The Health Benefits of Facing Fears

Mar 27, 2024

Reading time: 7 Minutes

Man holding a microphone

We all know what it’s like to be scared. Elevated heartrate. Sweaty palms. Sinking stomach. Racing thoughts. For most people, those and other sensations easily translate into one thing: Fear. But what does it feel like to become un-afraid?


New research shows that overcoming fear is more complex than we may imagine – but it also comes with concrete health benefits.


Imagine you’re afraid of public speaking (not a stretch for some). The mere thought of it makes you nauseous. But your dear friend, a high school principal, calls you in a desperate bind. A keynote career day speaker in your same line of work has cancelled, and she needs you to fill in – today!


A boulder settles in your gut. Cue the sweat glands, the shortness of breath, the tingly limbs. But a weak, whispered “okay” comes out of your mouth anyway because you can’t let your friend down. Here’s your chance to face your fear, whether you like it or not. So now what happens?


Facing Fears: Healthy for Your Brain


While taking the stage, your conscious brain goes into overdrive trying to think through what you’re going to say – that part is obvious. But underneath that, the subconscious part of your brain does its own work helping you process your reaction to fear.


Swedish researchers in the field of neuroscience and psychology recently conducted an intriguing study in regard to fear and memory formation. Their findings indicate that dopamine – the “feel good” hormone responsible for pleasure – plays a role in fear, or perhaps more specifically, it plays a role in the act of facing fear that’s been conditioned over time.


Fear, whether real or perceived, causes your brain to go into survival mode, activating the fight-flight-freeze function in the amygdala part of your brain. But at the same time, repeated exposure to stimuli (including fear triggers) causes the amygdala to release dopamine.


Fear and pleasure seem counterintuitive, so why would this occur? Well, there’s more research to be done, but the prevailing theory corresponds to the amygdala’s learning function. Perhaps the brain triggers pleasure at the mere act of understanding a fear better (learning).


In addition, a collaborative brain study conducted in Japan indicates that the act of overcoming fear (also known as fear extinction) releases dopamine in the mid-brain as expected bad outcomes do not occur.


So, as you press on in your public speaking gig, your brain releases that “feel good” hormone on two levels. When it turns out that you don’t trip up the stairs or lose your notes or misspeak an important point – when expected bad things don’t happen – you feel a brain-rush of pleasure. And when that happens over time, you get an even greater sense of pleasure from having learned that you can do it.


Facing Fears: Healthy for Your Body


As all that dopamine is released in your brain, your body begins to respond in kind. According to Harvard Medical School, dopamine is linked to attention, mood, movement, heart rate, blood flow, and pain processing, among other things. In short, your brain signals to your body that it’s okay to relax over time.


In our public speaking scenario, that might look like a more regulated heart rate and less-tense muscles when the first few minutes go well. Halfway through the speech, that frozen feeling may evaporate from your limbs and allow you to pace the stage a bit. By the end, a boost in mood and attention may even allow you to entertain a few questions from the audience.


And here’s the even better news: If you continue to accept – and survive – those dreaded public speaking opportunities, you could expect your body’s initial negative responses to lessen a bit every time. Because each positive outcome is new data that informs your brain that maybe you don’t have to be as afraid as you once thought. In turn, your fight-or-flight body responses – the jelly in your knees, the lead in your stomach, the pounding in your chest – will decrease as well.


Facing Fears: Healthy for Your Spirit


2 Timothy 1:7 reminds believers, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” This and other “fear not” verses in the Bible can seem almost impossible, can’t they? After all, God made our brains and intentionally wired them for fear as it relates to survival. (Meaning, it’s healthy and necessary to feel fear when you’re in a situation that could cause you immediate harm.)


Why then would scripture repeatedly tell us not to fear? Perhaps the key phrase to focus on in the verse above is a spirit of fear. The way I see it, a spirit of fear might be distinct from regular, necessary fear in its pervasiveness. Pervasive fear would concern our powerful God because it shows a lack of trust in His ability and sovereignty. Pervasive fear would also be of concern to our loving God because it would harm us mental and physically – our brains and bodies aren’t equipped to be overwhelmingly scared.


As such, we might view “fear not” as an invitation to trust in a loving, all-powerful God, especially in the midst of circumstances that may trigger fear. By relying on Him in those instances, we take on His spirit of power, love, and a sound mind, rather than our own tendencies toward a spirit of fear. In that way, facing fears allows us a unique opportunity to transform our spirits, to a depth which we may not otherwise know.


Facing Fears: How to Make it Easier


Clearly, facing fears is in the best interest of our minds, bodies, and spirits. But when it comes to actually facing the fear, even the “it’s good for you” information above isn’t always enough to motivate action. Plus, sometimes there’s a lack of immediate opportunity to face a fear. (It’s not like there’s a public speaking invitation every day.)


With those realities in mind, let’s explore some practical ideas that might make it easier to face fears when the time is right.


Prepare Your Mind to Face Fears


Intentional mental work can help prepare us to face fears. Some practical ways to prepare yourself mentally to face fears might include:

  • Education: Often our fears stem from the unknown. For certain more tangible fears, it may help to research the risks in order to properly evaluate them.

  • Small exposure doses: Tackling a fear head-on may be too much too soon. Consider ways to break up the exposure into smaller steps. For our public speaking example, you may practice giving a talk in front of a mirror, then a video camera, then a trusted companion, then a small group.

  • Vagus nerve stimulation: Studies show that stimulating the vagus nerve helps with fear extinction in the brain. This might include deep breathing, cold therapy, foot massage, or even loud singing.

  • Coping strategies: Develop strategies to mitigate fear before getting into the fearful situation. A “butterfly hug” – where you cross your arms across your chest and alternate subtly tapping your fingers on either side – might be one such strategy.

  • Talk with a therapist: A therapist can help with personalized fear-facing techniques. Remember that mental health counselors are available via phone or video chat through the Medi-Share Member Center.


Prepare Your Body to Face Fears


Considering dopamine’s vital function in overcoming fear, it’s wise to support the body’s production of dopamine in order to be ready to face fear effectively. The amino acid tyrosine is a building block of dopamine, so eating foods that are rich in tyrosine in reasonable amounts could help boost dopamine formation. High-tyrosine foods include:

  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Fish
  • Nuts
  • Eggs


Prepare Your Spirit to Face Fears


Cultivating a spirit of trust actively battles against a spirit of fear. Trust is built not on our feelings but on the faithfulness of God. To prepare our spirit to face fear, prayer should be the essential first step. It might also be beneficial to meditate on the following passages that remind us of the faithfulness of God:

  • 2 Thessalonians 3:3
  • Lamentations 3:22-23
  • Psalm 36:5
  • Micah 7:18-20




Facing fear isn’t easy, but it might be necessary and helpful, especially if a pervasive fear is affecting your mental, physical, or spiritual life. If you’d like prayer support in facing a fear, please feel free to comment below; our Medi-Share team would count it a privilege to join you in your fear-facing prayers.

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