"If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." - Sun Tzu
Fear is not a nuanced emotion. It’s on or it’s off, meaning that the fear one feels right before jumping out of a plane could be identical to the fear an introvert feels before asking out a potential true love.
While we once existed primarily to survive and needed fear to do so, most of us have climbed Maslow’s ladder far enough to move beyond basic needs. Three hundred years ago, a deep-seeded fear of ingroup rejection made a ton of sense. It could lead to banishment or death. However, that same level of fear, of what those around you think, no longer makes sense for most of our civilized survival. But the fear of rejection, like all fear, instinctively knows no levels. And furthermore, fear in much of civilized society is a projection of future outcome and negative generalization about “what if” scenarios. It largely doesn't exist in the living moment.
These things combine to make modern fears borderline ridiculous and this is why when it comes to decision making, fear needs to be sidelined from the process.
The Amygdala, often referred to as our “lizard brain,” is in charge of the initial fear reaction -- setting off an alarm and opening a flood gate for hormones like adrenaline. But, it cannot adapt levels of alarm or hormones to circumstance. Which is why fear screws up learning, throws our lives off course and can lead to unrealistic negativity.
Luckily, we are rational beings, which means that although we initially feel identical fear, regardless of the severity of circumstance, we can reason ourselves out of fear based reaction.
The first four are instinctual. The Amygdala sounds the alarm. The brainstem and Hippocampus choose fight-or-flight, while the Hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to pump hormones.
But it’s the two processes the come next that truly matter in decision making. The Prefrontal Cortex interprets the event and compares it to past experiences and the Thalamus receives input and decides where to send information for processing.
How do we best sideline our inner lizard and tap into higher brain functioning?
Author Peter Fonagy says we must build the muscle that is reflective reasoning. In his book, Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of Self, he says, “Persons with well-developed reflective function look inward, are aware of mental processes, know their take on reality is fallible, and understand a constant critique is needed if what is ‘in here’ in the mind is to accurately represent what is ‘out there’ in the world around them. Strong reflective function is a hard-won developmental acquisition that grows out of interpersonal experience.”
In other words, those who do not reflect on their own brain function and behavior are more vulnerable to fear based decision making. They often see their thinking as infallible in all cases, and forget to make a distinction when fear takes over that processing.
Aside from reflecting and rationalizing your way out of fear based decisions, you can also train yourself to better handle fear and stress. As author Jeff Wise outlines in his book, Extreme Fear - The Science of your Mind in Danger, being courageous can be boosted by several techniques such as:
Along with those tips he recommends staying positive and enjoying the process. For more of Jeff’s techniques, check out his book summary blog post at Psychology Today.
Ultimately, the key is to be self-reflective enough to see when fear is affecting your decision making. Only then can you consciously choose to be courageous.