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Fear can propel us or leave us in complete paralysis. It can lead to our best performances if we can embrace it, or our worst failures if we allow it to overcome us. I believe that with small steps, we can overcome the fear of pursuing our passions.
Here's the physiology of fear and the 3 techniques that I use to keep it from limiting me.
Physiology of Fear
As soon as you recognise a threat—whether that’s to your safety, status or standing—your amygdala kicks into action. It raises the alarm bells, setting your fear response in motion. Cortisol and adrenaline are pumped into your bloodstream, increasing your blood pressure and heart rate. Your breathing follows suit, speeding up and you begin to sweat.
I know this process all too well. I’ve just completed my practical medical exams and this process kicked into full force before I went in. The other thing I noticed was that I had this brain fog as the fear overcame me. I couldn’t retrieve the knowledge I’d revised because my fear response was limiting me. I wanted to understand why this was, was I experiencing anxiety? Or was it just a normal response to exams?
I found this article that answered my questions. It explained that when our fear response is disproportionate to the situation, and begins to interfere with our wellbeing and daily functioning, it's classed as anxiety. I’ve realised that my fear did turn into anxiety because it was limiting my sleep, taking my appetite and affecting my wellbeing.
When I was thinking about fear, my mind took me back to a concert I’d watched a few weeks before. Dave had only been playing guitar for 4 months, yet he played it at the BRITs in front of more than 5 million people. He didn’t have to do that, he could’ve stayed in his comfort zone of rapping. Instead, he embraced his fear, using his cortisol and adrenaline to push him to perform at his best.
I’ve realised that I need practical steps to keep my amygdala, cortisol and adrenaline under control.
My 3 Steps
1) Understand the Landscape
When I’m feeling overwhelmed with fear, I’ve always found that getting a greater understanding of the problem allows me to take back control. For Dave, that may be to learn the notes on the fretboard, the strumming patterns and common chord progressions for the guitar.
For my exams, that was understanding the potential questions that may come up, procedures I'm expected to do, and questions to ask patients. Once I’ve outlined everything that may come up in the exam, I can work through and make sure that I feel comfortable with answering those questions. I find that when I don’t fully understand what’s expected of me, that’s when my fear begins to turn into anxiety. When good fear becomes bad fear. That’s not enough though, we need to process our fears.
2) Processing Your Fears
Processing my fears allows me to put them in perspective. Tim Ferriss has a question that helps me to do this:
If you made the change you’re afraid of, what’s the absolute worst that could happen? Picture it in vivid detail. If this happened, how could you recover?
For Dave, the worst case scenario is he messes up his guitar solo. Embarrassing himself in front of millions of people. Big stakes. But how could he recover? He could practice missing notes and getting back on track to stop a complete disaster. If he went down this fear setting path, he’d realise that his fans are loyal so if that happened, he’d still have millions of streams and sell out his tours.
For me, I could fail the exam. I’d have to resit it and go again. Worst case scenario is I fail the resit and have to resit the entire year. Again, this would not be ideal but I could handle it. It’d give me more time to make my videos and, in the grand scheme of things, wouldn’t be the end of the world. One way that these fears could come to pass is if we panic in the moment; here’s how I'm trying to prevent that.
3) Remain Calm: Breathing
As our cortisol and adrenaline are released, they cause us to breathe quicker. That isn’t a bad thing, but we can’t let it spiral out of control into panic. If we can control our breathing, we’re controlling our response to the hormones.
Jay Shetty, author of ‘Think Like a Monk’, has some ridiculously simple advice that I’ve found very helpful.
When you feel stressed and need to align yourself— breathe in for 4 seconds, and out for 4 seconds.
This small practice can have such a massive impact ❤️ pic.twitter.com/1PECjKKVCn— Jay Shetty (@jayshetty) February 9, 2022
The simplicity of this advice has meant that I actually use it. When fear starts to kick in, I come back to this advice and it allows me to realign myself.
Fear can propel us or leave us in complete paralysis, but our fear doesn’t just affect us. It has a profound impact on the people around us.
“As we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear
Our presence automatically liberates others”
— Marianne Williamson
Just as Dave overcame his fear of performing guitar on stage, just as I overcame my fear of those exams—you can overcome yours. I hope these 3 steps will help you to do that.