Day 1 — Fear Itself

BuddyDec 10 · 3 min read

During the month of December, Buddy will highlight, the Twelve Days of Fearlessness. Whether it is getting up the nerve to lace up your old ice skates with your five-year-old or conquering a halfpipe like your teenage days, fearlessness is not just situational for all- for some, it is a way of life.

fear mural

The Science Behind Fear

Your palms sweat. Your heart beats out of your chest making the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. You feel the blood rushing to your face and a pit of nausea forming in your stomach. The reaction is almost immediate. Fear.

Whether someone cuts you off in traffic, a jumpscare appears on your computer screen, or you mountain bike down a steep hill, humans are hardwired to initiate a fear response. Our reaction to something fearful is innate; in fact, this response keeps us alive.

Ana Mills, a neuropsychologist with VCU Medical Center explains, “The fight or flight response is a deeply rooted evolutionary response. We all have it. Neural circuits steeped in our limbic system activate the amygdala which is located deep within the central portion of the brain. The amygdala controls and regulates the fear response.”

Mills notes that all humans are wired differently. We all possess natural innate reactivity, but for some, there are overactive limbic systems which lead to anxiety and anxiety disorders. On the flip side, there are those that have lower baseline limbic systems which enables them to take risks more often.

Audrey Polack, ninety feet above the New River Gorge
Audrey Polack, ninety feet above the New River Gorge

Mills describes a complex process which takes place within the brain. Many biological changes occur, and the endocrine system as well as HPA circuits fire. These stress chemicals produce cortisol. Take Audrey Polack, age eleven; she is a champion rock climber. Placing in the top twenty in Atlanta and Utah in both sport climbing and bouldering last year, Polack is fearless. She can oftentimes be found pushing the limits in the gym and outdoors.

“These are the kinds of stress responses you want if you are climbing a tough route and you need pinpoint accuracy. Your pupils dilate, your breathing changes- you want that release of cortisol,” Mills highlights how this response is fine in the short term, but in the long term, there can be detrimental effects.

Some scientists argue this rush can be as addicting as drugs. “The reward system can be addictive like drugs and alcohol, but that is certainly not the case with everyone. People with more addiction potential could find themselves in this category,” Mills argues. Our fear response is what keeps the lines at Space Mountain long and horror movie fans hiding behind their hands as they watch The Conjuring.

“The amygdala is the gas and the frontal lobe is the brakes, (but) a teenage brain is all gas and no brakes,” Mills illustrates. With the frontal lobe not fully developing until our mid-twenties, the propensity to partake in risk-taking activities is more common amongst teens and early adults.

However, at any age, we possess the capacity to overcome our fears and quell our fear response to some degree. Mills clarifies, “Exposure is a beneficial way of diminishing the fear response. Progressively exposing yourself to situations which evoke fear and then practicing relaxation, like breathing exercises, to downplay such events will lead to slowly decreasing one’s anxiety surrounding a fearful situation.”

While many balk at the idea of openly subjecting themselves to something fearful, others crave the notion of being on the edge of their seats or pushing personal boundaries.

“There is absolutely a reward mechanism triggered in our brain- dopamine, epinephrine- they make us feel good,” Mills says. Risk taking can absolutely have positive outcomes. What would it take for you to live a life less inhibited by fear? What would it take to be fearless?

We found inspiration in fourteen-year-old Charlie Hunt who fought Leukemia head-on with the love and fearlessness of his community. We were inspired by retired, Spanish teacher, Wendy Wadsworth who trekked El Camino from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre, Spain. Likewise, the experience of being stuck on Mt Rogers for three days in a blizzard gave us chills.

Fearlessness can be situational, but more often than not, it is a byproduct of struggle, an experience, a specific mindset, or simply a reminder that we are very much alive. And at Buddy, we are determined to help you get there.

Written by Meg Sheriff

Read Day 2—Food

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