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Understanding your brain’s natural fear response is the first step to overcoming it

Understanding is the key to overcoming fear. Self-doubt is one of the many faces of fear. Whether it is the fear of being judged, rejected, or of “failure,” it is natural for all of us to feel fear and thus self-doubt. It can often be the initial sign that we are moving past our comfort zones. But in order to not let these hold us back and act with confidence despite our self-doubt, it can help to understand the mechanics of fear, and thus self-doubt.


The fear response becomes triggered as if you were facing a potential physical threat. Within the brain’s limbic system (pictured below) is a small almond-shaped part called the amygdala.

The amygdala is the center of your emotional responses and helps to activate the fight-or-flight response when you feel fear. When you doubt yourself, the amygdala triggers the flow of stress hormones in a similar fashion as if you were being chased by a tiger.

In addition, the basal ganglia which is responsible for regulating habits, gets activated as you consistently respond by acting (or not acting) on your intentions. When you feel self-doubt and allow it to hold you back from taking action, you reinforce the habit of hesitation.

Your brain does not like uncertainty. As a result, even the thought of doing something that is outside of your comfort zone triggers feelings that there could be a potential danger around the corner.

When we want to express ourselves, take a chance, or do something that is new or unconventional, a wave of self-doubt often comes to warn us that we are getting out of our comfort zones.

This slight feeling of fear is then processed in the amygdala as stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are sent rippling through our body, reinforcing our initial thoughts of fear.

The limbic system reacts so quickly that it seems as if the fear response washes over us before we even have a chance to respond. Through our conscious attention, the higher-order thinking and decision-making part of our brain — the frontal cortex — can be activated to cut the roof of fear at its source.


By becoming conscious of the fear response, we are already putting ourselves in a position of power. As soon as we see that we are not the fear, we can start to use the frontal cortex and its power of analysis and contemplation in order to choose a new response.

Instead of reacting to our fear, we can consciously decide to take action from a space of courage.

Every time we choose to act despite our fears, we are reinforcing the courage and confidence “muscles” of our brain. We are literally rewiring our brain to weaken the pathways of fearful and self-critical thinking while strengthening the pathways of courageous behavior.


Next time you feel self-doubt, try the following steps:

  1. Notice the fear and sit with it for a moment. Our natural instinct is to resist the feeling of fear, which only further reinforces it. As soon as we become aware that we are NOT the fear — we are the ones perceiving it— it loses some of its power over us. Sitting with your fear helps you disassociate your sense of self from it.

  2. Ask yourself what exactly it is that you’re most afraid of. Is your fear truly justified? Is there anything you can do to decrease the chances of your fear becoming a reality? Have you already taken steps to maximizing your chances of success? If the fear is one of a social nature — such as rejection or judgment — get in touch with the part of you that already knows your own value or strength regardless of your accomplishments. Think about all of the things you’ve already accomplished and the challenges you’ve made it through. If you’ve made it through difficult situations in the past, it proves that the source of strength was inside of you all along.

  3. Focus on the quality you would have to cultivate to move past the fear. How would you have to shift your view of the situation or your capabilities in order to take the necessary steps towards your desired action? Could you perhaps see yourself or others with the eyes of compassion rather than fear of judgment? Could you utilize the courage you’ve used so many times before to go through with your actions even despite the discomfort? Who in your life is good at dealing with fear and self-doubt — what qualities do they exhibit that you could try to emulate more often?

  4. Bring in logic by weighing both the best and worst-case scenarios. Our brains’s negativity bias magnifies the downside risk of any potential decision we want to make. We rarely spend as much time planning for the best-case scenario as we do ruminating on the potential worst-case scenarios. In this article, I offer a few ways to use logic to diffuse your fear of failure. When you bring in the analytical part of your brain, you weaken the neural pathways of the automatic fear-based action.

The more conscious you become of your own fears and self-doubt, the less power the limbic system’s automatic reactions will have over you.

The more we move away from only relying on our limbic system to also relying on the frontal cortex, the more we align the heart and the brain and bring balance back into our lives. Rather than allowing fear-based emotions to be the leading driver, we bring in the intellect and positive emotions to shift our actions in new directions.

Every time we choose to act despite the feeling of self-doubt, we activate new neural pathways and strengthen the habit of confidence. Over time, this is how we train our minds to become our greatest allies rather than our greatest critics.


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