In high school, I was scared shitless of dancing in front of people. Anytime I went to a party, or attended a high school dance, the crowd of people dancing in the middle of the venue was something to be avoided at all costs.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to join in either. In fact, deep down I wanted to have the courage to dance like a total jackass in front of my peers. It seemed way better than acting like a statue who was paralyzed by fear just twenty feet away.
As high school was coming to an end, it was time for our senior prom. Our school had rented out a convention room at the Fairmont hotel downtown, which by all means was a pretty swanky environment for a group of 200+ high school kids to spend an evening. I remember feeling a sense of dread as we started wrapping up dinner. The prom was about to transition into a dancing free-for-all and my anxiety was in full effect.
I don’t know what clicked for me that night, but for some reason I decided to do what many of us do when we’re fed up with our own bullshit — I just said to myself, “Fuck it.” For the next two hours, I proceeded to dance furiously to every single song that was played. Hip-hop. Rock. R&B. It didn’t matter.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a few teachers looking at me like I was nuts. My friends were asking me if I had snorted lines of cocaine in the bathroom. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself as much as I did that night.
Fast forward four years later, and my fear of dancing in public is a thing of the past. If you ask any of my friends who go out with me, they will tell you that I have zero fear of dancing in a crowded room of people whom I’ve never met. That doesn’t mean I never look like a complete idiot on the dance floor, it just means that the possibility of looking like an idiot doesn’t stop me from having fun.
That night, I learned two things. First, I learned that I could pull a few half-decent dance moves out of my ass when I wanted to. Second, and much more importantly, I learned that everything is scary until you do it.
The Fear Response
I want you to take a minute and imagine this hypothetical scenario:
You’ve never seen a dog before in your entire life. You don’t even know what they look like, or how they act. It’s late at night, around 11:00, and you’re walking back to your apartment. You decide to take a shortcut through an alley because it’s quicker than going through the main streets. As you’re walking, you come face to face with a fairly large dog that weighs around 70 pounds. It’s about 15 feet in front of you and you stop dead in your tracks and try to assess the situation.
Now, I want you to ask yourself what kind of emotions do you think you’d be feeling at that moment in time? If you’re thinking that you’d probably feel a little uncertain and anxious, maybe even terrified, you’re exactly right.
Why is this the case? Well, despite the fact that our brains have changed drastically since our most distant ancestors roamed the earth, there are still certain automatic processes in our brain that have been in place for thousands of years. In this scenario, seeing the dog triggers an automatic process that’s been hard-wired into your brain over thousands of years of evolution. This automatic process called the “fear response,” is broken down into three stages.
The first stage involves an external stimulus that sends sensory data to your brain. In this case, seeing the dog is the external stimulus.
The second stage involves two areas of your brain, the amygdala and the thalamus. Your thalamus receives the sensory data about the experience. Since sensory data alone can’t determine whether the dog is a real threat or not, your thalamus forwards the sensory information to the amygdala.
The third stage is where the amygdala receives the information and initiates what is popularly called the “fight-or-flight” response. This response causes increases in your heart rate, raises your level of alertness, and gives your body extra adrenaline.
While all of this is going on in the amygdala and the thalamus, the more rational parts of your brain are considering all of the options. When your eyes see the dog, the thalamus doesn’t just send the sensory information about the dog to the amygdala, it also sends the information to the sensory cortex and the hippocampus to establish context.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain where all of your memories are stored. So when you see the dog, your hippocampus is actively bringing any previous experiences you’ve had with dogs to the forefront of your mind. However, there’s a problem. In this hypothetical scenario, you’ve never interacted with or even seen a dog before. Your hippocampus is drawing a blank. Your brain has zero positive experiences to draw from that will calm you down and shut down the fear response. As a result, most people in this scenario would take off running in a state of panic.
The Role of Habituation
Obviously, this hypothetical scenario is about as hypothetical as you can get. If you’re walking down an alley and you see a dog, you may approach the dog a bit tentatively, but you’re not going to run for your life in a state of panic. That’s because your brain is interpreting the stimulus in a completely different way due to the fact that there are plenty of positive memories about dogs stored in your hippocampus.
Therefore, the fight or flight response is never even triggered in the first place. No shaky legs. No thumping heart beat. You feel completely normal, because the situation is completely normal to you. The reason you feel this way is due to a psychological learning process called habituation.
Habituation is defined as a decrease in response to a particular stimulus after repeated exposure to the stimulus. In other words, each time you face the things you are afraid of, the things you’re afraid of become less scary.
Although you probably can’t remember it, when you first came across dogs as a child there’s a good chance you were slightly timid around them. Not because they’re savage predators, but simply because you had never seen a dog before and your brain was responding to a stimulus it hadn’t encountered yet. Eventually however, repeated exposure to dogs caused you to figure out that they are warm and loving animals that you don’t need to be afraid of. Through experience, your brain learned that dogs were not something it needed to protect you from.
This is how habitation works. At first, you’re scared of something. Then, you become less scared of something. Soon, you forget what being scared of that thing feels like.
Habituation & Facing Your Fears
If you’re reading this article right now and you have fears that are holding you back from getting more out of your life, the fact that habituation exists should give you all of the motivation you need to get off your ass and face them.
The main reason why many of us don’t face our fears is because we believe that the level of anxiety we feel around that particular fear will last forever. We believe that we’ll always feel intensely afraid to talk to women/men we’re attracted to, so we don’t approach them. We believe that we’ll always experience gut-wrenching anxiety before riding a roller coaster, so we don’t ride them.
The antidote to fear is habituation, and the only way habituation occurs is if you have the courage to confront the things you don’t want to confront.
How to Confront Your Irrational Fears
Facing your fears isn’t something you should do, it’s something you must do. Especially if it’s a fear that is holding you back from doing what you want with your life.
There are fears we have that are rational. Fearing things like poisonous snakes, heights, and sharks, are examples rational fears. They are crucial to our survival as a species. However, irrational fears can be truly debilitating to our mental health. You shouldn’t be afraid of roller coasters. You shouldn’t have approach anxiety around men/women. You shouldn’t be terrified of public speaking. All of these fears are ones that you have learned through life experience, which means they can just as easily be unlearned through action.
As George Addair said, “Everything you want lies on the other side of fear.” But how do we get to that other side? How do we force ourselves to embrace our fears and begin the process of removing them our life?
The optimal path toward overcoming your fears lies in a behavior therapy technique called exposure therapy. The goal of exposure therapy is to slowly habituate your brain to the things that you are afraid through gradual exposure. In order to do this, most behavioral psychologists create a ladder of challenges for their patients to complete, often called an exposure hierarchy, that gradually increase in difficulty. For example, someone who is afraid of spiders might be assigned a set of challenges that look like this:
Fear – Spiders
- Challenge #1 – Look at pictures of spiders for 10 minutes
- Challenge #2 – Watch a short video about spiders
- Challenge #3 – Watch a video of humans handling spiders for 10 minutes
- Challenge #4 – Observe a spider in a closed case for 60 seconds
- Challenge #5 – Observe a spider in an open case for 60 seconds
- Challenge #6 – Stand 3 feet away from someone handling a spider for 5-10 minutes
- Challenge #7 – Touch a spider that is in someone else’s hand
- Challenge #8 – Hold a spider in your hand for 10 seconds
- Challenge #9 – Hold a spider in your hand for 30 seconds
As you can see, each challenge is slightly more difficult than the last one. As you progress through the challenges, your fear of spiders will continually decrease as you are repeatedly exposed to them. Your brain will learn through habituation that spiders aren’t as terrifying as you’ve made them out to be.
The best part about exposure therapy is its versatility. Once you complete a certain set of challenges, you can repeat the process by choosing a different set of challenges that are more difficult. If you repeat this process enough times, you will inevitably conquer whatever you were afraid of in the first place.
If you’re ready to stop carrying around irrational fears that are holding you back, you now know exactly what you need to tackle them. First, acknowledge your fears. Analyze your life and single out some of the irrational fears that you have which are clearly holding you back.
Second, make a plan to overcome them. Create a set of challenges for yourself that slowly bring you face to face with your fear.
Lastly, and this is the most important part, continue to voluntarily expose yourself to whatever it is you’re afraid of by. Don’t just complete a set of exposure challenges and think that your journey is over. Your brain is constantly learning and forming new connections as a result of your recent actions, so don’t make the mistake of letting fear creep back into your life because you weren’t proactive.
You need to solidify those connections in your brain through months, even years, of repeated exposure to the things you don’t want to confront. That’s how you conquer fear and start living up to your full potential.