Based on years of research, Mastering Fear answers these questions and many more with its surprising perspective on stress, fear, and the single most important skill necessary to achieve maximum results.
Studies worldwide have tracked the lives of hundreds of individuals over decades in search of the foundations of excellence. Dr. Robert Maurer has culled and refined this data, dispelling current myths and revealing practical strategies to maximize passion and performance in any individual, team, or organization.
In Mastering Fear, you will discover that:
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About the Author
Michelle Gifford, MA, is a clinical speech pathologist and consultant-educator for families and teams, developing programs of excellence on behalf of children with special needs. She has served as an adjunct faculty member at Eastern Washington University and Washington State University's graduate school programs in communication disorders. Michelle lives in Spokane with her husband and youngest son.
Read an Excerpt
The Biology of Fear
There is No Such Thing as Stress
According to recent surveys, stress is a challenge for most of us. An American Psychological study in 2007 found that close to one-third of all survey respondents described their stress as "extreme" and nearly half felt that their stress was getting worse. Stress is considered a primary underlying factor in many health problems, relationship tensions, and lost productivity at work. Knowing this, it might seem strange to you — even outlandish — for me to tell you that: There is no such thing as stress. Stress, as we know it, does not exist!
In fact, what we are currently calling stress may be something else entirely and I hope to convince you that stress would be best addressed by a different name. To begin our journey, consider the findings of one recent study on stress. A group of researchers followed 30,000 subjects for eight years examining the relationship among reported levels of stress, perceptions of stress, and mortality outcomes. At the beginning of the study, investigators asked people to rate their levels of stress. Then, eight years later, they examined public records to see whether or not the reported levels of stress could predict who would still be alive. At first glance, the results seemed exactly what we might predict. Those subjects who had indicated that their stress levels were high at the beginning of the study were 43 percent more likely to have died during the eight subsequent years. However, the findings turned out to be more complicated than that. At the onset of the study, researchers had asked not only how extreme the person felt their stress level was, but also whether or not the person felt that the stress was harmful to their health. It turned out that only the subjects who feared that the stress was harmful suffered its ill effects. The investigators scrupulously ruled out other possible causes for this dramatic finding, leaving us asking: "What's happening here?"
With that question in mind, let's begin by exploring a bit of "stress" history. Do you know how old the concept of stress is? It's a little known fact that "stress" sat around in the science of metallurgy (the contortion of metals) for 500 years bothering no one until the early 20th century when it became a medical disorder that no one has been able to cure. Since its discovery, humankind has cured polio and tuberculosis and has made strides with virtually every form of cancer. Physicians, psychologists, spiritual advisors, and others have been working diligently to identify, describe, and attempt to cure this modern "disease." But, despite the extensive research, thousands of experts, and multitude of books and articles on the topic, very little progress has been made.
The Biology of Fear
The lion, the gazelle, the monkey, and me; we all have something in common that profoundly affects the success we achieve — or don't — in life.
So why haven't we been able to cure stress? The answer lies in the design of the brain. The human brain has been given two essential tasks: regulating the body and surviving in the world. Every other activity is a luxury. The bottom layer is our brainstem, often called the "reptilian brain." This portion looks like the full brain of an alligator and it's responsible for most of our basic bodily functions, such as reminding our hearts to beat and our lungs to take in air. This is what keeps us alive when the two other layers are damaged, as when someone is in a coma. The top, or outer layer, is the cortex. This is our luxury — the part that makes us most human. Wrapped around the midbrain, the cortex is where consciousness, problem- solving, and creativity live. Sitting unobtrusively between these two layers lies the powerful midbrain, home to our emotions and key to our survival. The mid-brain is often called "the mammalian brain," because we share the design with all other mammals, most similarly the chimpanzee.
The task of survival is assigned to the amygdala, an exquisite little almond-shaped structure located in the bottom portion of the midbrain. This structure governs the body's primitive "fight or flight" response, and is responsible for four Fs in life: food (appetite regulation), fight, flight, and sex (yep, you guessed it — fornication). The fight or flight response is the highly effective alarm system that prepares the body for action. To get a feel for this extraordinary system, just imagine yourself as a lion, lying peacefully in the African savannah enjoying the warm sunshine. You open one lazy eye and spot a delicious gazelle grazing 50 yards away. Your eye sends the message to your amygdala, which rapidly dispatches the information necessary to prepare your body to pursue this new opportunity — lunch has arrived! The gazelle, pausing between bites, sees you lift your head. Its eyes send your threatening image to its amygdala, which immediately prepares it to escape the misfortune about to befall.
Whether running toward opportunity or away from danger, the amygdala triggers the exact same set of bodily responses — both animals become equally primed for action. Pupils dilate to let in more information and the heart races, speeding up circulation of blood to the muscles. The muscles of the upper neck and lower back are tensed, preparing the legs for action. The mouth becomes dry, the stomach slams shut, and appetite is lost. If two gazelle are mating and they sense a lion charging, do you think one of them turns to the other and says, "Wadda you think sweetheart, is it worth it?" Of course not! The blood supply immediately leaves the genitals, preparing the animal for flight. The animals get rid of excess baggage (waste products) so they can run faster and explosive diarrhea and urination ensue. The quintessential example, some might suggest, of being "scared shitless and pissed off!"
All mammals, including humans, possess this primitive, highly effective alarm system that prepares the body in response to opportunity (the lion) or threat (the gazelle). It is the most life-saving mechanism in the brain. But let's take a minute now to consider the symptoms: racing heart, dry mouth, shortness of breath, neck, back, and stomach pain, frequent urination, diarrhea, change in appetite, headache, insomnia, and loss of libido. Does the list sound familiar? I expect it does. If you look up the symptoms of stress or anxiety in any medical textbook, you'll find that the "disease" symptoms listed are identical to any body's healthy, natural response to fear. When the body's alarm system — its fight or flight response — is switched on for hours, days, or weeks at a time, it creates a sense of "dis-ease" in the body. The result is what we now call a stress disorder. The term stress is humankind's attempt to take one of nature's finest gifts to our bodies and label it a disease!
So what difference does it make if we call this alarm system stress or fear? More than you might imagine. To understand how a simple choice of words can affect our long-term success in all areas of life, let's begin first by looking at a fundamental problem with our current use of the word stress. The father of stress research, Dr. Hans Seyle first coined the term in 1938, making a clear distinction between a "stress response" and "stress" itself. He identified life challenges — our jobs, the traffic, financial struggles, relationship trials — as stressors and the body's inability to deal successfully with these challenges as stress.
Stressors are external threats or challenges.
Stress is our body's reaction to those challenges.
In today's world, we have confused our stressors with stress, and we now erroneously believe that the source of the problem is the mortgage, the difficult marriage, the unruly children, the demanding boss, the unfinished projects (threats), or even the recent promotion, the new house, or the budding relationship (opportunities). People rarely have control over their stressors, yet most of us persist in attempting to "cure" stress by endeavoring to control them. People unsuccessfully blame external factors — life situations and other people — for their chronic discomfort and high-alert state (stress disorder), rather than seeking to address the body's unhealthy, often changeable, stress response. Incorrectly identifying the source of the problem leads people to make excuses rather than progress.
The Vocabulary of Fear
Many of us today use words like "stress, anxiety, depression," or "nerves" to describe a strong, persistent feeling of upset in our bodies. However, throughout my research, I have been especially intrigued by how rarely highly successful people use these words to describe the uncomfortable feelings typically associated with stress. As I watched interview after interview of incredibly successful people talking about their lives, I noticed that they consistently used different words to capture this experience. They all used the word fear or one of its synonyms (afraid, scared, etc.) to describe the physiological responses we all share.
At first, it seemed a simple matter of semantics, possibly not worth further investigation. However, after a while, the frequency of so many successful people using the words "fear" or "scared" was hard to ignore. For example, consider the book Creativity,Inc. by Ed Catmull, president of the hugely successful film production company Pixar. The story of the history, evolution, and processes used by this magical studio — creator of epic animated movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc. — is inspiring to read. Most interesting to me, however, was the fact that in the book Catmull used the word "anxiety" once and "stress" once, but used "fear" or "scared" 78 times! "If we aren't always at least a little scared," he wrote, "we are not doing our job."
Ed Catmull is not the only highly successful person who chooses to use these powerful words regularly. Note how many others who have achieved remarkable results in the world have used the words fear or its synonyms:
When you are running an institution, you are always scared at first. You are afraid you'll break it. People don't think about leaders this way but it is true. Everyone who is running something goes home at night and wrestles with the same fear. Am I going to be the one who blows this place up?
— Jack Welch, past-CEO, General Electric
All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.
— Sally Ride, astronaut
Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.
— Babe Ruth, baseball player
Fear is your ally. The minute you come onto a set and you're no longer afraid, you are in big trouble.
— Stephen Spielberg, author and producer
I'm coming from a place of acting, so you're never quite sure if you're going to get the crew to even be on your side and you always have this great fear that they will discover that you're an imposter and that you have no business being there.
— George Clooney, actor (Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2012)
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by each experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing to come along."
— Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady
If you can take the time to understand fear, you can use it. I was always a little afraid in each game I played. Afraid of failure, of letting my teammates down, and of being hurt. I used that fear to make me a better player.
— Lynn Swanson, NFL player on four Super Bowl teams
I was puzzled. Why would so many successful people prefer the word fear over stress? Then one day, while I was following one of our resident physicians through her clinic visits, the answer suddenly became obvious. As an educator on faculty at two medical schools, through the past 25 years it has been my responsibility to help students in family medicine excel in their communication with patients and families. In this role, I spend more than half of my time shadowing new doctors on their rounds, observing their interactions, and providing feedback about their clinical work and bedside manner. As a result, I've witnessed thousands of interactions with patients and family members as they've faced surgery, pregnancy, diabetes, cancer, rashes, insomnia, heart disease, aging, and more. While listening to patients that day, I began to recognize the very different vocabularies used by adults and children when describing feelings of "upset" or emotional pain in their bodies. When adults talk with a doctor, they almost always used words such as depressed, anxious, stressed, nervous, or tense. But children never use these words. They talk about being scared or afraid.
Tell me, have you ever heard a child say she was "anxious" about the boogey man? Or he was "depressed" because the other kids at school were going to the zoo, but he was going to the hospital for surgery? Of course not! Children state things simply and directly — they are scared, mad, sad. At some point, you have probably witnessed another adult crying who immediately reached for a tissue and apologized, saying something like, "Oh, I'm so sorry. You must think I'm such a weakling!" Children, on the other hand, cry freely, sobbing loudly with snot dripping down their faces, not apologizing for a thing. So why do children simply cut to the chase? It's because children know they live in a world that they cannot control. They can't control whether their parents are in a good mood or bad or whether their new teacher will be nice or mean. They can't control thunder and lightning, the stomach flu, or who will be their best friend at recess tomorrow. As a result, children seem to have a different relationship than adults do with emotional joy and pain.
Give this a try. Sit down with a young child; ask him what he wants for Christmas and you're in for a 20-minute discussion. Then, ask what he's afraid of — another 20-minute conversation will definitely ensue. What kind of movies do kids love to stand in line to see? Scary ones! Children accept that they live in a world of fear, so they figure that they might as well have some fun and learn to deal with it in the process. Because they lack control over so many aspects of their world, and because they accept this lack of control, children can easily discuss their fears.
By the time we become adults, however, fear is no longer seen by most of us as a normal, healthy part of life, but instead something we get angry at for showing up. In a culture obsessed with self-reliance and the preservation of self-esteem, the term fear has become a four-letter word. We do not accept our lack of control and so we rarely learn how to deal with it successfully. We consider fear a disease. We call it stress and blame the person or situation that triggered the feeling rather than addressing the fear itself. Let me see if I can convince you of this in two ways:
First, right now, put down your book and call up a friend. Wait for a natural pause in the conversation, then ask, "So, what are you afraid of?" Do you think this will trigger an interesting conversation or will your friend question your sanity and change the topic? Probably the latter. It's a question that makes most people uncomfortable. As mentioned earlier, most of us have banished fear from our conversations and awareness, focusing instead on the external problems we face while labeling the body's most powerful and basic emotion a disease.
A second exercise demonstrating our strange, unmindful relationship with fear is one I use with audiences all over the world. I begin by saying, "Please raise your hand if you are afraid to cross the street." In a room of 100 people, one or two hesitant hands will lift. Okay. I then say, "So, if I were to blindfold you and ask you to cross the street, would you then be afraid?" All hands go up. Good — we're making progress. "One final question. Imagine you and I are walking down the street, engrossed in conversation. You sense that we're getting close to a busy crossing, but I appear to be oblivious to the rapidly passing cars. As we reach the intersection, do you keep eye contact with me as we cross the street? Of course not! No matter how rude it might seem, you'll break eye contact, look left and right, and assure that the cars have stopped before crossing." I pause for some reflection time, then conclude: "We engage in this elaborate set of behaviors for only one reason — we are afraid that if we don't, the results will be painful. For this reason, I suggest that we are all afraid to cross the street."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mastering Fear"
Copyright © 2016 Robert Maurer, PhD and Michelle Gifford, MA.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Laws of Success 7
Chapter 1 The Biology of Fear 14
Chapter 2 What Not to Do With Fear 33
Chapter 3 The Healthy Response 45
Chapter 4 Mastering Fear 59
Chapter 5 Staying Healthy 90
Chapter 6 Work Success 103
Chapter 7 Creativity 135
Chapter 8 Relationships: Sustaining Intimacy and Trust 155
Chapter 9 Why People Choose the Wrong Path and How to Re-Choose 172
Chapter 10 The One Essential Skill 204
Chapter Notes 208
About the Authors 224