Understanding fear

Fear is often considered a negative reaction, but in fact, fear works for us. In the face of danger, real danger, fear which is embedded in the brain’s amygdala, gets us to react in an instant to a dangerous situation. It’s an automatic response to our survival. The amygdala monitors the sensory information in search of danger and as soon as it senses it, sends off an alarm and we go into instant survival mode: fight, flight or freeze reaction.

Irrational fear

The amygdala also relies on memory so that it can alert us to a danger we were faced with at some time in the past. So in trying to protect our lives, it stores “danger” memories. However, not all our fears are rational. Some irrational fears were, at some time, embedded in the amygdala by some traumatic event we might not even be aware we experienced.

We might also harbor fears we learned from our parents in childhood instead of through direct experience. Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. tell Scientific American that, “We learn to become fearful through experience with the fear event, or learning from those people around us like our parents, our siblings, our colleagues,” Lewis says. “Fear has a certain contagious feature to it, so the fear in others can elicit fear in ourselves. It’s conditioning.

Human beings are the only species whose brains have the capacity to think about the future. This might work for or against us when anticipating events. Fear makes us cautious and keeps us from making mistakes, but it can also paralyze us and keep us from enjoying life and making a move. Fear can become our personal jail and escalate to become a full-blown phobia.

Overcoming fear

There are some fears we can live with—but we must evaluate those which are inhibiting us and preventing us from leading a normal life. Fear of spiders won’t be as debilitating as, for example, fear of driving when you really need to get to places for work. Stage fright, if you are a performer, is surely a threat to our well-being and livelihood.

Yet we can overcome our fears by not allowing them to rule our lives. By facing our fears, and doing so repeatedly, we can deprogram the information stored in the amygdala.

Famous performers with stage fright include Andrea Bocelli, Barbra Streisand, and Rod Stewart. But they don’t allow fear to get in the way and somehow overcome it or learn to coexist with it. The adrenaline rush after exposing yourself to a fear brings about elation, which in turn gives rise to an adrenaline rush, which helps some perform even better!

In other words, these performers make fear work for them, instead of against them. But you don’t have to take the stage at Madison Square Garden to use some of their same tactics.

How to make fear work for you:

  • Talk about your fear: bring it out into the open with close friends or family you trust and feel safe with and it will appear smaller. With the support of family and friends, any shame you might feel about your fear will be reduced as well.
  • Breathe deeply: anxiety plagues us when we are under pressure, and in turn, we forget to breathe. Breathing slowly and deeply has a calming effect when we are under stress.
  • Expose yourself to your fear. Repeated exposure to your fear will embed the action in your brain, which eventually will no longer register the fear as a threat.
  • Stay in the now. Don’t anticipate the fear you will or may experience. Focus on the event and not on your fear or the outcome.
  • Laugh at it! Make fun of your fear. Making light of it will enable you to take it less seriously.
  • Feed your brain with positive thoughts: Read encouraging books and articles on the subject matter, or memoirs people you admire. Most memoirs focus on overcoming obstacles.
  • Pat yourself on the back and give yourself credit. Feeling positive about yourself encourages a more positive outlook on life and yourself. Boosting your confidence will make you stronger in the face of fear.

My personal story of overcoming fear

I used to suffer profound social anxiety despite the fact that I am a teacher. Fortunately, I only suffered social anxiety outside my professional life. This irrational fear held me hostage and isolated me. It was crippling because I couldn’t enjoy parties with friends since I feared meeting new people. My fear of not knowing what to say and appearing stupid paralyzed me.

Only when I realized what I was suffering and what I was missing out on was I able to gradually start socializing and attending parties. It wasn’t easy, but as of two years ago, I am now pleasantly surprised at the end of an evening when I realize how far I have come. I feel happy and elated that I attended a social event without feeling terrified or getting an intense migraine from the tension.

Still, my fear hasn’t completely left me. At times a flash of fear overcomes me, but I allow it to pass and most importantly, I don’t anticipate the event or fear that I might feel.

Understand and befriend your fears, and you’ll be stronger as a result!


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