Overcoming Fear

You may be wired to worry, but courage can be learned.

Nine Secrets of Courage From 'Extreme Fear'

Simple steps toward a life less bounded by fear

Courage: it's not just for heroes. Fear is an emotion we all deal with, and how we handle it determines what kind of life we'll lead -- whether shackled by anxiety and dread, or empowered to conquer new challenges. Yet we spend most of our time trying to avoid fear, so we muddle along, rarely getting much better at the art of mastering it. That's a shame, because with a little effort we can find the courage to push beyond your comfort zone and tackle new worlds.

In my book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger -- out this month in paperback -- I explore the neurological underpinnings of the brain's fear response to better understand how to take charge of this formidable emotion, shedding light on the science with stories of people who have faced terrible threats and managed to come through intact.

Can we learn from such brave souls and train ourselves to be more courageous? The evidence says yes. Here are nine techniques for steeling yourself for the challenges ahead.

Get fit: One of the many physical and psychological benefits of cardiovascular fitness is that it inures the individual against the effects of stress, including anxiety and fear. One 2009 study reported that skydivers with a higher percentage of body fat took longer to return from elevated stress-hormone levels and performed worse on tests of mental agility. Other studies have even shown that exercise can ease depression and anxiety. And it can protect you from feeling stressed out in the future. Princeton researchers found that rats who exercise grow neurons in their brains that are less responsive to the stress hormone cortisol.

Lean on Your Friends: Human beings are mammals, and mammals are fundamentally social creatures. In a tough situation, we rely on emotional rapport with friends and family members. Oxytocin, the hormone that binds mothers and children and husbands and wives, has been shown to lessen the sensation of pain and fear. In wartime, it likely plays a role in turning a group of strangers into a band of brothers who will lay down their lives for one another. But even the challenge is as mundane as a workplace crisis or a tough athletic competition, having friends by your side can make all the difference.

Expose Yourself: One crucial tool for mastering fear is to develop a sense of confidence in your abilities. You can train yourself for this mindset by setting challenging but reachable goals that become progressively more difficult. Dread public speaking? Make a toast at a small dinner party. Afraid of heights? Try tackling the lower reaches of a climbing wall. Above all, be sure to reward yourself when you're successful. The goal is to train the emotional centers of your brain to anticipate a positive outcome when pushing boundaries.

Think Positive: Navy psychologist Marc Taylor surveyed Olympic athletes about whether they practiced positive mental skills such as silently voicing affirming thoughts. It may sound mushy, but Taylor has found that athletes who did the Stuart Smalley routine were significantly more likely to survive the intense pressure of elite competition and reach the medal stand. "If a coach can work with a promising young athlete to pay attention to his or her internal dialogue, and to stop negative thinking," he says, "it can really change their performance."

Change the Frame: Instead of panicking in the face of a crisis, try to see the situation from another perspective. Consider the larger context and the good things that might come along with the bad. When a crisis seems overwhelming, try to see the situation from another perspective. Try to understand the larger context and to identify the good things that might come along with the bad. "Write out best case and worst case scenarios, and how likely they are to come about," recommends Rick Harvey, Assistant Professor of Health Education and Holistic Health at San Francisco State University. "When you can say to yourself, ‘You know what, the worse-case scenario isn't very likely,' then you can stop worrying."

Think Small: A truly daunting task can drive even the toughest into discouragement. One trick is to just focus on the little piece in front of you. If you're bogged down in a massive project at work, then, don't let yourself despair at the hugeness of the task. Break it down into pieces small enough that you can do each one in an hour or less, and focus all your attention exclusively on that. "I can't influence a giant thing like, ‘What am I going to do when I graduate from college?'" says Harvey. "But I can influence a thing like, ‘How can I go Monster.com?' or ‘How can I scan the job listings on the job board?'"

Get Mad: A powerful emotion like anger can trump fear. Psychologist Stanley Rachman once treated a phobic patient who could only leave his house when he was mad at his wife. As soon as he calmed down, he had to hurry home. So? If you're tense before the big game, try thinking about how much you hate your opponents.

Do the Nasty: If you're terrified of public speaking, try tapping the soothing powers of oxytocin, the hormone of affection and bonding. One recent study found that subjects who had recently engaged in sexual intercourse were significantly calmer when asked to speak before a group of strangers.

Enjoy the Ride: Fear isn't all bad. Intense fear causes our brain to release chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana and amphetamines. Time seems to slow down and pain vanishes; we can run faster and lift heavier weights. There really have been cases of panicked people lifting cars with their bare hands.

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Overcoming Fear