Fear is often considered a negative reaction, but at times it can be a life saver. In the face of real danger, fear—which is embedded in the brain’s amygdala—gets us to react instantly. It’s an automatic survival response.
The amygdala also relies on memory to alert us of a danger we faced sometime in the past, so that we won’t fall prey to it again. This embedded fear can go both ways. It may help us avoid a potentially dangerous situation, or conversely, become an irrational fear. Some irrational fears were embedded in our amygdala by a traumatic event we experienced at some point in our life, of which we may have no recollection.
We might also harbor fears we learned from our parents in our childhood. Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. tells 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 [.....] Fear has a certain contagious feature to it, so the fear in others can elicit fear in ourselves. It’s conditioning.” These fears are debilitating.
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 become a full blown phobia.
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There are some fears we can live with—but we must evaluate those which are crippling. 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 your well-being and livelihood. But, by facing our fears repeatedly, we can overcome them as we deprogram the information stored in the amygdala.
TIPS TO OVERCOME YOUR FEARS
Talk about your fear. Bring it out into the open with close friends or family you trust and feel safe with and it will lose its grip.
Breathe deeply. Being under pressure causes anxiety and shallow breathing. Slow, deep breaths have 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 as being normal. Your brain will eventually cease to register the fear as a real threat.
Stay in the now. Don’t anticipate the fear you may experience in the future. Focus on the event and not on the outcome.
Poke fun at your fear. Humor goes a long way when it comes to dealing with inner demons.
Feed your brain with positive thoughts. Read encouraging books and articles on the subject, or memoirs of people you admire. Memoirs and biographies often focus on overcoming obstacles.
Pat yourself on the back and give yourself credit. Feeling good about yourself encourages a more positive outlook on life. Boosting your confidence will make you stronger in the face of fear.
MY SUCCESS STORY
I used to suffer from severe social anxiety: a fear of meeting new people. Irony has it that I’ve always made a living as a language teacher. Strangely, I only suffered social anxiety outside my professional life.
Only when I realized that what I was experiencing had a name and also a cure, was I able to gradually desensitize myself and eventually attend social gatherings fearlessly. It wasn’t easy, but 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 a migraine from the tension.
Still, I’m not in the clear. At times a flash of fear overcomes me, but I don’t allow it to paralyze me. Understand and befriend your fears, and you’ll be stronger as a result!