the driver’s seat toward any destination you want!

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