Fear Is Momentary, Regrets Are Forever

01/24/2012 08:38 am ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

If fear was gold, we'd all be millionaires. Unfortunately, the payoff is mostly less than zero for this ancient and epidemic human emotion these days. The insecurity-mongers and safety police are working overtime to squelch the full expression of your life and whatever you would like to accomplish in the new year.

You'd never know it in a world of alarmists and nay-sayers that we weren't built to cling to the Barcalounger. The biochemistry is designed for the exact opposite, to go where we haven't gone before. Risk is the central piece of forward progress, and the life satisfaction that springs from it. Without it, we can't satisfy the mandate of our brain neurons for novelty and challenge, the keys to long-term life fulfillment, say brain researchers. Without risk, we can't gratify core psychological needs that require that we step off the moving sidewalk and chart a self-determined path.

Fear has had the upper hand, thanks to an itchy security trigger from our days back on the savanna and our habit of not disputing the emotional backwash in our brains. If it's in my head, it's gotta be true. The research shows we can outfox fear's vise-grip on risk by modifying our behavior and thoughts and changing the terms of risk evaluation.

What risks has fear overruled for you? Maybe a career change you didn't make, a trip someone convinced you wasn't safe, an activity you didn't want to look like a fool doing. Looking back, you'd make a different choice, because, with time, you see that the "fears" were false, momentary blips of projected anxiety that stepped on the neck of your life.

Fear is momentary; regrets are forever. The reality is that fears that paralyze us today will be long forgotten tomorrow, and we'll be left with the after-effects of opting for safety -- life unexperienced, progress unmade, a truckful of regret. It's the opportunities we don't act on that cause the most regret, say researchers, known as "the inaction effect."[1] Instead of looking back years later at what we wished we would have done, why not look back now in the moment of risk, and use regret to transcend autopilot fears?

Regret is a built-in insurance policy to make sure we don't leave too much life on the table. It forces us to see the big picture fear obscures in the anxiety of the moment. Think how mad you're going to be later if you don't act, and let regret fortify your courage.

We pay for the safety default with boredom and stir-craziness, items born of something built into the DNA -- habituation. We're made to get tired of reruns. This anti-rut device is designed to make us change things up. Core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, can only be satisfied when you demonstrate your capacity to take on new things.

We can improve risk-taking ability by changing attitude, increasing competence and through a process of reframing fears called fear extinction. Researchers have found that people in a positive frame of mind tend to see risk as an opportunity, not a threat.[2] Reducing stress, since it keeps your brain constricted to negativity, can help as well as intrinsic goals. Acting for the sake of the experience itself removes the expectations that give us pause.

Risk is about managing uncertainty. The more homework you do, the more that uncertainty is managed, and the more you feel competent to handle the risk. Competence makes you see potential benefits, instead of threats,[3] say researchers. Fears can also be weakened by exposure to threatening stimuli. You can change fearful images by altering your memory of them. Each time you recall a memory and add or subtract from it, you are defanging the initial fear.

More of us could take the risks we need by changing the equation from potential loss to gain. Try viewing the unknown, not as a threat, but as exploring, exactly what your brain neurons want you to do. Researchers call the release of the brain's party chemical, dopamine, at the mere expectation of something novel the "exploration bonus." You can get your bonus cranking through incremental risk, one step at a time.

Mountaineer Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb the world's 14 tallest peaks, made a practice of not looking at the summit when he climbed a daunting peak. Too intimidating. "You see this rock in front of you and say, I'm going to go to that rock and then I'm going to stop," he told me. His goal for the day is the base camp, not the summit.

In the course of researching Don't Miss Your Life, my book on the power of engaged experience. I met a host of folks who have applied the spirit of exploration to risks in their personal lives that have transformed their lives. Psychotherapist Sheila Gross turned the jitters of performing with a group of strangers into the most important feature of her week -- singing in a community choir. Accountant Marty Herman transcended his social fears by becoming an ace salsa dancer in his 50s.

Breast cancer survivor Cindy Roberts overcame her battle with the ultimate fear through the power of dragon boat paddling. She knows the truth behind risk: There's no such thing as security anyway. "There is no later. Live it now," she says.

Mountaineers call the initial climb of a peak a "first ascent." There's an extra incentive of bagging a "first," a distinction we can use to turn the discomfort of doing something new to its flip-side: excitement.

What can you do for the first time this week? Next week? Each week of 2012? It could be anything from trying an exotic fruit for the first time to signing up for a dance class. Consider your "firsts" progress, and the route to a life of no regrets.

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Joe Robinson is author of the book, Don't Miss Your Life, on the science, spirit and skills of activating the fullest life. He is a work-life balance and stress-management speaker, trainer and coach at Work to Live.


[1] Marcel Zeelenburg, Eric von Dijk, Kees van den Bos, Rik Peters. "The Inaction Effect on the Psychology of Regret," 2002.

[2] Vikas Mittal, William Ross. "The Impact of Positive and Negative Affect and Issue Framing on Issue Interpretation and Risk-Taking," 1998.

[3] Norris Krueger, Peter Dickson. "How Believing in Ourselves Increases Risk-Taking: Perceived Self-Efficacy and Opportunity Recognition," 1994.