Let me say its important to differentiate between fear - which is a chemistry-driven experience - and risk - which is events and consequences.
I was born with an outsized supply of fear, and I’m wired with fear-first fear-always chemistry. Those of you who only know me on here, and those who’ve only known me in the last decade won’t spot it in me, I think, but my chemistry is fear first, then proceed directly to terror and panic. It’s been my big challenge for most of my life. At this point, I’d consider myself something of an expert at managing fear.
By the time I was 18, I was sure that if I didn’t die outright of fear from adrenaline overdose and a resulting heart attack, that I’d do something in a state of panic that would get me killed. I made a decision to get a handle on it. My ‘bull by the horns’ approach said Start At The Deep End and I started training in the thing that scared me most… physical conflict. I took up Tae Kwan Do. It terrified me EVERY day I went to class. It terrified me every day I whimped out and DIDN’T go to class. I pushed my heart-pounding, hand-sweating and shaking panicking self to deal with it for most of a year, and failed at it. Resoundingly.
But that started a change of direction for me. Martial arts was the first of the challenges I picked up. Fear of heights I took on by signing up to be an Outward Bound counselor and having to learn technical climbing so I could teach it. Fear of water I took on by getting SCUBA certified. Fear of people and being looked at I took on by becoming a professional performer. Fear of being judged by competing in dance up through the international level. Fear of bugs by learning to keep bees. Fear of guns by learning to shoot. Fear of dealing with overwhelming emotion by working with a shrink. That’s not even close to the whole list, those are just the things that are easiest to name. And I’m not talking about things I don’t like, I’m talking heart-pounding, tunnel-vision fear.
These days, fear is a clue I use to teach me what to learn and pursue next.
I still physically respond with fear first, fear always, to anything new, unexpected, out of the ordinary, sudden, or surprising. The big difference is that I now know it for the tool it is, and I know that it’s chemistry. Fear has become my ally. And I no longer let fear make my decisions for me.
There are a lot of techniques for managing the chemistry of fear. Managed breathing, muscle tensioning, mental focus and reframing the experience, desensitization, rehearsal, skill building, biofeedback, sheer volume of practice in increasing the adrenaline burn and decreasing the adrenaline over-production all matter.
Being able to differentiate between fear and risk matters a lot. I can be deeply experientially afraid without being in any particular risk. If I have to present a controversial topic to a large and vocal group, that can scare the bejesus out of me, but I’m at no actual risk of being cooked and eaten. Knowing that they can’t cook and eat me helps me moderate my chemistry and fear.
There have been a few times I’ve been at genuine risk - times when real fear is fully appropriate. I find I tend to disassociate a bit when that’s true - I go from an intense flash of fear chemistry to a slightly out-of-body experience - my head is engaged, but the personal-ness of the fear is removed, and I’m free to act with my adrenaline-fueled body according to my thoughts. The experience of fear doesn’t hit until later. There have been a few times where that disassociation doesn’t happen, and in those I tend to freeze for a few beats to identify what’s happening and then react. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, it’s just what happens.
My best advice on getting past fear is to get in it a LOT. Get familiar with what you do, feel, think, react with when your chemistry is high. Get to really KNOW you can get on the other side of overwhelming chemistry, and learn what it takes for you to do that - so you can stay wired if you need to, or so you can clear the chemistry as quickly as possible. Get familiar with the feeling of thinking and doing while in that chemistry - it’s very different than ‘normal’ chemistry - and you want to know what and how you do while you’re in it. Put yourself in situations where the fear is high but the risk is low so you can learn how to function in that chemical state, should you need to.