Your Year To Conquer Fear
Triumph in scary situations.

October 3, 2014

It wasn’t flying through the air at 145km/h that scared Travis Pastrana.
The moment he left the ramp and took flight, the fear vanished. The scariest part of this daredevil’s record-breaking 82m car-jump was sitting behind the wheel waiting to go, knowing that he’d badly crashed in a similar set-up days before. So to hit the accelerator that night – New Year’s Eve of 2009 –
Pastrana had to dig deep.

He had to tap that mysterious force called courage. You know courage. It’s the stuff you need to stand up to the boss, stop an intruder or have that Big Talk with your mate. It’s what you need to push through your hesitation and stay in control all the way to the end, no matter what. “When things start going wrong, what’s key is the ability to stay rational and make the best decision,” says Pastrana. He reached the landing that night, but Pastrana’s greatest triumph was simply putting foot. “If you can commit to action despite fear, the courage will follow,” says Stanford psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct . How else can you bolster your heroic side? Read on. We have the keys to courage.

In October 2009, 73-year-old hiker Kenneth Brunette failed to return from California’s Mount Whitney. A helicopter search team soon spotted his pack propped up on a rock on the peak’s west side. Two days later they found Brunette’s remains in a gulley on the east side of the mountain, many kilometres away. He had left his gear, crossed a trail that could have led him to safety, wound up in dangerous terrain and fallen to his death.

Brunette’s behaviour is not uncommon among people who become lost in the wilderness. While intense fear can improve your ability to perform well-rehearsed skills, it tends to shut down the frontal cortex – the part of your brain responsible for logic and planning – and triggers the instinctive fight-or-flight response. Your job is to suppress that urge, says neurobiologist Robert Koester, the author of Lost Person Behavior. If you get lost, he recommends, start doing some work to take your mind off the whole holy-crap-I’m-lost thing. “Military pilots used to be told, ‘The first thing you do after you parachute out of your plane is drink some water or sort your gear.’ The idea was to engrain the need to collect their nerves before doing anything.” Once you’ve calmed down, weigh up your options. Can you backtrack? (Lost adults almost never take this simple step.) Phone for help? Even if your cell reception is weak, a text message might get through. If night is falling, make a shelter of branches and leaves and hunker down. You won’t be comfortable, but you’ll get by: 93% of missing hikers are found within 24 hours once the search starts, Koester says.

Have you ever frozen at the base of a difficult ascent? That’s a variation of the panic response. “You’re so overwhelmed by environmental stress that you lose your ability to perform or react in an adaptive way,” says research psychologist Dr Marc Taylor. He studied Olympic athletes to see how they bump up their bravery during intense and often dangerous competition. Their top tactic: self-affirmation. Not just the occasional “I can do this” that you or I might utter, but maintaining positive energy all the time, whenever they were contemplating competition. Those who did this most consistently were significantly more likely to reach the medal stand, Taylor found. “If you can control that internal dialogue, it can really affect performance,” he says.

However, staying that positive takes practice. While you’re working on it, here’s another way to whip up some mettle: keep moving. Stopping at the first hint of a threat may well give it the opportunity to get the better of you. So don’t let it. “Change your position, step up a few centimetres, switch your feet, shuffle a little to the side, but keep moving one hold at a time,” says Garth Oldacre of GoVertical Mountaineering Adventures. “A different stance often unlocks the route over that crux leading to a triumphant ascent.”

Money problems never go away easily, but dwelling on them won’t help.

“The thing about financial worry is how pervasive it is in your life,” says McGonigal. “It colours everything and is impossible to turn off.”

Use a quirk of the brain to outflank the fear. “The human brain is surprisingly stupid,” she says. “It has a kind of internal checklist and whenever you make any step towards a goal, it relaxes.” Take advantage of this by setting laser focus on one thing you can do. Even just reviewing your accounts and adding up your debt to fully grasp the problem will help. “Any progress at all will free you up,” she says. “If you start to see yourself as heading down the right road, your determination will rise.”

You avoided it as long as you could, but the moment of reckoning has arrived and someone’s going to wind up with their bloody, beating heart on the floor. It’s time for The Talk; the heavy heart-to-heart that is bound to shake up your relationship. Maybe you’ve decided to take that job in Richards Bay. Maybe you lost major money at the races and need to ’fess up. You have to talk to her, but you just don’t have the nerve. Perhaps you don’t actually need the nerve, suggests psychologist Dr Irene S. Levine, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend. Say your piece in writing, even if you decide to drop the bomb in person. Writing out your feelings can make the actual conversation less daunting. “If you take the time to craft a speech for yourself, you’ll be more composed and thorough – and less hurtful,” Levine says.

You’ll probably feel better, too. People who write out their feelings by hand experience their emotions less painfully, a 2006 study in Psychological Science found. If it’s not uncommon for the two of you to have your heavy-duty talks by email, consider that as well.

“If you send her a well-crafted note or email, it gives her a chance to be in private while she absorbs the information,” Levine says.

You walk up to the podium and freeze. You’re in no real danger, yet you’re terrified. The reason has little to do with your anxiety about being a lousy speaker and everything to do with whether people like you.

Social acceptance was once a matter of life and death. “Our ancestors needed a social hierarchy to survive,” says Dr Ethan Moitra, project director for the Harvard/Brown Anxiety Research Project in the United States. “We had to adapt our behaviour based on our relative position within it. Nervousness ensures that we’re respectful to those whose opinions we value.” Problem is, as you imagine how others regard you, you become conscious of your own distress – and panic even more.

How do you maintain your mojo? For one thing, never wing it. Have a plan. Confidence is powerful armour against fear, says psychologist Dr Linda Hamilton, author of The Person Behind the Mask: A Guide to Performing Arts Psychology. Then refocus from your topic to a secondary gain. “Go in with one or two goals that mean something to you,” she says. “Maybe it’s that you want to give something to the audience, or maybe you just want to enjoy yourself and have fun.” This, she says, will bolster your bravery.

For many men, the most harrowing aspect of professional life is initiating an unpleasant conversation with a colleague, whether that means admonishing a subordinate, pushing back against a peer or standing up to a domineering boss. And trust us, you don’t want to be the office punchbag: in a study published in 2010, Moitra found that employees who can’t stand their ground are significantly more likely to wind up unemployed. So force yourself into the scrum, but remember that you’re dealing with a human being who has his own fears and motives. “If you can keep that person’s interests at heart, as well as your own, you will feel less anxious and the conversation will be more productive,” says Jana Morgan, a psychologist in private practice in Northcliff, Johannesburg.

You screwed up. For now, nobody knows but you. Should you fess up and take your licks or keep quiet and suffer in agony? What you’re feeling is dread, an anticipatory emotion – and, as anyone who has ever waited for a balloon bouncing on grass to pop knows all too well, the anticipation of a negative event is often worse than the event itself. “Negative anticipation can be crippling. It can take over your whole life,” says Mark Connelly, a Cape Town-based psychologist. The thing is, the moment you come clean you trade in your dread for “outcome emotions” like shame and remorse. These are pretty awful, too, but they fade.

That’s why Connelly recommends the Band-Aid approach. Imagine how much better you feel when you stop hesitating and just rip that sucker off. “Chances are good the consequences won’t be as bad as you feared they would be,” says Connelly. Even if things do get rough for a while, no matter how bad the blow is, we tend to recover our equilibrium in due time, according to Harvard psychologist Dr Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. Connelly agrees: “We all make mistakes. The thing we sometimes forget is that we have the ability to recover and learn from them.”

Imagine you are cruising down a busy street on your motorbike when a car suddenly noses into an empty parking spot in front of you. A collision seems inevitable. Then your instinct kicks in. You lean the bike into the empty spot, around the nose of the car and back into the street. Your brain’s fear response is fast – much faster than that of your conscious mind. And it functions automatically. All day, a subconscious region called the amygdala scans for signs of danger. When it finds a match, it activates instantly, triggering off the old fight-or-flight response.

The trick with making the most of the amygdala’s acute responsiveness is to make sure that the conscious mind doesn’t interfere by introducing doubt. “In [an emergency] situation, we have limited ability to process new information,” says Dr Jason Kring, president of the society that publishes the Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments. “Your options drop down to just one or two.” The solution: outpace your fear by focusing on the thing you do want to do (go through the gap) not the thing you don’t want to do (hit that car). “You start focusing on where you’re heading, and suddenly you’re there,” Kring says.

Before calling the cops, which could foster future tension, head over there with the intent of enlisting the offender as an ally in your cause. Maybe your wife is sick and needs to rest, or you’re working on a big project. Invite your neighbour to help solve the problem rather than opting for open confrontation, says Morgan. This approach is more likely to actually work because you are forging a connection and recruiting your neighbour’s help. “Your neighbour will be far more likely to be considerate about noise if he gets to know you as a person and feels that you care about his opinions,” says Morgan.

Life seems futile and every day brings us closer to our inevitable extinction. At least, that’s how it feels when you’re stuck in a car filled with bickering and squawking kids for hours on end. Sometimes it takes guts to just keep living your life, which may or may not have turned out the way you wanted. “You have to come to terms with the fact that we all have this life to live,” says Connelly. The way to find the courage to keep going, he says, is to focus on creating meaning and purpose in your life. As long as it’s a positive influence it really doesn’t matter what this is. “Some people choose promotion or making money while others may focus on family or religion,” he says. “It’s about holding on to the belief that there will be something more beyond this point.”

Still feel like a mosquito spiralling inexorably toward the bug zapper? Have sex. The most powerful form of human connection is touch; this releases oxytocin, the hormone that binds mothers to children and husbands to wives. Studies show that elevated oxytocin levels reduce the sensations of pain and fear. “Making physical contact with others is a great response,” says Connelly. “The body contact and hormone release make you feel better.”

Feeling squeamish? Here’s why: “An employer often plays a very parent-like role in a person’s psyche,” says Morgan. “If this is the case, a salary is more than just an economic exchange for your time and knowledge: it’s an expression of appreciation. Asking for more can make you feel very vulnerable, as though you are asking for approval.” Extricate yourself from this emotional stickiness by relying on cold economic logic. “Approach it like a business proposal. Tell the boss what you’ve done for the company and ask for something in return,” says Morgan. Knowing you’re prepared will soothe your nerves – as will understanding that what’s at stake is not your value as a human being.

Men are programmed to hold on to things they already own. We feel more pain from losing something we have than pleasure from acquiring an equivalent that we’ve never had. In one demonstration of the effect, study participants were given coffee mugs and then offered cash to give the mugs up. They demanded a much higher amount than a separate group was willing to pay to acquire a mug in the first place. If you’re clever, you can twist this predisposition to help ratchet up your nerve to try something risky. “Take advantage of your brain’s loss aversion by being very clear about the reward you’re chasing,” advises McGonigal. “Imagine that the reward is yours. Savour the payoff as if it’s already happened. Your brain will shift its focus: now it doesn’t want to lose that reward, so it’s more willing to take risks.”

You know you’re supposed to cooperate if you’re being mugged, but how does a tough guy like you whip up the courage not to act? First, understand your attacker. “Most of us don’t live with violence every day,” says Connelly, who specialises in trauma counselling. “For many criminals, however, it is a way of life. If they demand that you do something and you react with aggression, they will quickly resort to violent tactics to subdue you. This may even be because they are also nervous and highly stressed in the situation.”

That said, if an attacker makes a move to hurt you or a loved one, you have to drum up every bit of nerve you have. A healthy dose of sheer ferocity may swing the verdict your way. “Go nuclear,” advises martial arts instructor Lawrence Kane, co-author of The Little Black Book of Violence. Be as ferocious and aggressive as possible. All things equal, the guy with the most intensity wins.

By Jeff Wise