I recently wrote this piece as the Didactic Module to the newest Mindtrack, the Courage Amplifier. I hope you find it useful.

Fear is an innate response that has been essential to our survival as human beings. Throughout the million-year history of human evolution, cautiousness and proneness to anxiety have been highly adaptive traits when it comes to survival. For example, let's say you have two cavemen, Grok and Grak. They both pass a bush of berries; Grok tries some, but Grak refrains. Then they pass by a cave. Grok goes in to explore, but Grak stays outside. Although Grok is clearly more fun to have around, he is exposing himself to more danger than Grak is, and as a result it's more likely that he will perish from a dose of poison berries or a bear attack before he passes his genes to the next generation. This is how evolution selects for cautiousness.

Modern humans live in environments that are substantially more risk-free compared to the ones we evolved in hundreds of thousands of years ago. Our food is inspected for us for safety, wild animals do not attack us in our habitats, and we are well-protected from the elements. However, from the previous example, it's easy to extrapolate why modern human beings are so predisposed to fear, even in the absence of substantial threats. Our physiology is wired for survival, and as such, fear-based responses generally trump ones based on pleasure. As Professor Jonathan Haidt says in his new book, "The Happiness Hypothesis", "Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures."

This division between responses to threats vs responses to opportunities and pleasures roughly corresponds to the division of the autonomic nervous system between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. As its name implies, the autonomic nervous system is the automatic part of our nervous system that is chiefly responsible for our survival functions, popularly known as the 'four Fs' -- fighting, fleeing, feeding and mating. The sympathetic nervous system is sometimes called the 'fight or flight' response, and the parasympathetic the 'rest and ruminate' response.

If we were to compare the two branches of the autonomic nervous system, we'd see that the sympathetic is instantaneous, automatic, goes everywhere in the body, and has no off switch. The parasympathetic also goes everywhere, but it is not as automatic, it needs to be turned on deliberately, it can be turned off, and is 10-20x slower than the sympathetic system. This makes sense: if the saber-toothed cat shows up, you want to have an immediate dose of adrenaline ready to make blood and nutrients available to your legs and intensify your breathing so you can flee. Once you're in a safe place, there's plenty of time for the parasympathetic system to kick in to help you wind down; there's no pressure to make that work as urgently.

This has to do with the way our brain is wired. Most sensory data passes through the amygdala, which controls our fight-or-flight response, before it ever gets to the cerebral cortex. As such, we're often reacting to a fearful stimulus long before we even know what that fearful stimulus is.

In modern times, genuine occasions for fear are few and far between -- so much so that there is a thriving industry in artificially-induced fear, from roller coasters to horror movies.

It's been said that we are born with only three innate fears: those of loud noises, falling and snakes. The rest are all learned. Some of these fears are highly adaptive: fear of oncoming vehicles keeps us from stepping off a curb onto the path of an approaching 18-wheeler. However, if we were to catalog the number of times that we feel fear, we'd see that a very small fraction of those instances have anything to do with a real, physical threat -- in other words, constituting a genuine adaptive response.

Some instances of fear that you may have experienced recently: fear of being late to work; of not finding a parking spot; of getting a stain on white clothing; of missing a deadline; of being turned down for a date; of a date not going well once it's started; of criticism from your boss or parents; of an exam not going well; of getting a speeding ticket; of people talking behind your back; of being found unattractive; of a joke not getting any laughs; of a girl refusing your kiss at the end of a night.

There are two things I'd like to notice about this list. First of all, none of these events are actually life-threatening in the same way that, say, getting mauled by a bear could be. Second, in almost none of them does your sympathetic response actually improve your performance of the task at hand. Scientists have shown that mild anxiety can improve performance in some instances -- e.g. a 100-meter dash, a musical performance, or even an exam -- but for the most part, a full-blown autonomic response is not adaptive in most of these circumstances. These are classic instances of what the Taoists would call getting in your own way.

The ancient Eastern masters from various traditions -- Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Zen, Sufi and many others -- recognized this feature of the human nervous system, and so found antidotes to it. These were awareness and equanimity.

They cultivated a calm temperament through meditation and breathing exercises, which you can think of as strengthening the parasympathetic response. As a result, the Eastern masters were able to develop a very strong and nearly imperturbable presence. Because they were not getting in their own way, in the face of danger they were pure action, maximally effective. This cultivation fed into a hyper-aware state of mind, which, interestingly enough, seems to block out emotion-based responses. In fact, the following exercise will demonstrate that.

Exercise 1: Clearing the mind and cultivating awareness Stretch your arms out in front of you with your index fingers pointing up and about 6 inches away from one another. Focus your eyesight on a point in between the two fingers and far in the distance. Now, while still looking straight ahead, take your fingers and slowly bring them out to the sides, as far as they will go, and up, just above eye level, all the while maintaining your visual attention on them in your peripheral vision. So now you have three points of attention in your visual field: focusing straight ahead, while maintaining attention on the fingers in the upper left and right corners of your visual field. Notice as you do this that it becomes nearly impossible to think about anything, or to feel any kind of negative emotion. Use this exercise regularly to clear and calm the mind.

The power is within you,
Dr Alex

Author's Bio: 

And if you enjoyed this article, I have many more useful tips for you like this one. To get a free copy of the special report 'The 9 Top-Secret Goldmines for Meeting Quality Women', visit www.thetaoofdating.com. To learn more about the scientific basis for success in dating and business, visit www.taoofpersuasion.com.

Dr Alex Benzer is the author of 'The Tao of Dating: The Thinking Man's Guide to Success with Women', the companion booklets 'The Tao of Sexual Mastery' and 'The Tao of Social Networking', and the audio course 'The Tao of Persuasion'. He has an MD from UC San Diego Medical School, an MPhil from Cambridge University and an AB from Harvard College. He is a certified clinical hypnotherapist and NLP Master Practitioner based in Los Angeles. For a free download of one of his hypnosis audios, visit www.thetaoofdating.com/mindtrackstore