How I faced my biggest fear

SARAH BERRY
Last updated 11:47 05/07/2012
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OPINION: I've always erred on the cautious, control-freakish side of the road. When I was at school (and even university) the idea of speaking in public, for instance, induced panic attacks complete with hives. I didn't like feeling out of control, judged or vulnerable.

So, I avoided it at all costs. Well-timed toilet dashes were regular occurrences, as were attempts to position myself so I could either speak first (and get the dreaded thing over and done with) or last (if it looked like there might be a time deficit).

While hives are an extreme response, I am not alone in my fear of public speaking (glossophobia). Anxiety disorders are one of the most common causes of mental distress, and public speaking happens to be one of the most common causes of anxiety. It is (questionably) said that it is statistically scarier than death. Even most CEO's are afraid of it.

None of this is surprising. The fear of public speaking is widely understood to be an evolutionary adaptation; historically, acceptance by the group was critical to survival.

It has also been found that negative emotions, like fear and anxiety, can impair memory, attention, decision-making, creativity, and inhibit social behavior.

I can vouch for that. When I was forced to speak, a flush of fear was accompanied by a rush of dizziness. My heartbeat hooked into to the PA system (at least I was sure it did) and my tongue wound itself into wordlessness.

Fear can rarely be eradicated, so the tricky thing is figuring out how to make it work for us, not against us.

"The available data indicates that one does not unlearn fear but instead learns not to fear the threatening stimulus in particular contexts," neuroscientist Denis Paré, of Rutgers University, told National Geographic.

This means learning to distinguish between fear that is there to protect us from harm and fear that is simply shackling us. Once we do this we can start to possess it, rather than being by possessed by it and flick it off (or at least dim it down) when we need to.

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Finding the flick switch starts with addressing it. Which is important because what amplifies fear the most is our instinct to avoid it. The more we avoid the things we fear, the more the brain grows convinced that the threat is real.

"The things you do to reduce anxiety just make it worse," psychologist David H. Barlow, director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, told Time. "We have to strip those things away."

After many years spent avoiding speaking in public, I finally decided it was time to strip away my fears and face them. Full-frontal.

I had decided to train to become a yoga teacher. Becoming a teacher, of course, meant talking in front of the group I was teaching.

Perhaps predictably, my first "Om" was more yodel than soothing sound of universal harmony. But, slowly, slowly I got there and found each time I spoke there was a little less fear.

This, in turn, made other things seem more possible. Just because so much that I never thought possible was possible.

So, around the same time I started stretching out the boundaries of my comfort zone. I moved cities, jumped out of a plane, went hang gliding, ran a half marathon, learned to surf and snowboard then went back to uni to study again.

Everything was scary, but simultaneously stimulating, revealing a bold, new world beyond the horizon line of fear. And that bold, new world is where the fun begins.

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Existence Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that individuals who push themselves out of their comfort zones and find their "flow" often report greater fulfillment and have more success in life.

"The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

"Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. Yet, in the long-run, optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery, or perhaps, better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life."

Speaking for myself, living outside the cave of my comfort zone is a more pleasurable and interesting place to be. And with the very real possibility of falling and failing, I'd still much rather risk a little to live a lot.

While I still do get the odd hive, I have (some) affection for them now, instead of horror, because I now know that they just mean my inner cave-dweller is out of its comfort zone, exploring the other side of the road.

What's your biggest fear? Have you ever faced it head-on?

-Sydney Morning Herald

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