Anyone who has worked in professions where you stand at the crossroads of life and death on a daily basis knows, first hand, the real and true meaning of fear. From military personnel, to police officers to doctors–these are the living who live vicariously close to death. When you’ve lived that closely and that intimately with death at the door, you grow to understand fear with a hard sense of certainty.

You may even wonder, the circumstances under which you will depart from this world. Will you be killed or assassinated? Will you die of cancer? Will you die of old age? Or will you spend years unconscious in a coma–hanging on for dear life?

For folks in these professions, fear is a fact of life. Fear represents that instinctual and intuitive force within us that fights for its own survival. Fear is a force, which for you–vis-a-vis your occupation–is an embodiment and an undeniable facet of your existence.

The ability to manage and deal with fear and its medley of physical, emotional and psychological responses was for me, for a long time, a matter of life and death.

Fear and Phobia

There is a palpable difference between a phobia and a fear. Fear is an emotional response and a reaction to a real or a perceived danger. Fear can be a helpful guide in helping you to either avoid or respond appropriately to a potentially dangerous situation.

A phobia, however, is a distinct fear or anxiety about a certain object or situation–exposure to which consistently provokes fear and distress. The fear experienced also tends to be disproportionate to the actual danger the object or event poses.

But do people with specific phobias actually know there is no real reason to be afraid? And if they did, would they be able to avoid their overreaction?

A phobia has been described as an irrational response to something that is not a threat. The response may be so intense it interferes with the ability to function or perform daily tasks. Even thinking about the scenario can trigger symptoms of anxiety. If you have a phobia, you might develop a fear response even when you’re not facing it head on. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, just thinking about speaking in public could trigger shaking or sweating.

Simulated Fear

In recent decades, there has been a growing field of psychology which trains military and police officers on how to effectively deal with their fears.

Back in the early 1980s, psychologist Donald Meichenbaum developed a therapeutic intervention intended to work similarly to a vaccine for patients. The doctor named the practice stress inoculation therapy. It is a type of cognitive behavioural therapy which aimed to prepare patients for stressful circumstances and events in order to help them deal with stress-inducing situations with minimal distress.

This works much the same way as a vaccine that protects people against a disease by exposing them it in a small dose in a controlled manner. Then later on, when they are actually exposed to disease, it won’t kill them because they have, over time, already built up a natural resistance and sometimes even an immunity to it.

During training, for instance, police officers use paint pellets in drills which replicate what they encounter when they are out on the street. They are holding a real gun, but instead of real bullets, there are paint pellets. The stressful situations all feel and seem very real — the flash, the bang and smell of gunfire. The consequences, however, are not. These fake bullets leave only a smattering of paint.

The fear that one encounters, even in this sort of controlled simulation, does feel very real–even when there are no physical or tangible consequences.

Like a nightmare, these trainings can evoke the deepest and darkest aspects of one’s own psyche and a million and one ‘what if scenarios’ if something were to go wrong. Even in these simulated and safe training conditions, people do cross over into the unconscious world–and it is a world distorted by repressed and primitive fear. It can lead the mind to chaos and confusion.

The Response to Fear

There is no way to define what our individual response to fear will be. The mental and psychological impact is one aspect of it; but the experience of fear can also trigger a physical response. Your heart begins racing, your mouth gets dry, your hands start to tremble, maybe you even begin weeping uncontrollably or screaming your lungs out.

Despite their undeniable interconnected nature, one big difference between the human mind and our physical body is that in many respects the physical body–through its sensory organs–is still able to tell the difference between what is tangible and what is intangible. Your body cannot eat an imaginary cake, but it can and does respond to an imaginary fear. When we speak of the human mind, stressful situations–even the simulated ones–all feel and seem extremely real.

Why? Because the mind tends to ‘fill in the blanks’. Let’s say someone delivered a shocking piece of information to you. You did not see it coming. Your nervous system will start kicking in to respond to the external stimuli. Your adrenal glands begin to secrete adrenaline. The blood flow to your frontal lobe, which is responsible for logical thinking and planning, begins to decrease. And before you know it, the deeper, more animalistic parts of your brain—including the amygdala—have taken over.

A part of the brain, known as the hippocampus, is closely linked with the amygdala. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat. During this phase, all of your body’s resources get diverted toward one goal: staying alive. As some parts of the brain amp up, other parts begin shutting down.

When the amygdala senses fear, the cerebral cortex (of which the frontal lobe is a part) becomes impaired. It inhibits your ability to make good decisions or think clearly. If you’ve ever been to a haunted house and been shocked or surprised, you know the feeling of having had your flight-or-fight response trigged. For a few moments, you were unable to rationalise that the threat is not ‘real’.

Let us not blame the stimuli that causes that fear with the root cause of the fear itself. Fear is a fundamental and basic fact of human nature. It is hard-wired into our being. For the past 25 years, scholars have created an impressive amount of literature on risk perception. Risk perception helps to explain why our fears, and our responses to those fears, often do not match the facts.

A risk we willingly choose always seems less dangerous to us than a risk that is imposed on us. However, our self-perception of the viability of the risks we choose willingly; as being inherently less risky than the ones we cannot choose, can contribute to potentially dangerous misperceptions of risk, which in turn can lead to terrible decision-making.

We can grossly misjudge the relatively small risks we should be taking and are not fearful enough of the significantly large ones that could actually harm us.

Risk-Taking and Courage

Risk-taking has a positive relationship to growth–especially if it is done in increments. Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is a very common phobia and one that is believed to affect up to 75% of the population. While some may feel slightly nervous at the thought of public speaking, others have been known to experience full on panic.

This may lead them to try to avoid public speaking situations at all costs. If they must speak in public, they do it with shaking hands and a quavering voice. This may be trigged by prior bad experiences with speaking in public; or it may be the product of never having tried at all. How does one overcome a fear of public speaking–especially if overcoming this widespread fear is known to lead to greater rewards–both at home and in the workplace?

Joining an organisation such as Toastmasters, where one practises public speaking in a simulated environment, can prepare an individual for when they actually have to do it. When you do it at Toastmasters, there is little by way of any real or actual consequence or repercussion.

Even if everyone hates your speech, you will not be ‘fired’ for speaking inappropriately or out of turn during a very important occasion. A simulated environment such as this one is the perfect place to take risks and even mess it all up–which you may well do in the early days. With time and persistence, however, you will master the skills and the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with or perhaps even eradicate that fear for good.

Another way to overcome the fear of public speaking is through preparation. At Toastmasters, for instance, you are exposed to the art of both impromptu speaking as well as the art of giving prepared speeches. For prepared speeches, you have ample time to write, revise and rehearse before giving your delivery.

There are many real-life situations where one should prepare, prepare and prepare before opening one’s mouth. Table topics, on the other hand, can simulate us to get into the habit of speaking when preparation is not possible. If you think about it, we are doing this ‘table topics business’ everyday. Our bosses or loved ones ask us a question; and when we are unable to communicate effectively, it could lead to many unpleasant scenarios.

By being exposed to people who do speak well, we can pick up many tips and tricks to do it better ourselves. This exposure and experience in a simulated environment can really prepare us for when we have to do it in real life.

It takes courage to take that first step and then persistence to ensure that you actually reach your goal. But you will never arrive at your goal if you never take that risk.

A Personal Story

I have a friend whom I always thought of as fearless and as the bravest person I have ever known. One day, we went to a networking event and I noticed those tell tale signs of fear. Given my military background, I am not the most emotionally sensitive or articulate person, but I do know and understand the fear response very well.

Anyone who thinks the brave do not fear are kidding themselves. They do. This friend I was telling you about has been in combat situations–even in foreign countries. I could not understand why something as simple as a networking event was triggering such a strong fear response. I didn’t ignore it, but I made a mental note of it.

The second time we went to a networking event, the fear was even worse. The individual in question broke down in tears. I could not understand why something so simple could cause so much distress. This person had been through so much worse.

It took me sometime to figure out that this individual was having a fear response that was triggering highly unpleasant childhood memories. I won’t go into the details, but that is very much the power of fear. It really does not have much of a relationship to courage.

Fear is a natural and normal primal response. And the more we learn to see it that way, the less we will have to fear.

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