The Big Idea
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Words of advice from Baz Luhrmann‘s 1990’s hit called “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen”. This lyric seemed to stick with us as we were thinking of whether something that frightens you is necessarily bad. In fact it seems that a little of what scares you could actually be good for you. This discussion was also prompted by recent charity random skydives by fellow guests and 52experimenters Cathy Hart and James Bushe. Jen then shared with us that a contact of hers 3x Paralympian Louise Sugden had so much to add here in challenging her fears to achieve her success.
Talking with Louise, and other inspirational athletes like fellow 2x Paralympian Anna Turney, have helped us realise that we are either moving away from or towards our goals. Without challenging the fears of doing the things we need to do to achieve the things we want and need, the more this fear holds us back – meaning we are far less likely to have a sense of fulfilment in life. This seems true even if you don’t have a specific goal, in which case we tend to drift in a world that becomes increasingly smaller, as we limit ourselves by things we don’t do because they (might) scare us. Then something big does come along and takes us out by really freaking us out. Remember here that acute fear tends to close down our brains’ ability to see creative options and even anything outside of the things that are really scaring us.
Now you don’t have to be as motivated as an elite athlete like Louise and Anna. But it seems being aware and then intentional about challenging yourself with fear can actually become exciting. Some people obviously become addicted to the sense of achievement, confidence and accomplishment that they get by regularly doing this. It also seems that doing this even a little bit regularly really helps you to become calmer when thrown out of our comfort zone – ultimately becoming more resilient people.
So this is a tip that might seem scary at first but could end up being a exciting lifestyle for many of you.
Got it…What’s the Science
We have already spoken about the 4Fs of fear on The52Project. When we get scared our brain initiates a number of bodily processes that means we either tend to Fight, Flee (Flight), Freeze or Flock (just go with others). These are evolved survival strategies that we have in response to danger and threat. These strategies have worked well since our days as animals and stone age days – in that we are here today as a species. The thing is that as our brains evolved to be able to imagine and preempt fear (to predict through time travel – #Tip9). This has meant that we can build up a perception and scenarios in our minds that are scary but which are disproportionate from the likelihood that they will do us or those we love harm. All too often our reaction to this is to give in to the fear and to avoid the uncomfortable sensations associated in attempt to make us feel more comfortable. This can become a habit that can serve us well enough, in that we think we are safe enough and so comfortable. The problem is that we can become risk averse and far less capable of dealing with situations that scare us when they do happen. We ourselves have felt what this does to our sense of life fulfilment. Many recorded stories of people in their dying days speak of their regret at shying away from the fear of trying new things.
Now lets get one thing straight science wise. The emotional reaction to fear is perceptual – in other words it is unique to the individual brain. But it is still very real! What scares someone may seem irrelevant to you but the physiological response they are having to it is very much real and on a par (if not more so) than you to tings that scare you. The trick here is not to dismiss your fear, or that of someone else, but to encourage a putting off the reaction to Fight, Flight, Freeze or Flock in situations that scare you but that you do know are not likely to do you any real harm. This is called ‘urge surfing’ – sitting with the stimulus and delaying the urge to do the instinctive behaviour. As we do this our heart rate tends to slow as the brain works out that we are still alive and maybe we are not in so much mortal peril as it initially thought. As this happens more blood and oxygen is encouraged and allowed back to the Prefrontal Cortex (PFF) – the more rational and creative thinking part of our brain. Practicing this fairly regularly means that we get used to the feeling – we habituate to the scary stimulus. For people with phobias this can part of what’s called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – where a patient or client is hoped to train themselves to react more proportionately (healthily) to a scary stimulus. Those that do this can feel freed from the discomfort and life limiting impact of such stimuli. It is important that this takes intentional effort and time. This does not have to be done alone.
When athletes, or those who work in scary or stressful situations like the emergency services or forces for instance, do this they deliberately they are deliberately putting themselves out of their ‘comfort zone’ into their ‘stretch zone’. This is training. The key here is not to overwhelm the body or brain and so to avoid a challenge that pushes them into the ‘panic zone’ which would illicit the 4Fs and less focus and achievement of the goal. High performance means finding that sweet spot between comfort and panic sometimes called the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ (not too hot, not too cold). It is this Goldilocks zone that coaches, trainers and therapists help their charges to navigate in service of achieving their goals. Done appropriately this means someone can build up tolerance and resilience to pressure that can also ‘translate’ into other situations that scare them, making them more resilient still.
One other thing here is those two brilliant neurotransmitters Serotonin and Dopamine. It appears that this habituation helps improve the sense of wellbeing that we can have to being scared thanks to serotonin messaging in the brain. It is this effect that many antidepressants and anxiety medication seek to stimulate by lengthening the time serotonin is available and active between serotoninergic synapses. Dopamine is often released after achieving a goal or something meaningful. This means that training to overcome a challenge that scares us gives an adrenaline rush, that when accompanied by a shot of dopamine, becomes addictive. The slight issue can be here is that some people become infatuated with the next rush, that then usually has to get more and more extreme to get the same kind of rush because their practice means they habituate to events that would have scared them in the past.
We believe though that a little scare regularly can give you that shot of accomplishment that, a bit like having a cold shower in the morning (#Tip 1) can make you feel and be more alive day to day. It also means that you are likely to become more confident and self assured in your abilities. So when faced with scary situations in the future, rather than hiding in your shell you are more likely to be reactive, navigating the sensations of the fear and so being able to not only perform but recover and move on quicker. This means you can increasingly become able to trust yourself to come through, which means you are far more likely to do so when you really need to without hesitating or running away.
Watch our #Tip43 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With Dulcie, Jen, Dr Iain and special guest Louise Sugden.
Like so many other #Tips we strongly recommend caution on this. This is not about throwing yourself into dangerous or overwhelming situation. It is about regularly challenging yourself to feel what it’s like to feel a bit scared by being in your ‘stretch zone’. If you are at all uncertain about this then do find an experienced coach, teacher or trainer. After all Cathy and James didn’t just strap on a parachute and jump out of a plane by themselves! They worked with those who were competent and self-assured (professional) in their ability to do that particular extreme sport as well as being qualified to help others to do so too. If you are thinking of an extreme sport or activity then please seek professional help. That way you will be as safe as you can be whilst also being far more likely to enjoy it and get that important sense of accomplishment too. You are also far more likely to find your flock (#Tip34) and all the benefits that could bring you too. Do let us know how you get on!
“An individual develops courage by doing courageous acts.” Aristotle
Tales from our Test Partners
Watch this space… Or why not fill it with some of your fright pics?!
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