I recently read Jaimal Yogis’s The Fear Project, a fascinating foray into the nature of fear and how it influences our actions, both in positive and negative ways. If I could summarize the book in one sentence, I would say that through a range of expert interviews, scientific research and personal experience, Yogis’s main message is that like the great white sharks he swam with, fear is much less threatening and nefarious than we would ever believe, as the following points demonstrate.
1. Lie detecting: He interviews neuroscientist and psychologist Rick Hanson, who states that, “Just because there’s that funny feeling in your belly doesn’t mean that there’s any threat. Our internal signals are pretty much bullshitting us all day long.”
2. Memories: Beat anxiety by recalling memories of times when you felt strong in order to solidify a positive neural network. Yogis summarizes Hanson’s work by stating that, “What makes people fearful is a combination of the appraisal of the world and an appraisal of their own capacities. So, if on a zero-to-ten scale, you appraise your capacities as a two, and the issue in the world is a three, you’re going to be kind of scared. Whereas if you appraise your capacity as a seven or eight and this thing, broadly defined, in life coming at you is a three, all right, you might be a little nervous about it, you’re on your guard, but you’re not going to freak out.”
3. Optimism: Yogis interviews his friend, top ranked MMA fighter Urijah Faber, who is a proponent of focusing on the good. In Faber’s words: “So much of it is the power of the mind and how you perceive things. An optimist, even when life beats you up, you find something good that you did. I have a real ability to focus on the good thing.”
4. It’s all in the mind: Yogis, something if a Buddhist himself, brings in the Buddha’s perspective. Thoughts, emotions, perceptions exist in the mind rather than existing outside of us in a concrete way. Fear, therefore, is not something that exists out there. It’s like a wave in the mind, rising and breaking. Its impermanence forces us to question its substance and realize that, oh wait, it doesn’t have any.
5. Ninja training: The author’s wife Amy grew up in a family of high powered lawyers – great stress models, apparently. According to Yogis, She seeks out obstacles, knowing that’s what makes her grow, what makes life exciting. And if she doesn’t feel like she can handle something, she trains like a ninja. Whenever she has a big board meeting or a speech about something she doesn’t understand, it’s almost as if she goes into a trance and emerges calm.”
6. Making lists: Yogis consults a top sports psychologist who advocates writing down a list of fears and crossing off the fears you have no control over (because there’s no point worrying about them). He writes that, “For the fears I did have some control over, I would script out an action plan for each one. Not only would this improve my training [to surf at an incredibly dangerous spot], it would remind me that I’d covered all my bases and would keep me from overthinking what my body already knew how to do.”
7. Our plastic selves: As Yogis writes: “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that nature has selected a whole variety of traits for us – some good, some bad, and some a combination of the two. But the brain and the mind and the body have more plasticity than we ever imagined. We are constantly evolving. We learn from events, from one another, from our own emphases and awarenesses. A single thought changes the very structure of our brains. Think about that for a moment. A single thought moves matter. And that’s a good thing if we use that malleability wisely. We can take this biological mess of wild impulses, hormones, ferocious emotions, and sharp intellect that we’re saddled with and do something worthwhile – maybe something beautiful.”
8. Fear, death and love, in Yogis’s words: “And it’s love that allows us to move, to act, even in the midst of fear. We’re all different. But maybe the point is, if you start to understand what is driving you, the script that has been written into your genes and your collection of memories, you can begin to mold your life a bit more. It will be scary, but every stressor, every fear, is really just a sign that those boundaries are stretching. I think we have to keep confronting our fears and keep telling one another the stories that come from doing that. Stories mold our brains, our selves, our future. So we have to choose our stories wisely: the ones we write, the ones we consume.”
9. Fear transforms: “Tensing won’t help us perform better, at least not in high doses. But it can help us prepare better, which will help us relax and have faith when it’s go time. If we freeze, and let fear simply spin our internal wheels, we’ll stagnate. But if we harness fear as motivation to prepare, invent, train – one of its true purposes – then the fear transforms from villain to hero.”
10. The final word: “If we can understand fear rather than demonize it, reframe fear as a natural part of our biology rather than avoiding and repressing it, stretch our comfort zones just a little every day, and walk peacefully and courageously into those scary memories of embarrassment and trauma, we will gradually learn to transform fear into focus and compassionate action, and our sons’ and daughters’ world can be better than the one we live in. Will we collectively freeze, fight and stagnate? Or will we learn and act?