Since doing Tough Mudder and watching some people with a fear of water, heights or enclosed spaces struggling to attempt obstacles, even if on the outside they come across as tough headstrong individuals, has got me really interested in the whole area of fear and mindset. It’s also because I have a bad enough fear of flying which recently has ended up in me cancelling trips I would like to go on because in my mind I have convinced myself that something will go wrong!
I have always done a lot of mindset and visualization work as part of my training (hopefully I’ll do a full post on this sometime specifically related to sports and fitness from my experiences) but recently we were asked a question in our group which was “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. The answers varied but mine would definitely be travel more, especially on a long-haul flight but how do you do that when even clicking on the Ryanair website has your heart beating a mile a minute?
I think most people have an irrational phobia of something or other, something that strikes fear in them and they go to huge lengths to avoid, something that they’ve built up in their mind to be so scary but which is so out of proportion with the actual danger that thing poses! To someone looking from the outside it’s hard to get your head around why they feel that way as it’s a totally personal thing that’s hard to explain.
My fear of flying is totally irrational…I never had a bad flight and as a child I was lucky enough in that I used to go on family holidays abroad and flying used to be one of my favourite parts! The first time I got scared was during one slightly turbulent flight when for some reason I completely panicked and convinced myself something was going horribly wrong when really everything was fine. Looking back on this and how it resulted in me feeling today I will never underestimate the quote “what you think you become“.
I managed to freak myself out so much that whenever I remembered the flight and played it back over in my head I embellished the events more and more each time and because I wasn’t getting back on another flight for another few months I had a lot of time to think about it! You might have heard that if you ever crash your car they always say to get back in and drive again as soon as possible otherwise you’ll build up the experience in your head to be worse than it was, whereas if you get back driving straight away you won’t have time to do that.
It must have been a few months before I flew again and the next flight I was awful, probably on a par to the woman on the plane in the movie Bridesmaids who starts telling everyone she knows the plane is going down! It also probably didn’t help that I let the Daily Mail and their overly sensationalized stories about the slightest air incidents sink into my mind! (Also on a side note I was in Berlin earlier this year and a few days before I was due to fly home that Malaysian Airlines plane went missing. At the time the only explanation the big news stations had was that the plane spontaneously disintegrated mid-air, so obviously in my mind that was now a major new thing to add to my mental list of things that could go wrong!).
So anyway I better get to my point soon! Basically I realised that this fear was getting worse and if it wasn’t stopping me from travelling then it was ruining the trips I would take as I would spend the week away worrying about the flight home. So being a scientist/major nerd I read some articles on fear, what it is and how to stop it. I came across one quote that really resonated with me which was “Fear is False Evidence Appearing Real”. This quote really makes sense when you find out what it actually going on in your brain when you get scared…
Fear is an autonomic response, meaning that it is a subconscious action initiated by the brain. Your brain is made up of over 90 billion neurons, is controlled by chemicals and is one of the least understood scientific mysteries. Fear is initiated by a stressful stimulus and the end result is the release of chemicals which stimulate the fight or flight response, i.e. an increase in heart and breathing rate, increase in the amount of energy, blood and oxygen that is supplied to muscles, dilation of pupils and sharpening of sight and an increase in awareness all with the aim of getting your body ready to fight or run for safety. It puts you on high alert and you perceive everything around you as a threat. It is obviously an extremely useful function in cases of real danger but nowadays this response is starting to kick in in situations that don’t actually pose any real threat. For me I know that this is what happens when I’m flying and since it is controlled by the brain and the brain is simply a series of connections and chemicals there must be a way of intercepting the connections using conscious thoughts to override the subconcious thoughts of fear and prevent the fight or flight chemicals being produced? As you can tell by now my thought process is a bit random but makes sense to me!;) So here’s what I found out!:
Basically there are two pathways that are initiated when you encounter a scary stimulus, one quick acting and one more slow acting. The quick acting pathway gets to work to initiate the fight or flight response as soon as you encounter a scary stimulus, even if it’s not a threat. The basis of this pathway is that it’s better to be prepared to respond to something that mightn’t even be dangerous than to not be prepared and end up getting hurt. The other pathway acts more slowly as it takes the time to determine if the stimulus is actually a threat before switching on the fight or flight response.
The science part: In the slow acting response, once your brain receives the supposedly scary stimulus it sends a signal to the thalamus which then signals to the hypothalamus to initiate the fight or flight response. In contrast, in the slow acting pathway the thalamus first sends a signal to the sensory cortex which interprets the data to determine if the stimulus is a threat or if it can be explained by more than one explanation. It then passes the information to the hippocampus which causes you to ask questions like “Have I experienced/seen this before? What happened last time? What are the other possible explanations?”. If everything checks out then a signal is sent to the amygdala telling it that everything is ok and that the stimulus is not a threat and to signal to the hippocampus to turn off the fight or flight response. Because this rational thought process of thinking takes longer this explains why you have a moment or two of shock before you realise everything is actually ok!
So after reading up on all of this I came to the conclusion that you can maybe learn to turn stop fear taking over in certain situations by going through a conscious thought process of telling yourself everything is ok and trying to cancel out the subconscious niggling worries that you know you have. I’m also all for facing up to fears and think that if you can have a good experience with something that scares you then you’re one step to getting over it. My sister moved to France this year on erasmus and was asking me for weeks to book a flight over. My facebook feed is full of motivational quotes so one day I don’t know what was going through my mind but I decided to bite the bullet and book the flight, by myself (making it extra scary!). I had read up on all this beforehand so was going to my own experimental subject. I was sh*****g it getting on the plane I’m not going to lie! However for some reason, for me, knowing that fear was just a series of chemical signals and responses made it seem like something that I could control rather than something that was a massive deal which was out of my hands. I kept telling myself that all the strange noises I could hear were normal and anytime I felt myself start to panic I knew that a quick glance at the air-hostesses to make sure that they were acting normal was enough to reassure my brain that everything was fine. I then kind of realised that I was actually more afraid of being afraid than of something happening with the plane.