People put up dreamcatchers to escape nightmares, close their eyes during scary movies and label topics as taboo to avoid talking about things they fear. In almost every aspect of our lives, we perpetually insulate ourselves against situations where we might be frightened, and we wish for idyllic lives of peace away from all our stressors and potential sources of fear. Fear, we have been conditioned to think, can only be negative. Yet, in light of new scientific evidence and old-fashioned wisdom, this conditioning may be fallacious. Not only can fear be physically beneficial, but it can be the most powerful factor for success. In fact — and, perhaps, ironically — short bursts of acute fear can boost both mental and physical performance.
Associate professor of behavioral and brain sciences and neurobiologist Christa McIntyre said that acute stress can catalyze neurogenesis, which is the production of neurons. It also enhances memory — a useful perk when we’re in a time crunch before an exam. By giving the mind a break from the daily tasks of reality, acute episodes of fear allow us to return back to the present energized and confident. Additionally, the immune system receives a jumpstart with an increased number of immune cells, a swifter wound healing process and an enhanced ability to detect tumors.
Moreover, social benefits can be associated with acute fear. Surviving a scary experience releases dopamine and oxytocin, mood-enhancing neurotransmitters that also encourage us to connect with those around us. We can thus build deeper connections more readily in the context of fear. It might be why soldiers form such profound friendships with comrades in the military with whom they endure near-death experiences. It may also explain how survivors of natural disasters or violence form similarly powerful bonds.
Facing fear is the first step to overcoming it. In fact, psychotherapists treat phobias with exposure therapy, regimens of repeated, controlled contact with the fear-inducing stimuli. Instead of avoiding the source of fear, the Mayo Clinic recommends that patients frequently practice encountering their fears. At the same time, patients conquer their fears by positive thinking and building confidence as they take on their fears.
Taking a cue from the successes of exposure therapy, we can apply the principle of confronting our fears to our own lives. Encounters with fear can make us more resilient and build our emotional strength. Understanding our individual fear responses and finding unique coping strategies can lighten our burden in the future when we deal with fear in high-stakes situations.
Granted, research has long proven that chronic stress can take a negative toll on our physical and mental health. It can lead to conditions such as anxiety, depression and hypertension. Flood the body with cortisol and adrenaline day in and day out, and you get burnout.
The key, however, is to turn fear into motivation and action without making it a chronic source of anxiety. While this may not work in cases of serious harm such as sexual assault and abuse, which may require professional psychiatric care, it can work in other instances. As students, many of us face the fear of failing tests, losing jobs or defaulting on credit card payments. Yet, by studying to avoid academic failure, practicing stellar work ethic to avoid being fired and budgeting to evade financial instability, we are all turning fears into a positive force.
Similar to many of us, there are numerous successful immigrants who have experienced the challenges and financial fears of starting out at square one. They credit their success to turning their fears into motivation. Andrew Cherng, the founder of Panda Express, said in an interview with Forbes, “‘I didn’t have any personal possessions when I came … My drive came from being poor.’” Instead of breaking him, his financial worries galvanized him to action and hard work.
While we complain about our worries and daydream about a carefree world, we owe gratitude to our fears for making us stronger. I get it: there is a lot to fear, and fear is natural. As a freshman new to the scary college experience, I have a lot to fear, from roommate issues to making good grades. Yet, I’ve found, fear is not so scary.