When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, everything you do or don’t do teaches the brain something about the perceived threat. When you avoid or flee the situation, your brain experiences a wave of relief. The amygdala learns that avoiding that situation is how you stay safe from that threat.
This is exactly how you want the brain to respond if the threat is a grizzly bear. But what if the perceived threat is something less biologically adaptive, like a worry about being judged or teased?
Let’s say you’re invited to a party full of new people, and you have thoughts of looking dumb, making a mistake, or being judged. The fear response is triggered, and you decide not to go to the party. Whew…relief! You don’t have to be judged!
However, you’ve now taught the brain that parties are dangerous (even the ones without tequila), and avoiding them is how you stay safe. The next time you have to attend a party or event, the anxiety response is even stronger—the brain desperately tries to get you to flee, because that’s how you’ve stayed safe in the past.
Anxiety gets worse and worse as you avoid it and can even start to generalize. A fear of parties can spread to all social events, and then to brief interactions with baristas at the coffee shop. It can become debilitating, preventing you from doing things you really want to do.
That’s what happens when you train your brain to sound the alarm when there’s no real danger—but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Retrain Your Brain
Let’s say you choose to behave differently when you’re anxious but not in real danger. You recognize your fear, accept it, and go to the party anyway. In fact, you go to a lot of parties, even though your fight-or-flight response kicks in.
The brain is collecting data about what happens and soon realizes, Wait a minute, nothing bad is happening! Maybe this isn’t actually dangerous! Over time, you retrain your amygdala about what is safe, and the fear response becomes less intense or disappears.
If you sit around waiting to feel comfortable, you’ll be waiting forever. Your brain won’t magically retrain itself. You have to act before it feels comfortable, before you feel ready.
You can choose to do things that scare you—to feel the fear and act anyway. Avoiding your fears makes your world smaller; facing them expands it.
Maybe you can’t relate to the party anxiety scenario, but I bet there is at least one area in your life where you are afraid to fail. It could be your work, your finances, your relationships, your body, your reputation, your legacy…there are many possibilities. We all have something we’re afraid to ruin, and that fear holds us back from taking that very thing to the next level.
With the right training, though, your brain can unlearn its fear of virtually anything, even things you would think are unquestionable…like lions.
Facing the Lions
My best friend Joe and I were in Kenya visiting the Masaai community. It was the perfect chance to fulfill our dream of going on a safari, so one morning, we woke up before sunrise to hit the plains. It was a rugged outfit, riding around the Serengeti in doorless Land Cruisers trying to get close to elephants and big cats.
And we did—a little too close, actually.
It had been pouring rain through the night and the ground had turned into a few feet of mud. We were attempting to get our tires unstuck when our guide said in a hushed but urgent tone, “DON’T. MOVE. BE. QUIET.”
On the right side of the car, a giant lioness with the drooling jaw of a cold-blooded killer was walking directly toward me. There was nothing between us but three feet of air—not even a car door. In this much scarier version of The Lion King, Nala crouched, we locked eyes, and I felt her slink past my legs just as we were able to peel out from the mud.
My life flashed before me as I pissed my pants and imagined my obituary reading, “In death, Bridget became what she loved most in life: a delicious meal.” Hakuna matata.
Seek to Understand
We thought the mega cat’s demon stare was the true embodiment of fear, but we hadn’t quite seen it all yet. Later that afternoon, we were inching through the tall grass, looking for signs of life, when we saw a figure coming toward us in the distance. It didn’t look like an animal, but there were no roads or villages in that direction for miles and miles.
Twenty minutes later, a Maasai woman appeared, her traditional bright red and blue patterned Shuka standing out starkly against the endless brownish-green grass. We were stunned. It was 100 degrees with no water in sight, and we were in a vast, open valley.
We expected to see giant cats in this area at any moment, and she was just waltzing through? And what was she carrying on her back? Wait… was that a baby?
She walked up to us and we chatted. I told her about our close encounter with the lion and said incredulously, “Aren’t you scared of the lions while you’re walking all by yourself?”
She laughed at me and said, “No. I am only afraid of the hippos.”
The Masaai know from experience that lions are lazy and unlikely to attack humans unless they feel threatened (they certainly could have fooled me). On the other hand, hippos (yes, the giant water-pigs) are highly aggressive and kill more people each year than lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo, and rhinos combined. Hungry, hungry hippos indeed.
So there you go—even the things that seem genuinely worth fearing might not be what they seem. More often than not, the more you understand something, the less scary it becomes. Of course, most of us aren’t going to encounter lions in the wild (or hippos, for that matter), but this holds true for everything you might fear, including other people.
Don’t Fear the Other
“Cow blood. Cow meat. And cow milk.”
That’s what a Masaai warrior told me when I asked what they liked to eat. “Wait… that’s it?!” I exclaimed. “Yes—it’s very good, very simple,” he said with a laugh.
As I admired his muscles glistening in the sun, I took a sip (not bad!) and briefly contemplated switching my diet before remembering the extremely low chances of the granola health stores back home in LA selling bulk cow blood.
On the surface, the Maasai people could hardly be more different from me. Our attire, what we eat, our daily activities, our language, our surroundings, our communities—we seem to have nothing in common. But the more time I spent with them, the more I realized how untrue this was.
This warrior welcomed us into his village with genuine hospitality. We found common ground in music, my first love and a huge part of their culture. They taught us their traditional songs and dances and told us that contemporary Tanzanian and Kenyan hip-hop artists often incorporated Maasai rhythms into their songs.
The women of the tribe showed us how they make the gorgeous jewelry they sell to tourists. We made a fire together, had a jumping contest (I lost miserably), and listened to exciting tales of life in the bush. Yes, we are different on the surface, but when it comes to values, we share more than I ever expected.
We love music, our community, and the outdoors. And a juicy steak, of course.
As human beings, it’s simply in our nature to draw a line between “us” and “them”—our people and other people. “Other” people are the ones we don’t understand or relate to, and we’re much more likely to perceive them as scary or threatening, whether they really are or not.
We see this repeated endlessly throughout history, all over the world, and it continues today. The solution to this fear is simple: get closer. The better you know people, the harder it is to demonize them.
Talk to enough people, and you’ll begin to see that everyone has their reasons for thinking and living the way they do. Most people aren’t crazy or evil—they’ve just arrived at a particular set of conclusions based on the experiences they’ve had and the information they’ve been given. When you recognize that most strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet, you can do away with the labels and fear and just listen to each other with empathy and open minds (hey, a girl can dream!).
Everything You Want is On the Other Side of Fear
To help you start to dissolve your own fears (whatever they may be), try the following exercise. First, think of one specific thing that fear is holding you back from going after. For example, here are some common ones:
Traveling to a new country
Taking a new job or trying a new career
Moving to a new city
Learning or using a new skill
Committing to a romantic relationship
Making new friends/socializing
Now, focus on that one fear and answer the following questions:
If you did what you’re afraid to do, what negative things might happen?
What would be so bad about that? What would it mean about you if your fear came true?
What does this tell you about what you believe about your safety, worth, competence, or lovability?
Where did you learn to believe this about yourself?
How does this belief keep you from pursuing your dreams?
What would you do if you believed something different about yourself?
Ultimately, when you master your own ego and stop worrying about the judgment of others and potential negative outcomes, fear can evaporate, and you’ll be surprised by how fast the voice of dissuasion disappears.
Feeling the Fear… And Doing It Anyway
Let me share an example of what I mean. Some time ago, I had the opportunity to speak alongside Sir Richard Branson. He was my idol; years prior, I had even listed getting beers with him as an experience I really wanted to have.
This was my chance—but there was a problem. A huge one. I was petrified of public speaking.
As I focused on that fear, though, I started to realize that what I was actually afraid of was something far deeper. Every time I thought about speaking in public, I was terrified I would be exposed as a fraud. I didn’t have an unshakeable belief in my own competence, and that had stopped me from pursuing my dreams of speaking on stages for my whole life.
But what if, I asked myself, I let myself believe in my own innate worth? What if I pushed back against the fear that I would be exposed as a fraud? I knew that doing so would expand my world and give me the chance to meet my hero—so that’s what I decided to do.
It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it, because after the talk, I got a chance to live my dream: Sir Richard and I shared a few beers. As we were talking, I mentioned how scared I had been to get up on stage, and then he said something that changed my life forever. He was terrified of public speaking, too.
To hear that someone insanely accomplished felt that way gave me hope for myself. It wasn’t just beginners like me. I knew I could remember that the next time I felt nervous on stage—that we’re all human. And it would be okay.
With that newfound revelation, I started working to overcome my lifelong phobia, and as I did, each step I took gave me the confidence to push past my fear. Now, just a few years later, speaking is my passion and livelihood. The cave I feared to enter held the treasure I was seeking.