Fear and its Effects on the Brain
I have had a few subscribers to the Brainpower Newsletter
write to ask me about fear and its effect on the brain. Often
this is in the context of fear that they have when in school,
whether taking a test or giving a presentation. But the subject
is one that is important to all of us. As Frank Herbert, the
author of "Dune," says, "Fear is the mind-killer."
This isn't just a dramatic metaphor for fiction, though. Fear,
especially in the extreme, causes changes in the body and brain.
Muscles tense up, ready for action, and chemical changes occur,
like the release of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream.
These changes can be useful, but it is also known that with fear
our ability to reason and our awareness of our surroundings deteriorates.
When we are afraid we are prepared to fight of flee, but we
are less able to solve problems that require higher levels of
thinking. What can we do about this problem? Police officers,
army recruits and others have been successfully trained to overcome
this response and mitigate the fear so they can think more clearly.
There are two common techniques used.
1. Training the Body
Fear is a state which is a sort of feedback loop. You are
afraid and so your body undergoes changes. But it is also true
that changes in your body can affect your level of fear. This
is especially true in situations that can cause panic.
Professionals who will potentially be in such situation regularly
are taught to take a deep breath at the onset of fear. Furthermore,
they are trained to control their breathing during stressful
encounters. Specifically, the goal is to breathe evenly and deeply.
This slows the heart rate a bit and can prevent panic.
This may seem relevant mostly to those in truly scary situations,
like when a fireman is entering a burning building or a police
officer is talking to a man with a knife. But some people do
panic when talking in front of a group or when walking into a
room to take an exam. Even milder levels of fear have their negative
effects, so deep even breathing can help in many circumstances.
2. Training the Mind
Often fear becomes panic when we think there is nothing we
can do. Army Special Forces trainees are taught to assume they
have some control in any situation. If you can get yourself to
think in that way--to assume that there is something you can
do--it is more likely that you'll maintain your ability to think
You can accomplish this habit of mind by repeatedly running
through "hopeless" situations in your mind and imagining
what might be done. It is helpful to read about real-life events
where some fast thinking made a difference in what looked to
be a hopeless situation. Do these kinds of mental exercises enough
and it will become a mental habit to make the assumption that
you can find a way to resolve whatever problems you face.
Professionals who need this sort of training also get trained
for specific contexts. A hostage negotiator is trained with simulated
hostage situations, for example. If there is a specific context
in which you find fear affecting your ability to think, you might
try repeatedly simulating and resolving the situation.
Fear is useful to those in certain contexts. The changes it
causes in the body prepare one to run or to fight. The changes
give you physical strength. But even here fear can go too far.
And when we look at the fear most people have 90% of it is without
much value (for example, we fear looking stupid even though nothing
really happens and fighting or running will not be necessary).
In other words, its worth learning to deal with fear if we want
to think clearly.
What can you do about fear and the effects it has on your
ability to think straight? Breathe deeply and evenly when fear
arises, make doing so a habit, learn to assume that there always
something you can do, and prepare for specific situations.