How to Unlearn Fear: Why Fears Are Not Just Passively Forgotten

Apr 28, 2022

 A Japanese proverb states, “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” This proverb does a great job of illustrating that fears only exist in our minds and will only grow as much as we allow them to and the essential reason why we must unlearn fear.

Fear is a complicated thing. Even though I consider myself a resourceful person, there have certainly been times that I have struggled with learned fear. It causes me to become my own worst enemy as I envision the possibilities of what could happen and the reality that I don’t want. It leads to distractions that prevent me from entirely focusing on the people and things that matter most.

Over the years, I have recognized a correlation between my reality and my state of mind. The more I permit fear to enter my mind, the more diminutive my life becomes.

“Fears are not just passively forgotten over time, they must be actively unlearned.” – Jack Shonkoff and Nathan Fox

I will be taking you on an in-depth journey into the world of the emotion called fear, explaining the science of its formation, giving you details on how you learn to fear, and equipping you with knowledge on how you can effectively unlearn fear.

Let’s begin with the story of British swimmer Adam Peaty who went from someone who actually feared water to unlearning that fear and becoming an Olympic gold medalist.

This article is based on a recent episode from Passion Struck with John R. Miles. Listen to the podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPodcast AddictPocket CastsStitcherCastboxGoogle PodcastsAmazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform.

Unlearning fear: the Adam Peaty Story

On a misty morning when Adam Peaty was three years old, his older brothers, Richard and Jamie, decided to play a prank on him. They had all been discussing scenes from the famous thriller movie Jaws that they watched the previous night.

The movie is about a killer great white shark that invades a beach community and attacks people. Adam had been asleep on the couch before they started watching the movie. He awoke to a frightening scene of the shark chasing kids on sailboats, making him shut his eyes tight and cling to his mom.

Photo of British Olympian swimmer Adam PeatyThat morning, he was in the bathtub when his brothers came in looking frightened and told Adam that sharks could swim through the plughole. On hearing this, he got terrified and jumped out of the bath. From that moment, Adam became deathly afraid of water. He hated having his bath and would scream whenever his mom wanted to bathe him.

Then it happened on his fourth birthday; his mom’s friend took him on a trip to the local pool. He was pretty apprehensive as he approached the pool, but he decided to try it out on sighting kids like him who were enjoying the water with their parents.

When he got to the pool’s edge, he cautiously dipped his toes into it and then his feet. Slowly he drew nearer to the pool, sat on the pool deck, and dropped his legs entirely into it.

He began to realize his fears of the water were not valid, and soon enough, with the help of his mom’s friend, he got fully in the pool. Adam simply held on to the deck as he stayed afloat and then gently released himself into the water. And so his swimming journey began.

When he was nine, Adam joined the Dove Valley Swimming Club in Uttoxeter and began winning races and setting club records. Two years later, he joined the City of Derby Swimming Club, and it was there that a coach saw the potential he had and started to train him.

Years went by, and Adam continued to develop his skills and eventually swam for his country at the 2016 Summer Olympics, where he won a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke, the first by a male British swimmer in 24 years. Adam competed again at the 2020 Summer Olympics in 2021, becoming the first British swimmer ever to retain an Olympic title.

This true story might seem pretty basic when it comes to learning and unlearning fears, but its point is to illustrate how we acquire and overcome fears. As humans, young and old, we all experience fear and can unlearn them as Adam did.

This story of Adam Peaty leads to some interesting questions such as; what exactly is fear? How does fear manifest in the brain? How is fear learned, and how can we unlearn fear?

Let’s go on as I discuss the answers to them.

The evolution and psychology of fear

The days of the early man abounded with many dangers and threats. The harsh forces of nature ranged from wild animals to poisonous plants and from volcanic eruptions to severe storms. Because humans then often roamed around and had little protection from these elements, they developed the ability to sense danger and avoid it.

This brought about the emotion of fear, and naturally, humans have evolved and survived owing to its stimulation and memory.

Today, many of these fears have developed into phobias— anxiety disorders resulting in excessive and persistent fear of a thing or situation — even though many of these formerly logical anxieties are no longer valid.

Examples of these phobias include the fear of heights known as acrophobia, the fear of spiders known as arachnophobia, the fear of flying known as aerophobia, and the dread of being trapped in a confined environment known as claustrophobia.

All of these fears are founded on valid concerns. Heights can be hazardous, spiders can be poisonous, and getting stuck in an elevator can lead to panic.

However, the brain can be easily deceived into perceiving threats that aren’t precisely threats and hence, fearing what should not be feared. Because fear is a learned behavior, we begin to see everyday situations through the lens of previous experiences, some of which are fearful situations. For example, refusing to take flights because of the fear of the plane crashing. In this case, fear has become irrational.

What is fear?

Fear is an emotional response that occurs when we perceive something or a situation as a danger or threat. It is characterized by an intensely unpleasant feeling that can induce both physical and mental ailments.

When a person feels fear, they might either face a threat, run from it, or even be paralyzed by that fear. The interesting thing about fear is that the danger can either be real or wholly imagined and can be triggered by events that are yet to happen.

When the negative bodily response is sustained over a long period, it becomes conditioned, and the fear response can become detrimental to our mental and physical well-being.

The Neuroscience of fear

When a person is exposed to a frightening experience, the amygdala, in connection to the hypothalamus — a small component of the brain’s limbic system in charge of emotions — activates two systems the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system.

The sympathetic nervous system primarily primes the body to prepare for the threat. After this, the body becomes alert, and both adrenaline and noradrenaline are released into the bloodstream.

Quote by John R. Miles on how we unlearn fear and why it is necessary

These two stress hormones cause the brain to become hyperalert, the pupils to dilate, and an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. At this point, blood flow and the stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increases. At the same time, the organs that are not vital to survival, such as the gastrointestinal system, slow down.

Simultaneously, the adrenal cortical system causes the pituitary gland to secrete an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone moves through the bloodstream to the adrenal cortex, activating roughly 30 other stress hormones.

These stress hormones all work together and then cause a bodily response of flight or fight in response to the fear.

How do you learn fear?

After experiencing a fearful event, the brain’s memory regions sweep into action and store up the event, taking note of the objects and circumstances around which they occurred.

When we encounter a similar situation, it triggers the memory and causes the feeling of fear, even though the threat is no longer there.

A major contributing factor to the prevalence of fear today is the news and social media. When we spend time listening to the reports of adverse events, we tend to learn to fear those situations subconsciously.

Examples of such circumstances include someone being involved in an accident, getting stabbed on a train, or getting shot at a coffee shop, which is similar to scenarios and places we go and things we do regularly. We might take on that fear when this happens even though the negative experience wasn’t directly ours.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and treating anxiety and depression, anxiety disorders affect around 40 million adults every year in the United States alone.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 264 million people worldwide had at least one anxiety disorder in 2015. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 9.1% of adults in the U.S. have a specific phobia.

These statistics show just how common the emotion of fear is and how easily and unconsciously you can learn fear.

How do you unlearn fear?

In research on the effect of persistent fear and anxiety on young children’s learning, behavior, and health, psychologists Nathan Fox and Jack Shonkoff explain that “fears are not just passively forgotten over time, they must be actively unlearned.”

According to cognitive neuroscience research, the brain reconfigures itself in accordance with the predictions it has formed about the future based on prior experiences.

The same way fear can be learned is how it can also be unlearned. This takes a couple of the following methods.

The first technique is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

This is a psycho-social intervention that is based on the fact that it is our thoughts and not external events that affect the way we feel. This simply implies that it is not the situation but your perception of a situation that determines your feelings. In my interview earlier in the week, we covered this topic of behavior therapy in-depth with Laurie Singer.

It has two main components, which are; Cognitive Therapy, which examines how negative thoughts or cognition contribute to anxiety, and Behavior Therapy which explores how you behave and react in situations that trigger anxiety.

By examining and understanding these causative and reactive factors, CBT works to help you to gain control over your thoughts and perceptions so you can replace negativity with positivity. That way, you will get to unlearn the fears you’ve learned.

Related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is another process known as Memory Reconsolidation.

This takes on the role of Exposure Therapy and is achieved by briefly exposing the affected person to the feared object or memory to help them learn a new emotional response to replace that of fear. The following are five steps to take in achieving this memory reconsolidation.

  • Focus your mind on the current undesired fearful emotional response in a similar given situation.
  • Question and examine the core beliefs and experiences that are causing you to respond fearfully to that situation. (Often, you will find that they are not real).
  • Think about a calm, positive experience that evokes the desired response to the fear trigger.
  • While being aware of the two differing responses, observe what is going on in your mind and describe the troubling experience where you learned the fear while remaining emotionally present.
  • Replace the fearful response with the desired one. This neutralizes the negative emotional meanings with contrasting positive experiences that update the initial fearful learning.

By taking these steps, you can unlearn fear and in turn the emotional response. With practice and repetition, your response will become the new positive one.

Actively and intentionally unlearn fear

Have you tried to imagine what your life would be like if you were unafraid of anything?

Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we need to fear is fear itself.” In that light, we need to realize that fear is just an emotion that is utterly dependent on our thoughts at the end of the day. It does not have to control our lives and we can unlearn fear.

Dreading the future, more typically known as anticipatory fear, is fairly common and can be entirely debilitating in severe cases. People struggle with anticipatory fear when they stress about the consequences of a future event they have never encountered before. The fact that you are afraid now means you utilize your ability to take what is in the future and make it very real to you. So to overcome fear, consider doing deep breathing, guided imagery, or grounding techniques and change the visions to positive ones.

So go ahead and use the tools provided in this article to unlearn fear you have consciously or unconsciously acquired. Apply for that job without fearing rejection, get on that plane without fearing a crash and start that new business without fearing failure. So much untapped potential sits on the other side of your fears. Reach for them starting from now!

I wish you the very best on your journey to unlearn your fears, change your thinking, and enhance your perspective.

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Listen to the Passion Struck Podcast anywhere you listen to podcasts online.

  • Are you having trouble prioritizing yourself? I discuss where you invest your love; you invest your life in Episode 104
  • I explain why materialism is impacting your success and happiness in episode 96.
  • Do you know the science of healthy habits? I explore this in-depth in Episode 108.
  • Suppose you missed my interview with Jen Bricker-Bauer on Everything is Possible. Don’t panic! You can catch up by downloading it here.
  • How do you strengthen your relationship with your best self? Explore episode 110.

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