How To Turn Down Your Brain's Fear AlarmFear can be a predominant motivating factor behind much of our lives. Instead of having a clear idea of what we want and making decisions that move us in that direction, which will most likely involve some risk and discomfort, all too often we make fear-based decisions that limit us and our happiness. While these choices allow us to avoid that uncomfortable, anxious feeling, they don’t usually end up providing any real opportunity for growth or forward movement toward our goals.

So, we stay safe.



Your Brain Is Wired To Be Fearful

Fear is produced when your amygdala, a primitive part of the brain’s limbic system involved in the processing and expression of emotion, kicks in to do its job to ensure survival. Your brain is constantly scanning the environment for signs of danger, ready to activate reflexes to keep you safe. Your body responds to anything your brain sees as a threat with an almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes preparing you to fight or flee. These days, our bodies react to common occurrences, such as a traffic jam, a work deadline, or an argument with a partner, as life-threatening events.

Robert M. Sapolsky, a Stanford University biologist, explains in a TED talk, The Psychology of Stress: 

What stress is like for 99% of the beasts on this planet is 3 minutes of screaming terror on the savannah after which either it’s over with or you’re over with. We turn on the identical stress response for a thirty-year mortgage.”

So, stress is a normal bodily response that isn’t necessarily bad by itself. The problem arises when your brain sounds the alarm for every little thing that happens, and stress becomes an almost constant state. As a chronic condition, stress has serious negative, lasting consequences for your mind and body. (See blog: Breaking The Cycle Of Stress)

In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky writes: 

Stress can wreak havoc on your metabolism, raise your blood pressure, burst your white blood cells, make you flatulent, ruin your sex life, and if that’s not enough, possibly damage your brain.”

Your Brain Responds To Uncertainty With Fear

A 2005 study conducted by the psychologist, Ming Hsu, showed that even a small amount of uncertainty caused increased activity in the amygdala. As the level of ambiguity and amygdala activity escalated, the part of the brain involved in response to rewards, the ventral striatum, decreased functioning.

Your brain doesn’t merely prefer certainty over ambiguity. It craves it and will pursue the feeling of being right, known as “certainty bias,” every time. When you feel right, your brain is happy – even if it’s just an illusion. In the book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark writes:

The more certainty and control we think we have about a potentially threatening situation, the less stress we will feel. Interestingly enough, perception is all that counts with this. You don’t actually need to have perfect certainty or total control over how things will pan out; you just need to believe that you have them.”

Making Friends With Fear

Our brains’ innate desire for certainty, in an increasingly uncertain world, has caused anxiety to surpass depression to become the most prevalent mental health issue in the United States. According to Clark to calm our amygdala down and reduce fear, we have to transform our relationship with it from adversarial to accepting.

When you get that anxious, fearful feeling, you need to ask yourself if it’s really warranted or just an instinctual reaction to something challenging, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable. Because your brain is actually designed to thwart your conscious efforts to override the fear response, changing your relationship to fear isn’t easy, but it can be done. From your brain’s perspective to get over a fear, you have to feel it, expose yourself to it, and process it. (See blog Making Fear Your Friend.)

Remember, feelings of fear and anxiety are really just your amygdala trying to keep you safe. Is there really any danger?  Or is it just an instinctual physical response?

Defeating Fear

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, advises us to “lean into fear” by becoming more mindful, getting comfortable with uncertainty, and even welcoming the feelings. She advises us to see uncomfortable, fearful situations as opportunities rather than obstacles. Chodron encourages us to “get comfortable with, begin to relax with, lean into whatever the experience may be.”

She advises us to drop the knee-jerk reactions and story lines, to pause, breathe and be present and brutally honest with ourselves about our intentions, reasons, and actions. In her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Chodron tells this story about confronting fear:

 The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear. “

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  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    This is an encouraging reminder that we don’t have to bow to every fear that comes our way. When it comes to healing trauma, I also appreciate that a sense of safety is important for confronting our fears as well as moving slowly, which in itself gives us a greater sense of control and can help reduce the fear, but of course moving indeed.

  2. Love the Pema Chodron story Debbie…it encapsulates it all so beautifully. 🙂

      • I deal with extreme anxiety & I’m realizing now. That FEAR is the real issue. This post has made me take first step towards controlling fear & to take MY life back. I hope to have the strength to overcome fear long term. My life is at stake

        • David,

          good for you for having realizations and being willing to look at the issue. It is scary, but awareness is the first step in healing. You can most definitely learn to overcome your fear and anxiety, guide your brain, and have a more fulfilling life. I believe in you and your brain. 🙂

  3. I love the idea of leaning into our fear. I read a few years back, “The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence,” by Gavin de Becker who talks about how true fear can be a gift that can save our lives, yet unwarranted fear can be a burden. It is helpful to understand when to lean into fear and when to let it go. Thanks for a great post!

  4. Thanks for sharing Debbie. There are so many unconscious biases and patterns that our brains do without us ever realising we have the power to change them. I’m going to be open to uncertainty and ambiguity today, and see if I can see it as an opportunity rather than a fear.

    • Good for you, Ellen! It’s amazing to me how life opens up and resents you with “opportunities” when you quit fearing them!

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