The Science of Fear

05.03.2018 |

Episode #2 of the course Conquer fear of public speaking by Dr. Paul Harrison


We’ve all felt the pangs of anxiety at some point. Sometimes it manifests in outright panic, leaving us unable to speak, act, or even think straight. Other times, it can be more insidious and make us constantly unsettled, worrying about every potential and imaginary problem. Why do we feel this way when under scrutiny, be it on stage with thousands of eyes staring at us or in front of a camera?

One theory is that it’s a leftover from our primitive hunter-gatherer days, and that sense of being watched makes us feel like prey. In the wilds, being the center of attention would rarely have been a good thing, so it’s natural that our lizard brain perceives attention as threatening, and “fight or flight” kicks in. Another issue is that as human social dynamics evolved, group “belonging” became an important aspect of the psychology of survival. So, public humiliation taps into the very primal fear that group exile would have caused in ancient times.

Both stem from the same nervous system, however, and today, we’ll be exploring the science behind this mechanism to better understand how to manage it.


The Autonomic Nervous System

The irony is that anxiety results from a system designed to respond to threats and keep us safe, called the autonomic nervous system. It’s further broken down into the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. These two exist in tandem, creating a delicate balance of “accelerate and brake.”

The parasympathetic system is responsible for keeping us in a calm state, letting us rest and digest—basically, it’s us at our most comfortable.

The sympathetic nervous system, which we’ll be focusing on here, is responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction and helps us respond quickly to danger by fueling our hearts and muscles. It’s a primal response system that evolved when natural predators were still a threat and our bodies needed a way to make us faster and stronger.

The problem is that our bodies don’t tend to discern very well between different levels of threat, so when the idea of something usually harmless bothers us (like the fear of public embarrassment), our nervous system can go into overdrive. We then experience unpleasant symptoms (butterflies, rapid heart, shallow breathing), which then sends us into a panic loop (more about this tomorrow).

As a result, minor threats can trigger the same kind of response that life-threatening danger might. Worse yet, the system doesn’t simply stop when the perceived danger passes, and can leave us feeling uncomfortable and exhausted.


How Fear Affects Us

The parasympathetic system is composed of craniosacral nerves, which control many of the muscles in our face, throat, stomach, organs, and the area of the groin above the tailbone. When the sympathetic system activates, producing compounds that elicit the stress response, many of the parasympathetic system’s processes are put on hold. Basically, our bodies are saying, “Deal with this threat now and you can digest your lunch later!” (This is why anxiety and stomach problems are often intertwined, for example.)

The effects of fear and anxiety are more easily understood if broken down into their different systems. When the sympathetic nervous system activates, we may experience the following:

Physiological effects: This can include a racing heart from increased cardiovascular activity, a change in blood flow (from extremities to muscles), and a change in speed and depth of breathing. Sweat is produced to aid in cooling and fighting, but our mouths and throats tighten and dry. The digestive system vasoconstricts—i.e, less blood can get to digestion—so anything from “butterflies” to extreme stomach upsets can be experienced.

Psychological effects: Increased alertness and perception of threats makes it hard to concentrate and can contribute to the mind going “blank.” Emotional reactions include heightened sensitivity to our symptoms, panic, nerves, and self-judgment.

Behavioral effects: The above physical and psychological processes are designed for a purpose: to help us fight or flee. It should be no surprise that our behavior subconsciously adapts to this, making us tense, snappy, and aggressive or shy, retreating, and vulnerable. In social settings, we inhibit such behaviors, so they manifest in other ways, including nervous tics, jogging legs, pacing, crossing arms, self-soothing, flailing hands, and flickering or downward-turned eyes.

In the next lesson, we’ll learn how to go from recognition of these symptoms to the basics of interruption.


Recommended video

Check out this video by Crash Course detailing the Autonomic Nervous System.


Recommended book

Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun


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