What is the Fear Response and How Does it Work?by@scottdclary
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What is the Fear Response and How Does it Work?

by Scott D. Clary9mJuly 4th, 2022
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Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator and it's something that we should all learn to respond well to. Fear left unexplored and unchecked can start to take over our lives, dictating our every move. John Assaraf is the author of his book Innercise, and NeuroGym, which uses evidence-based brain training methods to help individuals and corporations unlock and ignite their fullest potential. John says fear is an automatic reaction that is triggered in your subconscious mind. Fear is a signal that something important is happening; something that has the potential to help or hurt us.

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Today's newsletter is a short think-piece on fear. We've all come head-to-head with fear at some point – in fact, most of us encounter it in some form or another on a daily basis. Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator and it's something that we should all learn to respond well to.

A motivator? But isn't fear the thing that stalls us, and shuts down action before we've even had a chance to think?

Yes, fear can certainly do that. The terrifying reality is that, if we give in to it, fear can stop us from doing just about anything. 

What would happen if you never crossed the road for fear of being hit by a car? Or never rode in a car yourself for fear of an accident? Statistically, you'd be safer – but you'd also be missing out on a lot of life.

It's the same with anything else in your day-to-day. Fear can stop us from doing things we want to do, or even need to do. But it can also be a powerful motivator if we let it. 

Let's learn how to respond well to fear and turn it from something that immobilizes us into something that propels us forward.

What Is Fear?

Our Success Story inspiration for today's newsletter is John Assaraf; you might have heard of him through his book, Innercise, or through his appearances on Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. 

John's company, NeuroGym, is dedicated to using the most advanced technologies and evidence-based brain training methods to help individuals and corporations unlock and ignite their fullest potential. I was thrilled to have him on the podcast to talk about all things mental gymnastics – namely, fear.

"Understand that fear is an automatic reaction that is triggered in your subconscious mind. Think of fear as a light switch – on and off."

According to John and his many years of extensive study and personal experience, fear is actually one of the most powerful emotions we can ever experience. Why? Because it's a signal that something important is happening; something that has the potential to help us or hurt us.

See, fear in its simplest form is a chemical response. Tensing your muscles, clenching your jaw, sweating, and shivering – those aren't fear. Those are the symptoms of the way in which we choose to respond. 

But we're getting way ahead, now. So I'll let John do the talking.

How Does the Fear Response Work?

"Why does the fear circuit activate? Well, it activates because there's something real or imagined from my database of experience that is causing the fear circuit to activate."

This was like a lightbulb going off for me. It's fascinating to think about the source of fear. Normally, all we think about is the effect that fear has on us; it makes us feel stressed, it causes our heart rate to spike, and it can even lead to panic attacks. 

But what about the source? What's causing that fear in the first place? John says it could be anything from a traumatic experience we've had in the past to something that we're imagining might happen in the future. 

From an evolutionary perspective, then, it makes total sense that fear would come as a result of past or imagined trauma. It's simply our minds learning from our mistakes. If your experience of driving a car has been crashing it into a ditch, your subconscious is going to start taking precautions to avoid that situation in the future. 

"When the fear circuit is activated, the release of cortisol and adrenaline is rushing through their body. And it's because of the fight-flight or freeze signal. That fear is part of the sympathetic nervous system being activated."

The problem occurs when your fear arises from a place of imagined trauma, or from something that doesn't warrant such a strong reaction. Fear left unexplored and unchecked can start to take over our lives, dictating our every move. 

"Whenever [my fear response] is activated, I can feel that energy – and it means that I need to be aware of whether the danger is real or imagined," John explained. This is what his book, Innercise, is all about; taking steps to understand the nature of our fears and then using that energy to our advantage.

When We Give In To Fear

Before I move into some of John's strategies for thriving in the face of fear, I want to touch on something grim, yet important – the outcome of giving in to our fears.

Fear is not a bad thing in and of itself. It is absolutely integral to our survival. I read an article recently which talked about Urback-Wiethe disease, a rare genetic disorder that blocks the body's ability to feel fear. A woman suffering from the disease in the US – the article referred to her as 'SM' – regularly walks into dangerous situations without a care in the world.

This is an incredibly unfortunate condition, and it's certainly not what I'm advocating for in this article. John and other neuroscience experts would never suggest that removing fear altogether is the key to success. What we want to do is learn how to work with fear, so that it can serve us in a positive way.

Here's why. When you let an irrational or unwarranted fear dictate your life, you are not protecting yourself from harm; you are propagating it. The harm may not be delivered in the form of a head-on collision or a snake bite, but rather, as a lack of progression; a lack of happiness, fulfillment, and achievement.

This is what we see in people who never go for their dream job in fear that they'll be rejected, or in people who never ask someone out on a date because they're worried about being turned down. When we give in to fear, we are essentially allowing our brains to be hijacked by a feeling that doesn't serve us.

But there's a way to capture the energy – the adrenaline, the sense of heightened awareness – that fear produces, and use it to our advantage.

John's Process for Responding To Fear (the Right Way)

John and I spent a solid few minutes talking about this fear response. I was able to hear from his well-informed perspective on how exactly we should be responding to fear, and what that process looks like. He broke it down into a series of 'Innercises'; mental exercises that help us to ground and focus ourselves in the midst of fear. 

Step 1: Calm the Circuit of Fear

If you've watched our interview, you will have seen in John's video background an artwork depicting Einstein and another artwork depicting Frankenstein's monster. John pointed to each of these, explaining that in order to make balanced decisions, we need to think out of your Einstein brain – not your Frankenstein brain.

What does this mean, exactly? It means thinking and responding, rather than feeling and reacting. To do this, John explained that you need to take a moment of self-inquiry.

"Am I afraid of taking action because there's real danger? Maybe there was a dangerous time in my past. Or am I imagining that danger because of something I've read or heard about?"

There's a key difference between the two scenarios. If the fear is based on a real danger, then taking action to mitigate that danger may be essential. If, however, you're reacting to something you've heard or read, your fear may be irrational and unfounded – meaning there's no real danger to worry about.

By taking a moment to assess the situation, you effectively calm the circuit of fear. This allows you to think more clearly and make sound decisions rather than knee-jerk reactions.

Step 2: Awareness

Expanding slightly on step one, you now want to hone in on what exactly is causing you to feel fearful. If it's a real danger – not just something you've read – then is the threat dire enough to warrant backing out of the situation?

"It's not that I don't want to listen to the signal," John explained, "I want to understand what tripped that wire. If I'm walking along the street and hear a car coming, I'm just going to retreat fast. No worries – that's a great reaction."

This is what I touched on earlier; fear does play a role in our survival, and we'd likely be dead without it. Some situations require an immediate retreat. But not all.

"If I want to raise money; if I want to hire employees; if I want to merge with another company; if I want to release weight; if I feel that surge of fear, that's because something in my experience library is activating it. There might be something that could cause me to fail; to be embarrassed, ashamed, ridiculed, judged, disappointed, or rejected. So I want to calm that circuit."

Now, no one wants to feel shame or ridicule. No one wants to be rejected. But here's the thing – rejection is an experience you can come back from, and shame and disappointment will not kill you. It's worth risking those feelings if it means achieving your goals.

Step 3: Intention

After calming the circuit and making yourself aware of the trigger, you'll be able to reach a decision on where to go next. You haven't made a rash decision on the spot, so you've got the opportunity to be intentional about your next steps.

"What's my intention? Well, my intention is to follow through, because I want the reward. Great. How can I do that? What's one action I could take that moves me towards what I want, and not away from it?"

Sometimes, taking incremental steps helps to keep the fear at bay. Other times, you might need to take a giant leap of faith. But the important thing is that you're aware of what you need to do to achieve your goal and that you're taking action towards it, not away from it. 

John explained that once you take the first step, the control is transferred from your impulsive self to your intentional self.

"Now who's in control? Now who's gaining more self-confidence? Now who's gaining more self-trust? Now who's gaining more awareness? Now who is taking inspired action? And now who is deliberately and constantly evolving themselves, versus being a victim of past conditioning?"

(Hint: you are!)

The Power of Harnessing Your Fears

The outcome of taking those steps in the face of fear will determine whether or not you become paralyzed by it, or empowered. You have everything to gain – success, control, self-betterment, confidence – from learning to manage fear.

If you don't believe me, just take a look at this fascinating anecdote John shared with me during our interview:

"When Navy SEALs were going through the entire process of becoming a SEAL, many of them failed. In the last test, they were submerged underwater with all of their equipment on; three instructors would go down there with them, 20 feet below the water, and remove their mask, remove their regulator, shut off their air supply, and pull off their fins. They created chaos.

And you know what the Navy SEALs that were untrained wanted to do? Bounce right up to the surface – because they were afraid they were going to die. But when they taught the Navy SEALs to stay calm so that they could respond versus reacting out of fear, they graduated 50% More Navy SEALs. 

What was the difference? The difference was mental awareness, emotional control, and practicing the skill of staying calm. They teach it to Navy SEALs, they teach it to firefighters, they teach it to astronauts when life is on the line. That means that we can be better at mental focus and emotional control."

Can you believe that? Fifty percent more Navy SEALs graduated – and all from learning how to stay calm in the face of fear. You can seriously change your life by learning to do the same.


How do you respond to fear when it arises in your own life? Has this raised a few questions for you? Perhaps you're thinking about the shots you didn't take, or the opportunities you said no to because you were afraid of what may happen. Fear is a signal that something important is happening. It's your signal to thrive.

In any situation where fear begins to kick in, remember John's advice:

1. Calm the circuit of fear. Acknowledge the signal, thank it for warning you, and begin to assess the situation.

2. Be aware of the source. Where is the fear coming from? Is it a call for immediate retreat, or is it based on irrational thoughts and exaggerated concerns?

3. Set your intention. Decide what action you will take in response to the fear. What is the outcome you desire? Does the fear warrant a retreat, or can you take a step forward in the direction of your goal?

Finally, you can take action and move forward in the face of fear. Remember that this is a process; it will take time and practice to get comfortable with moving ahead despite your trepidation. But with courage, determination, and a willingness to experiment, you can learn to thrive in the face of your fears.

Thanks for reading, as always!

Also published here.