How Two Near-Death Experiences Taught Me How to Face Fear
A scientific solution to face fear
We have all experienced fear at some point. Some people are scared of heights, some are scared of spiders. Maybe you were scared to talk to your crush in high school. Or maybe you’re scared of public speaking?
Well, I was scared of the water. Four months ago, I couldn’t even swim. I wouldn’t even dare to put my head underwater. But yesterday, I jumped off from five meters into a pool that’s four meters deep (as you can see in the video).
In this article, I’m going to discuss what fear exactly is in detail and how to get rid of it once and for all.
A Near-Death Experience in Water
If you haven’t been to New Zealand yet, then I must warn you about the beaches on the west coast of Auckland — they’ll suck you in if you’re not careful — no matter how good of a swimmer you are.
Last year, I was at New Zealand’s notorious Muriwai beach, which belongs to the aforementioned category. It was a sunny day and the whole beach looked like a painting.
Even though I didn’t even know how to stay afloat in the water at that time, I couldn’t resist the temptation. I jumped right in, like a little kid. I splashed the water and yelled, “woohoo, summertime!”
For some stupid reason, I thought that the surface under my legs is going to be plain (like it is in a swimming pool). The surface was very uneven and a deep, deadly hole was waiting for me a few steps further.
When I was walking in shallow water, I had full control over my body’s movement. Even though the rip currents tried to suck me in, I stood my ground. But then, it happened. I fell in a hole and instantly lost control of the situation — the sea was in control now and I was in an uphill battle already.
A nice sunny day had turned into a nightmare. I’d have never thought in a million years that this would ever happen to me. What can an ant do when you throw a bucket of water at it? Nothing. I was the ant in this case.
The sea is an enormous, perilous killing machine — I learned it the hard way. Anyway, I recalled what a lifeguard told me once: “Never fight a rip current. Swim perpendicular and get out of it.”
Although I didn’t know how to swim. I kicked my legs and splashed the water as hard as I could and got out of the rip current. I had swallowed a couple of glasses of salty seawater by the time I got out of this situation and my body was raging with adrenaline.
I didn’t enter the water for a few months after this incident.
Second Near-Death Experience in Water
A few months later, on one fine evening, my flatmates convinced me to come to the local swimming pool. I really just wanted to take a nap and listen to music, but I succumbed to peer pressure.
Again, a rather normal evening was about to turn into a nightmare. I didn’t check the depth of the pool and ended up in the deep section with my amateur flutter kicks and splashes.
Exhausted, my feet tried to touch the ground and rest for a while. However, the ground was about 4 meters deep and I was in trouble again.
My body started sinking. I shouted, “I’m drowning.” The lifeguard, who was probably a newbie, didn’t really know how to handle the situation. She kind of relied upon the people inside the pool to get me out.
And that’s exactly what happened. My flatmates, who were experienced swimmers, swam towards me and dragged me out of the water.
Now I had two choices — either be afraid of deep water for the rest of my life and identify as a “non-swimmer” or roll up my sleeves and learn how to swim.
As you can probably guess, and the reason why I’m writing this article, is because I chose the latter.
A Philosophical Definition of Fear
Ask yourself: What is fear? You probably have an answer which may sound something like, “It’s an unpleasant feeling in the face of danger or potential danger.” Well, you’re not wrong but there’s way more to fear than what most people know.
First of all, fear isn’t always bad. It has kept our ancestors from getting eaten by lions and consuming poisonous plants. It has protected nations from being invaded by enemies. It keeps citizens from doing hurtful things to other citizens.
However, fear isn’t always good either. It can keep you from progressing in life — big time. You won’t get that pay rise if you’re too afraid of your employer. Your dream partner will get into a relationship with a rather fearless, confident person who had the courage to approach them and take things further.
Chances are, you already know these things. But I’m about to dig deeper. In the next section, I’ll decode almost the entire biological activity that occurs in our bodies when we experience fear.
The Biology of Fear
Now let’s get down to the scientific part and understand the biology of fear. First of all, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ve read countless scholarly articles about the anatomy of the brain and how it processes fear.
I’ll simplify the complex medical language so that even a 10-year-old can understand the biological reasons behind fear.
The different brain regions that are involved in processing fear
1. Amygdala — the regulator of fear
This is the region of the brain, basically a set of tissues, that regulates fear. According to neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, the amygdala is not just associated with fear and has other functions as well — just so know.
2. Hippocampus — the memory card of the human body
Rock your body right
You already know the next word, alright? Thanks to your hippocampus, which is the region of the brain, close to the amygdala, whose function is to store memories. These memories can be visual or auditory. It could be the taste of your favorite dessert or the smell of your childhood treehouse.
According to research by the National Institute of Health, the hippocampus and amygdala work closely to form long-term memories following an emotional incident.
3. The prefrontal cortex — the advanced part of the brain that makes us human
The neocortex is the region of the brain related to logical reasoning and takes up around 76% of the human brain. Humans have the most advanced neocortex on earth. That’s why we can construct skyscrapers, cure diseases, write symphonies, and send our species to the moon.
One of the very important regions of the neocortex is the prefrontal cortex, which regulates our thoughts and actions in a rational way.
4. Thalamus — relays information around the brain
Ever played relay race in school? Well, that’s what the thalamus does. It relays information between different regions of the brain. However, there’s an exception. When it comes to the sense of smell, the sensory information is not relayed through a thalamic circuit — just so know.
5. Hypothalamus — controls hormone release, such as adrenaline
This is the control center for hormone release. When the amygdala senses fear, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which then initiates the adrenaline release process — this is when your body has to choose between fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
The fear circuit
According to LeDoux, there are two types of fear processing pathways — the low road pathway and the high road pathway. Let me explain both using the schematic representation of LeDoux’s brain circuitry of fear.
Low road pathway (instant reaction)
Suppose you see that angry dog in front of you and you’re all by yourself. In the case of a low road circuit, your thalamus will relay this information straight to the amygdala, the regulator of fear.
The amygdala will then pass this information to the hypothalamus (the hormone controller) which will then initiate the process of filling your bloodstream with adrenaline. Even though it sounds like a huge process, it happens very quickly!
Potentially, you’ll either run in the opposite direction of the dog or pick up a nearby object and start fighting.
If you follow the red arrows in the image above, which depict the low road pathway, you’ll find that the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is not involved at all. This is a primal reaction and as a human, you can do much better than this — you’ve got to.
High road pathway (thoughtful response)
When your brain takes the high road pathway, the information goes through the prefrontal cortex (the modern brain) and the hippocampus (the memory center) before being passed on to the amygdala.
If you follow the grey arrows in the schematic representation above, you’ll find that the pathway is longer and more time-consuming.
Since the logical side of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, is involved, you’re likely to make a rational decision.
The hippocampus also helps. It has stored memories of the past dangers that you’ve been through. For example, it remembers that you can dial 911 in case of an emergency. It might also remember Cesar Millan’s advice on how to handle aggressive dogs, given that you watch that show.
That’s why in the case of a high road fear circuit, the involvement of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus control the response of the amygdala, and subsequently, the hypothalamus will know how much adrenaline to release or whether adrenaline doesn’t need to be released at all.
Meaning that you potentially won’t freak out and use your past knowledge and logic to overcome the threat in an intelligent way.
How to Eradicate Fear From Its Root
Now that you know what fear is and what goes on inside your body when you’re afraid, let’s understand how to eradicate a particular category of fear forever.
You can apply the same method to different categories of fear as well. The main point is to understand your brain’s physiology and how to train it to remain calm under fear, or in other words, not release adrenaline and other stress hormones unnecessarily.
Now back to how exactly I eradicated my fear. I finally learned how to swim within a few months of the pool incident. But I had to wear a flotation device and look like an amateur among other swimmers — who swam around me like mermaids. Still, the fear of deep water wasn’t completely eradicated.
I saw some people diving and I wanted to fall from a high altitude into deep water, get rid of the hydrophobia (fear of water) completely, and become one with water, too.
Here’s exactly how I did it and how you can do it too:
1. Calculate the risk using the neocortex
I calculated the risk of drowning. Statistically, only one out of eight drowning incidents result in fatality here in New Zealand. Research also says that humans can hold their breath for 87 seconds before drowning.
I also told the lifeguards to be extra careful before I jumped, so they had their undivided attention towards me.
Keeping all these calculations in mind, I knew that if something went wrong, the lifeguards will surely get me out within 87 seconds and I most certainly won’t drown.
The second risk was a physical injury caused by improper landing. I was a little paranoid that if I jump from such a great height (5 meters), I might pass out underwater due to the impact.
Water has surface tension, which means if you land flat (on your back or front), it might feel hitting a concrete floor. I studied several YouTube videos on diving and they all said one thing: “Keep your body straight and tight as you fall, and you’ll be fine.”
2. Take small steps to fill the hippocampus with positive memories
My hippocampus had to store all the necessary information that was required for a successful landing. The fact that I had to keep my body straight and break the surface tension was now deposited safely in my brain’s memory card.
Also, I didn’t start off from 5 meters right from the get-go. Surprised? I actually started by jumping into the deep end of the pool. My hippocampus stored this memory as a “non-threatening” event.
Subsequently, I then jumped off from a 1-meter-high and a 3-meter-high dive board over a period of a few days. Again, the hippocampus stored these actions as safe events.
3. Repeat until your amygdala no longer overpowers the prefrontal cortex
The time had come to jump off from 5 meters. It was so scary and despite having all the knowledge and logical reasoning, my brain took the low road pathway and my body was filled with adrenaline. So much adrenaline, that I was almost trembling.
It took me about five minutes to jump off. I jumped and it was a successful landing — no injury at all. I knew I had to reinforce this positive memory into my hippocampus before it’s too late.
So I climbed back up, reached the jump spot, and it still took me a few seconds to make up my mind. I think at this stage, both the low road and the high road fear pathways were in action. But I jumped again, and it was all good.
I climbed back up and jumped again, not five or ten times, but a whopping fifty-four times. The fear started fading by the sixth jump. Now, my hippocampus has fully stored the action of “jumping off from 5 meters into deep water” as a “completely safe action”. I’ll never have this fear again — ever!
Humans, and only humans, have the capability to tame their fear and achieve difficult goals.
If you’re afraid of something, write it down on a piece of paper and create a list of potential risks in a thoughtful way. Then, come up with steps that you can take to mitigate or eliminate the risk entirely.
For example, in my case, the risk was drowning or breaking my back by landing incorrectly. I mitigated the risk by telling the lifeguards to be extra alert and keeping my body as straight as possible while jumping.
Let’s assume that you’re afraid of dogs. List down what can go wrong. Maybe you’re scared that they’ll bite you. In that case, do some research on the body language of dogs and learn how to tell whether they’re being friendly or want you to go away.
On the other hand, you don’t have to face all your fears. Yes, all sane adults are afraid of an erupting volcano. If you do some logical calculations, you’ll come to the conclusion that an active volcano is deadly and you might not return if you go close to it. But, at least, this fear is rational and is derived from valid reasoning instead of instantaneous adrenaline release.
And last but not least, repetition is key. Knowing that something is not dangerous won’t help you get rid of fear. You have to actually perform the actions that you’re scared of, again and again, until the brain has learned that a given action is safe to perform.
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