Today, I want to talk about fears and phobias, and how to overcome them. The techniques I will share work for a range of fears – from public speaking anxiety to deep-rooted phobias.
I will share the neuroscience of fear and how it is encoded in our brain, and from there, we will derive some simple ideas for overcoming fear. These ideas are just as useful for laymen like us as they are for trained psychologists and counselors.
I would like to start by sharing this story. As a kid, I was extremely shy and introverted, bordering on phobia. If someone visited my house, my instinct was to immediately hide. My parents had to prod and threaten me just to go and say ‘namaste’ to the visitors.
So you can probably imagine my terror when in 2nd grade, my class teacher asked me to read out the ‘Thought for the day’ in the morning assembly, in front of 1000 odd students. I was on the verge of tears but somehow my parents and class teacher convinced me to do that.
I remember memorizing that one-liner and somehow psyching myself up to deliver it. I went onto the stage with shaking knees, blurted out that one-liner at the microphone, and walked away. It was like the world had stopped in that moment.
But here is the funny thing – after that event, I felt much less terrified of facing a crowd, as if some sudden transformation had happened.
Unknowingly, my class teacher had subjected me to a technique for overcoming fear, but we will talk more about that in a bit.
Now let us talk a little bit about the neuroscience of fear.
In our complex brain, out of the many structures, two are particularly relevant here:
- The cortex
- The amygdala
The cortex is our thinking brain while the amygdala is responsible for emotions such as fear.
Both the cortex and the amygdala store memories, but the amygdala, in particular, forms emotional memories and triggers fear and anxiety.
The amygdala forms memories by association. E.g., let us say you make a presentation to your boss and he humiliates you. Now, your amygdala has coded a memory associating your boss with humiliation. Every time this experience (of your boss causing humiliation) is repeated, this memory deepens even more.
One day, you just see your boss in the corridor. He hasn’t uttered a word and yet, your chest is thumping and you are a nervous wreck.
At this point, the phobia of your boss has firmly set in. No amount of self-talk will help – you can try reminding yourself that your boss is not going to criticize you today – after all, you are just crossing them in the corridor.
And the reason for the phobia is that whenever you see your boss, your amygdala pulls up the associated memory of humiliation.
And the amygdala is outside the control of your cortex (your thinking brain) – that is why no self-talk or reassurances work. For the same reason, reassuring a kid scared of public speaking is not very helpful.
So even if knowing that something is not dangerous does not remove the fear, then there is no hope, right? Wrong!
In fact, we can use the associative nature of the memory itself to cleverly break it.
Let us take the example of public speaking. A person gives a talk and it goes really, really badly – he gets booed. Now, that person’s amygdala associates ‘A’ (public speaking) with ‘B’ (humiliation). Every time ‘A’ happens, the amygdala pulls up the associated memory of ‘B’.
So if ‘A’ is associated with ‘B’, how can we break that association?
Very simple: If ‘A’ happens but ‘B’ does NOT happen, then the amygdala will be forced to rewrite the memory and remove the association between ‘A’ and ‘B’.
This means that if this person gives a talk that is very well received, the amygdala will see that the association of ‘public speaking’ with ‘humiliation’ was wrong. Gradually, it will remove that association between ‘A’ and ‘B’.
But for this, in the first place, the person has to be exposed to ‘A’ (i.e., public speaking), which can be very uncomfortable! This technique where a person is exposed to the event that triggers the fear is called ‘exposure therapy.’
For this exposure therapy to work, when the person is exposed to whatever triggers the fear, the outcome should be positive. E.g., in the previous example of the boss humiliating the person, if he has a few meetings where the boss is very kind and appreciative, gradually the old association of the boss with humiliation will be rewritten.
This exposure can be done in two ways:
- Flooding: In the public speaking example, let us say the person gives a talk in front of a large audience and is really appreciated. Now, the brain gets a strong signal that the association of public speaking with humiliation was wrong. This quickly rewrites amygdala’s associative memory.
That is why, when I was a kid, I felt so confident after I spoke in front of a large audience.
- Systematic desensitization: Here, we introduce the person to the trigger gradually.
E.g., you first give a talk in front of family members. When that goes well, you give a talk (or presentation) in front of your colleagues. When that goes well you try in front of a small audience of strangers. Finally, you give the talk before a large audience.
Systematic desensitization kicks in slowly but it is also much less uncomfortable.
In short, if you fear something, you have to expose yourself to the situation that caused fear in the first place. Also, you need to ensure that the outcome is pleasant.
When it comes to fear, there is no choice but to face our fears. But this technique works.
If there are any fears that bother you, try this out. If the phobia is deep-rooted, you can even take the help of a trained psychologist.
Today’s newsletter was a bit technical – I hope you did not mind it.
At HabitStrong, our goal is to help you live a good life, be it through our bootcamps, articles, or newsletters (like this). Hope you found it valuable.
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