What Are We Afraid Of?

Recognizing Fear as Your Emotional Construction

Fear is an ancient response of the brain to a perceived threat. In moderate amounts, it protects us by making us more careful. We may even incite it for the thrill, as folk do with fairground rides. My sister used to beg me to take her to the midnight horror movies, then spend the show alternately screaming and burying her face in my arm.

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Large fear reactions, however, are different in quality not just amount, and can cause serious illness. Fear that is not dissipated by vigorous physical activity builds up excitatory chemicals in the brain to damaging levels. These chemicals puncture cell membranes, causing chemical leaks, and forming a deadly free radical called peroxynitrite.

Fear also increases heart rate and blood pressure, disrupts balance and bowel function, and can render the sufferer unable to speak or move (“rooted to the spot”). Persistent fear reactions can continue for weeks or months, rendering the sufferer helpless and damaging the brain.

Paralyzing fear can even knock you unconscious or cause a heart attack and kill you. There are numerous records of executions by witch doctors in undeveloped societies, by simply pointing a harmless bone that literally frightens the victim to death. We are all subject to similar manipulations of the mind. Cool water can raise real burns if the victim is led to fear it is boiling.

Yet fear does not exist in any object or situation. Fear has no physical existence at all. Fear is purely an emotional construction that you create in your own mind.

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Begin today to take three steps to remove fear from your life:

1. Whenever you are becoming afraid, use this reminder to stall it: “There I go, frightening myself again.”

2. Face diluted situations of your worst fears. A brilliant student of mine was so afraid of public speaking he would be struck dumb and trembling and have to leave the stage. I started removing his fear by having him do talks just to me in an empty lecture hall. Over several months we added people until he could speak to a full room. Now he lectures calmly to international audiences. Practice facing diluted situations of your worst fears. Make diluted fear your friend, and the real fear will disappear.

3. Fear has many instinctive bodily expressions, including covering the eyes, screaming, crouching, trembling, turning away, sharp intakes of breath, and paralysis of motor movement. To prevent fear developing, avoid its instinctive expressions by doing the opposite. Stand erect, silent, square your shoulders, relax your muscles, and breathe deeply and evenly. Smile, face your fear, and march directly and purposefully towards it. Even if you are initially terrified, when you do what you fear repeatedly, death of that fear is certain.

Many folk don’t realize the tremendous bonus you get from facing fears. Face one fear repeatedly until you conquer it, and the courage generalizes to other fears. Other unthinkable actions become within your grasp. Overcome your fear of talking to strangers and the scary walk along the cliff-top edge becomes the previously impossible rappel down the face. Overcome the stage fright of speaking alone to an audience, and the impossible bungee jump becomes a laughing leap. What power our brains have if only we take the initial scary step.

Tomorrow will dawn fresh and new, unsullied by your past, pure of your emotional history, pure of anything you have ever done, or anyone has ever done. I am ready as I go to bed to reject all fears and do my best to make the new day the masterpiece that waits in every one of us. Are you?

This post first appeared as an update on the Colgan Institute Facebook wall. Reproduced here with permission.

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Michael Colgan About Michael Colgan

Founder and chief scientific officer of the Colgan Institute and author of numerous books on nutrition, aging, and human performance. You can follow him on Facebook.