08/06/2012 08:51 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

How To Stop Fear In Its Tracks

It's midnight. You've had a little too much to drink, so you've decided to "walk it off" by hoofing it the five blocks to your apartment. Halfway there, you hear footsteps behind you. You stop and turn around. Nothing. You start walking again, a little faster. The footsteps behind you speed up too. You break out into a flat-out run -- in high heels, no less -- and make it to the safety of your apartment, never really knowing what it was that spooked you. Not really caring either, because you're safe now.

Fear. Useful in situations such as these, where fear gives you the energy you need to fight or flee. Not so useful in other situations.

It's 5 a.m. You have a big presentation to make at work today, and you're not certain it's going to go well. You think big changes in your company's promotion plan are needed for it to stay above water in these tough economic times; your boss doesn't agree. Unable to sleep, you let thoughts of impending doom float through your head. By the time you get to work, you're certain you're going to get canned. You're so nervous that you keep stuttering during your presentation. Instead of making a great impression on the VP of sales who has flown into town just for your presentation, you end up feeling like an idiot and let your boss take over with his usual asinine ideas. You don't get fired, but you can probably toss any dreams of a promotion in the trash can.

Fear. Your mortal enemy and career killer. How can one emotion help you fly through one situation like you have wings, yet be your downfall in another situation? Blame biology. Blame evolution. It really doesn't matter, because in the end all you have to blame is yourself for letting your fear get the best of you.

So what's going on here? Time for a little biology lesson. When we encounter a potential stressor -- be it some big guy in a dark alley, an upcoming presentation at work, or misplacing our keys when we're already running late -- our bodies kick into overdrive. Cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream to meet the threat or danger; blood is rerouted to our arms and legs so we can flight or flee. This is what's called the General Adaptation Syndrome. It's a fabulous system that works well when we actually need to fight or flee.

Here's the problem. Your body doesn't know the difference between the guy in the dark alley and the term paper due in 30 minutes. A stressor is a stressor, and while all that adrenaline is an asset when running for your life, you can't fight or flee from a term paper -- well you can, but you probably won't pass the class.

Don't despair. While your body can't distinguish between sources of fear, you can. It's called the process of appraisal, and it's that split second when you decide if this potential stressor is something you need to be afraid of.

So let's rewind. It's 5 a.m. You have a big presentation to make at work today, and you're not certain it's going to go well. Stop! In that split second before you start to work yourself into a frenzy, ask yourself: "Is this going to kill me? Will I die if I blow this presentation?" This is what is known as the process of primary appraisal, and because we live in relative safety compared to our ancestors, 99.9 percent of the time, the answer to both of those questions is: "No." Whew!

Okay, now pay attention. Once you've reassured yourself that you will not die if your presentation bombs, it's time for question number two, known as secondary appraisal. "What can I do about it? Is there anything I can do to make this fear go away?" No, calling in sick to work is not a valid answer. But the good news is, there are likely a lot of things that you can do to help alleviate your fear. Wake up your spouse and talk to him or her about your nerves. Do a 20-minute meditation, yoga, or tai chi session. Get up and practice your presentation, fine-tuning any parts that you seem to be having trouble with. Go for a run to work off that excess energy (your body will be happy because you're giving it that "flight" thing it was gearing up for). Do something, anything really, to keep your hormones from cascading into alarm.

There. Wasn't that easy? Mission accomplished. Fear averted. And don't worry if it takes you a while to get how to do this and have it work every time. You've had 30, 40, or 50 years to train your body to freak out over every little thing. Give it a break. It might take time to undo your own conditioned fear response. But, like everything else, practice makes perfect. You can conquer your fear, or at least redirect to a more positive outcome. Next thing you know -- got a big presentation at work tomorrow? Yes, but so what? It's not going to kill me, so I'm not going to get all worked up about it. In fact, I think I'll sleep until 7 a.m.

For more by Mary Pritchard, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.