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Gut Check: 3 Ways To Fight Through Fear

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Two MMA fighters.
© Ty Downing/Getty
Fear is natural. It's how we tell our bodies to get ready for action, fight or flee. It warns us not to go down that dark alley; it keeps us from crossing our personal codes of conduct. Fear is nature's armor.

So why do we fear fear?

First, fear can be paralyzing. Unchecked, fear can turn you into a deer and your goals into headlights. And when not being held back by fear, men typically mask it to keep up appearances.

However, men shouldn't feel shame about holding on to fear. Fear is a pesky thing, like a bad odor that's difficult to find. It lingers, sometimes faint other moments loud, and avoids being found until it drives us mad.

In the March 2011 issue of PLoS Computational Biology, researchers from Freiburg, Basel and Bordeaux attempted to explain how some fears we think we've gotten rid of are hidden under the surface.

Is fear in our minds?

Researchers from the study say our keen ability to suppress fear is found in two groups of nerve cells within the amygdala. One creates fear response and the other suppresses it. As you guessed, when the latter group of cells flexes its muscles it prevents the other group from sending fear response signals to the rest of the brain. So, what we think is fear-all-gone is really that stinky scent hiding behind a powerful Glade plugin.

So, what do our brains do with those "scents"?

Our brains act like sponges that pick up everything around us, including the stuff we don't want. And like your kitchen scrubber, dirt, odor, and other unwanted things lock into it and fester in the darkness while we sleep. Repeated exposure to a certain behavior or experience in your life is like using that sponge over and again until both you and it think things are supposed to be like that. That's how festering fear works.

In "Gay Male Relationships and American Society" clinical psychologist Walt Odets points out that "society, which has traditionally prohibited - at best stigmatized - gay relationships, then uses the results of that influence to demonstrate that our relationships do not work - or do not even exist."

As a result we fear being alone, fear losing family and friends, fear not being seen as men, fear not being able to express ourselves as anything other than men, and fear losing (or gaining) ourselves. Our lives are surrounded by fear from the moment we get the first feeling for another guy.

Turning Fear Into Confidence

The situation isn't all rotten. A recent study from Indiana University of Pennsylvania found ways MMA fighters, boxers and other men who practice martial arts turn fear into confidence. You can use these techniques to get over your fears without pounding in another man's face.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Christian A. Vaccaro of the study "Managing Emotional Manhood: Fighting and Fostering Fear in Mixed Martial Arts" published in the December 2011 issue of the American Sociological Association's Social Psychology Quarterly, says that MMA fighters are able to kick ass in the ring not because they have no fear, but learn how to manage it. "Underneath their bravado," Vaccaro writes, "mixed martial arts fighters [harbor] fear." However, they overcome these fears by developed ways to manage emotions and invoke fear in their opponents.

How Do Fighters Manage Fear?

The techniques MMA fighters use to combat fear can be used by anyone looking to break free of paralyzing butterflies. How do they do it?

Scripting

"To the untrained observer, cage fighting appears to be chaotic violence," Vaccaro says. In reality, the fighters set game plans prior to the match. The fight becomes a game of chess with physical contact. Each man tries to predict and outwit his opponent. This is most successful when emotions are under control. The techniques is called "scripting" since each man plans and rehearses his "combat" strategy. It's similar to visualizing a goal, but instead you're creating a fictitious image of how you will behave in a certain environment. Simply put: If you feel like a rock star and imagine yourself onstage, you'll start acting like a rock star!

Framing

Next, fighters use framing. Vaccaro writes that "framing shapes how one not only thinks about a situation but also how one feels." Students often use framing by referring to big exams as "quizzes." Some guys frame fears of commitment by calling a partner their "friend" instead of a "boyfriend." Framing changes the severity of the fear. So, we begin to interact in the environment with less anxiety. How can this work to your advantage? The next time you get the urge, tell yourself that you're not "approaching a guy to ask him out," you're "going to chat with a friend about meeting for coffee." You'll be much more relaxed and confident, reducing the fear of rejection.

Othering

Another fear-pounding strategy is "Othering." Normally, othering is a bad thing. It's when you consider yourself better than someone else and act accordingly. With fear, however, othering can be an asset. Figthers other by seeing themselves are more powerful and capable than their opponent. You can use othering by seeing yourself not as better than someone in the crowd, but by creating a "virtual you" that's superior to the fearful you. No wonder most confident gay men come off with an air of superiority. It could be that they're not confident at all, but othering to get over hidden fears.

So, the next time you feel afraid don't suppress it and pretend it's not there; turn it into confidence. Build a story with you as the winner, the superhero. When you change the perception of your environment and how you fit into it you build up those nerve cells that say it's okay to be afraid and you're strong enough to fight through it.
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