The negative impacts of fear on your body, – and why being afraid is good for you nevertheless.
‘Stress is bad for health’; ‘anxiety causes heart attacks’ – just to paraphrase two recent newspaper headlines. Experiencing stress is the new binge drinking, and needs to be avoided at all costs. That’s a fact. Right?
Nope. Admittedly: being afraid – which is in essence an intense experience of stress – can have severe negative impacts for your body and mind. Fear weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, decreased fertility and accelerated ageing. It also impairs formation of long-term memories and impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions.
And yet I am a strong advocate for fear.
That’s right: if I would be a doctor, I would strongly encourage my patients to become just a tiny bit afraid, at least once a month but preferably once a week or even once a day. My reasons for this rather unconventional advice are twofold. First, a healthy dose of fear a day keeps boredom away. Second, facing your fears is an opportunity for personal development. Only by regularly experiencing fear, you will be able to learn how to deal with it and even overcome it. And this will provide you with a sense of freedom, self-empowerment and spiritual growth.
Fight or flight
Let’s return briefly to the downsides of fear. This is what happens when you perceive a threat: when experiencing fear and other forms of stress, the sympathetic nervous system almost immediately triggers the ‘fight or flight reaction’, which readies our bodies for action. Our blood pressure and heart rate increase; blood is taken from our organs and sent to our muscles, so that they can tense. Our pupils widen, our hearing sharpens; digestion slows down and saliva is produced less quickly, so we get a dry mouth. At the same time, we begin to create moisture in other parts of our body – sweat ensures the body can cool down after explosive action. If the stress remains, the pituitary, a gland in our brain, gives our adrenal gland the instruction to make cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones. These make the blood sugar level climb and the metabolism work more quickly again, so we can get more energy to take action. And that causes knees to knock and other limbs to strongly shudder.
Now, all of those bodily responses would be very handy if at any point in your life, you’d find yourself face to face with, say, a grizzly bear. They are of less use, however, when you’ve raised your hand in a work meeting and suddenly become overwhelmed with fear of public speaking. Neither are they useful when you’re in an airplane, heading towards your holidays destination.
In such – much more common, unless you live in the wilderness, in which case you probably don’t need my advice as you are already living it – situations, we face things that are not actually dangerous but only feel scary. In those circumstances, physical fear responses are not helpful at all- in fact, they make it harder for you to reach goals and be successful. As most of your energy is sent towards your muscles, your ability to concentrate will lower. So will your ability to think creatively. To make things worse, you will have to deal with practical issues: shaking hands and a dry mouth, for example – not exactly the conditions you might hope for if you’re about to give a presentation in front of your boss and colleagues.
Room for growth
It seems quite understandable, then, that so many health experts have recently recommended people to avoid stress as much as possible. Only their recommendations seem to overlook some crucial, positive aspects of fear.
I argue that fear has a function in our modern lives that is often not recognized by health experts. Fear shows us where we have room for growth.
Consider this: if you would always allow your fears to control what you do, or vice versa, what you do not dare to do (“I’m not going to give the presentation; I always make a fool out of myself in front of an audience”), you will likely live a life that is relatively comfortable and relaxed but that is also very limited. By consistently avoiding fear, you don’t make use of life’s opportunities to get to know the unknown. You’re not exploring the full potential of what life has to offer you.
The result can be that you miss out on the things that might have been new and scary at first, but that could have become the best parts of your life. If you would overcome a fear of heights, perhaps rock climbing would become a passion you would never have wanted to miss. If you would overcome your initial shyness, perhaps you would find the love of your life. If you would learn to deal with your fear of failure, you might discover a new talent in yourself that you did not even know you had.
Me, the coward
Avoiding fear also means that you accept a certain idea about your identity: the idea that fear is a fixed characteristic of your personality. Every time you choose not to do something that you find scary, you reinforce this idea of a cowardice or incapable self. But that idea, my friends, is wrong.
For nearly a decade now, I have been doing social scientific research on fear and courage. I have interviewed the world’s bravest people: from Inuit hunters, to extreme athletes to humanitarian aid workers working in conflict zones. As diverse as their stories were, they all included this message: courage is not something we are born with but a trait that can be developed throughout our lives, and people can do that by practicing on a regular basis with scary situations or other forms of stress.
Every one of us – and yes, that includes you – is able to develop courage and overcome fears, as long as we apply the right methods to do so. There exist relatively simple, safe fear management strategies that you can practice at home and that are proven effective. These include self-hypnosis, visualization, relaxation techniques and other scientifically proven effective tools and practices. I have applied these methods myself to help me overcome fear of heights and a fear of flying, amongst others, and now enjoy both rock-climbing and traveling by airplane. Participants of the online Fearlessly Fearful training have applied these methods to overcome fear of failure, fear of public speaking, fear of driving a car, fear of spiders, of cats, of elevators, of romantic dating – well, you get the idea. The point is that people who become familiar with these methods become able to live the life that they want to live, instead of the life that they dare to live. By practicing with stressful situations and overcoming fears in controlled ways, these people boost their self-confidence and get to live a most adventurous life.
So if you have been trying to follow-up doctor’s advice and avoid stress, I invite you to rebel with me. Face your fears, in that way challenging your idea about who you are and what you are able to do in life. Your life might become slightly more stressful than it is now, I will admit that, but it will also be full and exciting – and that’s a fact.
Want to challenge your fears and learn how to live a more courageous life? Information about Fearlessly Fearful and other online trainings can be found on www.fearlesslyfearful.com