Fear is a healthy human emotion—Mother Nature’s way of protecting us from harm and helping us survive. But in many cases such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fears can debilitate and paralyze us from healthy functioning. But what if we could reduce or entirely erase constant, recurring maladaptive fears? You might be thinking that it sounds like science fiction. But some therapies such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and pharmacological treatments already disrupt and modulate traumatic experiences, allowing people to function more optimally.
Fear can stand in the way of sticking our necks out to attain success. And over time job fears can bring our career to a screeching halt. Negative self-talk and forecasting negative beliefs can get in the way and keep us stuck in stale, hopless jobs. Suppose your boss walks by your desk. You hook eye contact with her, smile, and nod. She looks straight at you, but doesn’t acknowledge your presence. She might as well be staring at the wall. “Oh no,” you say to yourself. “I must be in hot water.” You shrink inside, ruminating over what you might have done to deserve this. Your heart races, and you feel shaky. It’s just a few days before your performance evaluation. Sleepless nights stalk you. You toss and turn as your mind spins with worry over job security.
The day of your evaluation arrives. Your boss calls you into her office, and your stomach flip-flops. You tremble the way you did in sixth grade when you were summoned into the principal’s office. But, to your shock, she greets you with a smile and gives you a glowing performance evaluation. Not only are you not in hot water, she calls you a highly valued team member.
All that worry and rumination for nothing eventually takes a toll on your mental and physical health and career success. Had you thought about it, you might have realized there are a number of benign reasons your boss didn’t acknowledge you when she walked by your desk. Perhaps she was distracted by her own worries, deep in thought over an upcoming meeting, or simply just didn’t see you. But your hard-wired mind-reading jumped into action, focused only on the disastrous possibilities. It blew your thoughts out of proportion, sending you into spirals of rumination. And you fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
Think of all the other times you brooded for countless hours over one negative aspect of a situation when, in retrospect, there was nothing to worry about. Perhaps you even overlooked many positive elements. Your team gave you rave reviews on your presentation, but you couldn’t get that one frowning face in the front row off your mind. The majority of your coworkers attended your virtual birthday celebration, but that one no-show continued to flash in your brain like a neon Failure sign. And what about all those times you wigged out about an upcoming speech, convinced you would fall flat on your face when, in fact, not only did you not fail, you were a huge success—the exact opposite of what your narrow view (scientists call it the negativity bias) predicted. Some neuroscientists suggest that 90% of our worries are false alarms that never manifest.
But what if you could wipe out negative fears that keep you from getting out of your comfort zone and boosting your performance and career? A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, describes a method of erasing recurring fears and altering how the prefrontal cortex functions so that an unpleasant event no longer induces fear. The research team, led by Sara Borgomaneri, used TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) to create magnetic fields that alter neural activity in particular areas of the brain.
The 84 healthy study participants learned an unpleasant memory, created by paring an electric shock with certain images. After learning the memory, the next day researchers presented participants with the same stimulus which had already been recorded as unpleasant. Ten minutes afterwards, the scientists placed electromagnetic coils on the heads of participants and used TMS to interfere with the participants prefrontal cortex activity.
Study participants who had their prefrontal cortex inhibited by TMS remembered the event but showed a reduced negative physiological response to the unpleasant stimulus, as indicated by their skin conductance response. In contrast, control groups that underwent TMS without the recall of an unpleasant memory showed no decrease in physiological expression of fear.
According to chief investigator, Borgomaneri, this is the first time these results have been obtained without the administration of drugs to patients, and the findings have implications for the fields of rehabilitation and clinical medicine. In the future, this procedure could alter the persistence of traumatic memories and pioneer the development of new therapies to assuage the recurrence of PTSD in patients. It’s even possible that some day such a procedure could be used to reduce job stress and eliminate our fears of stretching into career unknowns and uncertainties and prevent worry from blocking our optimal performance. Until that time, though, we are left to rely on the tools at our disposal: a healthy and supportive workplace, self-help, positive thoughts, pep talks, meditation, appropriate medications and counseling.