Fear is conquered by acting and not by talking about it. This does not mean that it is wise to just ignore or oppose your fears. It does mean that fear only disappears by experiencing that this fear is unjustified, namely by observing that what you fear is not happening. This finding is an important merit of behavioral therapy, a form of therapy that is particularly effective in the treatment of phobias. A phobia is an excessive fear of a particular object (a spider, dog, blood, injection needle, …) or situation (closed spaces, open spaces, driving a car, …). In its extreme form, fear for cycling is also a phobia. A common behavioral treatment of a phobia is exposure. Exposure is always gradual: the therapist maps out a path in which each step generates only a little bit more fear than the previous step. For example, for someone with fear of cycling, these steps could differ from each other in terms of location (a large car park, a free-standing cycle path, a roadway, in the middle of the city) and the number and type of fellow road users (e.g., motorised or not).
Gradual exposure is effective because the amygdala learns from experience: the amygdale not only learns that certain situations are associated with a painful experience, but also that at some point this is no longer the case. This learning process within the amygdala involves that existing neuronal connections weaken as a result of the association between the fear-triggering stimulus and a neutral or positive experience. As a result, the amygdala sends a much weaker signal to the periaquaductal gray, and the usual stiffening no longer occurs, or much less. This whole process is called extinction, and it is the ideal way to break the vicious circle between fear and stiffening (fear → stiffening → less precise movements → fear).
Most victories on our fears begin with the realisation that those fears are unreasonable. Then, unlike lower animal species, we can use a well-developed prefrontal cortex that allows us to plan. Just like motor preparation, plans are also a form of delayed movement. The plan with which we overcome our fears consists of a series of steps with which one gradually exposes oneself more and more to the fear-triggering stimuli. Apart from planning, the prefrontal cortex can also control those areas of the brain that can throw a spanner in the works: (1) the amygdala, which is programmed to detect dangerous situations, and (2) the periaquaductal gray, which converts the signal from the amygdala in a global stiffening. The prefrontal cortex has direct neuronal connections with the amygdala and the periaquaductal gray. Thanks to these connections, the prefrontal cortex can prevent the amygdala from rushing to conclusions and the periaquaductal gray from reacting too quickly.