NeuroNation \ Healthy Living, Mind and Brain

Fear: Standing between you and your dreams

Fear is a strong emotion – changing the function of our brains, our organs, as well as our behavior. It can lead us to hide, to run away, or to simply freeze in our shoes. Your heart races, your breathing quickens, and your brain won’t work. Fear can arise from confrontation or avoiding a threat, or it may simply come from learning something new about yourself.

“Only when we are not longer afraid do we begin to live”

– Dorothy Thompson

Fear as an obstacle

Soulpancake, an online creative media agency, asked 11,000 people what stopped them from achieving their greatest goals. Hypothesised obstacles included money, time, obligations, stress, burnout, lack of motivation… but the results were surprising – fear emerged as the most common reason why participants were not making their ambitions come to life. People were actually scared to do what makes them happy.

There is a flipside

However, fear is also a necessary human response for survival. If we didn’t have fear we would be walking into oncoming traffic, stepping off rooftops or choosing to stay in abusive relationships. Indeed, scientists have recently published a series of studies describing “SM”, a woman who remains anonymous with a rare genetic disease that makes her unable to feel fear [1]. Although this may sound like an ideal condition for many of us – not feeling fear has led this woman to experience many life events that could have otherwise been avoided – including a mugging and patting tarantulas in pet stores. The purpose of fear is to promote survival – but sometimes we may need to distinguish what is validated as life threatening, and what may just be in our own heads.

How can we combat unnecessary fear?

While some fear is needed for us to survive, others are blocking us from achieving our goals. As one Soulpancake interviewee Patrick Ferguson said, “the nerves never really go away until you start throwing the first punches”. The question is, how do we get over our feelings of fear to start trying?

A recent study published in Biological Psychiatry found that the love hormone oxytocin helped inhibit the fear centre of the brain, allowing fear stimuli to subside more quickly than the control group who received no oxytocin [2]. In other words, the participants who received oxytocin through a nasal spray quickly overcame their feelings of fear, while the control group felt fear for a sustained period of time. Oxytocin levels can be increased in other ways than a nasal spray – simply hugging or kissing a loved partner, family member or pet can increase your levels of the ‘love hormone’. Humans are social creatures – and feelings of support and intimacy help us to overcome life’s hurdles and achieve our goals.

So if fear is getting in your way of achieving your dreams and reaching your full potential – take a deep breath and get the support you need to overcome the obstacles. Just don’t go patting a tarantula!

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[1] Feinstein, J., Adolphs, R., Damasio, A., Tranel, D. (2011). The human amygdala and the induction and experience of fear. Current Biology, 21(1): 34-38. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2010.11.042

[2] Eckstein, M., Becker, B., Scheele, D., Scholz, C., Preckel, K., Schlaepfer, T., Grinevich, V., Kendrick, K., Maier, W., & Hurlemann, R. (2014). Oxytocin facilitates the extinction of conditioned fear in humans. Biological Psychiatry, doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.10.015

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