Overcoming Fear, Be It Of Spiders Or Public Speaking, Means Reteaching Your Brain To Think

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Getting rid of our fears isn't easy, but the hardest part may be confronting a far different set of personal challenges. Capture Queen, CC BY 2.0

Everyone is scared of something: spiders, the dark, the pointless futility of existence. Try as we might to overcome these fears with temporary fixes (or just hightailing it out of there), the fears stayed locked inside our psyches. Most of the time they remain dormant, remaining forgettable until we chance upon them, at which point we’re reminded how much better life would be if they went away forever.

Luckily, understanding why we’re afraid and how to overcome those fears is a major point of scientific research. Psychologists can collect images of the brain and see firsthand when the brain experiences a fear response. In everyday life these findings matter little. But a few key strategies have managed to trickle down, and they can help people to live at peace.

What Is Fear?

Unlike the brain’s many cohabitating abilities, fear mostly keeps to itself. It lives in the amygdala, where incoming signals hit the eyes and ears and get turned into nerve impulses sent straight to the two almond-shaped structures tucked right behind your eyes.

These signals then draw on hardwired memories to create a plan of action from a list of three choices, which have likely been hammered into your head since grade school: fight, flight, or freeze. Spiders are creepy and crawly and do no good for anyone, especially you right now, so seeing one on your kitchen floor causes you to scream and jump onto the nearest chair.

Scientifically, the sight of the spider triggered a fear-based memory that compelled your muscles to spring into action. So in this sense, fear isn’t an emotion as much as a reaction. You didn’t choose to cower on the chair, after all; you just did it. That means fears must arrive at some point as negative associations with an inciting action, animal, sensation, or event. Often, they come in infancy. Such is the case, for instance, with the fear of heights.

On 2013 study found babies who began crawling earlier had more of a fear response to a one-meter fall than babies who started later, the explanation being that babies who were familiar with their surroundings could better appreciate the danger of a fall. The non-crawling babies seemed to be instead struck with a sense of awe.

The fear of heights, or acrophobia, is just one of many. And not all fears can be assigned a distinct phobia, such as the sudden pang of worry right before a big speech or the growing dread of an anxiety attack. But that might not be so important when it comes to overcoming fears in general. Scientists are finding the ways in which people conquer their fears can actually be traced back to breaking the negative associations that formed in the past. For that, they offer a menu of options.

How To Get Rid Of It For Good

Scientists like to call the removal of a fear its “extinction.” Fears become extinct when the stimulus no longer triggers a physiologic and behavioral response. That typically happens through some mix of exposure therapy, psychological reframing, and a little help from hormones.

Exposure therapy tries to accomplish what its name already makes rather obvious: If someone is afraid of snakes, the person gradually increases her level of interaction with snakes until she feels comfortable, or at best unafraid. She might start by looking at pictures of snakes and vocalizing how she feels. This is known as “affect labeling.” It works by breaking down the automatic response a person has to a fearful stimulus, which scientists discovered most compellingly in a study conducted in 2007. When subjects verbalized their gut reactions, their amygdala response subsided along with other parts of their hardwired emotional response systems. They effectively turned a kneejerk reaction into a choice about how to feel.

These techniques work well not just for general phobias, but for the everyday fears that fill us with dread — the kinds that come in the form of anxiety, stress, and nervousness.

When we experience these reactions, our brains release cortisol and adrenaline. Scientists have found one way of making them go away is through the counteracting release of oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” which gets released when we hug, kiss, and feel intimate with someone. In 2014, scientists showed an oxytocin nasal spray helped fear stimuli to subside more easily in subjects. The findings could have huge implications for anxiety patients in the form of new drugs, the researchers explained. In day to day life, it means a reassuring embrace could change your entire attitude toward your fear.

For the peskier fears, the nagging butterflies that just won’t quit, the best advice goes against the common wisdom to calm down — you should get amped. In 2013, scientists found performance anxiety rates fell substantially when participants pumped themselves up rather than when they tried to get their heart rates down. In the same vein, research from psychologist Amy Cuddy has famously found that striking the powerful “Wonder Woman” pose before a big interview or meeting releases testosterone and helps boost confidence.

If all else fails, and you just want to get rid of your arachnophobia, one of the most common fears in the world, there’s an app for that.

Taking Back The Power

Conquering a fear can feel like a helpless, lonesome pursuit. What psychologists try to emphasize is that getting rid of the automatic responses means coming to terms with why the experience is fearful.

Big speeches convince your brain that survival is on the line because ancient humans needed social approval to stay in the in-group, where there was food and shelter. Insects and reptiles awaken a primal revulsion to possibly venom-carrying wildlife, even if they’re harmless lizards or garden snakes. And deep-seated fears, the hardest emotional barriers to overcome, may trace back to a scarring incident in childhood we haven’t come to terms with yet.

The trick, many suggest, is recognizing that the fearful object is usually within our control. We just have to be brave enough to confront it. 

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