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Overcoming Fear: An Essential Tool for the BRUcrew Toolbox

Posted by on Dec 31, 2012 | One Comment

Yesterday I formally kicked off the virtual version of BRUcrew. In short, it’s my attempt to create a tribe of people that are interested in improving their lives in multiple realms, including physical, mental, social, and emotional. I want to create a community of like-minded people that can learn from each other so all of us can grow. I want people to really live, not just bumble through life (here’s yesterday’s post.)

By the way- it’s open to everyone assuming you have a Facebook account. Don’t have one? Get over your fear and sign up. ;-)

A major component of BRUcrew is intentionally confronting our weaknesses. This is easy in the physical realm. It’s more difficult in the mental realm, and even more so in the emotional realm. The social realm? Damn near impossible.

Why?

FEAR.

We’re scared of all kinds of shit.

Fear routinely prevents us from doing the things that could dramatically improve our lives. In the context of BRUcrew, we will experience fear. In fact, we’ll confront fear on a regular basis. It’s intentional. If you’re following the group and participating, there will be specific challenges that will paralyze you. The fear will prevent you from even considering it.

Of course, that defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. The tricky part is overcoming the fear. It’s not simply enough to simply will yourself out of fear. That will work some of the time, especially for mild fears. I’m not a fan of snakes. During Grindstone this year, a bunch of us stumbled upon a five foot rattlesnake crossing the trail in the middle of the night. I almost pooped my pants. However, after analyzing the situation, I realized it was about 40 degrees outside and the snake wasn’t coiled. Its sluggishness and position meant it really wasn’t a threat. I ran behind it without incident. I was able to rationalize and overcome that particular fear because it wasn’t very strong.

Those aren’t the fears that we need help overcoming. We already have the tools necessary to conquer them. It’s the BIG fears that we seemingly can’t overcome that are problematic. Fortunately, we can learn some simple tools to help us overcome our fears, then intentionally place ourselves in positions to practice those skills. It’s like anything else, we get better with practice. If we entered a race without ever having run a single step, we probably wouldn’t do too well. We need to train. BRUcrew is an opportunity to get that training.

What Is Fear?

When overcoming fear, it’s helpful to understand exactly what fear is. Fear is an automatic bodily response to perceived danger. It’s mostly involuntary, so we have little control over when and where we experience fear. The symptoms include a racing heart, sweating, decreased digestion, a diversion of blood to the muscles, pupils dilating, increased rate of breathing, and a few other mechanisms that prepare your body to fight something or run away. Fear also creates the emotional experience of terror, which differentiates it from other times when fight or flight kicks in (like excitement or falling in love.)

When Do We Experience Fear?

We experience fear in several situations. Novel situations (the unfamiliar) can create fear, like when we travel to a new area, eat at a new restaurant, or are exposed to people from a different culture (yes, fear is at the root of racism.)

We will often experience fear when one of our basic needs are threatened. For example, we fear losing our jobs because we don’t want to lose our means of acquiring shelter and food. We fear social rejection because it threatens our need to belong. We fear losing our significant other because it threatens our need for love and companionship.

Finally, we experience fear when we’re directly threatened. If we’re running down a trail and a bear suddenly appears, we have a fight or flight response. In this case, fear is a fundamental emotion tied to survival. It’s what kept our species alive over time.

Generally speaking, the intensity of fear increases as you advance through that list. The fear of the new isn’t as strong as the fear of losing our basic needs, and that’s not as strong as the fear of great bodily harm or even death.

How to Overcome Fear

I’m going to give multiple strategies to alleviate fear. The strategies fall into two general categories: 1) tactics that actually reduce the perception of fear by decreasing the automatic nervous system response (what we call the “mere exposure effect”) and 2) tactics that give you the courage to do something despite the presence of the fear response. Both methods of conquering fears is invaluable. The first makes the world a lot less scary, which opens up countless opportunities for awesomeness. The second gives you the courage to continually expand that world by etching away at the fears that restrain you.

When presented with a fearful situation (such as the BRUcrew challenges), any of the strategies can be used. I recommend trying all of them, along with trying various combinations. Remember, these are tools. The more you use the fear-fighting tools, the more proficient you become at overcoming fear. The better you get at conquering fear, the better your life becomes.

For each of these tactics, I’ll use one common situation, which is BRUcrew Challenge #2: Do 20 pushups in the produce section of the grocery store you regularly frequent. For most people, this induces fear of social rejection. People will see you doing an odd activity and judge you negatively. It threatens our need to belong, to fit in.

  • Strategy #1: Plan for the worst-case scenario. This is my personal favorite. It’s what routinely allows Shelly and I to do most of the really crazy stuff we do. Think of the worst-case scenario. What could happen by doing pushups in the grocery store? You get kicked out? A friend sees you and judges you harshly? How would you react to these situations? Getting kicked out is unlikely, especially if you explain why you’re doing it. Same deal with the friend. Tell people you’re systematically confronting your fears and it empowers them to do the same. Actualizing the fear by planning for the worst-case scenario is incredibly powerful and needs to be in your toolbox.
  • Strategy #2: Flooding. Flooding is confronting the fear head-on so it creates a powerful physiological response, which is basically the “Just do it!” approach. If you continue confronting the fear, your body will not be able to sustain the fear response due to exhaustion. You’ll get tired and relax. Your brain remembers that you were relaxed when exposed to the fearful stimuli, and will not have the same powerful fear response next time. Just going into the store and doing the pushups despite the fear would be the application of this method. A major caveat with flooding- you cannot escape until you relax. If you do, the fear will only be reinforced and get worse. As such, I don’t recommend flooding for serious fears.
  • Strategy #3: Systematic desensitization. If flooding is doing a cannonball into the cold pool, systematic desensitization is slowly easing into the shallow end until you “get used to it.” This is much less traumatic than flooding, but also much slower. To use this tactic, start slow, then eventually work up to fully confronting the fear. In the grocery scenario, maybe do one pushup when nobody is looking. Wander around the store a bit, then go back and do two or three. Next try one when someone IS looking. The idea is to slowly increase the behavior while confronting the fear a little bit at a time.
  • Strategy #4: Social support. Being surrounded with supportive friends is an invaluable tactic (and one of the points of the BRUcrew community.) The presence of friends increases oxytocin in our brains, which calms us and reduces fear. This is why we’re more courageous when our friends are present. To take advantage of this tactic, get an understanding friend to join you in the store. Their lack of judgment will be a powerful fear-reducer.
  • Strategy #5: Think and act positive. Positive thought is the enemy of fear. If we can put ourselves in a positive state of mind, fear decreases substantially. If the fear is too strong, simply acting positive can help. Smile. Skip. Whistle your favorite song. Go to your happy place.
  • Strategy #6: Reframe to excitement. This is another favorite of mine. Fear and excitement create the exact same physiological response, except for the terror part. If you can reframe the fear into excitement, the terror can decrease significantly. To do this, I just tell myself “Damn, this is exciting!” Embrace the exhilaration. It works well. When doing the pushups, think of it as an invigorating, exciting new experience. That will push those fears of social rejection to the periphery.
  • Strategy #7: Break the problem down into manageable pieces. This is a favorite tactic of ultrarunners. How do you run 100 miles? Break it down into 3-6 mile segments, then just focus on completing the current section. The same works with fears. Don’t think of the big picture, just think of the immediate, small task. Step one- go into the store. Step two- go to the produce section. Step 3- do two pushups at a time. Repeat until you get to 20. Don’t think about how many you have left; just think about the two.
  • Strategy #8: Use competing emotions like anger, horniness, etc. Ever see a war movie where a soldier is cowering in fear until his friend gets shot? His fear suddenly disappears in a rage and he jumps up and charges the enemy position. What happens here? Anger overcomes fear. Since fear is an emotional response as much as a physiological response, other emotions can trump fear. This is why one of the most common relationship breakup strategies involves doing things to anger your partner- that anger will overcome the fear of loneliness if the relationship ends. Other emotions work, too. If we’re really horny, we can overcome the fear of engaging in new sexual behaviors. Want your partner to try that new toy? Ask after a hour of foreplay.
  • Strategy #9: Have sex. Sort of like being surrounded by friends, sex releases oxytocin which calms us down. Partnered sex would be best, but taking matters into your won hands will work, too. I’d recommend not having sex in the produce section, but maybe in the car before the pushup challenge?
  • Strategy #10. Mindful dissociation. If you’re good at stepping back from your emotions (like what can be done when meditating), you can let the fear flow through you while simply observe the effects. Admittedly I’m not good at this… yet. I’ll be talking about this technique a lot more in the future.
  • Strategy #11: Pro and con lists. Listing the pros and cons of the fearful situation can help alleviate the fear response. It’s very similar to the idea of planning for the worst-case scenario… it’s a way of actualizing the fear. In the case if the pushups, just make a .list of all possible positives versus all possible negatives. If the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, it’s a lot easier to do. If there is no significant benefit, use another method.

There you have it- eleven great tactics to overcome fear. For those of you that are doing the BRUcrew challenges, I’ll send you back to this list often if you aren’t willing to confront the fear of any particular challenge.

So about the second BRUcrew challenge: Yes, I did it. And it was scarier than expected. I overcame the fear by actualizing it, then embracing the inherent excitement. When I actually did it, the pushups weren’t so much scary as really, really exhilarating. It was definitely a rush. In fact, my palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it.

To take it up a notch, I approached a dude to ask if he’d record it. He was on the clock and declined, but thought the whole idea was pretty cool. Here’s the vid:

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1 Comment

  1. mike
    January 1, 2013

    what’s next? start a fight with a total stranger that you must lose?