Despite popular belief, nervous sensations are actually quite useful. They date back thousands of years to a time when most of what humans didn’t know, didn’t understand, or couldn’t predict could literally get them killed. If early humans were fearless enough to walk onto an unfamiliar grassy prairie, for instance, they ended up becoming dinner for a wild animal lurking in that grass. So humans and other animals developed a built-in fear of the unknown. In a dangerous, uncertain world, it was quite helpful for early humans to be able to react to danger quickly and effectively. Thus the “fight or flight” response was wired into the nervous system. 

This fear response is designed to give you a great deal of strength, smarts, and speed when you are under attack. When early humans were confronted by dangerous wild animals, their fear response helped them to run and hide. It also helped them to find the strength needed to club an animal over the head or play dead, if needed.

We rarely confront wild animals in modern times, but the fear response remains. When you are startled, nervous, or stressed, your brain turns on your sympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine. From here a cascade of reactions result. These include:

• Increased energy and strength. Your heart rate and breathing rate speed up in an effort to provide more oxygenated blood to your muscles. It pumps sugar into your bloodstream so your brain and muscles can burn it easily and quickly, allowing you to run away from or fend off an attacker. This surge of energy and strength has, for instance, allowed mothers to lift cars off their trapped children.

• Sharper vision and hearing. This allows you to see and hear better so you can more easily spot dangerous predators.

• More endurance. During the fear response, the body sweats. This serves as a pre-cooling mechanism so you are better able to run without getting overheated.

• Less pain. During the fear response, the body turns down your perception of pain. It’s for this reason that a gunshot victim might not realize he or she has been shot. The pain eventually does kick in— and in a big way— but not until the injured person has gotten to safety and the fear response has subsided.

When your fear response is flipped on, your entire body is mobilized to do one thing and one thing only: survive.

Many people think of the fear response as a negative response, and they want to eliminate it, however, if you start to think about it differently, you’ll feel much better when faced with things that make you feel anxious. 

Think of it as an asset, one that you can harness and use to your advantage. Isn’t it great, for instance, to know that you are capable of much more physical strength, speed, and agility than you realize? 

So, next time you feel fear and anxiety, know that it serves a purpose and you can use it to your advantage and give yourself a dose of fearlessness.

Published with permission from Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days by Jonathan Alpert.

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  • Jonathan Alpert

    Psychotherapist, executive performance coach, and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. Twitter: @JonathanAlpert

    Jonathan Alpert is a psychotherapist, columnist, performance coach and author in Manhattan. As a psychotherapist, he has helped countless couples and individuals overcome a wide range of challenges and go on to achieve success. He discussed his results-oriented approach in his 2012 New York Times Opinion piece, “In Therapy Forever? Enough Already”, which continues to be debated and garner international attention. Alpert is frequently interviewed by major TV, print and digital media outlets and has appeared on the Today Show, CNN, FOX, and Good Morning America discussing current events, mental health, hard news stories, celebrities/politicians, as well as lifestyle and hot-button issues. He appears in the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job commenting on the financial crisis. With his unique insight into how people think and their motivations, Alpert helps clients develop and strengthen their brands. He has been a spokesperson for NutriBullet, Liberty Mutual insurance, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Jonathan’s 2012 book BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days has been translated into six languages worldwide. Alpert continues to provide advice to the masses through his, Huffington Post, and Thrive columns. @JonathanAlpert