TEDx Myth of Fearlessness

What are the stages/steps of the fear response?

What actionable steps are you giving the audience? How are you modeling this in the talk?


Roughly 16 mins 33 seconds.



-Introduce Fear by getting people to think about their biggest fear

Why: to bring fear to the forefront of their minds


I would like everyone to take a moment , close your eyes, and think about the one thing that scares you the most: (pause and breathe!).


Is it death? Poverty? Spiders? One of my biggest fears… (TEDx Imperial Slide image – Pause for laughter)


Actually, there are a lot of things I’m afraid of. Some of them real, some are totally just made up in my head.


But let me start with a story that includes both.


It was the summer of 2004. Wow that sounds like a really long time ago….

I was doing my masters research in the high desert of north eastern corner of California called the Warner Mountains. My study site was an 8 hour drive from where I lived, which meant I had to collect field data by myself a lot. One day, while checking my live traps, I hear this *pop pop pop {act it out}.


Instinct told me to hit the deck so I immediately drop down to the ground as flat as I can. I’m dressed in all gray, in a field of soft, gray sagebrush scrub, and it’s hunting season. Maybe not the best life choices.


Terror begins to set in as my body prepares itself for fight or flight. Scooting across the dirt, I turn my face away from the sage bush I’m nestled under to find a huge fire ant hill just a few feet away.


At this point, I have to decided which fear to give into. The very real, in my literal face, fear of stinging red fire ants or the perceived fear of the kind of people the hunters would be.


With the fire ants, I knew what I would get. It wouldn’t kill me, but it wouldn't be pleasant.


With my perceived unknown fear of the hunters, I didn’t know.


Maybe they were shooting at me by accident because they didn't see me.


Maybe they were shooting at me because they did.


What would happen if they found me? What would they do?


With the roar of the ATV engines echoing through the plateau, I had to decide- which was I more afraid of? The real threat in front of me or the possible perceived threat of the unknown.



[pause here ]



-Fear is natural and inescapable

Why: to show people that fear keeps us alive and is an essential, non-negotiable part of our evolution and physiology, but it can also keep us from success. We all have fears but rarely do we talk about them with each other.


Fear is real and it is part of the human condition. The fear response is both psychological and physiological, but the trigger for that fear response can vary widely from immediate bodily danger to completely imagined fears.

Fear is a complex response system that includes dozens of hormones, including epinephrine and norepinephrine, and multiple parts of the brain including the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and the sensory cortex.


Now what I find even more interesting is that once we have our fear triggered, two paths are used to generate a response: the slow path and the fast path. Both of these happen at the same time. The fast path produces quick reaction to the trigger, but its so quick that it isn’t always the best assessment of the situation. The slow path, which includes the sensory cortex, takes more time but is more thoughtful and takes into account all the information available, not just our instincts. [remake fast path/slow path as an original diagram].


To illustrate, let’s go back to my story in the Warner Mountains. The fast fear path had me dropping to the ground and hiding under a sage bush while kicking my fight or flight response into high gear.


In that moment, my breathing (do breathing thing) became faster and more ragged, and my heart began to pound as blood was diverted to my muscles, that were tense and ready for action.


Snuggled there, under the sage bush, my slow fear path began to analyze all the information I had and this is when my mind started to create all the possible scenarios based on a lifetime of scary movies and news reports.


I looked over at the fire ants… just two feet away… and decided to stay.


I stayed hidden because my slow fear path decided that the reality of being stung by fire ants was better than the imagined possible stories about what the unknown hunters would do if they found me.


In that moment, I chose perceived fear over reality.

We will never get rid of our fear response, it helps to keeps us alive, but it can also keep us trapped in a cage of our own creation. [slide with quote?]


And I want to really focus in on one word: creation.


Stories are the creations of our imaginations and stories have power. They have the power to make us laugh, to make us cry, to make us fall in love.


And stories have the power to terrify us. This is why we watch scary movies, right?


But if you think about it, so many of our fears are rooted in the stories we tell ourselves. These stories, created by our imaginations, usually live in a future that may or may not ever happen. Yet, to our brains and our bodies, they can feel so real that we don’t take that new job, or ask that cute person out, or say yes to giving that talk in front of hundreds of strangers.


But if we write the stories, we can also change them. Making the goal not to loose our fear by becoming fear-less, but to reframe our fears and rewrite our stories. 




-Most of us were never taught how to deal with our fears?

Why: To show that its OK that as adults we all still struggle with our fears.


I am just so in love with this concept of rewriting our stories, especially those we’ve had most of our lives.


When I was thinking about this talk, as a classically trained scientist, I really struggled with putting my personal story into this. As a lecturer, it is so much more comfortable to just lecture at you! To throw facts and figures and science your way, but if we have learned anything from our current post-truth anti-expert situation is that doing that just doesn't work. So in this talk today, I decided to rewrite my story about what a scientist is and who they can be.


You see, I’m from a family of secret keepers. I was taught to bury stuff and pretty much ignore my emotions, especially fear. I think part of the reason I was so drawn to science was that it felt great to be in an discipline where we were taught to remove ourselves and remove our humanity from the research and from the data. Where emotions were a liability, so it was better to just not have any.  


If you’re like me, we were never taught how to recognize or deal with our fears unless they escalated into illness. Our education system is focused on teaching reading, writing, math and sciences. And although health education standards do exist for primary and secondary schools, they generally focus on physical health things like diet and exercise. Even when emotional health is part of the curriculum it usually tackles things like self-esteem, stress management, and conflict. Although there are a few progressive exceptions out there, its definitely not the norm. [Anxiety stat of kids?]

Personally, I didn’t really even think about fear, beyond just feeling it, until my 30s when I became fascinated by it.

During my research, I would constantly come across the mantras of “fight the fear”, “Conquer your fears” “Become fearless” …which as a biologist I knew were ridiculous slogans because unless you have severe brain damage to, let’s say, your amygdala, it is biologically impossible for you to be fearless. Telling someone to “be fearless” [fist raised to the sky], is about as helpful as telling someone who is dieting to just “be hunger-less” [same motion]

So we move out of childhood, pretty much unprepared to deal with the fear saturated culture we live in as adults and can easily be swept away by the tidal wave of fear messaging we receive everyday.

Now, I am not talking about real, in your face, actual threats to your survival. No amount of reframing is going to allow you to jump off Queens tower unscathed. I’m also not talking about those fears that are born out of phobias and mental health challenges. The fears I’m talking about today are the ones that may be rooted in some form of reality, but mostly live in a future that may not ever exist.


In order to better adapt our ancient fear responses for modern life, we need to get curious about where these fears are coming from then get creative about how we can reframe them to better suit our modern lives, and finally get committed to practicing reframing so it becomes second nature. 



-Where do the stories come from?

Why: Media, Leaders, Upbringing


When we get curious about our fear narratives, we find that they don't always come from us. We actually get a ton of our fear stories from the media, our leaders, and our friends and family.

And that’s important to think about because fear is at the root of many of our world’s problems.


Fear of scarcity leads to overconsumption of resources.


Fear of failure stops us from taking risks and creating new solutions


and most dangerously, fear leads to political instability and violence.


Our world is saturated with messages of fear because they grab our attention, persuade us to think and act in a particular way, and they get us to buy stuff.


Fear is a great persuasive tool which is why it appears throughout marketing theory literature as “fear appeal”.

Fear appeal has 3 parts: a threat, the firing up of the biological fear response, and a person’s perception of how well they think they can respond to that threat [slide?].


For example, the desire to fit in with the tribe is an evolutionary adaptation for survival. Before we had the very recent ability to just pay someone to get food and shelter, if we were rejected from our tribe, we would most likely die! so there is a huge psychological motivation to belong and a deep seated fear of social rejection.


The fear appeal can tap into that by framing a product, like a beer or a luxury handbag, as something that will help you better belong in society or advance your social status in the tribe. Let’s face it, it feels good to be accepted, even envied, and that’s not an accident because that acceptance helped to ensure our biological survival, but is no longer necessary in our modern world.


Fear can be a powerful motivator for political leaders as well. State of emergencies get more attention and the public is more likely to react to an immediate threat, especially if that threat can be spun into a story with a clear hero and evil villain.

Yet the most powerful stories aren’t the ones from the media or our leaders. They are the ones we tell ourselves. Many of which we have been telling ourselves for our entire lives.




-When fear brought me to my knees and changed my life

Why: because this is what I did and I want to model it for you.


Like I said before, I’m from a family of secret keepers and although we’re not English we do stiff upper lip really well.

For most of my life I thought stuffing and ignoring were just fine. Until a Midnight in March 2014, when I was standing alone with an emergency room doctor.

You see at this point, it had been two years of being in and out of hospitals as the primary, and really only, caretaker for my mom.

I felt enslaved by the level of care she needed and would continue to need until who knows when and I feared it would never end.

In those two years, I lost ownership of my time and my life.

That night was just another inconvenience. Or so I thought.

There I stood in the emergency room, minutes past midnight, speaking to a doctor I had just met who was asking me to make a decision no one should have to make: whether to let my mom live on life support or let her die naturally.

We had never talked about this, remember = family of secrets. So I didn't know what she actually wanted.

Fear swept through the top of my head, through my heart, and past my feet. Fear about everything.

Fear of loss, fear of death

I had never even been around anyone who had died before.

I was most especially afraid of making the wrong decision.

Both choices were caged in fear of the unknown.

If I said, yes, keep her alive with modern technology I was only prolonging the inevitable and prolonging her suffering.

If I said no… did that make me a bad person? a bad daughter?

The doctor needed an answer, but my mind couldn't even fathom making a decision like that for someone else.

Then something clicked and my science training kicked in.

When you’re faced with an insolvable problem in science, you try and look at in from a different angle. With a different lens. And in that moment, I reframed the question from, “Do you want your mother to die?” to “What would you want, if it was you?”

Once, I did that. The answer couldn't have been easier.

I would want an end to suffering. I would want an end to the pain and a life I could no longer enjoy.

That moment freed me to say what I needed to say to the doctor. To tell her I was going to take my mom home one last time, to die in peace, in her own bed, in her own pajamas, surrounded by love.

The way I would want to die.



- Why Fear is a good thing.

Why: fear can be a tool for opportunity instead of obstacle if we rewrite the stories we are telling ourselves around our fears.


But just like a lot of things in life, it doesn't always happen like it does in the movies. I took her home and a natural death for her took almost a week. During that week, I got to wrestle with all those fears over and over again.


At the end of that long week, as I held her hand for her last breathe, I made a vow. Not to make her proud or do right by the family name, but I made a vow not to live my life immersed in fear like she had.


I vowed to live my life in curiosity about fear and let fear lead me to places I never knew existed.


Fear can help us find our boundaries and know where to gently push, if we start seeing them as an opportunity instead of an obstacle.




- How do you feel fear?

Why: To check in with the visceral feeling of fear. Bring the fear to their bodies, to feel the fear.


Now, think back to that thing you were most afraid of earlier. Close your eyes and imagine it happening.


How does your body feel right now as you imagine your greatest fear?


For me: my chest gets tight and my breath becomes (deep inhale) really short and I start to bunch up my shoulders.


If it's a really big fear, like there in the hospital, I feel a wave of tingles wash over me from my head to my toes.




-What do you do in fear?

Why: Think about your own habits around fear


Now I want you to think about what usually do when fear starts to take over?


Most of us probably have pretty similar reactions, in fact, one study found that students had one of four strategies to manage the discomfort that naturally comes along with the fear of failure. Now, this study specifically looked at the student’s fear of failure, not actual failure. Students either coped with the discomfort by putting it off until later, slightly moving away from it by scaling back, avoiding it completely, or reframing it.  [slide?]

Which one is your favorite go-to?

Me? Ooh… I am definitely an avoider at heart. I will avoid and ignore and pretend it is not even there until I have absolutely no choice left but to face it.

But the problem is, just because I avoid it, doesn't make it disappear.


-How we can make fear work for us: Rewrite & Reframe 

Why: How you can rewrite and reframe your fears


How we think about fear matters.


Reframing will be unique to each of us, and sometimes these rewrites take time and many, many, many drafts, but it can be done.


One of my favorite ways to rewrite is when I feel like my fear story is taking over and my anxiety begins to skyrocket, I try and pause and play a game called, “and then what?” by imagining the worst possible scenario that could actually happen and answer for myself, “And then what would happen?”



Last week, as my own fear of failure began to spiral out of control while preparing for this talk, I asked myself, what’s the worst that could possibly happen?


I get on stage and make a total fool of myself.


Ok…“and then what?” People in the audience think poorly of me.


OK…“and then what?” they leave TEDx thinking I’m the worst speaker ever.


OK…“and then what” they most likely forget about the talk by the time they get to the front door.


OK…“and then what?” I feel like a failure, but I’m still alive, I still have my career, I still have food, water, shelter, and family, and I roll around in self loathing for a while and move on.


When rewritten this way, I have just dramatically decreased the stakes in my mind.


Of course, I want to do well, but fear and anxiety won’t get me there. In fact, fear and anxiety make it harder to do well because our brain has trouble focusing on anything but the threat. So when I remove the perceived life or death stakes through my reframe, I can start focusing on what’s actually important – taking those steps to get where I want to go. 




The part of the biological fear response we have the most control over is the story we tell ourselves. Since fearlessness doesn't exist, it's a lot easier to intentionally rewrite your fear story to support you, instead of stop you.

Now, just as a reminder - this is not about abolishing your fears of running into traffic because fear keeps us alive.


But let’s start reframing the bigger fears, the ones that are keeping us from taking the good risks that will allow us the most growth and success.


In fact [with energy – likes it's the first time you had this idea] let’s start right now.


One of our shared fears as humans is the fear of rejection which is why we usually hate talking to strangers.


So let’s face this fear together and reframe it as an opportunity instead of an obstacle, right now.


One last time, Think back to that big fear you had at the start of our talk, can you put it into one or two words?






Now… look around and introduce yourself to someone you don't know and tell them your fear.


I know, I know – I’m the worst.


But reframing our fears means we get curious about them, then get creative about how to reframe them and then get committed to practicing that reframing. So let’s practice together now. [slide]





-Share their fear with a stranger

Why: to actively reframe the way we experience and deal with our fears. To openly share with a stranger, to feel supported




How was that? Did it feel weird? Did it feel liberating? Did you find someone with the same fears as you?


[slide] I bet many of you had one of these top 13 fears. I find it hilarious that Gallop, the organization that gathered this data, decided to publish the top 13 since there is an actual phobia of the number 13.




But I’m so proud of us because today we got curious about our fears by bringing them into the forefront of our minds, thinking about the way they make our bodies feel and what we usually do when we are feeling fear.


Now that we recognize that we share so many of the same fears and a lot of those fears are being messaged to us from outside sources, we can get even more creative about how we acknowledge and share with the supportive people around us. Even the act of what we just did, sharing our deepest, darkest fear with a total stranger in the light of day, is committing an act of courageous reframing.


Our fears live in the future and the future is not this inevitable destination, it is a place we all have the power to create and the best time to work on your fear stories are before that spider is in the corner of your room… right above the bed… because where else would he be? Right?


Each one of us has the power to choose a different narrative. To make sure we’re the deliberate author, not just the reader of our fear stories.


Fighting and Struggling to be Fearless is exhausting, so instead let’s reframe…because we are always just one rewrite away from changing our lives.


Thank you

Mary poffenroth TEDx Myth of Fearlessness

Available for corporate speaker, keynote speaker, college speaking and university speaking

Los Angeles | San Jose | London 

  • LinkedIn for Mary Poffenroth
  • Instagram for Mary Poffenroth
  • YouTube for Mary Poffenroth
  • Twitter for Mary Poffenroth