The Jeff Wise Blog

Nine Secrets of Courage From Extreme Fear

Courage: it’s not just for heroes. Fear is an emotion we all deal with, and how we handle it determines what kind of life we’ll lead — whether shackled by anxiety and dread, or empowered to conquer new challenges. Yet we spend most of our time trying to avoid fear, so we muddle along, rarely getting much better at the art of mastering it. That’s a shame, because with a little effort we can find the courage to push beyond your comfort zone and tackle new worlds.

In my book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger — out this month in paperback — I explore the neurological underpinnings of the brain’s fear response to better understand how to take charge of this formidable emotion, shedding light on the science with stories of people who have faced terrible threats and managed to come through intact.

Can we learn from such brave souls and train ourselves to be more courageous? The evidence says yes. Here are nine techniques for steeling yourself for the challenges ahead. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Why Would You Jump Out of a Perfectly Good Airplane?

One of my constant themes is that our fears, left unchallenged, hedge in our lives and prevent us from becoming the fullest expressions of ourselves. But what if we go the other way entirely, and not only embrace the things we fear, but fear itself?

I recently got a note from a reader, Jason Tyne, who wrote: “Since reading your book, I continue to be fascinated by the idea of fear but at least I have some perspective on it. Recently (and inspired by your book) I took my own jump out of an airplane and it was amazing…in fact I just blogged that it was my number one recommendation for EVERYONE to do in 2011.” I followed the link to Jason’s website and found a very entertaining account of an experience very much like what I had when I jumped out of an airplane for the first time. It really is bizarre, if you’ve never done anything like this before, how an alternate personality or parallel mind seems to wake from its slumber and start wrestling with you for control of your body. As Jason puts it, “I was sane all the way up to the moment that I stepped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet; it was the very next moment that I lost my mind.” He describes his inner dialogue like this: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

An Accident Strikes, and the World Becomes Smaller

There’s a wonderfully insightful piece in the New York Times today by science writer Gina Kolata, who describes a cycling accident in which she ran into another rider, fell off her bike, and broke her collar bone. The injury was not crippling – she managed to ride another 90 miles that same day – but the psychological ramifications were long-lasting, as the accident made her realize how vulnerable she really was when riding a bicycle. All at once, an activity that had long given her joy became a source of fear. An important part of her life was shut off.

As I’ve written before, the two main tools that we possess to control fear are information and a sense of control. In Kolata’s case, she realized that the sense of control that she had once felt while riding her bike was illusory. Stripped of her sense of control, she was helpless against her fear. She just couldn’t get back on the bike, at least for a while.

“Control makes a big difference in whether we take risks,” [Carnegie Mellon] professor of economics] Dr. Loewenstein said. “With biking, you feel in control until you have an accident. Then all of a sudden you realize you are not in control. That can have a dramatic effect — you can shift abruptly from excessive daring to exaggerated caution.”

I’m currently working on a story for Psychology Today about why some people are mentally tougher in the face of crisis than others, and what the rest of us can learn from them. A major lesson I’ve taken away from my research is that the way we choose to think about our struggles is a critical factor in resilience. Those who bounce back easiest are those who can think of a negative outcome as a challenge rather than a defeat, and recognize in each setback an opportunity to grow and test themselves.

In Kolata’s case, she was not able to take such an upbeat stance. She had come to feel that when she was on a bicycle, something bad could happen to her at any time, and there was nothing she could do about it. Yet at the same time she continued to run, even though that activity poses an even greater risk of injury. Why? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Yes, You Really Can Lift a Car Off a Trapped Child

This month’s issue of Psychology Today includes my article “Stealth Superpowers,” about how the brain’s automatic fear-response systems can unleash hidden mental and physical abilities. A portion of the article is now online on the magazine’s website. The excerpt tells the story of Tom Boyle, Jr, a man who quite suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the middle of a life-or-death drama:

“Oh God, do you see that?” his wife said.

Boyle saw it: the crumpled frame of a bike under the car’s bumper, and tangled within it a boy, trapped. That’s when Boyle got out and started running. For an agonizing eternity the Camaro screeched on, dragging the mass under it. As it slowed to a stop he could hear the bicyclist pounding on the car with his free hand, screaming. Without hesitating Boyle bent down, grabbed the bottom of the chassis, and lifted with everything he had. Slowly, the car’s frame rose a few inches. The bicyclist screamed for him to keep lifting. Boyle strained. “It’s off me!” the boy yelled. Someone pulled him free, and Boyle let the car back down.

As I write in the story, Boyle accomplished an almost unthinkable feat of strength. The world record for dead-lifting a barbell is 1,003 pounds. A stock Camaro weighs 3000 pounds. So how did Boyle pull it off? Here’s how I explain it in the story: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

The Moment That Lasts Forever

In an instant, your life changes forever. Your car skids off the road. Your plane clips a wing on landing. A motorcycle runs a red light and heads straight at you. For the rest of your time on earth, the sights, smells, and sounds of that instant will be seared in your memory.

In response to my post “How The Brain Stops Time,” more than 100 readers have written to share their experiences of time dilation in the face of intense danger. A closely related corollary is that terrifying memories are burned indelibly in our minds. Long after every other detail of our lives has melted away into the great sea of forgotten things, these moments remain intensely alive.

Reader Alice from Jupiter, Florida writes:

Crossing a street one evening, my sister’s boyfriend picked me up and threw me “fireman” style over his shoulder. I had an injured ankle I remember ‘whining’ about, so he did this in order to assuage – or humor me. My sister, by the way, was trailing a few feet behind us.

Because my rear end was blocking his view from oncoming traffic, he did not see the car coming at us. I did, however, and clearly remember thinking several thoughts: “a car is coming”;”Ted must see this car coming”; “why isn’t he moving faster”; “if he doesn’t, we’ll be hit”; “Oh God, it’s going to hit us.” What seemed an eternity later, the driver did hit us. (She had been drinking and was going pretty fast, I later learned.) I recall a sensation of slowly flying through air and then nothing – until I woke on the pavement with quite a few broken bones. Ted did not survive.

My sister stated later that it happened so quickly, I simply could not have had time to think all the things I did. I clearly remember these thoughts to this day, and have wondered often how it was possible. Why would the brain would manufacture false memories when recalling a fearful event?

With all due respect, I think that Alice’s sister is wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Can a Common Health Supplement Help Conquer Fear?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could master your fears with a single dose of medicine? It’s an age-old dream — people have been finding courage in a bottle for thousands of years — but recently military psychologists have begun to think they might be hot on the trail of a formulation that could actually work without getting users high as a kite.

Most of us have enjoyed a little “Dutch courage” now and again. It’s great for loosening up social anxieties at cocktail parties and the like; one of alcohol’s many neurological effects  is that it dampens the stress circuitry within the brain. Of course, other effects include loss of coordination and impaired decision-making, meaning that in high-pressure situations alcohol tends to do more harm than good. More recently, psychiatrists have prescribed benzodiazepines like Xanax for anxiety, but these too can cause serious cognitive impairment, and are highly addictive to boot.

Beta blockers like Propanolol aren’t nearly as mind-altering, but they have drawbacks of their own: by suppressing the sympathetic nervous system, they make it hard for users to engage in strenuous physical activity. In the military, you tend to do a lot of that.

So what’s the magic bullet? Some high-tech, top-secret formulation? Nope. Turns out to be a substance you can buy over the counter at most health food stores. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

The Ultimate Daredevil’s Guide to Conquering Fear

No one alive has done more hair-raising crazy stunts than Travis Pastrana. The first person to ever pull a double-backflip on a motorcycle, he has also jumped out of an airplane without a parachute (video here) and back-flipped a child’s Big Wheel off a huge jump called a megaramp (video here). But contrary to common belief, Pastrana is not immune to fear — in fact, almost every night he wakes up in the grip of night terrors. So how does he keep cool when his life is on the line? Here are some tips.

Be Prepared. “The scariest thing for me is when I go into something unprepared. When I jumped a Big Wheel on the megaramp, that was scary. I didn’t know if it was going to blow up on the takeoff. It’s not made to be going 55 mph and withstanding four g’s.”

Use Your Fear. “When I’m not nervous, I’m not 100 percent focused on something. When I jumped out of the plane without a parachute, the part that scared me the most was that I wasn’t scared enough. I had to deliberately re-set my mind: ‘Okay, Travis, you have the rest of your life to find those other jumpers and make this work.’”

Trust Your Crew. “The hardest part about putting the jump together was finding people that were a) good enough and b) willing to risk being involved with a stunt like this. But once I found a good crew, we all trusted each other. The guys that I was jumping with had 10,000 jumps apiece.”

Commit Yourself. “Before I did the double backflip, I was scared all day. I didn’t know if I would decide to do it or not. And then the second I was on the jump, and I knew that I was going to do it, the fear just went away. It was like, ‘Well, okay, it’s inevitably going to happen — let’s try to make it work.’”

Pastrana shared these tips with me as I was interviewing him for an article in Red Bulletin, which you can check out here.

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Filed under: Mastering Fear

How the Bravest Are Different

On Saturday, I wrote a post about how the Swedish explorer S.A. Andree carefully observed his own fear reaction as he made his first ascent in a balloon. Intellectually he felt no trepidation about what he was about to do, yet as the craft began to rise he found himself desperately holding on despite himself. I described feeling similarly overwhelmed by fear myself, on several occasions. But I had no word for the phenomenon.

Well, now I have one. It’s called “The Grip.” Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear


I am in the middle of reading Alec Wilkinson’s fascinating New Yorker story about Swedish explorer S.A. Andree, who tried to be the first man to reach the North Pole by floating there in a helium balloon. Turned out to be a bad idea.

As part of his self-education into aeronautics, Andree took his first balloon ride at the age of 38. The year was 1892. In an age when traveling by air was still a novel and rather far-fetched idea, it must have been far more terrifying than we can imagine today. As he prepared to board the contraption, Andree must have wondered whether he would feel fear or not. Ever the man of science, he decided to pay careful attention to his body’s reaction.

Andree wrote that he was preoccupied with observing himself to determine whether he was afraid. He was surprised to find himself, as the balloon left the ground, holding tight to the ropes encircling the basket. “I discovered  that I was not conscious of any feeling of fear, but that I probably was influenced by it unconsciously,” he wrote. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

When Fears Come True, And Disappear

Cary Tennis, an advice columnist at Salon, is currently on leave while he undergoes treatment for cancer. In the meantime, he’s blogging about his experiences in a very personal way. Recently, he wrote about how the experience of coming so close to death has erased many of his old fears:

I realized a few weeks ago how much fear had dominated so many aspects of my life. It wasn’t big enormous fear. It was little fears. Like little fears of being uncomfortable about stuff. And now, after all I’ve been through, after what I’ve faced, I just kind of don’t have that. I don’t have that complex of behaviors to avert little pains and such. So this is fascinating, and maybe the biggest single change I’ve undergone in years. Not sure I’m describing it right, but it’s a good thing and good things will come of it.

We spend so much of our lives worrying that the worst might happen, yet when it does, so often it winds up deepening our lives and giving us an appreciation of life that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Interviews with the Author

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise