Heroes and cowards feel the same fear; heroes just act differently.
A job interview. Asking someone on a date. Making the last minute field goal. Starting a new business. And for some us, tsunamis or gunfire. Whether facing day-to-day anxieties or life or death traumas, we all will—and do—experience fear consistently. Successful people learn how to conquer and control fear rather than be its victim. I recently read the very informative Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark, and have compiled Taylor’s top, scientifically supported skills we all can develop to beat fear.
1. Create rituals. There are valid reasons athletes wear charm bracelets, cross themselves when they step onto the field, or only use their lucky bat. Superstition gives you a sense of control and reduces uncertainty, which diminishes performance anxiety. Many Native American tribes would perform pre-battle rituals on the idea that “today is a good day to die.” This reminded them that they were all going to day someday, and that day could be today or tomorrow, but it would surely come. Better to go out bravely than cowardly. Rituals are tools to manage fear.
2. Be prepared. Train. Expose yourself to your fears. Put yourself in the threatening situation, over and over again. Through repetition you program yourself to do the right thing automatically. Rule of thumb: if anxiety is stopping you from doing something that isn’t objectively dangerous, do it anyway.
3. Develop a tolerance for uncertainty. Bask in it. Think about the worst-case scenario and feel what it would be like for that outcome to happen. Usually, the worst case is never as bad as we think it will be, and understanding that takes the sting out of fear.
4. Be able to laugh at yourself. Joking around breaks built-up tension, quells negative points of view and allows us to see things differently.
5. Put your feelings into words. Talking or writing about fear helps the brain process it instead of just churning the same negative thoughts over and over. Once processed, we can move on to what’s next. Grab a journal and explore why you’re afraid and what that fear means to you.
6. Be present and detach from worries. Focus on the task at hand. Worrying about results undercuts our abilities. Just do what little thing needs to be done and then the little thing after that. The big picture will unfold naturally.
7. Breathe. When we control our breath, we inform our parasympathetic nervous system that things are okay, which lowers our heart rate and eases fear. When you start to feel frantic or paralyzed by anxiety, stop, inhale deeply for four seconds and exhale for the same amount of time. Repeat this until you are once again in control.
8. Reframe the situation. Recontextualize what “is” and give it a more optimistic and realistic spin. If you stay grounded in reason your mind won’t get carried away. The worst-case scenario probably won’t happen. Considering what fear can do to our imagination, our “worst-case scenario” is probably impossible.
9. Build faith in yourself. We gain confidence through a series of small successes that expand our comfort zones and our self-belief. Celebrate these achievements. Use them to prove to yourself that you can succeed, that you are not a failure, and use the lessons learned to push yourself past your next, probably fictional, barrier. Confidence, even if an illusion, is the vital mental factor that distinguishes elite performance from the average. Having self-confidence enables you to view things as a challenge rather than a threat.
Remember, it’s what we do with our fear that determines our fate. Bravery isn’t being fearless. Bravery is being scared and doing the right thing anyway.
*New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011.