How Fear Hijacks Your Brain and How to Stop It

Monsters, the dark, that weird old man down the street, boogers, girls/boys, needles, broccoli, the attic, the basement and of course; homework.

These are just some of the things that we’ve all been scared of as children. Slowly these fears innocently warp into more pervasive worries.


Being a total failure in life, living an unfulfilled life, being totally confused about your purpose in life, wondering why you exist, finances, mortgages, children, relationships, relationships and more relationships.

While some of these fears are founded on real things, like homework; others aren’t.

Regardless of how valid the source is the reaction that they cause in our bodies and brains is definitely real.

The point is fear is built into our lives, it’s as much a part of being human as is wanting to eat sugary fatty food when you know you shouldn’t.

What is fear?

Philosophical answers aside, fear is basically  a chain reaction in the brain from a stimulus that is perceived to be dangerous or stressful.

Stress can be both positive and negative. Think of getting into a fight or a wedding. They are both equally stressful, but only one potentially involves going to jail.

Our fear responses are either learned or automatic.

Automatic – giant spiders, snakes

Learned – being yelled at for failing

The fear response is not just localized to one area of the brain but rather many.

Thalamus – decides where to send incoming sensory info, this can be sensory data from the ears, mouth, skin or eyes,

Sensory Cortex – This part interprets the sensory data

Hippocampus – This area is involved in memory, stimuli are evaluated here based on conscious memories and the context of the new stimuli is established

Amygdala – Helps determine possible threat, decodes emotions and stores fear memories

Hypothalamus – This activates the “fight or flight” response

brain on fear

Fight or Flight

Do you punch the bully in the face? Or just run away and tell the teacher.  

Fight or flight isn’t so much a moral conundrum but rather an automatic sympathetic nervous system response (part of the nervous system that regulates basic bodily functions).

It basically involve preparing the body for a potentially dangerous situation by releasing adrenaline and stress hormones. It’s a useful remnant of our prehistoric past to help us avoid being saber tooth tiger feed.

How fear limits us

So clearly you won’t be getting over fear anytime soon and you wouldn’t want to either.

Like most things in life, it needs to be held in balance.

What do you do when your fear limits your life?

Stops you from achieving your goals?

Today we’re gonna look at the science of mastering any fear. In the next 5 steps we are going to look at proven process that has been used by psychologists to help treat phobias.

Step 1: Acknowledging What Your Fear Is.

You can’t defeat your enemy if you don’t know what it is.

Understanding what your fears are is the first step to seeing how deep their roots go into your life and soul.

This may be just the first step but it’s not easy. Being entirely honest with oneself isn’t always so straighforward.

I suggest writing it down after some quiet contemplation.

Fear comes in many flavors, anxiety, worry, or doubt. The fear we want to identify is chronic debilitating fear.

The kind of fear that limits your growth.

Think of these questions

When do you feel anxious or fearful ?

Who are you around?

Where does it happen? Describe the context.

Why do you think you are feeling this way?

How does it feel in your body? Does it start out as anxiety and cause you to avoid certain activities?

How does it affect your life?

Once you have written these down, come back to it over the next few days and see if your experiences are consistent.

Step two: Deflate It

What is the worst thing that can happen?

Our fear response hijacks our brains into being giant babies. Just like that dude in the movie who falls meters away from the approaching monster and instead of getting up just crawls on the ground. It’s frustrating to watch from afar but debilitating when experienced.

When faced with fear we don’t act as rationally as we hope. Rational thinking isn’t the first answer to a lot of our stresses, instead we often use emotional thinking.

The amgydala is the center for fear based emotions in our brain and when it comes to emotions/fear, the amgydala is the boss.

Author Daniel Goleman explains using the “amygdala hijack” concept.

Emotions make us pay attention right now — this is urgent – and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: Do I eat it, or does it eat me? It can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened.

Visual signals are processed through the Thalamus to the Amygdala where an emotional response can be generated automatically.


This is why you need a rational analysis of what your fears actually are.

How about you try this.

Sit down with your list of fears. Ask yourself.

What is the worst thing that could happen?

Seriously. Like worst case scenario.

How about starting a new side business? List down all the things that could go wrong.

I felt apprehensive about self publishing and asked myself the same questions. I realized that my worst fears were greatly unfounded.

Worst case scenario?

Lose 400 dollars

Waste a few weeks of time

Be laughed at by someone on the Internet who I will never met

worst case2

By objectively asking yourself this question you will:

  1.  See negative repercussions aren’t that huge. The worst case scenario isn’t usually that bad.
  2.  Instill a sense of clarity

Step three:  Imagine

At this point we have:

A identified our fears and what area of our lives they inhabit and what is the worst case scenario.

Now, time to use our imagination.

Fear already hijacks our imagination. Like a hypochondriac we start frantically worrying about a myriad of other potential problems and before we know it we forget what our original fear was.

Instead of thinking of crazy hypothetical situations we are going to use our imagination to help us pave a path for mastering our fears.

Visualization is the key to overcoming mental obstacles. Visualize being in a particular situation and how you will react.

Before you Visualize Please Know…

Visualizing doesn’t just mean sitting in a dark room in the lotus position.

It doesn’t require listening to Buddhist chanting or energy crystals.

Talking with others or even writing down how you feel are both forms of visualization. Basically any active mental reflection will serve to bring you more clarity.

Make your victory plan.

Think of a list of things you can do to slowly overcome that fear.

How will you go about doing these things?

Imagine your life without this fear, how could things be different.

How will you feel in that situation? What will it be like?

I like to break this down into smaller goals.

Lemme give you an example.

I used to be really apprehensive about speaking Chinese in front of larger crowds ( my job requires this). Initially I was extremely apprehensive about making mistakes, but as I became more proficient that happened less and less. However this proficiency was also due to the fact that I was actively reflecting on my experiences. I was visualizing how I would feel when I made a mistake and what to do about it the next time.

Visualization is a big accelerator of success but it needs to ride on the momentum of ACTION.

In 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked two groups to think about what their coming few weeks would be like. Good or bad?

One group was just asked to imagine what the week would be like alone. The other was asked to write down any thoughts they had about upcoming events and what they should do.  Research showed that the best outcomes were created when positive thinking is balanced with visualizing future goals and how to implement them.

Step four: Exposure

The treatment for getting over almost all forms of phobias is the same.

From snakes to Omphalophobia( the fear of belly buttons ) counselors aim to expose patients to what they fear gradually and systematically. Throughout this process counselors support patients until they have reached a level of comfort where they can function by themselves. Sorta like training wheels on a bike but maybe way more expensive.

You can recreate this same process.

Try this: pick smaller goals and eventually move to larger ones.

Writing an entire book is quite the feat. Instead start with a daily dairy, then move to smaller articles, then entire chapters.

This is actually the same method that psychologists recommend for getting over social anxiety. Patients are asked to create an Exposure Hierarchy.

What is an Exposure Hierarchy?


an exposure hierarchy is a graded list of stimuli that will generate an escalating level of arousal, for the purpose of producing habituation.

I hope that you don’t actually have social anxiety disorder but the same method can be used to slowly work towards bigger goals and keep fear in check.


It might be difficult to think that small gradual changes could led to a dramatic different life but they really can.

It’s really like compounding interest in investing. A slow daily effort towards a goal can create tremendously large results if consistency and quality is maintained.

Step Five: Reframe

The final step in mastering fear is about reframing it.

ab lincoln quote

I purposely didn’t want to use the term overcoming your fear because I feel like it’s a bit of a misnomer.

Your fear isn’t a bad hangover or a cold. It’s THE basic hard wiring of your brain. You won’t just magically transcend your fear and approach all challenges like a lemming running for a cliff.

Instead if we want to master fear we need to re-frame what it means.

Fear means growth and opportunity.

Now, naturally this doesn’t apply to the lion hiding in the grass kind of fear but I’m assuming that most of you reading this blog don’t generally encounter lions.

Instead I’m talking about the fear of change with your own life and the anxiety when first faced with a challenge you have never dealt with.

Fear is a signpost indicating you are in a strange land and have traveled long from Comfortville. Embrace it.

It seems counter intuitive to tell you that fear is growth masked in a biologically urge to run. You will probably reject this notion upon hearing it.

It is an idea that many of us can agree with intellectually after some consideration but ……when fear comes banging at the door, those rational decisions are quickly forgotten.

That is why I suggest a few things.

1. A surround yourself with people who inspire you.

I love this quote by American author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur, Jim Rohn.

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

If you can’t physically interact with people who inspire you, let them fill your life in other ways. Find mentors or leaders online and follow their work. Although they probably won’t directly answer your questions, you may find that their podcasts, blogs, and books answer other people’s questions which are the same as your own.

1. Cut out the toxic elements in your life.

If there are people who bring your down and poison your attempts for personal betterment they don’t deserve a place in your life.

Naturally this is much more complicated when you have family that don’t support you.

1. Make a physical reminder.

Get a tattoo about success.

I’m not serious. However I do like having a physical reminder of my commitment to persevere in the face of fear in my house.

For me it’s a 46 point font print out of a quote by golfer, Gary Player

The harder you work the luckier you get.

Seems cheesy, but it helps me see a physical reminder of my objective decision to stay committed.

Bottom Line

Despite the fact that our brains are programmed for fear we can challenge this response to better our lives and businesses.

You can do this by:

Identifying – What our fears are?

Deflating – Its power and importance.

Visualizing – What to do and our goals.

Exposure– to the things we are scared of with a written goal plan.

Reframe – what fear is and what it means in your life.

The idea that fear is a signpost for a new point in my life is a concept that is so simple. Yet so powerful.  If you leave with one thing after reading this article. Remember that.

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