Last week, I spoke at a conference called “Becoming Fearless.” I have spoken at this conference for many years, and about six months in advance they always send me the title of what they want my talk to be about. This year it was “How to Overcome Fear.”
My first words when I stepped up to the platform were, “When I received the invitation and the conference title months ago, I was so excited that I said out loud… I AM YOUR GIRL FOR THIS TOPIC!”
I came out of the womb afraid. And I have to say that my childhood and teen years were tormented with fear. My extended family thought that I was just “shy”, and mostly considered it endearing. But it was deeper than that. The stories told about my childhood now remind me of my battle. During the day, I was fine as long as I was near my mother or my grandmother. At night I could only sleep if my sister slept with me. And even some of those nights where tormented with night terrors. Out in public, I would grab the hem of my mother’s skirt and turn around and around until I was encased in the loving safety of my mother. All that was visible of me were my legs and my eyes.
I think as I started school everyone thought it was somewhat better. But the truth was, I had just become skilled at hiding it, or at least trying to hide it.
My Journey to fearlessness was long and sometimes quite brutal. Perhaps it’s why I am so dedicated to helping my clients and my students (who are training with me to become Certified Life Coaches) to conquer fear.
Fearlessness has been defined as bold, brave, courageous, valiant, lionhearted, daring, dynamic, undaunted.
have identified two types of fearlessness:
1. That of a psychopath who has no conscience and does horrible things; and,
2. That of someone who has learned to monitor their fear, face it, and still do great things, despite fear.
In this article, I’m focused on the second kind of fearlessness.
Neuroscience and neuropsychology researchers have made significant findings on the subject of fearlessness. The amygdala (two almond-shaped structures, one in each hemisphere of the brain) is responsible for helping process emotions and motivations. It also determines what the brain stores as memories. Research has revealed that there is a specific class of neurons (SOM+) that play an active role in processing fear, along with input from other parts of the brain. Studies on test animals at Italy’s European Molecular Biology Lab, noted that activating or deactivating specific neurons in the amygdala could control the response to fear. These and many other studies have built a remarkable understanding: that we can actually train the neurons in our amygdala to modify our responses to fear.
The same research project provided other very useful information. One finding was that if we retrain neurons to respond to fear differently (whether the response is panic attacks, generalized anxiety, post traumatic stress, OCD, etc.), significant improvements often occur in secondary conditions, particularly depression
What are the practical implications? To conquer our fears, regardless of the form it takes, significant improvements come from training our brains to react differently.
How on earth do we do that??
First, research has found that medication, while effective in reducing some of the symptoms of fear, does nothing to retrain our brains. (Keep in mind: never change medication use without working with your prescriber. So do NOT ditch your anti-anxiety agents without working with your physician!)
While I wish I had one simple answer for how to retrain our brains, we know intuitively that “simple” does not apply in this case. Such retraining is a process. Creating new habits in our thinking means creating new ways of managing our lifestyles. All of this requires time, attention, and persistent effort.
Interestingly enough, I knew none of this on my personal journey. Over the course of many years, I tried everything I could think of to change my agitated and exaggerated fear responses. Although I knew nothing of this research, many of the things I found most effective are on this list! Here are 8 things you can do to grow into fearlessness:
1. First, we must understand that everyone, even seemingly fearless people, experience some level of fear.
Why is this important? If we are not careful, we will just believe that some people are “lucky” or “blessed” and don’t experience fear. That is simply not true. And when you realize that, it inspires hope in you that you too can conquer the battle with fear.
2. Develop courage!
How? Start by “just doing it anyway!” Research reported in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders noted that courage levels are not dependent on fear levels. Instead, courage was found to be independent of whatever fear you have, because research indicates courage to be a product of persistence and determination, and one’s ability to take risks. Many researchers simplified the definition of courage as “experiencing fear, but doing it anyway.”
This discussion reminds me of one of my favorite Martina McBride songs, which encourages us to “do it anyway!“ Here is the link to that video. Click here to watch if you want some inspiration to grow your courage. The final words of the song are my anthem, “You can pour your soul out singin’, a song you believe in, that tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang. Sing it anyway! So I sing … I dream … I love!”
3. Practice gratitude.
The power of gratitude is woven into many of my blogs. Why? Because research shows how powerful it is on so many of our challenges! For example, I have written about the research on heart/brain synchronicity. (In case you missed it, click here to read about it in more detail) When we are experiencing fear (or stress, depression, etc.), our heart and brain waves are out of sync. I teach my clients and students to practice the “90 second” rule. The rule is very simple: only allow yourself 90 seconds of fear or anxiety before you pause and practice gratitude for a few moments. Many years of research has shown that this simple, conscious act, practiced consistently, actually works to retrain the brain.
4. Practice not reacting in the moment.
Similar to the 90 second rule, not reacting to fear or anxiety immediately, but choosing to practice your breathing exercises, also begins to retrain the brain. There are various breathing exercises that work. One is to inhale slowly to the count of 7, hold it to the count of 14, breathe out through the mouth slowly to the count of 21, then take normal breaths.
(You may have to count fast in the beginning. Just keep the same pace of counting for the 7, 14, and 21). Repeat 3 to 5 times as needed. The oxygen intake, and the release of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, has an enriching and detox property that refreshes and retrains the brain.
5. Learn to assume the best.
In difficult situations, many of us who struggle with fear and anxiety have a persistent tendency to think about the worst thing that could happen. Research confirms that we tend to nurse that idea, and the fear escalates.
As a first step to alter this response, I coach my clients and students to consciously focus on something other than the fear. When you hear something that provokes a fear response, and you begin to think the worst, immediately make a choice to stop yourself. Think of the best that might come from the situation. Focus on this positive thought process until the knee-jerk fear stops. When I learned how well this process works, it became easy for me to repeat it over and over. It became one of my best responses to fear.
There is great wisdom in applying this principle to our closest relationships. The Bible tells us to expect the best of those we love. Research tells us that there is a good practical reason to consciously choose this attitude. Research shows that such expectations, practiced consistently and repeatedly, teaches our RAS (reticular activating system) to always look for the best in one another. This result has remarkable value in our closest relationships. (Click here to read my article about our RAS and its incredible benefits).
We can also love ourselves enough so that we do not expect the worst even when fear is present. Expect the best! Expect the best! Expect the best! Doing this repeatedly will train our RAS to take over for us. Without thinking about it, fear becomes a stranger!
6. Develop some powerful beliefs and put them into a proclamation.
Years ago, I went through a very devastating divorce. All of a sudden, my fearless resolve, built over years of intense work, seemed to wash out to sea. A tsunami of fear returned.
One of the most powerful mentors of my life, Vikki Burke, taught me some incredible lessons. (You absolutely must read her book Some Days You Dance. Click here to order it! Vikki is a forceful inspirational speaker, but she also understands the struggles of fear and the challenges of healing from old wounds. In her wisdom, she saw my struggle. She then took the initiative (A TRUE FRIEND!) by asking me to meet her for lunch. I was so very honored, but more than that, I was so very moved and appreciative of what she offered me.
She suggested that I needed to modify my beliefs about what was happening and replace those inaccurate beliefs with the truth. She got me started with a few powerful replacement beliefs from the Bible and challenged me to find others. Then encouraged me to put all those new beliefs into a powerful new proclamation. And to proclaim it out loud with strength and boldness.
Literally within weeks, life began to return to me. I began to stand up straight again. Hope returned. I began to have glimpses of joy again.
The tsunami of fear receded. Waves of courage rolled back in. I practice Vikki’s teachings to this day. Her lessons will work for you too.
Did I want to say my new proclamation out loud at least 3 times every day, as Vikki taught me? Not at all. Did I want to say it powerfully? I could hardly get the strength to whisper it. But I did it anyway! And I did it this morning, and I will do it again two more times today. The proclamation changes, but the practice of proclaiming and the results go on!
7. Understand that you have more control over your life than you think.
When we struggle with fear, we tend to develop the attitude that we are powerless. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have the power to decide what we focus on. We have the power to interpret things in a way that promotes goodwill. We have the power to choose what we listen to (which is why I begin each day listening to inspirational things instead of news talk shows where people shout at one another and challenge one another mercilessly). We have the power to choose who we spend time with. (You may be “stuck” with those you work with, but you have the rest of your day to choose to be around people who inspire you.) We have more control than we think. Step into making good decisions for you. Fear’s grip will loosen and fearlessness will grow!
8. Develop a sense of humor and laugh more.
An old proverb says: “A joyful heart is good medicine.”
Having a sense of humor and laughing is truly powerful medicine. When we laugh, physiological things occur:
- We stretch facial and body muscles
- Our pulse increases
- We breathe faster
- We send more oxygen to our tissues
- We get the same benefits as we would from a mild workout
All of these things combat fear.
A sense of humor is something that Navy SEALs use to assist them in combating fear. (SEALs are fearless, right? WRONG!!) Even those SEALs with horrendous stories often tell the traumatic events with humor.
Hector Cafferata tells the story about his experiences in the Korean War. He tells of fighting a whole regiment of Chinese soldiers alone (his comrades were all wounded) … for seven hours! He tells of batting away grenades with a shovel in one hand while shooting his rifle with the other. He said he found humor in the moment while remembering: “I was the world’s worst baseball player, so I don’t know how I hit them!” Then when he received the Medal of Honor, he said, “I always felt if you wanted my a** (backside), you better bring your lunch!”
If Navy SEALs can use humor to combat fear, we can do the same!As for me, I love that I have learned to live fearlessly. No one who knows me now would believe I was ever tormented by fear. I practice my preventives, like the proclamations Vikki Burke taught me. I laugh as often as possible and use humor in my office daily. I practice gratitude. I breathe. I expect the best. I build my courage consistently.
My presentation at the conference last week centered on my struggles with my fears. But when I finished, I said this: “If you haven’t noticed … I’m over being afraid. I AM FEARLESS!” Then I invited them to join me by proclaiming their fearlessness and donning a purple bracelet on their arms that simply said: “FEARLESS!” They grabbed the bracelets and high fived and hugged one another. And as they left the conference, they were all walking tall and I even saw a bit of a strut in their walk! I hope you are doing just that too!
Big hugs as you walk FEARLESSLY!