The Psychology of Fear: Understand the Triggers that Cause it, Why We Ignore It, and How to Overcome it

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It is easy to think Navy SEALs are fearless. They are highly trained and must perform a variety of intense, highly specialized actions and missions. They must be able to succeed while facing extraordinarily difficult challenges. They seem to achieve what others might find paralyzing.

However, there is a difference between being fearless and being courageous.

Fear serves a distinct purpose: it allows us to recognize, understand, and assess risk. The cues that cause fear are designed by evolution to keep us safe, and in some cases, alive. To be fearless means that we are ignoring those cues - rushing into risk without considering the consequences. Fearlessness is dangerous.

Courage, on the other hand, can’t exist without fear. Courage requires more strength because it is, quite literally, the act of stepping into our fear. That’s one of the most powerful qualities a SEAL has: The ability to move into his fear, and knowing when to do so--because sometimes, fleeing is the better response.

There is a predetermined level where fear starts to kick in, and it varies from person to person. In other words, some people start to feel fear before others might, and vice versa. Courage, as an attribute, speaks to how efficiently and frequently we are able to step into our fear.

The good news is we can increase our level of courage.

It takes time, but once you learn more about fear and how to overcome it, you can start using the benefits of courage and performing better in tough situations.

Fear: A State of Mind

Understanding where fear comes from is a critical first step in learning how to be courageous. Dr. Andrew Huberman, a tenured professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine, is an expert on fear—and he says it comes entirely from the brain. Fear is based on how we perceive a situation or environment, and we all perceive the world slightly differently. This explains why people are afraid of different things. Some people are afraid of spiders, some don’t mind spiders at all. Or maybe you have a consuming fear of flying, while others love it.

Yet fear doesn’t only manifest in your mind. Our bodies react to fear with stress, which comes with distinct physiological responses. Stress begins in your brain when a threat is detected. Then your brain sends signals to the sympathetic nervous system.The sympathetic nervous system, in turn, sends neurotransmitters and hormones through the endocrine system, pushing blood to the most necessary organs and muscles. This is why our heart rate increases, we breathe harder, our pupils dilate, and we sweat when stressed.

While certain functions are stimulated, others are slowing or stopping. Anything that isn’t immediately required to respond to the threat, such as nail growth or salivary glands, become less of a priority. This explains why your mouth may feel dry when you are stressed—you don’t need saliva when you are fighting for survival.

Once our brain determines a threat and our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, our body gives us three options: fight, flight or freeze. First, our body may tell us to fight the threat. Second, our body may tell us to retreat,more commonly known as flight. Or we might feel like we freeze, which is actually an oscillation between fight and flight as we attempt to figure out which one to choose.

The Courage Circuit

While it might seem easier to take flight or even freeze, we gain the most benefits from fighting—from stepping into our fear. Huberman calls this response “the courage circuit.” Courage, in fact, fires a specific circuit in the brain, and when that happens our brain releases dopamine. It’s a reward: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that tells our bodies something is pleasurable and encourages us to keep doing it. Our brain wants us to know that courage is a good thing. Even better, the reward doesn't show up only when we complete the task, but for every step that we take into our fear. Our bodies are telling us to keep going, keep moving forward.

The courage circuit tells us two major things. First, that courage cannot exist in the absence of fear, stress, and agitation. If our brains do not sense a threat, they cannot access the courage circuit. “Fearlessness”, in addition to being dangerous, does not produce any rewards.

Second, that stress, agitation, and fear are designed to get us moving forward - thus the rewards for doing so. Hunger is a form of stress and agitation; it’s our body telling us to get up and find food. Loneliness is stressful; that’s our body telling us to go find companionship. Humans have been designed to be “encouraged” to move towards that which we need.

What this tells us is that  courage can be developed. Doing things that scare you, that make you nervous or stressed, help you build courage. I know this sounds intimidating, but don’t worry—, you will get better with practice. Remember: fear is a state of mind, and it is subjective. You decide what you confront. You can start as small as you like. Get through your small fears to see how good it feels, then move on to something bigger.

Pushing Past Fear to Find Courage

When anxiety and uncertainty are combined, they create fear. To confront fear and build courage, one (or both) components needs to be addressed. Anxiety can be managed internally (e.g., breathing tools, visual techniques, conscious emotional control, etc.). Uncertainty is managed externally (e.g., analyzing your environment, chunking uncertainty into more manageable bites, etc.) The next time you feel that petrifying fear, take a moment to analyze your uncertainty. Can you manage that? What can you control? How about your anxiety? Can you implement some quick tools to help in the moment? Taking one small step at a time will help you overcome your fear and become courageous.

Another tactic to help you overcome what scares you is repetition. Repeating a process that causes anxiety can, over time, decrease that anxiety so much that our brains do not even register the process as a threat. Much like when professional athletes train, they do the same drills over and over again, until it becomes muscle memory. If we repeatedly practice engaging the courage circuit often enough, our brains and physiology will begin to get used to how it feels, and even look forward to the reward. We’ll find ourselves stepping into our fear more habitually.

Go, Be Courageous

Remember, the goal is not to be fearless, but to be courageous. The first chapter of the Grit Attributes in my book is called “Beware the Fearless Leader.” If we have a leader who is not good at assessing or managing risk, they will likely impose negative consequences on you and your team. Fear is designed to make us stop and contemplate. It is perfectly okay to stop in the face of fear. It is perfectly okay to feel resistance to the fight response when all we want to do is take flight. Just remember that you can push through—and you’ll feel great when you do. Because courage feels great.

Rich is a former Navy SEAL who draws upon 20+ years of experience as an officer where he completed more than 13 overseas deployments – 11 of which were to Iraq and Afghanistan. Read more here.

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