by Monica A. Ross, LPC
Face their fears. That’s another thing that resilient people do. This one reminds me of an Eleanor Roosevelt quote, one of my very favorites: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
It's true, people who are able to rise above less than ideal circumstances have the ability to face their fears. And there is actually some science behind this one—brain science. The innermost part of the brain also known as the lizard or reptilian brain was the first to evolve.
The reptilian brain is that primitive part of ourselves that exists in the 21st century right alongside driverless cars, wireless devices, broadband internet, and iPhones. It’s tied to the amygdala or the fear center of the brain. The amygdala processes information in milliseconds. Think about that. From an evolutionary perspective, this is important and necessary because how else would we know to react when something threatening enters our environment?
As I’m sitting here thinking about this, I’m imagining the earliest humans gathered around a fire. A predator enters the circle and then the need to react immediately to the threat—again for survival. Are things really all that different today?
The amygdala processes information so quickly that the body knows to react before we have established the cognition about what exactly it is that we find threatening. Have you ever had the sensation of burning your hand while at the stove cooking and asked yourself while it is happening the question—which part of the pot was it that I touched? What did I brush up against? How did I manage to do that just now?
Or maybe you can think of a time on the road where someone swerved too close into your lane and you swerved in turn immediately before asking yourself, now how did that happen? Was the other driver on their phone? Were they paying attention? Were they talking to a passenger? Are they ill?
You might ask yourself these questions a couple of minutes later even and after the fact as you catch up to the other car and peer into it briefly. In other words, you reacted in the moment before you were able to put the pieces of information together to establish what exactly it was that was going on—and for good reason. This primitive bit of wiring keeps us safe.
From the New York Times “In an article to be published this month in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Dr. LeDoux reports a study with laboratory rats that were taught to fear a flashing light by having it paired with a shock. Ordinarily, once the fear is learned, it can be gradually extinguished by regular displays of the lights without the shock; this process typically takes several weeks.
When some of the rats had their visual cortexes removed, they still learned to fear the lights - evidence that it is the connection to the amygdala that is crucial in forming such fears. When those same rats were shown the lights without the shock for several weeks, they retained fearfulness, unlike rats whose brains had the cortex intact.”
There are always two sides of a coin. The last post I put up was about focusing on the positive. And even though fear in general is something that we want to avoid, there is a positive side to fear. Fear like stress can rally our senses.
Fear can sharpen our focus and at the very least it can waken us up to need to make a decision—to take action. Fear calls on our ability to display courage as Southwick and Charney talk about in their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges from Cambridge University Press.
In a way, the ability for fear to be used as a tool for transformation speaks to the resiliency of the human spirit, which begs us to overcome whatever the thing is that we fear—the thing that is posing itself as an obstacle to our success.
Not all fear is pre-cognitive or emotionally based. Some fear is self-induced in a way--conscious fear. Conscious fear is the fear we feel when we imagine ourselves going on stage to give a presentation or walking down the aisle to be married or taking that job that we fear might be too challenging. Conscious fear is the fear that we ourselves generate based on what we expect will happen.
With conscious fear the trick is to focus not on the thing that we fear, but on something else. Instead of focusing on our fears on how the first date will go wrong, think instead of one good thing we hope to get out of the conversation on the date. Commit to face the fear.
It took me a while to overcome the fear of public speaking. Public speaking is still not something that I love to do, however, today I don’t avoid it. I focus instead on the importance of getting the information out there—whatever information that might be—the topic that I might be speaking on.
The process of committing to doing the thing that we are avoiding out of fear by focusing instead on positive outcomes can sometimes cause fear to fade. In other words, the positive outweighs the negative. Focusing on the positive might in some sense tip the scales in the favor of resiliency. This INC article lays it out nicely, citing research from MIT.