by guest blogger Jaimal Yogis, award-winning journalist and surfer
Paradise always has speed bumps.
Not long after college, my girlfriend and I went traveling in Mexico. We found a simple white cottage with a Spanish-tiled roof overlooking one of Oaxaca’s most beautiful beaches—”the perfect spot,” we kept saying.
Two days into our trip, I was heading back from the beach when a local stray dog decided it wanted to put my calf muscle in a death lock, the sort you see pit bulls give when they’re slowly draining the life from something.
It could’ve been worse. A local fisherman helped me remove the dog. I got my shots. But years after that attack, I got jumpy around dogs. I even got queasy thinking about that town in Mexico, the one we’d said was so “perfect.”
I bring this story up because it’s these physical pain fears—their simplicity—that demonstrate the basic biological conundrum we modern humans find ourselves in. They demonstrate how fear lies to us.
Neuroscience has taught us that the main fear center in the human brain, the amygdala, works faster than conscious thought and is basically functioning in the human brain the same way it does in most animals and even lizards (hence the frequent term, “lizard brain”). By the time I could think, “oh-God-a-dog-is-trying-to-eat-my-leg,” my ancient brain had told my body to speed up my heart rate, sending extra energy to my muscles to fight or flee or freeze. A fear memory was also instantly formed that says dogs = danger, but not just this dog, any dog. The amygdala also likely associated that Mexican beach town with pain.
Evolution’s rule is if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, and the amygdala has been keeping us alive with these blanket statements over the past few hundred million years. And why not? Get bitten by one snake in a meadow, why not avoid all snakes and all meadows that look like that one? But in our highly complex world, we need more precision. Without precision, fear’s blanket statements create stories that lie to us and hold us back.
Here are some common blanket fear statements I’ve seen while reporting The Fear Project. I should note that these blanket statements function unconsciously and often differ from our “conscious” stories. But they have a subtle way of pulling the puppet strings of our actions. Countless studies show that humans also suffer from a phenomenon called “confirmation bias” that leads us to try to confirm what we deeply believe to be true, and oftentimes these deep fear stories end up becoming self-fulfilling prophecies as we try, unconsciously, to confirm them. A few common examples are:
- If your parents divorced, and you saw how painful commitment can be, your blanket fear statement could become “all marriage—if not all commitment—is doomed.” The result of this fear statement: You find ways to sabotage good relationships or just avoid being vulnerable enough to get truly close with people.
- If one of your parents hated his or her job, your blanket fear statement could become “all work is unfulfilling.” The result: You avoid going after your dream job or continually only focus on the negative sides of work.
- If you lost a big game for your team (or you had a mean coach or embarrassed yourself in PE), your blanket statement could become “I’m just not a good athlete.” The result: You avoid working out, which keeps you from having a healthy stress outlet and confirms your fear that you’re not an athlete.
- If you forgot to prepare for a class presentation and panicked in front of the class, your blanket statement could become “all public speaking is embarrassing.” The result: You avoid positions and opportunities that force you to present in front of groups.
There are countless other blanket statements that fear makes us believe. If you’re honest with yourself and do some introspection, you can figure out what yours are. So how do we reverse these stories? Talking and writing about them is good, psychologists report. But talk, when it’s not combined with action, is not nearly as potent. As Philippe Goldin, a Stanford neuroscientist, told me recently, “all the research points to the fact that exposure is the best way to deal with fear and anxiety.”
To get over my false fear that all dogs are dangerous, I had to expose myself repeatedly to dogs, to pet friendly dogs, and so forth. I also had to go back to that beach town in Mexico and go surfing, listen to great music there, to reconsolidate my memory of that place.
Complex emotional fears of work and commitment are not as easy to take action on as something like a fear of dogs, but they can be dealt with in a similar way. Here’s how:
1. Reprogram your fear statements. Recognize what your blanket statement is. Note which part of it is irrational. Form an exposure/action plan to deal with that irrational fear.
2. Make a point to remember the good. Remember, as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, that “our brains are like Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative ones,” meaning our fear center often highlights the traumatic, painful fear experiences—even though they’re usually the minority of our overall experiences. If your parents had one horrible fight that got singed deep into your fear memory, go back and highlight the good memories or think of relationships that you admire, and do this right after remembering the bad fight. If work is the issue, make a point of listing all the things you’re grateful for at work (even if you’re also looking to change jobs). Neuroscientists say that “synapses that fire together, wire together,” so what you choose to emphasize will gradually become the dominant paradigm. This is not fluffy thinking. It’s training the brain to see things as they are.
3. Expose yourself to your fears in baby steps. If it’s public speaking, set yourself up for small public talks: a toast at a dinner party, explaining the rules of a game to friends. Work your way toward larger presentations, perhaps through a public speaking group like Toastmasters. Remember that it’s OK to feel nervous. It’s natural. It’s human. Frame the butterflies in the positive: For example, “These butterflies mean I really care about this. They’re giving me energy to be dynamic.” By framing fear in the positive, studies like those done by Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago show that fear can actually be a performance enhancer.
4. Exercise or meditate right before exposing yourself to a fear. For example, before giving a speech or going on an intimidating date or interview, go for a run or do 20 minutes of mindful breathing. In the case of exercise, you’re giving fear an outlet so your lizard brain thinks it has already escaped the danger. In the case of meditation, slower breathing gives the lizard brain the signal that things are safe. This will help create a link between a positive experience and memory with the object of fear that you can fall back on later.
Jaimal Yogis is an author, journalist, and outdoors-man. His first book, a coming-of-age memoir called Saltwater Buddha, was internationally-praised and is currently being made into a film. Jaimal’s second book, The Fear Project, is a personal and journalistic investigation into our most primal emotion.