The Brain and Fear


Many years ago, I had a neurologist as a participant in a challenge course experience I was facilitating. He and I talked at length about the experience, and he shared with me in simple terms how the body and mind process fear. I was fascinated. He described how our brain “hijacks” our body until it decides if we really should be scared. I immediately saw a direct connection between understanding what happens inside the brain and body of our participants and the way we facilitate aerial adventure experiences.

I had heard the term “fight or flight” before, but I don’t think I fully understood its meaning. Simply put, our brain, specifically the part of it called the amygdala, is constantly scanning for danger. When we are faced with a potentially scary or dangerous experience, the amygdala takes over the body, preparing us to either fight or flee.

In the aerial adventure world, when participants start to push themselves outside of their comfort zone, the amygdala is on watch. If the situation escalates beyond a challenge into something more emotionally volatile in the participant’s mind, the participant gets hijacked. This does not have to happen all at once but can build over time through little battles of the mind. If the participant and facilitator ignore the signs, the result could be someone frozen in fear atop a zip platform or pamper pole.

Sequencing and Program Design

After doing some research, I began to formulate a hypothesis. Nothing earth shattering, but I felt like I was stumbling upon scientific proof that proper sequencing and program design are essential to the success of our program participants. If we expose participants to an ideal program design and guide them through a process where their team and facilitator support them fully, they can climb to that point of challenge, stand in the face of fear, and succeed, whatever success means for them.

Dr. Relly Nadler (of executive development firm True North Leadership, Inc.) said, “The power of emotions overwhelms rationality. That is why when we are emotionally upset or stressed, we can’t think straight.” When we’re scared, there are parts of our brain we cannot access. Think about that next time you have someone shaking on the end of your belay rope.

The Amygdala and Emotional Threat System

When we experience a physical sensation (i.e., sight, sound, smell, touch or even taste), our brain crudely processes this information and sends it on two paths. The shorter path sends this information directly to the amygdala to be scanned for threats.

If the amygdala detects a threat, it orchestrates a quick involuntary response, stopping normal motion, causing us to freeze, and flooding our body with hormones. This increases heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating, not to mention anxious facial expressions. Primitively speaking, the amygdala reduces the possibility of attracting the attention of a predator, preparing us to fight or flee and warning those around us of potential danger. This is known as the amygdala hijack.

Simultaneously, but at a much slower relative speed, the information traveling the longer path is processed more fully—like waiting for a Polaroid picture to fully develop. The more refined image is then compared to previous emotional situations and input from your conscious or explicit memory, allowing the amygdala to either confirm the threat or stand down. In other words, our amygdala takes over our bodies until a potential threat can be fully vetted.

Implicit and Explicit Memory

Explicit and implicit are the two basic types of memories we have. They’re drawn upon to create an automatic physical response to emotional events that resemble similar situations from our past. Implicit memories are unconscious memories that are tied to emotional experiences. Explicit memories are facts, details, and recollections that make up our conscious memory.

A strong amygdala hijack can impair our working or explicit memory as powerful emotions overwhelm our rationality. The information we so desperately need to confirm or deny the threat is clouded. We can’t think straight.
Emotional recall. The hormones released by the fear system may strengthen the memory path in our brains so that we recall emotional experiences easily.

This is our opportunity when it comes to growth on a challenge course.

Opportunity for Facilitation

The challenge course can generate emotionally charged situations during which facilitators can create positive experiences, with stronger connections to memory. In turn, if we create a negative emotional experience, that too will be strongly connected to our participants’ memory.

Fear is contagious. Another interesting tidbit about fear is that it’s contagious. The anxious facial expression you make when you are scared triggers an emotional response in those around you as their amygdalae scan for threats. Therefore, the experience your first participant has on any given element will influence the experience of subsequent participants.

This is where the facilitators come in. In Dr. Joseph Ledoux’s book, “The Emotional Brain,” he writes, “The amygdala’s emotional memories, as we’ve seen, are indelibly burned into its circuits. The best we can hope to do is to regulate their expression. So how can you, as facilitator of the experience, help your participants get control of the amygdala response?”

Don’t be a telemarketer. Early in my career as a facilitator, I adopted a telemarketer’s philosophy: Telemarketers are trained to not hang up until you say no three times. I applied that attitude to my challenge course work. If a participant got part way up a tree and asked to come down, I would ask if they were sure. If the participant continued to say, “I want to come down,” I would encourage them to reach up just one more staple or rung. I would only let the participant come down if they refused to climb further three times.

At the time, I thought I was helping participants reach their potential by being an external voice that encouraged them to push past their fear.

As I reflected on this practice later in my career, I realized I had not been facilitating for the participant’s needs and goals at all. I was only paying attention to my own perception of what the participant needed—or worse, what I expected from them.

Adventure foundations. The challenge course can offer participants an opportunity to push outside of their comfort zone, into that next zone of challenge or growth. That growth has more value if we can create an environment that participants come to on their own terms.

We don’t know what an appropriate challenge is for everyone, so we need to create a program that provides a supportive, trustworthy community. We need to allow everyone to feel they have choice and control. We must also give participants time to reflect and learn so that they can commit their experience to memory for use in future situations. These are the very foundations of adventure education.

Taming the Amygdala

No matter how well we sequence our program to create a supportive environment, participants may still get scared. It is part of the experience and part of the growth potential. But how do we recognize when participants step out of their comfort zone and begin to slide down that slippery slope from challenge to panic?

Signs of fear. The signs that someone is scared at height can be more obvious than the subtle signals a participant gives us before they leave the ground. As a participant approaches a climb, you may start to notice a quivering voice or distracted look. They may repeat questions or ask questions to which they already know the answer. The participant might appear scatterbrained, forgetting to do something they have done numerous times before.

As the participant climbs, more physical body reactions become noticeable. The participant’s body position may be much lower than normal, or they may attempt to maintain contact with something solid. The participant may ask to crawl on an incline log or catwalk or have an oddly stooped stance on a high cable. They may stand relatively steady but keep a finger on the tree for security. These are signs you need to watch out for.

Refocusing the brain. If you can recognize these signs and notice when a participant is about to experience an amygdala hijack, you can help the participant refocus their brain, allowing them to access the portions of the brain with the information needed to work through the fear—the very areas the amygdala is suppressing in its fight or flight response.

To refocus the participant, have the person stop what they are doing and direct their attention away from the task at hand. Then have the participant practice intentional breathing.

Now, you can begin to ask questions such as “what are you feeling or thinking?” This helps the individual to label the fear and acknowledge it. You may have heard the phrase, “name it to tame it.” You must identify fear to work through it.

Another trick at this point is to help the participant appreciate the situation—or anything at all. This works because the brain is not capable of fear and appreciation simultaneously.

Once the participant is refocused, you can activate the other regions of their brain by asking goal-setting questions such as, “What do you want to do next?” This may be when the participant says, “I want to come down.” Great—but you have a plan and you’ve engaged other regions of the brain in decision-making. Their brain should be accessing explicit memory and facts at this stage, so you can now help them evaluate what they are doing and how it is working or not working toward their goal of coming down off the course, or whatever else it may be.

Impact in Action

I would not be as confident in the above techniques had I not witnessed them several times firsthand. This next story occurred before I had read about most of these techniques.

During a training I was leading, a participant froze halfway across the catwalk. Thinking back, there were many signs of fear I did not notice: she was not moving, crouched low, and clinging to her rope. She was also not speaking, just shaking her head “yes” or “no” in response to questions.

At this point, her friend on the ground did something unexpected: She asked the woman where her camera was. This question distracted the frozen woman from the situation. Her friend said she had to get a picture to show the participant’s family. “Your husband and kids will never believe it if I don’t get a picture of you,” she called up. This statement triggered appreciation for the participant’s family.

Long story short, after a few more questions about the whereabouts of the camera and a few more remarks about how proud her family would be, the previously frozen woman stood erect, smiled for a picture, and lowered off the log without a second thought.

It was remarkable. Her friend diverted the brain’s activity away from fear, allowing her to regain access to the portions of her brain the amygdala was clouding.

We had a great discussion about this after the woman was back on the ground. It is important to take time to process these emotional memories that are indelibly burned into the circuits of our brain, hopefully making the information more readily available in similar future situations.

Scratching the Surface

I have just begun to scratch the surface here of the research being conducted regarding fear and emotion. The steps I have outlined are not the secret code for releasing the grip of the amygdala on the body. They are merely a few tips that may work if you find yourself or one of your participants being hijacked.
If you facilitate on a challenge course, lead wilderness expeditions, or simply live life, you are faced with fears. Understanding what is happening, even on a surface level, has helped me understand so much about my own reactions to situations.

With great knowledge comes great responsibility. When we take people out onto our challenge course we have a tremendous responsibility, not only for their physical safety but their emotional safety as well. So, facilitate with compassion, facilitate trust, and facilitate adventure.

Chris Ortiz is an associate director and program director at the Penn State Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center as well as an instructor for the Penn State Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management department.



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