By Emma Haak
Remember the last time you were sweaty-palmed, short of breath, and about to be utterly overcome by panic? Maybe your life was in danger -- or maybe you just had to give a speech. Or kill a spider. Or make small talk with your new boss. Whatever your worries, there's no reason to accept fear as fact, says Jaimal Yogis, author of the recent book The Fear Project. We asked him to tell us more.
Q: What made you want to write a book about fear?
A: My girlfriend and I had been together for almost five years when we decided to take a break. After a few weeks, I told her I wanted her back, but she was already seeing someone else. I began to think I'd be alone and miserable forever. Intellectually, I knew better -- I'd been through breakups before -- but I was fascinated by the huge disconnect between my fear and my rational thoughts.
Q: What creates that rift between emotion and logic?
A: The brain evolved like an onion, and many core survival traits, like fear, are controlled by the ancient part in the center. Complex functions, like reasoning, developed later and are housed in the outer layers. In your older, inner brain, fear and stress both set off the fight-or-flight response at lightning speed. Your logical brain, on the other hand, moves more slowly and has trouble overriding the automatic fear response. So no matter how many times you tell yourself that public speaking won't kill you, your body may think otherwise.
Q: But not everyone is fazed by social situations, or even physically risky ones. Is it possible to be naturally fearless?
A: Some people may be wired to take more risks. A study at Vanderbilt University found that people with thrill-seeking personalities tended to have fewer autoreceptors in the brain that regulate the release of the chemical dopamine; their neurons produce a more intense flood of the chemical, which may give them a greater degree of excitement from dangerous situations. In my case, I get that high from surfing.
Q: Have you always been daring?
A: No! I had to expose myself to the very thing that frightened me the most: giant waves. For years I had wanted to surf Mavericks, an area off the coast of California where the waves can top 50 feet, but could never bring myself to do it. I was too afraid of drowning. But in the course of writing the book, I discovered that the ancient brain can only learn by doing -- it needs to see for itself that something is safe. On my first surfing attempt at Mavericks, I was held under the water by two consecutive waves for about 20 seconds. I came up gagging -- but I'd survived. Once I knew how it felt to go under, I was far less terrified. After several more failed tries, I caught my first big wave.
Q: But surely overcoming fear isn't always that easy...
A: Some anxieties are so ingrained that they may never fully go away, but a study from New York University discovered a surprisingly useful way to defuse fearful memories. The researchers found that if you recall an activity that scared you (like, say, surfing) 24 hours after it happened, you then have a six-hour window to change that memory -- because the experience hasn't been consolidated into your permanent memory bank yet. If you succeed at the activity (like catching a wave) within that time frame, you may be able to erase your fear for good.