What Fear Does to Your Body and How to Handle It

05/01/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

The first time I was on national TV I felt my heart pounding as if it were going to burst through my chest. I felt myself sitting in the studio with great anticipation and fear. My muscles were tense and I was breathing heavily. I felt as if I were going into battle. In a way, I suppose I was. I anticipated being attacked and discredited by the host, so naturally my body and mind had to prepare. During a commercial, I took a few seconds to settle down. I did a quick inventory of my body: My pounding heart was likely due to the release of adrenaline, a hormone that prepares the body for action. My dry mouth was due to fluids moving to other parts of my body where they were more needed. I reminded myself that these sensations were normal and my body was doing what it's supposed to do automatically. I then imagined myself lying on a raft in a calm body of water. I was rocking ever so gently with the waves. This helped to relax me. Then I took the sensations that remained and I used them to my advantage. They became the extra focus and energy I needed to really be "on" when it was my turn to talk.

I share this story with you to illustrate that being aware of how your body reacts to fear and anxiety can make a big difference in how you handle it. Think about your body's reaction when you are fearful. What happens? What sensations do you notice? What goes through your mind? Does your heart race? Perhaps you blush and sweat, too? Does your mouth go dry? Maybe you even feel the need to run to the bathroom before it's too late.

Think about why your body might be reacting in this way. Could there be any hidden benefit to this reaction -- one you could adapt to and use to your advantage? If you aren't afraid of your fear response and didn't feel the need to completely eliminate it, would any of it be useful to you? Does the alertness that comes from the fear response help you to think more clearly and quickly? Perhaps the increased heart rate provides you with more energy even -- energy you can use to drive yourself forward.

Below are four common physical reactions people have to fear and anxiety and ways to think about them differently:

  • Sweating. The body is preparing to either fight or flee. The sweating helps to cool it down. Reframe it like this: "Good, my body is ready for this sporting event called life! It will keep me cool under pressure."

  • Pounding heart. The body releases the hormone epinephrine into the bloodstream when it perceives a threat. This in turn increases the heart rate so that more blood gets to parts of the body that may need it to act in the face of fear. Reframe it like this: I can feel comfortable knowing that my defense against stress is functioning well, including my ability to get a surge of strength and energy.

  • Shortness of breath. The nerves around the rib cage and torso are on high alert, causing you to feel heaviness on your chest. Reframe it like this: My body is getting the oxygen it needs. The increased breath is going to fuel my muscles and brain with oxygenated blood so I will think more clearly and react more quickly.

  • Dry throat. Fluids are diverted from nonessential areas of the body such as the mouth. This leads to dryness and difficulty talking. Reframe it like this: Parts of my body that really need fluids will now get them so that they function effectively under stress. I can always take a sip of water to moisten my throat.

Next time you feel anxious and as though you have no control over your body's reaction, think again. Why might your body be reacting the way it is? Think about the edge this reaction gives you. In the face of fear, will you retreat or will you thrive?

For more understanding of fear and ways to handle it check out my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.

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