What's the best way to deal with our fears?

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First aired on Tapestry (10/03/13)

Taylor Clark explores the biological origins of fear and anxiety in his latest book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool. He makes a good case for working with your fears, not casting them as an enemy. In a recent interview on Tapestry, Clark told host Mary Hynes that "what people really suffer from a lot of the time is kind of an adversarial relationship with fear. They believe that fear is bad, that anxiety is bad, they have to get rid of it before everything's okay." He calls this approach counter-productive, because "you turn it into a bigger problem than it really is."

When it comes to dealing with fear, "it's kind of a delicate psychological line you have to walk," Clark acknowledged. On the one hand, it's a good idea to confront your fears. The part of the brain that stores our fear memories and controls our flight-or-fight reaction is the amygdala, and the only way to teach it that something is not actually dangerous is to expose yourself to that stimulus, so that the amygdala "can learn very slowly that thing is okay." However, he added that "if you make it into a fight, a war, you are fighting yourself just as much as you are trying to make progress."


Fear memories are hard to shake, which "makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint," Clark explained. "It's better to become afraid of something, say, of a predator, than to risk not reacting." He went on to say that our brains are wired so that we can have just one exposure to something that's a negative event for us to be sensitized to it.

"Evolution has found that we cannot be trusted to ensure our own survival," Clark said. He cited the example of if you're sitting alone in a house, reading, and a draft of wind comes up and a door slams shut. You'll be startled and jump up. "That happens before you know what's happened...Basically, what that is saying, in the way we're wired, is that we react before we've had a chance to think about it."

In his book, Clark writes that "We have taken our most indispensable and useful emotion and turned it into our foe." There's a genetic compound to anxiety, so we may be born with a predisposition, but we do have a certain amount of control. Clark believes that our coping mechanisms are partly to blame, because "people, when they are afraid of something, they'll avoid that thing at all cost." The problem with avoidance is that "we never give our brains a chance to find out out that really things are okay, that's not something we need to be afraid of."

Worry is another example of "something we do that is counter-productive," Clark said. "Suppressing our fears, not talking about them, actually makes them worse. Seeking control over things that can't be controlled, that's a big contributor to fear and anxiety." These forms of response are common, he added."There are a lot of things that are pretty much synonymous with modern life, and that's the problem."

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