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I stumbled upon a really great video that went into describing how the Navy Seals train their troops to handle high stress situations. They have a unique approach which is focused on exposing the soldiers to fearful situations, and having them react in a sensible matter. I highly recommend watching the video below, but if you’re short on time, I’ll summarize some of the things I got out of it:

What happens when we feel fear?

The brain is complicated, but thanks to research using MRI, we have so far narrowed fear originating in an area of our brain called the amygdala. These two pieces of the amygdala are the size of your fingernail and rest in two sides of the brain. This is the command center for our emotional reactions. Once the emotion of fear comes up, the amygdala sends out a panic response to the entire body.

The panic response is sent to the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for conscious rational thought, and for making decisions. Information from our senses reaches twice as slow to the rational cortex as it does to the instinctive amygdala. This is exactly why unless you INSTINCTIVELY have trained yourself and know how to react, you may freeze up in the face of fear, while waiting for the frontal lobes to catch up and decide on what to do next.

Next time you’re nervous when speaking in public, remember that the panic response you’re receiving from the amygdala has been evolving for thousands of years in order to protect you from harmful situations. The real question is this:

Is there a way to overcome fear?

Yes, you can change the way your brain reacts to being afraid. Since the panic response reaches your frontal cortex with a delay, you must expose your senses and brain to the fearful situations to build recognizable pathways that you’ll process quickly. For example, the military creates controlled panic scenarios for their soldiers where they must quickly assess if the situation is grave or neutral. Panicking will likely get someone killed. After a while, the soldiers still process fear, but the panic subsides. The brain is reprogrammed to some extent.