What Are You Afraid Of?

Public speaking is one of the most common fears people experience. Explore this mindfulness practice for conquering those butterflies in your stomach—without picturing the audience in their underwear. [Podcast]

Greater Good Science Center

Episode 14 of the Science of Happiness Podcast from the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Adam Edwards in conversation with Dacher Keltner. 

Science of Happiness

Dacher Keltner: Adam Edwards is a competitive kayaker and member of Melanin Base Camp, an organization working to diversify outdoor adventure sports and experiences. He joins us today as our happiness guinea pig.

In each episode of The Science of Happiness, we focus on different research-tested practices for increasing happiness, resilience, kindness, and connection. And we have a guest try out
that practice and tell us about their experience. Then we explore the science behind it.

Adam, thanks for being with us.

Adam Edwards: Thanks for having me. Excited to be here.

Dacher Keltner: So Adam, you grew up around alligators and sharks and you’ve camped in Alaska and you’ve been close to grizzlies but I read in a couple of articles you read for Melanin base camp that you have this deep-seated fear of being eaten. What’s that about?

Adam Edwards: I think it’s a completely rational fear for a human being on a biological level. Maybe not as a human being living in a modern society. Yeah I just have a really deep respect for things that are more powerful than me and growing up fishing in Florida, watching a lot of Discovery Channel, reading a lot about megafauna, and as a kid I was really into zoology. I wanted to be a zoologist for a long time. Like I was afraid of something so I became really fascinated with it.

Dacher Keltner: Wow. It seems like you have this theme in your life or this motif of, these fears pop up, given your activities and you go and face them and build a life around them. So tell us about the practice that you chose.

Adam Edwards: So the practice I chose was Overcoming a Fear. It kind of seems a little bit like a sensitization. Basically when I was reading through it, it was kind of like identify a fear and then incrementally work yourself up to facing it. So I chose public speaking.

Dacher Keltner: Why did you choose that one?

Adam Edwards: Mainly because it was a really tangible one that I feel like even after years and years of my chosen career. I am a kayak instructor and like it still provides me with a lot of stress. And not positive stress. It still actually scares me quite a bit. So I figured that was one that hey, I still need, obviously still need work on this. I want to try another way of addressing this.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. You know Adam, you know you’re not alone in fearing public speaking. Apparently you know when you ask people what they’re afraid of, like these national surveys, number one is death, and number two is speaking publicly. It’s pretty universal and, in fact, one of the ways that we study stress is we bring people to a lab and we say, guess what you’re going to do here, you’re going to give a public speech and they freak out.

Now I’m a scientist and I have to measure your fears here. So you’ve told me about sharks and alligators and bears and grizzlies and black bears so here’s the question: What’s more fear-provoking, speaking to a thousand people or swimming near a shark?

Adam Edwards: Oh man… I could probably swim near the shark. I mean like I’m instantly thinking like well it’s not like a great white and semi-controlled. Like if they’re both controlled scenarios I’d rather swim near the shark than speak to a thousand people.

Dacher Keltner: You got some work to do. So what did you do?

Adam Edwards: So I set up teaching another Whitewater Kayaking class, where I could kind of, maybe try that new way of addressing the fear of speaking to groups of people.

Basically in the weeks prior to the class, I wrote out what I wanted to say and do for the class, which is something I usually do but not really to this detail. I kind of usually just write like a forward stroke, backstroke and how long I think each thing will take.

And this time I kind of spent more time sound-boarding with my co-instructor about what we were going to say and practicing it allowed me to simplify a lot of things. And I found that actually lowered my stress level, because that’s where a lot of the stress in public speaking comes from for me is, my brain’s going really fast and I’m coming up with things to say, and then, you know it starts to tumble. I get lost on tangents and then I kind of just shut up for a while as I’m like, Oh no what do I do…

Dacher Keltner: Blushing, and sweating, and hyperventilating.

Adam Edwards: Yeah, yeah. If I have to speak in front of a large group of people I’m definitely one of those folks that’s like, dark clothes only. Because I am pouring sweat like not on the face, not on the hands, but underneath whatever I’m wearing. I am just drenched with sweat.

Dacher Keltner: So how’d it go?

Adam Edwards: Uh, it went really well, actually. I got a lot of really good feedback from our students. We taught an intermediate creeking class which is the kind of white water kayaking where they run waterfalls, very steep rivers and creeks. So other than the technical skills, there’s a lot of talk about safety and fear management and risk management and that’s kind of, that was the hard part. I mean that’s something I talk about a lot. It’s a big interest of mine. But not complicating that for people who don’t think about that a lot is very hard for me to do. So that actually went really well I was excited with how that aspect of the class went. We had a really good dialogue and they kind of relayed that the way it was presented helped them kind of be like, hey this like all of this stuff is manageable. Like everyone goes through this and that’s basically the best I could hope for coming out of a class like that.

Dacher Keltner: Let’s play a clip of how your class went.

Adam Edwards: Talk a little about safety and fear management as we’re on the river. And I will be creating scenarios today that will try to heighten your stress level a little bit. Just so you’re aware that’s going to happen at some point but I won’t tell you when it’s happening, it will just happen. So, yeah. I’ll turn it over to you for a little bit if you had some thoughts or I keep orating. It’s a nervous energy it’s just going to spill out of my face.

Dacher Keltner: Given what your experiences were with this facing fears practice, how do you just give wisdom to a friend like you know who’s going to go give a public talk. What would you say?

Adam Edwards: I would say really like investing the time in putting your thoughts down prior was super helpful. Just seeing a bullet-pointed list of what I wanted to convey changed what I wanted to convey, because it allowed me to consolidate and streamline the whole thing. By doing that I got more comfortable with the topic and was able to actually come up with new and better ideas. And then practicing saying those things, and running that by like a close friend or a spouse or someone that you’re comfortable speaking in front of really like, you know is a dry run whenever I get stressed I just kind of revert to like well, I’m just talking to this person, not talking to like 40 people or however many, I’m talking to one person.

Seeing a bullet-pointed list of what I wanted to convey changed what I wanted to convey, because it allowed me to consolidate and streamline the whole thing. By doing that I got more comfortable with the topic and was able to actually come up with new and better ideas.

Dacher Keltner: You know that’s nice.

Adam Edwards: Yeah I think that’s really helpful. Just like that repetition makes it easier and easier each time it’s done.

Dacher Keltner: Nice. You know I know in the broader literature on facing anxieties like just breaking stuff down and just laying out the practical concrete steps you’re going to take is pretty good stuff. Do you think just coming full circle with Melanin Base camp, is part of the idea just more broadly to take on fears and transcend them?

Adam Edwards: At least for me personally, it definitely is because the fear of public speaking is not just if I have to stand in front of a crowd, it’s public speaking in this day and age, it includes posting on your social media, more than just to say like, I had this today or I’m going there. Like actually utilizing the platforms that we have available to us to express our ideas.

And I have a huge anxiety with that. So being a part of Melanin Base camp is both like amazingly uplifting and really fun for me, and it’s also, I would say, it’s a positive stress now but it is definitely also a stressor where putting my thoughts and feelings on very divisive issues and personal experiences out there for everyone to see and read and comment on and respond to…so it’s inviting a two-way section of public speaking which I think is to borrow the term now, there’s a lot of uncomfortable conversations happening, and Melanin Base Camp is creating a comfortable way to facilitate those conversations.

Dacher Keltner: You know one of the things we’re learning from the signs of stress and it relates to the practice you chose, is ,you know, there’s this big network of in your brain and in your body that helps you respond to stress and threat—the HPA axis and it releases cortisol and I think one of the most important developments in that literature is that when you are a woman and you hear sexist talk or a sexist joke at work or you are a person of color and you hear prejudicial talk those forms of prejudice actually activate the stress response. How do you find for people of color being outdoors changes their sense of their identity and the outside world?

Adam Edwards: I can speak for myself personally. The parts that have had where I have had those stress reactions is kind of like in the initial couple of years where I had a driver’s license I wasn’t with my parents anymore. I was picking the places I was going and exploring that freedom as a black man in America kind of being like, oh man, if I’m at this trailhead by myself and there’s these weird people…I just have this anxiety when the Rangers show up, or like meeting people in rural areas, and, you know, kind of fear of authority, being questioned in different places for why you’re being there. Just because we’re not usually there.

I was talking to a friend’s father a few weeks back kind of about this. Just how something he pointed out to me is like 20, 30, 40 years ago the outdoors are a place where it’s like as a person of color, like why would I go in the woods, when the general consensus is you’ve got the Klan you’ve got backwoods people that don’t like anyone that doesn’t look like them.

But I think that re-embracing the outdoors if it’s something as a person of color that you’ve been avoiding, it’s such an easy thing to do. Even if you live in a huge city there are still like, spaces you can find, green spaces whether those are parks or things out of town and being able to kind of interact with that in the natural sense I feel it definitely is a huge stress relief. It’s just peaceful.

Dacher Keltner: You know I really appreciate all the work, you know choosing the practice to face your fears and all this work you’re doing. And in your writing, it’s really interesting you write about how this kind of fear of being eaten not only has these really concrete sources like you’re talking about. You know that you grew up around alligators and sharks and encountered Grizzlies, but there’s a lot of reasons to be fearful as a man of color.

And for you the fear of being eaten almost metaphorically feels like being attacked by society or arrested or the target of biased criminal justice. Tell me about that.

Adam Edwards: So I wrote about the same overriding fear that I experience when I’m hanging out in a country that has big predators. It’s a very similar feeling and stress to how I feel when I’m interacting with police in a non-expected way.

Like I’m hyper-aware of police. Like when I’m driving, like if I see a car that looks like a cop car like, I’m watching it. And I drive very legally. I drive the speed limit, So it’s kind of like, I often feel ridiculous when I’m doing that. But it comes out of watching my father, a pastor, be arrested for nothing more than one occasion, being harassed by police. Our family experienced that a lot for a large period of my life, it’s…it’s not a trusted authoritative entity.

One of those things where it doesn’t matter, really how good the human being I’m seeing in that uniform is. It’s my association with it, it is like basically you are a threat, but you’re a threat I can’t react to. Which makes it even worse. With the animal you can kind of deal with it. You know you can fight it off, you can scare it off, you can avoid it very easily by doing any number of things, but for me that anxiety with authority, with law enforcement is…cannot do anything and if they do come for you, it’s worse if you do anything because you’re always in the wrong no matter what’s happening.

Dacher Keltner: You know my colleague Rudy Mendoza-Denton here at Berkeley has taken this fear literature and we think classically, of well, I fear snakes or spiders or bears or the dark. And then it became the social anxiety, of well, I fear being judged or giving public speeches. Now he, is talking about given histories and legacies of race and class that people of color and people of lower class backgrounds will fear institutions, like the institution of police, right? And he studies how when students of color go to largely wealthy white universities it’s the whole place, it feels foreboding or threatening in some ways. So it’s interesting to hear you talk about that. It points to a really active area of inquiry scientifically.

Whenever I teach human happiness I always end with the challenges that our culture faces at this moment and I really liked your phrase, positive stress. And I just want to say thanks Adam for the work you’re doing at Melanin Base camp and expanding accessibility to the outdoors for people of color. It’s one of those developments that gives me hope. So thanks.

Adam Edwards: No problem. Thanks for having me on, man.

Dacher Keltner: So one of the things that we learned from Adam Edwards and he faced this fear of public speaking, which, you know, some survey data suggests is the second most common fear that Americans have right behind dying. It’s a very common fear and a very powerful one, is in his practice he faced it by a process of exposure and desensitization, where he thought about it, and then he practiced it, and he worked out what he’s going to say, and delivered some text. And at the core of these facing fear practices is awareness. It’s this power of the conscious mind making sense of the fear and labeling it. And then you learn gradually how to handle it. For people who’ve really suffered from anxiety like I have, there is this magical power of awareness of your fear with language.

And at the core of these facing fear practices is awareness. It’s this power of the conscious mind making sense of the fear and labeling it. And then you learn gradually how to handle it.

And one of my favorite studies that that brings the power of awareness it’s right at the heart of facing fears into focus is an early study by a couple of neuroscientists down at UCLA, Matt Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger.

They presented people with images of really angry faces and we know that when you see an angry face, you become a little bit stressed. That’s just our evolutionary response to an anger face, right? You show elevated stress related heart rate, increase skin conductance response, your body’s in a fight or flight state. So they present this anger face and in fact that activates in an FMRI scanner, increased activation in the amygdala which is what people think of as kind of a threat or fear region of the brain. But then what they did is they really started to make people use language to label their feelings. So in one condition they just had them label the expression, right? Hey, that’s an anger expression. And then he compared the activation to another condition in which they matched an anger face to the face that had generated the fear response in the first place. So in one condition you’re using language to label the fear, what makes you afraid. And the other condition you’re doing this control task. And what they found, which is really elegant, is that simply labeling the source of your fear with a word, reduce activation in the amygdala, and that it increases activation in this region of your prefrontal cortex, the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in language and representation of stress, and really finding perspective upon your feelings.

So what this really elegant study shows is just by simply labeling your fears by being aware of them, you show reduced activation in the brain regions that produce fear. And it helps us understand why language and labeling is so important to facing fears.

So this study is really focusing on just using words to label negative emotions right? Like what produces fear or what makes you sad? But really when we cast the net more broadly, using language to represent our experiences is part of telling stories about life, telling stories about the deeper meanings in our life. It’s about gaining perspective upon current momentary struggles and we know these broader practices of narrating our experience, gaining perspective, taking third person perspective upon, say a conflict you’re having with a romantic partner. All of these are forms of using language to represent stress, and conflict, and anger, and joy, and finding the deeper meaning underlying those experiences which is, I think, one of the most powerful ways that we find happiness.

If you would like to try the Overcoming a Fear practice, or other practices like it, go to our website Greater Good in Action.

I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.

Produced by the Greater Good Science Center and PRI. Episode 14 of the Science of Happiness Podcast by the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Adam Edwards in conversation with Dacher Keltner.