An exploration of the biology of fear, anxiety and stress and though understanding them better how to life with them and ultimately perform even in their presence.
Fear evolved as a protective survival mechanism focused on anti-predator behaviour. If we miss an opportunity to mate or feed its not existential to the organism. If we miss an opportunity to defend ourselves or escape a predator game over.
1915 Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon coins the phrase fight-or-flight to describe the automatic fear system.
There are actually 3 responses to fear: Fight, Flight or Freeze the latter being a form of defensive preparation.
The amygdala in the limbic system of the brain is the neurological seat of fear in the brain. The amygdala monitors all sensory information on its own special circuits from the senses constantly looking for potential threats. Because of this wiring it is independent of conscious control and means we react without thinking. This process takes 12 milliseconds! The cortex will have a clearer idea of the information being scanned but it takes 40 milliseconds to react, 3 times as long.
Fear = perception of immediate danger, the response is to regain safety.
Anxiety = a cognitive action to protect you from potential harm in the future. All animals feel fear but probably only humans who feel anxiety.
There are universal fears and individual fears. Eg Moro reflex seen in new born infants. If the head is allowed to suddenly fall backwards the infant displays an inbuilt fear of falling. Similarly fear of snakes seems coded into our DNA.
At an individual level fear memoirs can be created instantly and last a lifetime.
In PTSD fear and memory have become caught into an awful feedback loop.
Calm in the presence of fear is not to do with not feeling fear – which is largely beyond conscious control, but how to do with how we relate to fear. Its about learning the right way to be afraid.
Research from Kenneth Kendler psychiatrist extensive research on identical twins indicates:
Probably about 30% of our pre-disposition to anxiety is genetic.
Women are nearly twice as prone to anxiety as men. May be largely due to socialisation. Little girls get coddled boys get told to suck it up.
Lack of control and uncertainty are the primary sources of anxiety. People with a low tolerance for the ambiguous information don’t see it as vague or neutral but as threatening. Getting used to things being outside of our control and learning to accept that critical to dealing with anxiety.
Research on worry shows fretting very rarely leads to actual solutions and from analysis of ‘worry diaries’ 95% of worries never come true. Those that do come true tend to be coped with much better than the worrier expected.
Avoiding situations that make us anxious counter-intuitively is unhelpful as you never learn to adapt and cope. Fear is something you live to learn with. To get over a fear you have to be exposed to it – moving through fear is the only route forward.
Deliberate inoculation builds confidence and a coping mechanism.
Hans Selye was a Hungarian endocrinologist who coined the term stress to describe the physiological changes he noted in his research on rodents when they were injected with unpleasant substances. He observed eustress which is energizing and motivating and distress which at its worst can be debilitating.
Coping with stress comes back to certainty and control. One reason why Londoners were so resilient in the Blitz was due to the predictable nature of the bombing, same time every night. Far less PTSD and mental health issues amongst this population than front line soldiers and the difference in the their experience is that the latter had to cope with far greater uncertainty. Rigid routines and menial tasks often used by armies historically to try and mitigate the loss of personal control – but providing clear tasks you can control helps quell fear.
Those who thrive in the presence of high stress see challenge and possibility.
Special Forces selection processes tend to maximize uncertainty to select recruits who can cope with ambiguity.
For over a decade Yale psychiatrist Andy Morgan has researched SF trainees at Ft Bragg. Research shows SERE training (survival, evasion resistance and escape training) is one of the most brutally stressful experience studied by scientists. In a report in 2000 the researches noted ‘recorded changes in cortisol levels (the major stress hormone) were some of the greatest ever documented in humans. Those who coped best and were still poised in these situations were found to have significantly higher levels of a peptide called neuropeptide Y, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuropeptide_Y) which seems to act specifically as a counter to the negative impacts of high arousal in the brain. The effects are so pronounced Morgan says he can tell if a soldier is SF simply from a blood test.
Morgan’s research also stresses the value of how self talk shapes how a situation is framed to the extent it will impact your neurobiological response.
UC Irvine psychologist Salvatore Maddi has been researching hardiness for 25 years initially conducting a long term psychological study of 450 Management employees at Illinois Bell telephone company. 6 years into the study the company was broken up as part of a Federal monopoly break up. 2/3 of the managers fell apart with the stress. 1/3 survived and thrived and Maddi with a wealth of data of 12 years was able to observe 3 common traits – 3 C’s; commitment, control and challenge. Maddi’s umbrella term for this was hardiness. These are not inherent traits but an attitude which can be fostered and trained. From 2009 the US Army mandated that the entire force (1.1m people) would be mandated to complete a stress resilience course.
US prisoners in Vietnam very interesting group as you would expect to find very high levels of PTSD mental trauma etc. In fact the opposite is true. Humour amongst this group seen as one element of their extraordinary resilience.
‘No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear’ Edmund Burke 1757
A certain level of fear / anxious anticipation is required for optimal nervous activation. But too much and the fear response driven from the amygdala closes down rational thought from the cerebral cortex.
Intrusive worry also highly disruptive of working memory, ie quickly overwhelms it and dramatically impairs performance under pressure.
Requirement is to learn to think in the presence of fear – training and familiarization make this possible.
Stage fright is very common but a workable predicament. In the music industry the use of beta-blockers is widespread to counter the effect of nerves. Suffers often have the ‘illusion of transparency’ assuming the audience can see how they really feel.
The key difference between novices and experts is not the amount of fear they feel but how it’s framed. Elite level performers tend to view fear as facilitative of performance rather than debilitative.
Matt Emmons probably the best rifle shot in the world should have won the Athens Olympic Gold and Beijing. In Athens with a massive lead he fired his final shot on the wrong target and accidentally squeezed the trigger on his final shot in Athens blowing his chance of the gold medal on both occasions.
Getting used to distraction effectively inoculates us against them. Tiger Woods is a famous example of this being trained by his Father (who had a psychology degree) from his earliest years to make shots whilst his father tried to distract him.
Chocking is different to stage fright (which has an external cause) the cause is paying conscious attention to the task being performed) overthinking known as ‘explicit monitoring theory’. Most effective methods for dealing with this are designed to divert attention to an external point.
Golfer Jack Nicklaus big impact in popularizing the impact and efficacy of visualization.
No statistical evidence exists in any sport to support the idea that some players can routinely exceed their normal skill level under pressure. The best can stay the same under conditions of pressure vs no pressure.
Confidence is consistently seen to be the mental factor distinguishing elite performance. It acts as a kind of protective illusion. Creates the belief you can handle the pressure and that the pressure situation is a challenge not a threat.
Private Hector Cafferata at the Chosin Reservoir in Korean War 1950. Detached to a outpost his tiny post was attacked by a large Chinese unit. For 7 hours on his own the 21 year old Pte held of the attack, wearing no boots and using an entrenching tool to bat back grenades in flight. Relived the following dawn he probably killed over 100 and was subsequently awarded the medal of honour.
Research from combat illustrates that performance takes place in the presence of fear not its absence. You learn to work with it.
Lt Col Lionel Wigram studied battlefield performance of the 8th Army and noted that any platoon running into fire troops reacted in 3 ways. A few would go to pieces and ‘start making tracks for home’ another handful would respond valiantly and aggressively opeing fire and advancing. The 3rd and largest group would enter a state of bewilderment, unsure of how to act, they would respond to strong leadership. Proportion was always the same; 6 gutful men, 12 sheep who will respond to strong leadership and 4-6 ineffectives. The report was very controversial Gen Montgomenty buried it and demoted Wigram! However the observations have proven very accurate for how human react in crisis situations.
Psychologist John Leech has spent decades researching this. 10-20% remain cool and composed (from his book Survival Psychology) another 10-15% will freak out, the remaining majority become the bewildered sheep. Humans in crisis often have a normalcy bias and act as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening. Kings cross fire and 9/11 used as examples.
Peter Kummerfeldt taught US Air Force personnel survival skills for 30 years. He taught them to sit down and take a drink of water. Those 2 lifesaving actions were designed to get people past their initial panic reaction. Wash the fear out of your mouth, think and assess the situation.
Stop, think, observe, plan. (Works if you are trained and prepared)
Key Factors for grace under pressure:
- Locus of control – focus on what you do control
- Tolerance for uncertainty
- Task Focus
Top tips for living with and performing in the presence of anxiety and fear.
- Conscious control of breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system and dials it all down a notch.
- Put feelings into words. Don’t bottle it. Talking about it or writing it down vents it.
- Train practice and prepare. Performance relies on realistic demanding practice. More is better.
- Redirect focus. Focus on the moment and the task at hand
- Expose yourself to your fears. Avoidance is not a strategy for growth
- Accept uncertainty and lack of control – serenity prayer, ‘God grant me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
- Re-frame the situation. When you change the way you (choose) appraise a situation, you change your emotional response to it.
- Joke around
- Build faith in yourself
- Keep your eyes on a guiding principle. ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.’ Nietzhe.