As warm blood spattered all over us, I screamed….actually it was water, but that didn’t stop me being so scared that my heart was nearly beating out of my chest. Against my better judgement, my daughter had persuaded me onto the Psycho Hotel ride at the Prater Amusement Park, in Vienna. I don’t like rides at the best of times, and I’m a complete wuss about horror, but I decided to do it anyway. I came off the ride shaking but exhilarated.

Do one thing that scares you every day.

Apparently Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t actually say ‘do one thing that scares you every day’, as is often said, but nevertheless it’s a great rule to follow. You don’t need to go on a fairground ride, or jump out of a plane, but it is a good idea to push yourself out of your comfort zone regularly.

The human brain, particularly the amygdala, or the most primitive part of the brain, is designed to keep you safe. This sounds like a good thing, and obviously, sometimes it is.

However, the fact that the amygdala is always on the lookout for danger, means that it will prioritise protecting you over almost anything else: learning something new, experiencing something amazing, getting a great opportunity, meeting other people. The amygdala would really just like you to stay put in a nice safe dark cave.

Exposure therapy

The more you listen to its urgings to avoid all risk, the narrower and darker your life will become. There is plenty of evidence that the most effective way to deal with our fears and anxieties is by exposing ourselves to what we fear. You can start off with small steps, but the more you confront your fears, the smaller they become; whereas the more you allow your fears to prevent you from doing things, the bigger and more real those fears seem to be. In effect, you are training your brain to believe that the amygdala was absolutely right to protect you from whatever was making you anxious. The neural pathways that reinforce your fear will become a four lane motorway.

For this reason, it is important to keep stretching yourself and keeping all those possibilities open. Maybe it’s less about leaving your comfort zone and more about expanding it. You need to take calculated risks and do things that scare you, so that you know just what you’re capable of, and to build up different and more helpful neural pathways instead. Sometimes those risks won’t work out, but that’s fine, as long as you don’t let your amygdala conclude that you should learn never to take a risk again. Instead, just learn from the experience, and get ready for the next adventure.