Fear isn’t all that scary

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Ella Albright

Ninth Grader Ella Albright is expressing her fear of rain

What if I told you that there is a safe way to rewire your brain so you can get rid of your deepest fear?

Would you jump at the chance to relieve your sweaty palms, or reject the process?

We are all afraid of something. The Paul Ekman Group says that “fear arises with the threat of harm, either physical, emotional, or psychosocial, real or imagined.” While some fears keep us protected and safe (for example, being scared of an armed robber is good), other fears might be little things that might not really harm you (like spiders).

Freshman Ella Albright has a fear of rain

So, what are people afraid of? Fears can vary IMMENSELY, from common to strange. When I sent a survey to the student body, I found that most people were scared of being alone, death, failure, losing someone, public speaking, and spiders. Someone was even scared of ducks, and another was scared of crickets! To combat your fear, maybe you’ve already tried to avoid your fear. However, that isn’t necessarily the approach you want to take (it just makes it worse). Not many people know about a fascinating process known as exposure therapy for phobias.

Exposure therapy for phobias is a process in which you are repeatedly introduced to your fear in a safe environment. Eventually, your brain rewires and you aren’t afraid of your fear anymore! According to an article that Dave Carbonell wrote, “it’s not just about “getting used to” the fear. It’s about retraining your brain to stop sending the fear signal when there isn’t any danger.” As stated before, avoiding your fears just strengthens the phobia, which negatively affects you. This exposure therapy trains you to “let go” of phobias and anxiety. 

How can we rewire our brain? When your brain gets a signal of danger, a part of your brain responds with the familiar “fight or flight” response. The American Institute of Stress says that “fight or flight represents the choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment. They could either fight or flee.” Our ancestors were focused on not becoming food for anyone, and this “fight or flight” system was a good method that kept us alive. Our brain’s responses are fast and efficient!

The part of our brain that makes these decisions is called the amygdala. It is a very small part of our brain (almond-sized!). If we had instead used our cerebral cortex to make these decisions, we would have been dead – it’s very slow at processing information! The cerebral cortex is great to use when doing a project, but not when you have a couple seconds to make a life-and-death choice. Also from Dave Carbonell’s article, the “The amygdala works quickly, without your conscious awareness, because speed is vital in protecting against threats. You only find out what the amygdala did when you feel its effects in your body (all the familiar panic sensations) and in your behavior (duck, run, escape).”

Research shows that the amygdala is always on guard and trying to keep you safe. It is always processing your surroundings, and will make you frightened if it senses danger. Your amygdala’s main goal is to keep you alive – and if that means scaring you to keep you away from something, then your amygdala will do it. Because of this, it will often caution you of danger even when it is not present. For example, if your amygdala tells you to run away from a stranger holding a gun, that’s a good thing! But, if you run away from a squirrel or your friend’s house, that’s bad. Perhaps this is because your amygdala associates the object with a bad memory or incident. Your amygdala will then continue to think that the squirrel or your friend’s house is dangerous, and cause you to be frightened if you come across them again. The reason it thinks this is because your amygdala doesn’t make these decisions with conscious thought – they make them with association (which is why you can’t talk yourself out of a fear). It will associate the squirrel with danger without realizing that a squirrel is harmless.

So, how can you control your amygdala and what it thinks is dangerous? The main thing to remember here is that your amygdala will only learn when it’s “fully awake”, and that’s when you are scared. Because your Amygdala can learn from experience, you have to prove to it that your fear (let’s go with squirrels) isn’t a large threat. You need to trigger yourself with your fear (squirrels) and stay there with it until your amygdala learns that it made a huge deal over nothing. Repeating this process will allow you “let go” of your fear and get on with your life!

These results won’t happen overnight, and there are many coping strategies you can use to do this (here are some examples). You could even just sit there and relax until you are not afraid! As you embark on a journey to face your fears, just remember: Fears are nothing more than a state of mind.

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