Unlearning Fear

Unlearning Fear

* The process outlined in this article isn’t a replacement for working with a skilled mental health practitioner. If you have deep underlying trauma or emotional regulation challenges you should seek the help of a professional. This article is intended for anyone learning to confront and overcome rational fears based on difficult, but not overwhelming experiences. 

Many types of fear are learned responses based on memories from previous experiences. There are, of course, also innate fears. Like other animals, we’re naturally prone to be highly vigilant the first time we’re exposed to things like heights, deep water, snakes, and spiders. But, for most things in life, fear is not a primal instinct so much as a learned association. 

While learned fear responses are normal and sometimes helpful, they can also hinder performance. A strong learned fear response leads to a disproportionately strong stress response, amplifies anxiety, and makes your emotions run rampant. This makes you more prone to burnout and reduces resilience. In challenging times, when one difficulty bleeds into the next, these responses can make the difference between burnout and growth. 

For example, if you go into full fight-flight freak-out mode whenever someone yells at you, or you freeze when someone tells how much of a failure you are, then just trying harder, wanting it more, or being tougher next time won’t change your response. Your response, once learned, is automatic and triggered by sensory cues from your environment.

If you want to reduce anxiety and/or change your stress response you have to unlearn that something you previously thought of as scary is not a threat. Then you can recalibrate your response to something more helpful.

How fear responses are learned

When you experience something bad, your brain stores this information to help protect you in the future. 

The emotional memory of that experience (for better or worse) triggers the stress response anytime similar sensory information is perceived. This often happens so fast your executive ‘thinky’ brain can only intervene after the fact.

A powerful version of this is a phobia, or a persistent, automatic, excessive fear of an object or situation. 

Positive emotional memories allow your conscious mind to mediate its response – i.e. you can deploy a controlled stress response. However, if your emotional memory of an event is largely negative, you’ll be in the midst of a fear-based stress response before you know it. 

This process, while occasionally annoying, is necessary for performing decisively and effectively in high-stress environments. If your emotional memories with challenging situations are largely positive and associated with adaptive stress responses, you’ll perform effectively and efficiently.  

In other words, past experiences influence your ability to perform under similar circumstances in the future. You can re-train any automatic response through repetition, but it takes more involved work to rewire your emotional circuitry and memories from negative to positive emotional and stress responses. 

Jon: 

I was 17 when I had my first joint surgery. Five years later, I had accumulated four more trips to the surgeon. 

At this point, I couldn’t even make it through a tough workout without some joint feeling like it had been hit with a sledgehammer. A two-mile run would leave me struggling to walk down the stairs. Physically, I was 20-something going on 50. 

Most of my problems stemmed from years of overuse, poor movement, and too much of the wrong type of training. As I learned to identify and correct these issues my body started to feel much better.

But, I still had to overcome the mental and emotional scars from the years of training through the pain. The ghosts of my past made it hard to trust my own body. I had learned to expect pain during any athletic endeavor. Unlearning the fear of injury and expectation of pain would take as long to overcome as it did to correct the underlying issues that led to the injuries. 

How to unlearn fear

Unlearning fear is an active process. In other words, it takes a conscious effort while following a specific protocol. Blindly confronting or avoiding a fear under the wrong conditions will only work to reinforce your existing behavior. 

When you confront fears without a plan you’ll alternate between over and under activation of the stress response system (active and passive defense) as illustrated by the red line in the graphic below**: 

The stress response is necessary to react effectively to threats and challenges. But, it can also run rampant due to uncontrolled thoughts, worries, emotions, and associations. When that happens we lose the ability to effectively respond to challenges. Instead, perceived threats created by previous experiences are mapped onto new, similar situations. Each time this happens, our stress response is off to the races. 

This process comes at a cost. Exhaustion from over-activation of the stress response can lead us to react inappropriately (such as with a massive stress response to small stressors) and ineffectively ( a small stress response when a large one is needed). 

To unlearn a fear you want a smooth transition from stress to recovery within a range that allows you to perform, learn, and adjust. This is illustrated with the smooth wave of the blue line in the graphic above. Notice the alternation between a strong but controlled stress response and active recovery. Let’s discuss how to make that a reality. 

Step 1: Manage Stress

The first step in unlearning fear is managing your stress response. To do that, you need to understand the step-by-step process your mind goes through when confronting a challenge.  

Orienting Response

The first step of the stress response is called the orienting response. This is when your mind decides there is a challenge in front of it and how to respond. Your mind is always doing this automatically via processing sensory information (vision, smell, hearing, etc). 

Sensory information flows through the amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain, first. This has several consequences:

  • Deep-rooted fears create an unconscious and automatic response when sensory information related to your fear is triggered. 
  • This is what allows you to react extremely quickly in high threat situations where milliseconds make the difference between survival and death. 
  • Once learned, you can’t stop the automatic stress response triggered by the orienting response and sensory information, but you can alter it over time. 

If the threat is real and immediate, that response is necessary and effective for coping with the situation. This is called a fear-based response – i.e. there is a real threat and the brain is reacting properly to address it. A fear-based stress response is not a bad thing – you want a stress response to occur when you sense a threat. But, you want to be able to control how intense the response is.

Eustress vs. Distress

If you perceive that you have the resources necessary to deal with the situation you’ll see it as a challenge – something that will require focused effort but that you can cope with and overcome. Another word for this is eustress, or positive stressor. 

If you’re thrown into a situation which is unpredictable and does not give you a sense of control, your body goes into full-on fear mode. You perceive the situation to be threatening (rather than challenging) because you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to deal with it effectively. This can be called distress, or in more recent research, it’s referred to as a ‘threat’ based stress response.

When you have a eustress-based (challenge) stress response, the executive parts of the brain remain online allowing you to modify your approaches and react based on new stimuli. If you’re stuck in full-on distress mode, you react out of reflex, and are typically incapable of learning in the moment. Worse, you’ll have to unlearn your excessive stress response later. 

To employ a eustress or challenge-oriented stress response, you need a mental model, which only comes through habituation or normalization of the specific set of stressors.

Anxiety

What happens when we sense a potential threat but none appears? 

Well, the stress response occurs all the same, but no action is actually taken. In fact, our behavior shifts toward stillness, or the inhibition of some reflexive behaviors. Similar stress hormones are released and we experience the stress response psychologically and physically but there isn’t a real threat to deal with. This is anxiety. 

If every time your drill instructor was ready to take you through a beatdown session he yelled to ‘fall in’ you may develop a fear response whenever you heard the same phrase yelled in the future. If a beatdown session always follows, this will be helpful – your brain will be effectively preparing you for the upcoming work. 

However, if you’re in a new unit a few years down the road and your commanding officer liked to yell the same thing, but this time before a briefing session, you’d experience the same response but without the corresponding challenge. In this instance, what used to be a helpful response would be maladaptive – a counterproductive anxiety response. Your body would be needlessly priming you for a potential threat. 

This is how fears lead to chronic anxiety. At some point, your brain learned that an event required a stress response (even a eustress one), but that response is now unnecessary. Or, the stress response could be necessary (in the case of preparing for a hard physical or mentally strenuous event) but your stress response is excessive and leads to a response of threat or distress.

Both are unhelpful and need to be unlearned. 

Negativity Bias

When facing chronic stress the brain tends to pay special attention to potentially negative precedents. This means the brain will find scary things easily and quickly, making it harder and harder to escape the anxiety–fear feedback loop. 

This is another reason why unlearning anxiety and fear-based responses and then building new associations is important. Once you’re in the grip of an anxiety-filled mindset, it’s hard to escape without completely removing yourself from the situation. 

Predictability & Control

So, how do you control your stress response so you can unlearn a fear? 

Two factors control the type of stress response that you have: 

  1. Predictability is knowing what is about to happen, what the experience will feel like physically, emotionally, and psychologically and what you can do to deal with the situation. The more predictable something is, the less we tend to feel stressed about it. This is where, in a difficult situation, our brains ask “Do I know what this is?”
  2. Control is the ability to influence the outcome of a situation. When you know you can influence what happens within an experience, you tend to feel less stressed. This is our brain asking “Do I have what it takes to cope with this?” 

Whether you actually have control in a situation is irrelevant to your stress response – the only thing that matters is perceived control. If you think that you can control the outcome (even if you can’t) you tend to feel less stress. With that concept in mind, learning to let go of the need to feel in control can have the same effect as actually being in control. If you’re not worried about having control, you won’t feel stressed when control is absent. 

Jon:

One of my biggest hurdles was learning to not fear the same movements that had led to injuries. Just thinking about dropping into a deep squat made my knees ache and the idea of running a few miles made my palms sweat. 

To teach my brain that bending my knee didn’t guarantee my meniscus shredding to pieces I had to start simple. I remember doing step-ups on a six-inch box and being ecstatic that I could do them without pain. Over time, I slowly expanded the range of activities until I was squatting heavy things again. 

As I moved back into real sports, I realized that I was fixating on how my knees felt any time I did anything athletic. I was so hypersensitive that if my knees felt anything, including normal stiffness, I attributed it to something ‘bad’ happening. 

That too had to be unlearned. Over the years I’ve gone through this process in a variety of different contexts for different injuries or fears. As I learned the process through trial and error, each step became easier.  

Summary

  1. The first step of unlearning fear (or stopping yourself from learning new fears) is to effectively manage your stress response. To do this, you have to start from a place of low allostatic load (accumulated stress). Remember, as stress accumulates, you lose your ability to manage your stress response, no matter the effort. 
  2. The next step is to manage your sense of predictability and control during the orienting response. This will help manage the intensity of your stress response and will help you change associations (sensory information, beliefs, thoughts, emotions). 
  3. If your fear is unfounded or unnecessary and you’d prefer no stress response, you have to work to slowly move down the continuum from distress to eustress to zero response. Start with managing overall stress and then moving towards a weaker stress response over time. Do this by challenging unhelpful beliefs and thoughts. 

Step 2: Modify your relationship with pain & fatigue 

“It is according to opinion that we suffer.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Pain and fatigue are often amplifiers of the stress response and have to be addressed when dealing with physically related fears or managing the stress response during physically challenging situations (even if your fear is entirely emotional or cognitive). 

The common – and outdated – view of pain and fatigue is through what is called a “Cartesian” model. This centuries-old concept views the mind and body as separate entities and sees pain and fatigue as a direct, linear process. 

In this model, how much fatigue you feel is like a gas gauge telling you how much fuel you’ve got left in the tank. And, how much pain you feel is an indicator of how much physical damage you’ve sustained.

This is inaccurate. 

Fluid, not rigid

Pain and fatigue are like emotions: how much you focus on and react to either amplifies or turns down the volume of your experience. And once you’ve learned that a specific movement or sensation equals pain or fatigue, your brain begins to experience that sensation without the input from your body.In other words, when you expect your back to hurt when you bend over, that pain and the fear of it will persist long after the physical damage is healed. Fatigue and our sense of effort are no different. If every time you’re working out and you feel a deep burning sensation in a muscle and that is associated with a fear of injury, then fatigue and fear will become amplified. That wall of fear and fatigue will be independent of your true physiological limits. They’re just miscalibrated alarm signals. 

Your experience of pain & fatigue, and the fear response they trigger, are learned predictive mechanisms and don’t necessarily (i.e. rarely) reflect reality. 

Perception, past experience, and prediction all play a role in how we experience an event. The good news is that we can know and influence many of these pieces. 

For example:

  • Our expectation of how long something ‘should’ take changes our perceived fatigue. If we expect something to last longer than it actually does, we’ll feel less tired when it ends than if we knew ahead of time it would be a shorter event. 
  • Mental fatigue makes physically demanding tasks feel significantly harder.
  • Self-reported motivation levels and emotional state change perceived fatigue levels. 
  • We can experience pain in the absence of tissue injury.  
  • High levels of emotional stress lead to increased sensations of pain. 
  • The more overall threat your brain perceives, the more sensitive it is to pain-related sensory information.

Pain and fatigue aren’t ‘all in your head’. You can’t think your way to never getting tired or feeling pain just by ‘wanting it really badly’, ‘being hard’ or any other worthless cliche. However, your beliefs and memories surrounding fatigue greatly influence your experience during challenging physical activities. 

As we discussed in Step 1, you first have to manage your stress or you’ll reinforce, not relearn the fear response. If you’re effectively managing your stress, you can now work to modify your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions related to the physical sensations of pain and fatigue. 

Summary

Fatigue & pain are fluid sensations, much like emotions. They are as much in your head as real sensations sent from your body.  

Both sensations tend to amplify or accompany many fear responses. Once you’re effectively managing stress, the next step to unlearn is that pain & fatigue aren’t necessarily indicators of physical damage and that they might just be the ghost of a previous experience.

Step 3: SIT

Stress inoculation training (SIT) is less ‘another step’ and more the lens through which you need to view all your training, especially unlearning a fear. 

With SIT, you practice previously-mastered skills under increasingly realistic and stressful conditions so that you can learn to recognize and manage your stress responses while performing. The goal is to stay at the edge of your ability. This allows you to learn while performing well under increasing levels of challenge.

Managing stress is an active, ongoing process. Stress is cumulative. Even if a drill is ‘easy’, if you’ve accrued too much physical and/or psychological stress, you lose the ability to learn. The parts of your brain necessary to learn a new skill don’t have the necessary resources no matter how great your effort.

This is why it’s so important to manage systemic stress when unlearning fear. 

Going back to Jon’s story, he had to learn how to manage his total stress. He did this by doing very simple exercises with zero pain or emotional response. Over time he built on that success and stayed at the edge of his ability via added stress from complexity, load, and speed of movement. 

SIT follows a 3-stage process:

1 – Conceptual Education

This is where you learn new mental models. It’s a cognitive stage where you learn the idea of what a skill is, and what “good” or “wrong” means. 

You’re learning more about your own stress response and how to manage your beliefs, thoughts, and responses to pain, fatigue, and other stimuli. 

This stage is what we discussed in Step 1 (Manage Stress) and Step 2 (Modify your Relationship with Pain & Fatigue). You have to understand your specific response, the underlying beliefs and thoughts that amplify it, and how you cope with sensory information like pain and fatigue. Once you have a good idea of how your mind works when confronting a fear, you now have the opportunity to modify it through practice. 

2 – Skill Acquisition and Consolidation

This is the practice stage. You’re translating knowledge (the mental model) into behavior. It’s where knowing becomes doing. Here, you set the level of quality that you’ll have when your performance is automated and/or under high levels of stress and fatigue. 

This is where you’re largely changing your stress-performance curve. Through practice here you raise the level of skill you’re capable of at your best, you improve your ability to perform well at a lower level of stress (you can “do it in your sleep”) and you push the performance curve to the right so that you can hold quality under even higher levels of stress.

When unlearning fear it’s important to reward yourself when successful, and you should mostly be successful. In other words, you should only provide as much challenge as you know you can handle. Build on success – especially early in the process – before you expand the range of difficulty. 

When unlearning fear, you’re not so much erasing the bad memory as you are creating a new one that competes with the old memory. Which one ‘wins’ depends on how strong the reward is when creating a new memory. For this reason, it’s important to start with very small challenges, celebrate your successes, and very slowly build from there. 

This is what was happening when Jon was learning to move without fear of pain or injury. He started small and built upon success until he had unlearned the fear of injury. 

3 – Application and Follow-Through

This is where you see where your practice has taken you. It’s full-speed, high-stress, real-life performance. Here, you’re not so much improving a skill as seeing how far you can push it.  

When using SIT, it’s important to keep the following principles in mind:

  • Specificity matters (all skills are context-specific): The more specific you can be with the types and magnitude of stressors, the better.
  • Stress is cumulative and progressive: Without proper recovery, stress will accumulate from day to day. You must take into account your current capacity for rest and recovery when deciding how much stress you can handle.
  • Manage anxiety: Anxiety is helpful when it’s not debilitating or ongoing after a task is over. The goal is to use mental models to help prepare and guide you through a training session but then to reduce your stress response right afterward.
  • Maintain quality and outcomes: Consistency in practice breeds consistency in real-world environments. The goal is to maintain quality and to generally be successful.

 SIT only works when you can first successfully accomplish a task in a non-stressed environment. As you add stress, it’s important to maintain mostly positive outcomes. Positive doesn’t mean perfect, it just means the errors are small enough to be corrected from session to session and don’t result in catastrophic failure.

Craig:

My worst moments always came in the pool. When I first learned to swim in the selection pipeline, I was always at the edge of my ability. Ignominiously drowning in the middle of a swimming pool felt like a real possibility. I was often on the edge of consciousness. Sometimes I struggled to get out of the pool at the end of a workout because I was too exhausted to lift my own body out of the water. 

As I stretched the duration I was able to swim from week to week, I often hit a point of failure where it felt like I couldn’t go any more and needed a break. At first, I planned for this by swimming in the lane closest to the wall. If I got too tired, I’d just grab onto the wall for a break. I always felt relatively safe, and was able to talk myself into pushing myself further because I had that way out. 

Over time, though, that tool became a crutch. Some part of my mind was always ready to reach for the wall and make an excuse. As soon as I was suffering in the water, every stroke was paired with a rising urge to grab the wall and take just a tiny break. Just a breath or two. It was a mental battle that could have easily resulted in me effectively quitting in the middle of a swim because this tiny voice of weakness was winnowing its way into my mind. 

I recognized what a problem this was, and decided to change my environment so that this voice wouldn’t have an opportunity to surface. I had to put myself into situations that would force me to relearn the association I had between swimming and a fear of drowning if I hit my limit without a wall within reach. 

I adopted an internal motto: “Don’t let the weakness in.” I had to break this association so that I could be free mentally and control my stress response under fatigue in the water. 

Every day, I started picking the lap lane in the middle of the pool. I’d either make it through the swim or I’d have to figure out drowning in the middle. I took away the option of an easy way out. Once I was in the water the only choice I had was to keep going. I structured my workouts so that I couldn’t let the weakness in. 

Eventually, one sufferfest swim at a time, I taught myself that I was safe in the middle of the pool and under the water. I still wasn’t a strong swimmer and I still worked close to my physiological limits in the water, but I learned that no matter how bad it got I would be able to find a way through. With this newfound freedom, I was able to moderate my stress response, become more efficient, and gain the cognitive control to work on other skills like managing my self-talk, controlling my breathing, and practicing technical aspects of my stroke. 

While the particulars of Craig’s experience are fairly unique, the general concept is not. Many people find short-term solutions in their training process that produce different long-term problems. They may grow accustomed to avoiding certain exercises that cause joint pain, constantly adjusting run pacing to manage fatigue, or carrying extra exercise candy with them on long rucks because they’re afraid of crashing. 

These things may be appropriate and helpful at one point in time, but as conditions change they become burdensome mental crutches that produce fear responses when they’re taken away. When this happens, these fears have to be actively unlearned. 

Wrap Up

You now have all the tools you need to unlearn a fear. That could be as simple as recalibrating your stress response or unlearning an association that leads to anxiety. In other words, sometimes fears serve you well if accompanied by an appropriate stress response. In other cases, they may need to be completely extinguished. 

The process presented in the article is broad and generalized because the exact type of response you’ll want is always context-specific. Like any skill, learning to confront and overcome fears becomes easier the more often you do it. Now get started doing. 

References:

**Graphic adapted  with permission from a  Dr. Seth Oberst course: Stress, Movement, and Pain. If you’re a coach or practitioner, we highly recommend checking out his content. 

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