Your fear impulse can save you from jumping out of an airplane without a parachute or bombing down a dangerous double black mountain-bike trail before you’re ready. But it can also hold you back, preventing you from boarding an airplane for a trip to Europe or going on a bike ride with friends who are in better shape than you. You worry you’ll embarrass yourself.
But as neuroscientists have discovered, these are fears you can conquer. You can also quell your fear of harmless house spiders, public speaking, dinner parties with people you don’t know, and all kinds of things that pose no real physical threat. Doing so isn't just superficially gratifying; it actually changes your brain, leading to far-reaching psychological and physiological improvements.
“You actually do live a fuller life when you face your fear," says Srini Pillay, Ph.D., a Harvard psychiatrist and author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try. “Your attention centers are not held captive by any threat passing by, so your brain becomes free to attend to other things. You start to notice that life feels fuller because you take more things in.” More surprisingly, you might also become a better athlete, as you free up parts of the brain associated with strength and muscle control.
But what exactly does it mean to face your fear? To understand, it helps to know a little bit about your brain’s amygdala, the set of almond-shaped clusters that drive motivation. This is where fear originates, and as the amygdala’s response ramps up, it stifles the other parts of your brain. Regions associated with critical thinking and athletic performance take a backseat to your impulse to drop everything and run for safety. Scientists have even started using the phrase “amygdala hijack,” meaning that your brain is so flooded with fear chemicals that nothing else can function properly.
To regain control, take a cue from clinical professionals, who treat fear in two distinct ways: exposure therapy and reframing therapy. Let’s look at each one individually to determine how you can incorporate them both into your new life of fearlessness.
Fear Fix #1: Expose Yourself
Exposure therapy involves subjecting a person—directly, or through video and conversation—to their fear. If you're afraid of flying, you might start a session by talking through the process of boarding a plane, or watching videos where the flight attendant walks through the safety lesson. The method is designed to progress deliberately slow, so that the fear response is only partially heightened and the patient can still think somewhat critically about what's happening. “The great thing about exposure therapy is that it goes straight to the amygdala, without you having to impose your will,” says Joseph Ledoux, Ph.D., a New York University professor and author of Anxious. (He’s also in a band called The Amygdaloids. Seriously.)
After the exposure session proves harmless, the amygdala recalculates the fear, and each subsequent exposure will help drive the negative reaction down further.
This is the strategy that Brenda Wiederhold, Ph.D., uses to help her patients overcome their fear of spiders, for example. “I have individuals that need to start with just seeing a picture of a spider, then proceed to videos, before working up to virtual reality, complete with touch sensations," she says. "And finally, there’s real life exposure.”
That's similar to what a person does when they, say, take on a physical challenge they don't feel ready for, or force themselves into the ocean to overcome a fear of sharks. Unless your fear is debilitating, you can treat yourself by willingly entering situations that make you uncomfortable. So if the thought of standing at the starting line before a marathon makes your stomach curdle, then you can sign up for a less-terrifying 5k first, just to experience a slice of the energy.
“In essence, you are retraining yourself to inhibit the fear response,” says Joe Tatta, DPT, a personal trainer who takes a neuroscientist's approach to fitness. After you expose yourself to the fear, your frontal cortex—the part of your brain that governs problem solving, attention, spontaneity, judgment, and impulse control—expresses itself more fully, which can improve your athletic performances and make each moment more rewarding.
Fear Fix #2: Reframe the Risk
The second major strategy for overcoming fear is reframing, which is essentially forcing yourself to concentrate on the positive aspects of the fear.
“By focusing on what you might learn from a difficult exercise, instead of fearing it, you’ll experience a decrease in amygdala activation,” says Pillay. “As a result, there is often increased blood flow to the thinking regions of the brain. You’re reframing to yourself that the exercise will help you despite being frightening.”
For example, you might initially perceive an obstacle race to be a series of embarrassing failures, but then reframe it as beautifully engineered set of exercises for becoming stronger. Success with this approach doesn’t happen immediately though, Pillay says. It takes work.
“Just the choice to face your fear causes the conflict detector in your brain to activate,” Pillay explains, referring to the amygdala. “And it keeps on activating as you choose to confront your fear. But at a certain point, as you decide to stick with the plan, the amygdala starts to deactivate and you feel less fearful.”
Another effective way to reframe a situation—one that applies specifically to performance—is to focus on yourself, says Jeffrey Schwartz, Ph.D., a UCLA professor and author of You Are Not Your Brain. “The best, chemical-free strategy is positive self-talk,” he says. “The repetition of affirmations puts something into the habit center of your brain, quieting the amygdala. You’ve prepared yourself to not get hijacked.”
So don’t let your fears win: Volunteer to give the office presentation, sign up for the grueling race, put yourself outside your comfort zone. And when you do, focus on what you’re going to get out of the experience, while psyching yourself up a good dose of, “I’m going to crush this.”
And who knows—maybe you will.