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 doesn’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, lack of 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 take a risk and do what they love.
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 . 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. 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.
Fear of Public Speaking
Perhaps your very first experience of anxiety was when you were young and your teacher asked you to read in front of the class. Perhaps your teacher corrected you on a couple of words, or a classmate laughed. This laughter might have had nothing to do with your reading, but in a heightened, anxious state the subconscious picks up on this and magnifies it, and perhaps makes an unsubstantiated connection. The neural circuit is then set, and so you begin associating fear and anxiety with speaking in public. In time, although the original event might be long forgotten, the circuit remains, causing you to experience difficulties in many similar situations.
How to Overcome your Fear
Whatever your problem is, it has been learnt by you. If you have anxiety or a fear of public speaking, you were not born this way. As one Soulpancake interviewee Patrick Ferguson said, “the nerves never really go away until you start throwing the first punches”. You can overcome your fear by starting to speak in public. Begin by speaking in front of the mirror, then to your partner, and expand your audience slowly. If you have a message that you know is important to other people – then say it. You will add value to people’s lives by sharing your expertise and wisdom. Don’t let fear get in your way. Learn to throw the punches and get the ball rolling, to overcome your unsubstantiated fear of public speaking.
If fear is getting in your way of achieving your dreams and reaching your full potential – take a deep breath and get practicing. The fear is only in your head and your message needs to be shared!
 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