Fear is an insidious pest that has never been invited, but creeps into your brain at the worst possible times. Sometimes it cannot beaten by straight up cold logic. Sometimes it cannot even be beaten by proving it repeatedly wrong.
Fear is a cockroach. You can step on it in steel toed boots and it comes back. You can poison it, trap it and throw it out. It will come back.
It messes with our heads. Even when we know that it is wrong and we are right, we listen to that horrible voice. It is impossible to ignore.
“Fear” is the feeling we experience when we perceive threat or danger. Usually it causes the fight or flight response. This is when our nervous system completely overreacts, and floods us with epinephrine, cortisol, and glucose. So while we are trying to stay calm, we are experiencing elevated heart rate, flushing, blood vessel constriction, muscle blood vessel dilation, a loss of hearing, a loss of peripheral vision while we get tunnel vision, and shaking. This is pretty much the most unproductive reaction ever if you are not actually being chased by a lion.
Deep, slow breathing calms the parasympathetic nervous system. The only other weapon we have against it is time. Eventually everything dissipates and goes back to normal.
So why does fear overcome us when we are not in actual physical danger? This is a fabulous example of the modern brain being rather stupid and primitive. It just doesn’t know the difference between being nervous about embarrassment and suddenly needing to run for your life. So slight nervousness has nearly the same physical sensations as a life and death situation.
There’s a song I have been wanting to sing at karaoke. It’s super cheesy, from the movie “Rockstar” – it’s the song Mark Wahlberg sings to audition for Steel Dragon. But there is a weird power behind it that I find interesting.
For the past year or so, the thought of singing this song has floated around my head. It would be a great personal challenge, and I try to stay open for opportunities to do things that scare me. Now, I should point out that even though I’m the singer in a rock band, karaoke terrifies me. I don’t know why it’s so different, but it is. You’re all alone on stage, you’re not precisely sure which version of the track they might play, and everything sounds overproduced so it’s a bit alien.
So there I was at karaoke last Saturday night, and while browsing the songbook for another band I saw that particular song was on the list. I realized that tonight was the night. I would never be in a better situation to get this over with. I was at a friend’s birthday party, a few buddies were there, everyone was having a casual happy time. The audience was cheering just as loudly for the bad singers as the good singers, and everyone was singing along from their seats. It was now or never. So I signed up, then sat down trying not to shake for the next half an hour until my name was called.
When I saw on the screen that I was two turns away, my hands actually started to twitch. I tried to reason with my fear. I was not in physical danger. Nothing bad was going to happen to me. The worst thing that could possibly happen is that I would mess it up and be embarrassed. People would applaud anyway, it was a very sweet crowd. I’m fairly certain that no one has actually died from embarrassment.
I’m sorry to say that the end of the story is not very exciting. Turns out I did not crash and burn. I heard my name being called, then I somehow put one foot in front of the other and dragged myself onto the stage. I started by cracking a joke about how I hoped that some people have seen the movie “Rockstar” so they understood the cheesosity of this song. During the instrumental part in the bridge I joked about this being the worst birthday song ever, and apologized to my friend (The song is entitled, “We All Die Young”). Making jokes when I am terrified is one of my defense mechanisms.
The actual singing went extremely well. I hit the high parts dead on. There were two or three times when I held a note much longer than necessary, just because I find that funny. There were cheers, laughs, and everyone had a great time. Afterward, two of my friends told me that I killed it. But it doesn’t even matter if I sang well, what matters is that I forced myself to do it anyway, despite my fear.
Fighting fear is an ongoing war. There will be new battles and challenges frequently throughout our lives. The point is to acknowledge when there is an opportunity, and jump up to fight that battle.
We grow upon our successes, and it really does get a tiny bit easier every time. The secret is to keep at it and fight every single day. The more we use this tool, the sharper it gets. The more we work this muscle, the stronger it gets. We will never live without fear, but we will be better prepared every time we need to fight.
What are you afraid of?
What are you doing to try to get past it?