Fear is a choice,” said Mike Tindall, rugby player turned part-time Zen master. The utterance came on Sunday night’s edition of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, a series that, for the public’s amusement, inflicts fear-inducing activities on celebrities and Matt Hancock.
Tindall, a Rugby World Cup winner and a royal by marriage, proved his point by good-naturedly volunteering to carry out his three-person team’s first task: leaping into a lake to complete a challenge from within an upturned boat. (His rationale for taking this rather slimy bullet was that “I’m the one without hair”.)
This being Australia, the upturned boat was full of spiders, several of which descended onto Tindall’s scalp. “There’s a s***load of spiders,” he reported to his teammates, before carrying on regardless. The teammates, soap actors Sue Cleaver and Owen Warner, were rather more squeamish when forced to face grotesque challenges of their own. Tindall, 44, was relaxed, mirthful and encouraging throughout: Buddha with a broken nose.
Tindall’s line about fear might sound familiar. It has been attributed to, among others, Will Smith, whose fearlessness extends to his having walked onto the Oscars stage earlier this year to punch Chris Rock. Perhaps there is such a thing as an excess of fearlessness; but perhaps there is also something we can learn from Tindall, assuming he doesn’t eventually lose his temper and punch Ant and Dec.
So: is fear a choice? On some occasions, we administer it to ourselves in controlled doses. This phenomenon suggests that fear can – at least sometimes – be a choice. It goes some way to explaining why I’m a Celebrity… has lasted 20 years. Paul Wright, of the PhobiaGone clinic, is a hypnotherapist specialising in treating phobias, and watched the programme last night. “For many people,” he explains, “it’s fun to experience the feelings of fear and adrenaline in a safe, controlled environment. People react to what they’re seeing because of mirror neurons.”
Mirror neurons, he explains, are “a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action or when we observe someone else performing an action. In other words, we feel what we see. It’s the same reason people watch horror movies and go on funfair rides and rollercoasters. The experience of fear and adrenaline can be fun in short bursts and when you know it’s going to stop.”
Those with genuine phobias, however, will not tease themselves in this way. So someone with a phobia of spiders, Wright says, would not be likely to want to watch the scene of Tindall in an upturned boat. “I see people with fear of needles, fear of vomiting,” he says, “and they can’t watch programmes like Casualty.”
For someone with a genuine fear of spiders, says Wright, “even though, intellectually, they know the spider is on the telly, the fear has become a learned reflex response. That feeling is part of our natural evolutionary process for the survival of the species, and it’s the same one I see in people who fear flying.”
“Intellectually,” he says of those with aerophobia, “they know that flying is statistically the safest form of transport. But the fear isn’t operating at a rational, cognitive level. It’s an unconscious reflex response that has been learned. And when someone has that feeling of fear, terror, to whatever degree it is, the natural response is just an overwhelming need to get away from the situation.”
That feeling goes far beyond the titillation of enjoyable second-hand fear. It is a sensation few would opt into, and it is not the kind of fear that we could realistically describe as a choice. In the long-term, people can address their phobias with therapy, but in the short-term, their adrenal response will kick in before the logical parts of their brain can catch up. The fight-or-flight reflex, says Wright, “starts shutting down cognitive, logical processes. The frontal lobe starts going offline, which is why people find it harder to think – the body is resorting to escape and evasion methods.”
The long-term approach used by therapists like Wright is to create a new “learning association”, coaxing the brain into associating the stimulus not with fear, but with calm. This can involve using cognitive behavioural therapy to prevent oneself from dwelling on whatever episode caused the phobia in the first place.
As for the short-term, Wright says, “you can consciously breathe slower, and breathe deeper. You can consciously think of things which make your heart rate go faster, because you’re excited or scared. You can also consciously think of things which calm you down, and which would make your heart rate go slower.”
Know this, and there might be an extent to which you can opt out of fear – or at least attempt to opt out. Someone like Tindall, says Wright, will have had years of practice. As a sportsman, he has successfully overcome the pressure of playing in a World Cup final; as the husband of Zara Tindall (nee Phillips), who is the King’s niece, he has had to navigate high-pressure situations of a wholly different kind.
“Given who he’s married to, and his career as a rugby player, he has been in many adrenaline-fuelled situations, either through fear or stress, or just the nature of the event. I would be very surprised if he doesn’t experience adrenaline in those situations. He’s just learned to deal with it differently. He’s learnt to accept that in certain situations, of course there’s going to be a natural feeling of ‘I don’t like this’, or the feeling of adrenaline. But for him, it’s manageable. And that’s where the choice comes in.”
Wright says he sees the same resilience in his highest-profile clients. “If you speak to them before the TV programme goes live, when they’re in the green room, and then on the studio floor, their adrenaline is pumping through their system. But they’ve learned how to utilise that, and they know that without it, they wouldn’t be as charismatic, they wouldn’t be able to do their job as well, because they’ve got to listen to the director talking to them in their ear, while interacting with people on the programme.”
A small number of people don’t feel this kind of fear, says Wright. But lack of fear doesn’t necessarily make their lives better; instead, it can inhibit their ability to make quick decisions. The vast majority of us feel fear to some level or another. “It’s a bit like pain. Some people are more aware of it and react to it more strongly than others.”
What of the poor unfortunates who, like Tindall, are in the I’m a Celebrity camp, but who, unlike Tindall, don’t have years of practice in facing fear-inducing situations? People who have phobias of spiders, of worms, of Covid-era politicians? “If it was me there with them, there’s loads we could do,” says Wright. “But then the programme wouldn’t be as interesting for the audience if the contestants would go” – and he puts on a calm voice – “‘Oh, yes, look, there’s a load of spiders crawling around me, and they’re not particularly pleasant.’ Part of the show is having people go” – he affects a squeal – “‘Ah, ah, ah!’, and all that stuff.”
If all the contestants were like Tindall, the I’m a Celebrity… producers would keep pushing them, inflicting more and more awful challenges on them, until they began evincing enough fear to gratify the viewing public. Tindall was right: the contestants’ fear is a choice. It is their choice for opting in, but it is also the public’s choice. We are emperors at the Colosseum; we are guards at the Stanford prison experiment. One can only hope Matt Hancock makes it out of the jungle unscathed.
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