Fear is universal. The gymnast fears stumbling instead of sticking the perfect landing. The singer fears a moment of wavering pitch. The serious speaker fears laughter; the joker silence. We all fear failure.
How we respond to fear, however, varies considerably and determines whether this emotion will help us achieve our goals or leave us less able meet the challenges we face. Fear doesn’t have to be disabling. When properly understood and managed, fear can become a tool you use to your advantage.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is fear?
As with most emotions, defining fear is complex. Is it the physical response we feel when faced with danger? Does it apply to social dangers such as rejection and failure? Should the definition be reserved for the feeling we affiliate with this response and, if so, can the two be detached from one another? The debate is far from finished, even among scholars of the subject.
Luckily, you don’t need to tackle the nuances of defining fear to master it. For our purposes, fear is the interwoven experience of fearful or anxious emotions with their physiological counterparts.
1. Fear is physical
When you encounter an emotional, social, or physical threat, the sympathetic nervous system is called to action. What follows is a complex dance of hormonal secretion, peptide eruption, and neurotransmitter release. There is significantly more than adrenaline searing through your bloodstream. It is this soup medley that makes your palms sweaty and tightens your chest. It also speeds up your heart rate, driving more blood through your veins and delivering extra oxygen through your system.
Adrenaline tends to get the fanfare because it can be responsible for seemingly superhuman feats. Jeff Wise recounts the story of a Tucson man who raised the tire of a 3000 lb vehicle, freeing a fallen bicyclist. His story is fantastical, but not unique.The fear response is a fight-or-flight mechanism, specifically designed to help us fight off danger or run like the wind to escape. In either case, we need all the strength we can muster.
2. Fear is useful
Daily fears are not a life-or-death matter for most of us, and physical strength is not the lacking ingredient. That doesn’t mean that the fear response has nothing to offer. Though we haven’t yet pinned down the molecular pathways and enzymes of peak performance, it appears to be a piece of the same soup medley that allows people to lift cars.
A certain level of arousal, as the type accompanying fear, helps us to achieve peak performance. Too little arousal, and there is not enough motivation to perform at our best. Too much, and we are more likely to falter under the pressure than succeed with flying colors. This theory, known at the Yerkes-Dodson Law, was first identified in mice and later confirmed in people.
The key to using the Yerkes-Dodson Law to your advantage is to identify the level of arousal that will lead to optimal performance, and modulate your fear response appropriately. Which leads us to our third point.
3. Fear is controllable
People are born with a fear of falling and loud noises. Our other fears are learned or conditioned. Though many fears are learned before the age of six, we can both develop new and overcome existing fears at any age. Conditioned fears are fed with experience. One traumatic memory can ignite a debilitating fear, especially if it is never tapered with more positive, competing memories. The girl who forgot her lines during a school play can become a woman so afraid of public speaking that she becomes paralyzed with anxiety.
Thankfully, the sword cuts both ways. This same woman can overcome her extreme fear of public speaking simply by doing it, leaving her with the right level of fear-driven hormones to deliver an incredible presentation with grace and resilience.
In Classical Conditioning theory, this method is called (alarmingly) extinction, but the same scenario could be given a different name: practice. Feeling prepared often lessens our fears, which is one way that fear can be useful. It is a motivator to prepare more thoroughly, increasing our skills and ensuring better results. Studies suggest that even visualizing practice can create new pathways in your brain, reinforcing success.
Practice is not the only solution to fear on overdrive. Fostering calmness of mind can also be effective, and can be achieved through any number of methods. Meditation, breathing or laughing practices, and exercise have all been associated with clarity of mind and greater control of our fears.
4. Fear is individual
Though the physical manifestations of fear are similar between people, the severity of our responses and the ease with which we can mediate this response vary. Some people are more sensitive than others. Part of this is genetic, which is why anxiety levels tend to be shared among family members. Levels of pressure that push a friend or colleague to excel may be too much, or too little, for your optimal performance. Finding your own tolerance is essential to using fear as a tool.