We’ve talked about fear here before. Fear is one of those nasty things that keeps you form doing things you really want to do. The better you understand it, the easier it becomes to control. Last night I learned a whole lot more about fear at Harvard Medical School. I went to a seminar on science and emotions. Because I’m nerdy like that. And I like to say I went to Harvard Medical School.
Turns out there’s two kinds of fear: innate and acquired. Innate fears are the ones we’re born with and acquired fears we picked up along the way. Like the fear you have of eating anything that you’ve thrown up. Like the time I went out for dim sum then came down with a stomach virus. I have an acquired fear of dim sum. Other people have acquired fears of cold calling or public speaking.
Those learned fears never really go away (my new justification for refusing to go out for dim sum). When you acquire a fear, it builds a pathway in your brain. When I think about dim sum I have a fear response: I get a little queasy and a little light-headed.
Safety, the flip side of fear, is also in your head. Specifically, your ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The thicker your ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the better able you are to control your fear. Unfortunately studies are still under way and no one knows yet how to grow a thicker, bushier ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
If you want to get over your acquired fears, it’s possible to go through a process to de-condition yourself. Researchers call the process extinction. I could, in theory, eat dim sum without getting sick and eventually lose the fear response (I’m not, but it is possible). The idea is to recreate the feared event (in my case eating dim sum) with no negative consequences. Eventually, the fear response goes away. You create a ‘safety memory.” If you fear public speaking, several successful speeches will alter the pathways in your brain and make the fear response go away. No more sweaty palms and dry throat. Unfortunately, if you have a fear of public speaking the only way to get over it is to keep doing it until you create a safety memory. There aren’t any shortcuts – yet.