The Science of Conquering Your Greatest Fears
It may be the oldest emotion. Before happiness, before sorrow, before exhilaration, and way, way before the urge to climb mountains and bomb down steeps, there was fear. Now scientists are finding new ways to help us conquer our deepest anxieties—and use them to perform even better.
Many things scare me: the huge rock at the bottom of Boulder Garden on Colorado’s Gunnison River that has flipped my kayak numerous times; the chutes off the stormy top of the Big Sky tram; sullen men with clubs who lurk in Kenya’s Ngong Hills (I met them a while back).
Can a scientist in an eggplant-colored blazer wielding cartoons of spiders instill fear in me?
Yes, he can.
Kevin LaBar is part evil genius, part Wizard of Oz. He creates sinister worlds that make your heart race, palms sweat, stomach clench—and then he cures you.
He is, you might say, Dr. Fear.
LaBar is a professor at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, where he and others conduct twisted experiments using a nine-foot-square Rubik’s Cube of an alternate universe. Known as the DIVE (for Duke Immersive Virtual Environment), it is one of only a handful of similar rooms deployed in academic institutions worldwide. Designed to be used with six stereoscopic projectors and real-time head and hand tracking, this is where archeologists explore 3-D representations of Roman ruins and molecular biologists manipulate double helixes and histones. It’s not zero gravity, but it almost feels like it could be.
The DIVE is also where a colleague of LaBar’s has created something they call the Kitchen from Hell, designed to measure stress tolerance by subjecting its victims—usually unsuspecting psych majors—to an onslaught of minor miseries, from a teakettle that won’t turn off to honking cars, barking dogs, a loud ticking clock, and a “failure task”: find your lost keys as soon as possible. Only (heh heh) there are no keys.
LaBar has been inflicting everything from predators to math tests on volunteers for several years as a way to understand fear—how we acquire it, how we recover from it, and whether there’s any way to speed up the process of conquering it so that we can go back to enjoying our one precious picnic of a life. I wanted to better understand fear in the context of outdoor sports and adventure, because it is both a lock and a key. Fear can prevent us from doing the things we love and from loving the things we do, but it can also, if we’re lucky, help us access peak emotional experiences. As scientists are confirming, adventure seeking isn’t just about skill, planning, and the right group of buddies. It’s also about a Milk Dud–size piece of our brains—the amygdala—and how to get a grip on it.
Because of my interest in earthly terrors, LaBar plans to attack me with snakes and spiders. The glitch, however, is that I’m not generally very frightened of snakes and spiders, especially fake ones, and neither are a lot of LaBar’s volunteers. (Genuine phobias of any sort occur in only about 8 percent of people.) So, to make the animations more fearsome, LaBar has added voltage to the mix: now the little monsters appear with real bite, in the form of a shock delivered to my left wrist. Before I enter the DIVE, Matt Fecteau, the lab manager and resident techie, attaches probes to my arm. Wires connect me to a white box with dials and meters.
“Do you feel it now? How about now?”
Matt cranks up the dial. It’s been a while since they used this instrument of torture in a study, and it was usually operated by a postdoc who has since moved to Sweden. I can’t help but picture Westley inside the medieval life-sucking machine in the movie The Princess Bride. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable but not searing. I feel an unpleasant zing. We take it up to just over 40 volts (for perspective, good electric lawn mowers are 40 volts), delivered with a constant amperage. “The amperage is the thing,” says Fecteau, fiddling. “You don’t want to get too high or it’s deadly.”
There’s more fiddling and Fecteau is moving some wires around when I feel a big zing—quite a big zing—and I yelp a bit. Everyone looks at me. “That must have been electrical interference,” someone says. Then it happens again. More yelping. This is the pain zone. “We better move the machine away from the computer wires.”
If I was feeling calm and confident about spiderland, now I’m not. When Fecteau hooks me up to palm sensors that monitor my skin conductance—a fancy term for sweating—I’m already halfway up the stress graph. I am, as LaBar puts it, nicely pre-stressed. The DIVE is eerily quiet. The booth works like a 3-D movie: the action is projected onto the walls, and you wear glasses to get the full effect. I strap on a techno tiara that resembles scuba goggles but with built-in gyroscope, magnetic compass, and gravity sensor to track my head in space. I am seated like Miss Muffet, waiting for the show to begin.
The ground starts moving, and I’m floating through a forest as if on a hoverboard. Above me are sky and tree canopy. If I move my head, my new world moves with me. The technology is pretty amazing. Sometimes the animation slows. A spider the size of a coffee mug skitters across the top of a boulder or climbs a log next to my leg. It has unnaturally long, jagged legs and moves to the unnerving sound of ticking. Each time, it vanishes after a few seconds. Sometimes a coiled snake the size of a Frisbee appears and opens its jaws to bite me. It’s brown and plump and appears to a soundtrack of rattles. That’s when a small jolt hits my wrist; it’s barely noticeable, but I keep expecting it to be worse. I feel the uneasy buildup of anticipation. I’m wondering if I can just return to the Kitchen from Hell. This goes on for about seven or eight minutes, then the shocks stop while the images continue. The pain doesn’t return, and soon it’s over.
There’s some debate about whether we are born with primal fears of snakes or we learn them. Research last year by primatologist Lynne Isbell at the University of California at Davis found that Japanese macaque monkeys are born with specific nerve cells in the brain that respond to snakes. This suggests that at one time serpents were dangerous enough to our ancestors to drive heritable changes in brain physiology. Certainly, our brains are hardwired for fear. The old adage that horses and dogs can smell it is not only true but may apply to humans, too; research subjects who smell the sweat of scared people enter a hyperalert state themselves.
Some psychologists argue that fear is our oldest emotion, existing in the earliest forms of life on earth and predating the drive to reproduce. It’s even possible that fear is the basis of the full spectrum of human emotions, as we evolved ways to calm ourselves from our well-honed anxieties. The main reason we remember anything, scientists posit, is that we must remember fear. Emotional events, but especially fearful ones, release calcium in the brain, which in turn encodes information. Thanks to fear, we have Proust.
Fear protects us—it kept our ancestors vigilant and helped them detect and avoid physical threats. But fear can also hijack us, keeping us from performing at our peak. The so-called fight, flight, or freeze response was useful in the Pleistocene but is less so today, when our fears involve things like surfing Maverick’s for fun or giving public speeches. Now we deal with stress and anxiety more than outright predator terrors, but physiologically speaking stress resembles fear, with the same rise in sweat and blood pressure and release of combat-ready hormones. Our brains treat all fears—from cheese phobias (yes, people have those) to standing at the top of an icy ski chute—the same way on a crude continuum. Technically, the term anxiety refers to an expectation of harm, while fear is what happens in the moment.
In the deepest clutches of fear (Gorgonzola!), our primitive brain stem overrides our problem-solving neocortex, and we become stupid. Our fine motor skills deteriorate, and our field of vision narrows. Sports psychologists know that fear can choke us, distract us, and impair our judgment. If you’ve ever tried to talk someone (or yourself) down from a cliff, or experienced sewing-machine leg on a narrow ledge, or moved in slow motion from a hazard when you should have been on fast-forward, you know that fear doesn’t always save your ass. Sometimes it dishes it up on a platter.
Fear serves two main purposes: it’s supposed to jack you up with enough adrenaline to fight a threat, and to etch the experience into your brain so you know to avoid that threat in the future. Sometimes it flubs the first task, but it does the second one particularly well. Extreme fear can haunt us for decades. About 70 to 80 percent of us will experience it at least once in our lifetime—as a result of a serious accident or crime, watching someone die a terrible death, or a roadside bomb or natural disaster—and more if we pursue high-risk work or play. About 8 percent will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, essentially a very bad fear hangover.
It’s estimated that about 17 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered post-traumatic stress. And there’s some evidence that seasoned mountain climbers and other elite adventurers are less likely to develop it. (They still do, however; check out the latest edition of mountaineer Joe Simpson’s classic Touching the Void, in which he catalogs his lasting panic attacks and weeping fits.) Some people’s brains are genetically, preternaturally stress resilient, and these are often the types drawn to adventure sports. Conrad Anker has witnessed avalanches, carried friends’ lifeless bodies, and suffered extreme physical deprivation. Yet the mountains continue to call him. “I do go back for more,” says Anker, 51. “I’m less afraid than I used to be. Chalk it up to experience and the way that I’m wired. I’m not normal.”
Brains like Anker’s appear to process fear in a less intense way, and they recover from it quickly. But for many others, PTSD can cause debilitating long-term mood swings, twitchy nerves, nightmares, flashbacks, aggression, depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
“We need to understand how memory works in healthy brains to understand how it might be altered in these disorders,” LaBar explains. “We’re trying to come up with better training regimens that help people reach their goals and transfer those goals across many environments.”
Even healthy brains show a wide range of fear responses. Women tend to suffer more from anxiety and may be more likely to develop PTSD, but scientists aren’t sure why; it could also be that men are conditioned to hide it. Most people, unlike Anker, appear to grow more fearful of certain activities as they age. Both men and women produce less courage-boosting testosterone as they get older and their skills and reflexes decline. Regardless, fear is not a fixed response, says LaBar. We can learn to get a grip.
Back in the laboratory, I step out of the holo-deck of vipers and view my skin-conductance graph. It looks like Nevada: basins and ranges. “You’re a good subject. You scare well,” says LaBar, who grew up in suburban Pennsylvania and prefers the gym to the outdoors, which could help explain his fondness for technology as a window into the soul. “You showed response to both spiders and snakes, but you showed a bigger response to the snake when it was paired with the shock.” LaBar points to a steep rise in the graph. “The shocks started here, and it really spiked higher. The double bumps go away when the shocks went away. Classic.”
LaBar assures me that by showing me snakes with no shocks toward the end of the 3-D session, my brain learned to dismiss the threat. This recovery is called fear extinction or exposure therapy. It’s the basis for the most effective methods for treating fear disorders like phobias: show the phobic friendly snakes until they feel comfortable, even ready to hold them. The idea is that you essentially create new, better memories that outcompete the frightful ones. What’s so great about virtual reality, says LaBar, is that you can show any kind of fear trigger in any context. Snakes in the woods. Snakes in the office. Snakes in bed. (Wait, that was Freud.) LaBar’s studies show that extinction therapy is more effective when carried out in these diverse settings.
The keep-on-doing-it-safely strategy can also work outside the shrink’s office. It’s how most of us learn to push ourselves in risky sports, a little bit at a time, gradually gaining skills and confidence. Taken to an extreme, you get Jeb Corliss, the videogenic BASE jumper whose recent stunts include flying 123 miles per hour in a wingsuit between two canyon walls spaced just 25 feet apart. Unexpectedly, Corliss claims he used to be a fraidycat.
“I’ve spent my whole life confronting fear,” says Corliss, who’s 38. “I’ve been obsessed with it since childhood. When things terrified me, I was compelled to confront them. I was afraid of snakes, so I started catching snakes—first garter snakes, then bigger snakes, then finally rattlesnakes. Then I became obsessed with sharks, so I started diving. I didn’t want these fears to have power and control over me.
Then, in South Africa in 2012, Corliss jumped off a ledge, misread a target, and slammed into a granite wall at 120 mph. He broke his left fibula and both ankles, ripped his ACL, cut open his body, and went into kidney failure. After a few days in the hospital, a psychologist came to see him about PTSD. “She was like, ‘Wow, you’re doing fine. This has not affected you in the slightest,’ ” Corliss says. A few months and skin grafts later, he was back in the suit.
OK, Corliss is a bit of an outlier.
Most of us have bigger struggles after a bad accident. Unfortunately, exposure methods don’t always work, especially for violent or complex fears. The brain is a three-pound organ of survival. It doesn’t necessarily want you to feel comfortable doing dangerous things. It wants you to go home and bake baklava. “Even with regular extinction therapy, you can get the return of fear,” says Marie Monfils, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. This is because the original trauma memory is still rooted in your hippocampus, ready to bark at your amygdala alongside the new memories of better times on the battlefield or in the tube.
This has been the experience for big-wave champion Greg Long, who almost died while surfing a three-story wave off Southern California’s Cortes Bank in 2012. Long was battered by the break and forced down under three massive waves until he lost consciousness near the surface. A jet skier finally pulled him out. Returning to sea wasn’t easy. “I went back out less than a month later,” says Long, 31. “It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. There was instant fear and panic, the thought that I don’t want to be here. It’s still hard. Overcoming those fears is about getting beyond emotions and respecting the process. Sometimes those emotions are there, sometimes not. I like to think it’s easier the more I do it, but I’m going to carry them with me forever.”
As Long is finding out, the anticipation of a threat can be as bad as the threat itself. As he and LaBar describe it, memory is glued to emotion in things we’re supposed to remember. That’s why fear memories make our palms sweat. So the main idea in any number of fear-mastery techniques is to peel away the memory from the emotion. To get all Zen about it, it’s not the dragon that scares us, it’s our response to the dragon. The trick, then, is to tame ourselves.
Our dragons first travel to the brain through a sensory pathway, such as the optic thalamus, LaBar explains. Within 100 milliseconds, before our conscious brain even knows it, the threat signal rushes to the amygdala, the small but powerful emotional core. It’s the amygdala that pulls the alarm on our autonomic nervous system for a surging heartbeat, the result of which is rapid breathing, buckling bowels, that cold sensation as your blood leaves your surface layers to travel to muscle, and so on. By now the information has traveled back up to our neocortex via neurotransmitters like cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine.
If the amygdala is our inner hysterical hausfrau, the highly evolved neocortex is our let’s-be-reasonable-here negotiator. Between them something of a power struggle ensues. In some people, the amygdala tends to stay in charge, while in others, quick, strategic decision making takes over. Part of this tendency is inherited, but it’s also subject to manipulation through training, willpower, and a nice dose of Xanax or propranolol, a beta-blocker that prevents adrenaline from binding to cell receptors. Propranolol is also known as the stage-fright drug; an opera singer once thoughtfully smuggled me a dose before my first book talk. By lowering your heart rate, it literally makes you calm, cool, and collected. Regrettably, it does not turn you into Winston Churchill.
In a perfect world, we would all react optimally to fear, use it to assess risk, calculate our best options, and return rapidly to baseline. When ski guide Allen O’Bannon, coauthor of the classic Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book, stepped onto a patch of rotten snow while ice climbing in the Wind River Range in 1995, he found himself falling 300 feet. Time slowed. An image came to his mind from a conversation he’d had with another ice climber who’d survived a fall. He’d told O’Bannon that he’d rolled into a ball to keep his crampons and ice ax from catching on the slope and creating a worse impact zone. O’Bannon pulled in his arms and legs until his rope finally arrested him. Now 50 and a risk manager for Denver-based Polar Field Services, he tells clients, mostly scientists, about the power of preparation.
In a crisis, O’Bannon explains, some people panic and some stay cool. The vast majority, though, fall into what he calls “the bewildered state,” in which they pretty much do nothing to take charge of their situation. “I push training in as many simulations as you can,” he says. “At what distance will you pull your bear spray? How will you react when you fall into a river? The idea is to know what failure feels like. If you can’t train, visualize. Then your response becomes automatic.”
When Greg Long was unable to breathe under the waves, he stayed calm and slowly climbed his leash line to the surface. He’d trained for years to hold his breath past the comfort zone; he knew what it felt like. “There was no panic, no questioning, just, This is what I’m going to do if I’m going to survive,” he says. “There were no negative thoughts or wasted energy. I was totally focused. Until we let go of our fears, we don’t begin to reach our potential capabilities.”
Sometimes fear can help provide the focus we need. People who are comfortable on its jagged edge know how to use it to their advantage. “Fear is energy,” says Jaimal Yogis, a surfer and author of last year’s science-steeped memoir The Fear Project. Fear, he says, is mediated by arousal systems similar to those for sex and exercise. That’s why it feels good to experience it in the context of a horror movie or a Class III rapid. When our nervous systems are aroused but not in full alarm, we are paying attention. Our senses are primed. Our working memory increases. We feel alive. The flip side of fear is flow, that delicious state in which time drops away and you are fully engaged and present.
Sian Beilock, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, has studied what happens to volunteers taking timed math tests. Most people experience math anxiety. Their cortisol levels rise, and their misery and self-doubt actually inhibit their working memory, causing them to perform worse than they would otherwise. But an interesting thing happens to people who are confident in their math skills: the cortisol actually makes them better. They become more focused.
Does this mean we’re doomed if we fear math or that steep tree run that makes our knees shake? No, says Beilick. Because we can learn to tune out the negative thought stream—paralysis by analysis—that drains precious cognitive juice. This overthinking is the classic choke pathway known all too well by professional athletes. “You’re not born a choker,” she says.
In other words, you can go from being someone who is hamstrung by fear to someone who is impelled by it. But it takes some work, says Beilock. “People can train themselves out. You can sing a song, distract yourself in the moment. Think about the outcome you want rather than your knees. Have a one-word mantra.”
Canadian slopestyle skier Kaya Turski says that if she can get a grip, anyone can. “I am a high-anxiety person, one of the most nervous athletes,” says the 26-year-old X Games gold medalist. “I tend to overthink things. Going into these events, I generally feel like the world is on the line.” After Turski ripped her third ACL on a switch 720 just six months before the Sochi Olympics, she knew the recovery would be as much mental as physical. Because of her anxieties, she’d already started working with Los Angeles sports psychologist Michael Gervais, who helped Felix Baumgartner overcome his panic attacks before dropping like a rock from space in 2012, free-falling 24 miles and breaking the sound barrier.
The crux of their work has been mindfulness training. “I meditate every day,” says Turski. “As soon as your mind wanders, that’s when you introduce fear. It’s as simple as tuning back into the now. I haven’t perfected this, but it has 100 percent changed my life.”
The work was central to her comeback. It helped her take her eighth gold in worldwide X Games, but it couldn’t keep her from catching a bad cold and falling—twice—in Sochi. She placed 19th. “That experience shook me more than anything had ever shaken me,” Turski says. “It was a reality check. Things don’t always go your way. So I got back on the meditation track. Life isn’t so bad. You have to emerge into the light. Here I learned that I could survive something.”
Few seem to have mastered fear so completely as Alex Honnold and Dean Potter, both of whom do unimaginably terrifying things hundreds of feet off the ground without a safety net.
“I wouldn’t say I don’t get afraid,” says Honnold, 29, who is known for his free-solo ascents of big walls. “It’s just that I’m more rational about it. If you’re fully in control of the variables, you shouldn’t have anything to be afraid of. Walking on a handrail or beam, if you know you can do it, it shouldn’t really matter how big the drop is.” But that attitude has taken time to cultivate. “I think mastery of fear is a skill,” he says. “It may be partly that I’m more skilled at soloing. I’m less nervous about a lot of things now. In general I’m more relaxed.”
Dean Potter’s mother was a yoga teacher. That awareness of stillness came in handy in 2012, when the 42-year-old wingsuit jumper highlined a mile-high, 130-foot span across China’s Enshi Grand Canyon with zero protection. “I’m not so good at sitting on the floor and meditating,” says Potter. “I use those skills way better when I’m moving. Any time I’m having difficulty, I focus on the breath, on relaxed breathing. If I have a combination of calm and fear, I access mental states way beyond normal consciousness. That’s why I choose to do scary things.”
Whatever Honnold and Potter have, the military would like to bottle it, and so would a lot of coaches. Although Marines might prefer a pill to the lotus position, the data on meditation’s ability to calm the nervous system is impressive, says Martin Paulus, director of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Laureate Institute for Brain Research. Marine training already includes four-count “combat breathing” during stress. The Naval Health Research Center, along with the Office of Naval Research, recently conducted a study in which infantry Marines learned other tricks for hacking their fear systems, including “nonjudgmentally paying attention” to passing thoughts and feelings. In brain scans, Marines who received the eight-week training showed less activation in the anterior cingulate, a midbrain region that processes emotions, and in the insula, which trafficks in physical sensations. Paulus, who was on the team for the study, says that these regions work to dampen the amygdala so the more rational cortex can step in.
This study and others also show that mindfulness can help people recover from fear by making their brains more resilient. After the course, called Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training, these brain regions in the Marines seemed to gain efficiency, and they more closely resembled those of Navy SEALs and elite athletes. When researchers deliberately stressed Marines by restricting their breathing and showing them pictures of angry faces, the meditators returned more quickly to lower heart rates, and their brains released less neuropeptide Y, a transmitter associated with stress.
The military is also experimenting with virtual reality at Buckley Air Force Base, outside Denver, to prep its troops for deployment. The idea is to expose National Guard members to the experience of seeing and handling human remains, and of witnessing violence and death, while teaching them techniques to deal with the stress. These include mindfulness, but also reframing the events in less fearful ways.
Sometimes just talking or writing about fear reduces its power, says Matt Lieberman, a social neuroscientist at UCLA. His lab looked at volunteers who were desperately afraid of spiders and had them go through exposure therapy (with real arthropods this time). Researchers told half the group to speak about how terrified they were. Lieberman calls this process labeling. Unexpectedly, these were the most successful patients, the ones “who could eventually put their hand in the cage and rub spiders with Q-tips,” says Lieberman. “We think labeling turns on the system that regulates brain learning in a long-term way that doesn’t have to activate the amygdala,” he says. In other words, articulating their fears out loud activated a different part of the brain, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, that detours the fear from the brain stem. These subjects were better able to keep their wits about them, literally, since wits exist far outside the amygdala.
LaBar and others are also trying to help the cortex override the amygdala, which has implications for the treatment of PTSD. Recall that during exposure therapy, two memories are competing for dominance: the trauma memory and the safety memory. If you can literally reach out and poke neurons in certain parts of the cortex—for example, the ventral medial zone, associated with emotional regulation—then you can help the safety memory win the wrestling match. Based on rat studies, one way to do this is with deep-brain electrodes or transcranial magnetic stimulation, already used occasionally to treat severe depression.
This is a lot of work to suppress a bad memory, but someday soon scientists envision shortcuts, through the help of drugs, technology, specially timed therapy, or a combination of approaches. Because wouldn’t it be better to just wipe out that bad memory—or replace it altogether?
The idea that we can master our fears is alluring. It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite plot devices, and it represents the ultimate Cartesian transcendence of reason over biology. But as scientists are increasingly learning, the mind, and not just the brain, is biological. Memories themselves are patched into neurons by calcium and proteins, and the whole process is mediated by a neurotransmitter called glutamate. The memories exist in specific places in our hippocampus, like books in a library, from which they can be retrieved. Scientists had assumed that those static memories would be there forever, even if dementia meant that we couldn’t always access them.
But recent research suggests that each time you check out those memories, they have the potential to be updated or changed. According to the University of Texas’s Monfils, the act of retrieval seems to engage new proteins and chemical reactions, to the point that the memory itself becomes briefly destabilized. She studies this effect in rats that, like I was, were fear-conditioned to a cue (in their case, a tone instead of a spider) with an electroshock. If you expose the rats to a harmless tone up to six hours after they were last scared, the memory loses its attachment to fear. Wait longer than six hours and it solidifies into concrete. Monfils believes that if you time standard exposure therapy to this window of rewriting, you can “reconsolidate” the memory in a helpful way.
“We can update the memory and prevent the return of fear,” she says. This holds promise for humans with PTSD, as do drug interventions using beta-blockers during memory reconsolidation. But these are early days. “It would be irresponsible to suggest that these are real techniques. It’s definitely science fiction right now,” says Elizabeth Phelps, a neuroscience professor at New York University, who has collaborated with Monfils.
It’s hard not to think about this without imagining yourself on the set of Total Recall or The Bourne Identity, because the implications are profound and definitely a little creepy. Without your original memories, are you still you? Are we willing to sacrifice a little selfhood at the altar of better performance or national security? After all, we’d be much better killing machines if we didn’t remember we killed.
Personally, I’m not ready for the loss of fear. I like the sweet spot of fear and courage. That’s where mountains get scaled and rivers descended and the heroes still come home. Most of all, it’s where the greatest acts of creativity occur—and, with them, stories about fear and courage. In the act of telling and the act of listening, we celebrate the melding of our old and new brains, which is, after all, where we become human.
Contributing editor Florence Williams is the author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.