“We come this way but once. We can either tiptoe through life and hope that we get to death without being too badly bruised, or we can live a full, complete life achieving our goals and realizing our wildest dreams”
Bob Proctor, self-made millionaire
Fear is a natural emotional respond towards a threat, such as pain and danger. It is innate, which means that it is there since the day we were born, and it is there in every human beings anywhere, at anytime. It exists in the age where sabre-tooth tiger still roam the earth, and it still exist today in the modern world. The thing is, unlike 3000 years ago where sabre-tooth tiger could be lurking anywhere around the bush, the threats we face today are rarely life-threatening. Some of our fears aren’t even justifiable (a research done shows that 90% of what we fear and worry about never happens!), but the emotional respond towards it is the same as being face to face with a sabre-tooth tiger. We fear taking responsibilities, speaking in public, starting on a new project, asking for a raise, taking that exam, leaving a job that you hate, or even talking to that girl (or guy) that you feel that you’d spend the rest of your life with. I’m going to take speaking in public for example. Some people equate the thought of it to impending death (I’m serious). Just by thinking about it, a burst of adrenaline rushes through our veins, our hearts beats faster, our breaths become shallow, our hands become cold. This is our body response towards fear. Many people let these natural responds stop them from achieving their wildest dreams. Most people know that effectively conveying their ideas to others in a meeting, or in a speech, is necessary step towards a achieving their success, but because of fear, like a caveman confronted with a sabre-tooth tiger, they run away.
Now here’s the science behind fear. Fear, along with joy, sadness and anger are part of our basic or innate emotions. They are controlled by a small part of our brain called the amygdala.
Research has shown rats with toxoplasmosis, or simply put, a rat infected by a parasite that destroys their brain, specifically the amygdala, show less fear, including towards cats. (I think in the cartoon show ‘Tom & Jerry’, Jerry had his amygdala destroyed by toxoplasmosis). This behavior, as a consequence, makes them easily caught and eaten by cats. That’s lucky for the parasite, which uses cats as their permanent home. So what if we destroy our ‘fear centre’ in the amygdala so we’d be well on our way towards success? Yes, we’d be able to speak in public effortlessly, we’d leave the jobs that we hate in pursuit for a better one, and we’d go on and talk to that girl who we’d spend the rest of our lives with. However, we’d also be jumping out of skyscrapers without a parachute on a daily basis, believing we could fly, we’d go on for a leisure walk, found out and find a big fat guy across the street, and tell him: “Hey, I think you’re big, fat, and stupid”, and get a punch right in the face. So you see, destroying our fear doesn’t work. Fear is necessary. Yes, it is necessary, but don’t let it stop you from doing the things that are necessary for a better life!
So how do we overcome fear and do the necessary steps toward a better life? The first step is to realize that your fear is actually unfounded (skip this step if your fear is life-threatening, like the fear of jumping off an airplane without a parachute, or the fear of jumping into a pool full of crocodiles at the zoo). In 2004, a research was done at Columbia University where two groups of people were shown fear stimuli (like pictures of vampires, snakes, spiders, ghosts, you name it!) for different periods of times. One group, let’s name this group A, was shown the picture so fast and short in duration, that they didn’t get the chance to really observe and consciously think about them. The other, group B, was shown for a little longer period of time, giving the subject a little more time to consciously perceive the pictures. Researchers observed that the people in group B experienced less ‘fear activity’ in the amygdala. They are less fearful, although the fear stimuli is the same! Fear is almost entirely autonomic, or in other words, we don’t consciously trigger it. However, the research suggests that we can consciously control our fear responses by thinking and justifying the fear itself. The people in group B are less fearful because they consciously think and justify their fear and think: "This is not worth all the fear, they're just pictures", while the people in group A didn’t get the chance to do that. They rely on the autonomic fear response. This helps 3000 years ago when it is practical to just run away instead of observing the color of the sabre-tooth tiger, and what a sharp teeth it has, but today, running away from our daily fears is usually not live-saving. The monumental research on fears and our conscious control over it can be viewed here: http://cumc.columbia.edu/news/press_releases/hirsch_kandel_etkin_anxiety_neuron.html
So taking it into our daily lives, justify your fears. What would happen if you ask for that raise? The worst thing could happen is that you got rejected, and you’re salary is as it was before. No boss has ever cut an employee’s salary simple because he asked for a raise. You lose nothing. At least you tried, and your boss knows you wanted a raise, and would think about it in the future. What would happen if you asked someone out for a lunch, and you got rejected? You don’t have anyone to have lunch to begin with, and again, you lose nothing, and surely, you’re not dead! So think and justify your fears, tell your brain that it is okay to do scary things that’s necessary for a better you. When we think carefully about our fears instead of just letting it run its autonomic course, the ‘fear activity’ inside our amygdala decreases. We feel less fearful, and ready to take on life’s challenge!
Skeptical aren’t you? You may say: “I think it’s the 100th time I told myself I can speak in public, but how come I still can’t? What should I do?!” For some people, the above technique works, but for some other people, nothing else can be done but, in the words of the psychologist Susan Jeffers:
“Feel the fear and do it anyway”
If you can’t control your fears, so what, as long as you know what you’ll do is not life-threatening, feel the fear and do it anyway! Once you feel the fear and take the actions anyway, you’ll realize, right in the face, that your fears are unjustified. For instance, most people going on a roller coaster for the first time experience extreme fear. But once they did it a few times, they begin to feel the fun and joy in doing it and begin to say “Hey, that was so much fun, let’s do it again!” Now let’s see the science behind this. Going deeper into this structure we call amygdala, there is and area called the median forebrain bundle, or MFB in short. This is where we process our ‘rewards and punishment’. Reward, is when we get something that induces joy. For example, a mother taking a child out for an ice cream for helping her clean up the house. The ice cream is the reward for the action of ‘helping clean up the house’. This is processed by the child's MFB, and stimulates the amygdala to produce a feeling of joy. As a result, the child ends up doing more of the action (in this case, cleaning up the house) in the future, to get more rewards (ice cream). This is proven by experiments done on rats. In a rat cage, a lever is connected to an electrode, which in turn is connected to the MFB area of the rat’s brain. Every time this lever is pressed; it will stimulate the rat’s MFB. Soon, the rat will learn that pressing on the lever induces a satisfying feeling, or perhaps joy (we’ll never know what a rat feels), and it keeps on pressing on the lever again and again over 3000 times, ignoring the needs for food and sleep! How profound are our need for rewards and joy.
A rat electrically stimulated at the MFB area when it presses on the lever. It was reported that the rat repeatedly presses the leaver over 3000 times, ignoring food and sleep
Now let’s apply that science in real life. If you finally gather the courage to speak in public, felt the fear, but went on to speak anyway, how many people would tell you: “Dude, that was total disaster! I’ll never want to hear you speak in public again, go back to your cave or something!” Almost never, most people would complement your courage, tell you you’re good, tell you the things you could improve on, or by the least, say nothing. When you realize that the fear of speaking in public is unfounded, and it feels quite good to have your ideas across to everyone, little by little, you’ll feel the joy in it. Your brain will perceive it as a reward, and like a mouse in the cage experiment, you’d want to do it again and again! The cliché ‘first step is the hardest’ is true, but once you overcome the fear of the first step, nothing else will stop you.
So there it is, overcoming fear and the science behind it. As a conclusion, I’d like to say that running away from your fears is so 3000 year ago, so come on man let’s get out into this world! Life is too short to be living in fear.
Taking it home: I’ve always dreamed of being a doctor who inspires others towards a better life and a better health, mind and body. Writing and medicine are both my passion, so I’ve found that the right medium for achieving what I wanted is through writing. However, I still have my fears. Its natural isn’t it? I’m afraid if what I’ve written is too complicated, or didn’t make sense at all to you. So, if you sincerely find what I have written interesting or motivating, please leave a comment and stimulate my amygdala to produce joy, and, in the near future, do more of these writings. Thanks!