One Year No Beer Podcast Episode 088 – Fear is Fuel with Patrick Sweeney
Patrick Sweeney is an entrepreneur, an adventurer, and an author. He’s also known as the “Fear Guru”. In the current climate, many people are experiencing even more fear than they normally do, so today’s interview with Patrick may be helpful for people who are looking to overcome or control their own feelings of fear.
In today’s interview, Patrick speaks about the neuroscience of fear. What is fear for? Why do we feel it? Why do we need it, and how can we keep it from controlling us. Patrick explains how fear can be leveraged as the fuel that drives you to your peak performance.
“The first thing that everyone should know out there is that our brains were designed to adapt.”
He discusses how the brain works as a prediction engine, and why being unable to predict an outcome causes feelings of fear and anxiety. He also discusses the different types of fear and what they mean. And Patrick also explains the relationship between fear and alcohol or the decision to give up alcohol.
Patrick also talks about how parents should talk to their children about fear. He discusses the importance of teaching children not to be victims, and how parents can teach children to take control of their own lives and to see themselves as creators, not victims.
Toward the close of the interview, Patrick discusses his backup plans – what he might have ended up doing with his life if his current occupation didn’t work out. And he also shares some helpful encouragement and wisdom for audience members who may currently be struggling with fear.
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Jen: Hi guys, it’s Jen here on the One Year No Beer podcast. Our guest today, Patrick Sweeney, is an expert in the subject of fear, hence the nickname—the Fear Guru. He teaches audiences how to break through their limits. Some fears you can face head-on, and some show up unexpectedly to shake you to the core.
When Patrick was told he had leukemia, he faced fear head-on and learned the biggest life secrets to success. Now he inspires audiences with a neuroscience of fear and how it can be a competitive advantage. He shows why we need to find more fear in our life and it’s fascinating.
In 2018, Patrick won the world’s toughest bicycle race—the Race Across America—almost 20 years after he finished 2nd place in the Olympic Rowing Trials. He founded four tech companies while creating eight patents and raising almost $50 million.
Patrick has leveraged fear as fuel for peak performance, as well as creating an inspiring life of passion, happiness, and fulfillment. He has also written a book, Fear is Fuel, and it was released early February this year. It’s already made its number five on the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list.
I think you’re all going to like this one. Without further ado, Patrick Sweeney. Welcome, Patrick Sweeney.
Patrick: Jen, great to see you. It’s been since Tahoe since we’ve seen each other.
Jen: It has been Tahoe.
Patrick: Great to see you.
Jen: It’s so good to see you. Thank you so much for coming on to our podcast. I have been thinking about you a lot recently because you are also known as the Fear Guru. We are living in times these days where there’s a lot of fear. Right now, we’re living in the world of coronavirus. We thought what better person to get on to our podcast, give us some insight into all of these than the man himself, the Fear Guru. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. We have so many questions for you. I’m going to pick your brain, but I also want to let you lead a little bit because we live in times for fear now. It’s unprecedented what’s going on right now.
Patrick: You know, Jen, it’s really interesting from a neurological perspective what’s happening as well. We can get into talking about it, it’s such a great opportunity. That’s the first piece of advice or information that I want everyone—thank you all for tuning in and taking the time out of your busy day, but this is a great opportunity. It may not seem like it and it definitely may not feel like it, but I can guarantee you it is. If I can share some of the neuroscience—I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist but the six years that I’ve spent researching for my book—Fear is Fuel—has allowed me to sit in labs with three dozen of the world’s top neuroscientists, and I learned a lot. I’m really pleased to be able to share that with the whole audience, Jen.
Jen: That’s amazing. This is what we need right now. What we get at home right now—because we are locked in our homes, locked in our confined little spaces and all we have is what, our phones, our tablets, our TVs. The information that we get about the coronavirus is unprecedented fire stoked by the media.
Patrick: I’ll give you the quick version of what’s happening with our brain because that’s so important. The first thing that everyone should know out there is our brains were designed to adapt, so they’ve adapted to adapt. Our brain has evolved to evolve, so we can change. We’ve got something called neuroplasticity which means our brains can change at any age. We can go from being a complete coward to having courage as your superpower, which is what happened to me because of leukemia and some other things. We can go from being really sad and angry to being happy and fulfilled.
All these things can change. You have to believe that, and you have to be willing to investigate that. That’s the first step in this because what’s happening now is everything that you’ve done in the past that’s been useful, your brain retains. Those are called our prior beliefs. They get stored in our subconscious database, and they’re used primarily for one thing, and that’s to predict outcomes because our brain is one big prediction engine.
When we get into a scenario, we try to predict the outcome. When we walk in the house and we go to flip the switch on the wall, we’ve already predicted that there’s a 95% chance the light will come on, there’s a 5% chance it won’t. If it doesn’t come on then we’ve predicted there’s an 80% chance the bulb is broken, or there is a 20% chance the circuit breaker is gone.
We’re constantly doing these predictions. What happens though is when we can’t predict an outcome. That means something is novel, and you’ve heard novel coronavirus, right? Novel just means new and unknown, but what that means from a neurological perspective is we can’t make a prediction. It’ll be like unscrewing that lightbulb and a snake dropping out. You’d all of a sudden be terrified because you didn’t predict that outcome, and that’s where fear comes from.
Your body produces what’s called free energy when you can’t predict an outcome because your prior beliefs don’t have that in your category. That’s what’s happening across the world now. It’s all this fear and anxiety that people are feeling. It’s because we can’t predict an outcome. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
Jen: One thing I’m very curious about is that can we pass fear from one person to another? If you see what I mean?
Patrick: Totally contagious, yeah.
Jen: Fear is contagious.
Patrick: Fear is way contagious than the coronavirus. I guarantee you that.
Jen: Even when I was pretty chilled out and then you leave. I went to the supermarket yesterday and I can feel how people were fearful. I felt—after a while—I was also fearful. I was wearing a scarf because it was cold, but the next thing you know I was pushing it up to my face because everyone else was doing it. It is contagious.
Patrick: It’s definitely contagious and it’s contagious from a physiological perspective. When we get scared, our body produces a fear cocktail. We produce cortisol, and dopamine, and DHEA. When we feel afraid, when we feel our heart pounding, our butterflies in our stomach, we all have certain things. I call those in the book fear tells. Once you find out what your tells are, you know when your fear center—the limbic system, there’s the little gland at the base of our brain called the amygdala.
The amygdala handles the fight, flight, or freeze response. That’s all it does. The really messed up thing, Jen, is it’s running a 2 million-year-old piece of software. That used to be our early warning system for survival. If something rustled in the leaves and it might be a saber tooth tiger, we’d run. Collectively, when we produce these enzymes and hormones that make that feeling of fear, that our brain often interprets as fear because we’re running that 2 million-year-old piece of software, then we also can pick up when other people are secreting those same things.
You’ve heard in movies or books the smell of fear. There’s literally smell, or sense, and also wireless communication in brain waves that we can feel from other people. It’s definitely contagious. On the same hand, so is courage. Most people know that we’ve got the center for fear called the amygdala. A lot of people have probably heard of that gland—the amygdala—because it handles the fight, flight, or freeze response.
We also have a center of courage—which almost nobody has heard of—called the sgACC, subgenual anterior cingulate cortex—which is probably why no one has heard of it because it’s too hard to say.
Jen: They could’ve made it easier for us to remember.
Patrick: Exactly. The sgACC is the center of courage, but here’s the really messed up thing that happens with people’s lives. This has to do with fear, it has to do with addiction, it has to do with depression as well. When we were born—actually, before we were born, in the third trimester, the amygdala—that fear gland—is fully developed. When we come out of the womb, we have the ability to fight, flight, or freeze. We’ve got the survival instinct—that early warning systems—built-in. That's how we’ve evolved.
That is our only defense until we’re probably in our mid to late teens. For the first 15-20 years of our life, we defaulted to a defense and that is fight, flight, or freeze. It’s not until our early 20s that we fully developed the prefrontal cortex. It starts developing when we were teens, but it doesn’t finish until we’re in our early 20s, and that’s where the courage center is. Let’s say for 18 years, we’ve defaulted to defense. The habit we have—what we’ve been trained to do—is a fear response when anything goes wrong. It takes a lot of work to train that courage center to activate instead of that.
Once you do it, it’s like walking a path in the snow. The first time you’re postholing, it’s tough. The next time you’re following someone’s footsteps. The next time it’s kind of more and more, and eventually, those neurons that you fire together will end up wiring together. Courage is something that you could practice and becomes easier and easier, and it’s also something that’s contagious as well.
Jen: That’s the one we need to be focusing on. That’s pretty interesting. This is amazing, you’re blowing my mind right now. I never thought of that as something that we actually have to practice and be courageous. Especially in times like this, if you feel a little bit courageous, we should really try and just get that out there.
Patrick: Because we default to defense, our default is fear. It’s just like you said when you’re out for a run and you wave at people and they’re doing that. The default is to defense, but all the potential is in the present. The potential for happiness, for success, to live this great life, to have amazing relationships comes from being present, and being courageous, and being vulnerable. Part of that is how we create memories, and part of that is just understanding.
When we feel those fear changes, those fear tells—as I call them in the book—then we’ve got to figure out, “Is there a real threat,” first of all, and 99% of the time the answer is no in the modern world. The biggest threats that we have tend to be emotional fears. We have three types of fears. We have physical fears, we have emotional fears, and we have instinctual fears.
Physical fears is like falling off a cliff or something. Instinctual fears are like fear of snakes. There aren’t even snakes in Ireland but people are terrified of them. It’s the emotional fears that really mess with people’s minds. It’s rejection from the tribe, it’s fear of abandonment, it’s fear of failure. Because of that, that amygdala is programmed to make sure we stay with the tribe because that’s where safety was. If we get rejected from the tribe, or abandoned, or anything like that, we get eaten by a saber tooth tiger.
That’s the programming of our mind. We definitely have to believe. We have to understand that all the assumptions—this is the really […] part, Jen— all of our prior beliefs were put in there by somebody else. The script that we’re reading for our life initially was written by somebody else because we didn’t choose where we were born, we didn’t choose the color of our skin, we didn’t choose the language we speak—or languages—we didn’t choose how many brothers and sisters we have, but all of that is what we base our predictions on.
If we have the assumption that we can change that, which we can, you have to believe that you’re basing your life on assumptions that other people initially put in there. Our subconscious was all fueled by other people. We can change that if we want, but we have to first recognize, “Okay, all these assumptions I have about the world were mostly put in there by someone else—by my teachers, by my parents, by my siblings,” while your brain was developing.
It takes a lot of courage to first make that admission and then say that you’re accountable for your own life. That’s where a lot of people are starting to realize now, and that’s what I’m trying to help people with the book, and my live cast on Instagram, and that sort of stuff.
Jen: Just thinking about our community within One Year No Beer, for someone who’s choosing not to drink, there’s a lot of fear about what people are going to think. Fear of the society, or the fear of the cravings, or fear of not having that crutch—which so many people have developed like alcohol being a crutch for them—or just feeling being alone, or an outcast, being bored, being boring. What would you say to someone who is feeling the fear around taking a break with alcohol?
Patrick: I’ll tell you my personal story with alcohol first because it went into a lifestyle that almost killed me.
Jen: I was going to say, I’m really sorry. I think we got so excited about jumping into fear.
Patrick: It’s easy to do now.
Jen: Yeah, I know. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to take anything away from your incredible story. I gave some of the information in the bio, so people have a grip on who you are, but tell me a little bit more about your story. Never mind, we’ll get into the story bit, but tell people about your incredible story—which has brought you to where you are right now.
Patrick: Alcohol is a huge part of that so we can tie it together. I grew up the son of first-generation Irish immigrants in Boston in a blue-collar area. We had no money. First kid in my family to go to college, but I had an abusive grandfather, an abusive uncle. I was getting bullied a lot. We moved around because my dad was trying to always get better, and a bigger job and that type of thing.
Every time we moved I’d get picked on. I never had any self-esteem. I was always thinking that I had to be someone else, that I had to be the rich kid, or that I had to be the kid in high school whose dad got him the car. I never felt good enough on my own. I always had this shell that I was trying to build like this façade of who I was.
First, I started with athletics. I thought if I became a great athlete I’ll get respect, I’ll get self-love, I’ll really appreciate who I am, so I spent six years training for the Olympics and was second in the Olympic trials in rowing in the single scull. One of the few Americans to race the World Cup in the single scull, and I raced three years in the World Cup. When I found out that I raced the World Cup, I was terrified. I had the biggest panic attack. I was literally trembling on the end of the phone.
My coach was calling me, super excited. He’s like, “I can’t believe it. We’re going to Europe to race,” and I was terrified of flying. I saw a plane crash when I was a kid on the news and I was petrified of flying. I missed out on spring break trips, I missed out on family reunions, I missed out on exchange programs in college, and everything else. When I found out that I was going to race the World Cup, one of the greatest days of my life was one of the most terrifying because it meant I had to fly throughout Europe for the World Cup. To get on the plane, that was seven or eight beers for sure.
Jen: Take off the edge.
Patrick: Just so my coach could get me on the plane.
Jen: Get you on the plane.
Patrick: After the Olympics, I felt like I had courage but only on the water. That was the only place I felt in control, and I didn’t know why. I went back to business school. I said I’m going to go to the top 10 business schools, and I’ve got one goal and one goal only, and it’s 40 by 40. I’m going to make myself a net worth of $40 million by the time I’m 40 years old, screw everything else. That’s what I set out to do.
I started a series of technology companies, raised about $50 million in venture capital, took the first one from the dot-com bubble through 9/11—which is very similar to what’s going on now—and then sold it, and then started another one. I started the next one—and I didn’t realize it at the time what the feeling was, Jen, but I was petrified of everything. I had this amazing company in the field of radio frequency identification, and we had the most cutting edge technology.
We had this facility that had Department of Defense level of clearance that looked like something out of a James Bond movie, with scanners, with crazy […]. We had the best employees, we won the biggest contract so I should’ve been having the time of my life, but because I was afraid all the time—I was constantly in a state of anxiety and fear. I was afraid my CTO was going to quit. I was afraid our customers were going to find someone new. I was afraid this new guy was going to go start his own company. I was afraid the board was going to think I was an impostor. All these fears all the time.
What it did is it kept that fear cocktail that I talk about—the DHEA, the adrenaline, the cortisol which is the main stress hormone. That was always trickling through my body. This is really common especially in One Year No Beer community is we had this cortisol trickling through our body and it feels really uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel good. A lot of people—myself included at the time—don’t know what it is. Something just feels bad, so the way I dealt with it was drinking. I’d have 6-7 beers.
Jen: A lot of people are the same.
Patrick: Yeah. I do that every night and I’d have twice that on the weekends. I’d drink 6-7 beers on Monday at a venture capital event, or a networking event, or I’d take some of our guys out to the local pub, and whatever. I’d get home at midnight at 1:00 AM and then I’d feel guilty about drinking and treating my body like that—that whole Irish-Catholic guilt thing. I’d wake up at 5:00 in the morning to go to the gym, and that was my normal routine.
Four or five hours of teeth-grinding sleep, really tossing and turning, waking up, feeling bad, going to the gym, and then two cups of coffee, two cups of Starbucks, three diet cokes, that would get me through the afternoon, and then I’d start on the cocktails at 5:00 or 6:00 in the end of the day. As CEO of this tech company, I could do whatever I wanted. I literally had a little refrigerator in my office stocked with Guinness.
One morning, I got to the gym and I started doing pull-ups. My arm was just on fire. I thought, “Wow, that’s really strange. I must’ve pulled a muscle, or a tendon, or something.” I should have gone to the doctor but I didn’t. You could probably guess why, because I was afraid, scared of what he was going to tell me. Second day I woke up and it was red and angry. The thing looked like a Christmas stocking and I still didn’t go. Then the third day I could barely get out of bed, couldn’t move the arm.
I went to the doctor’s office—local GP—and he said, “It looks like a staph infection. We see this with guys who go to the gym a lot. I’m going to give you some antibiotics. The nurse will call you back in the afternoon.” They said, “We’ll take this blood test before you go just to be on the safe side. It’s no big deal.” It was a really big deal, and it wasn’t the nurse that called me back, it was the doctor.
He said, “Look, we don’t know what’s going on with you, but we’re going to send you up to Johns Hopkins because you have no immune system. It’s the best hospital in the world. We’ll get you up to Baltimore to Hopkins. Twenty-four hours later, I’m sitting in this room in Hopkins. My 1-year-old daughter was at her grandparents’. My wife’s at the end of the bed—white as a ghost—not knowing what the hell is going on.
Dr. Mcdevitt comes in and he said, “Look, we’ve got great doctors, great technology. We’re going to do everything we can, but I need to ask you if your affairs are in order.” I didn’t tell anything. My wife was six months pregnant at the time.
Jen: This seemingly came out of nowhere.
Patrick: Seemingly out of nowhere, but in reality, it was just the way I’d been treating my body for what ended up being five or six years after the Olympics, and after grad school, and everything else. It was that that put me in a place where I was in Hopkins looking back. I look back in my life and I thought, “I had so many amazing opportunities. I wasted them all because I was afraid to get on a plane, I was afraid to ask someone for their business, I had these amazing opportunities that I could’ve taken much better advantage if I was courageous.
If I could’ve been myself and been happy with myself instead of trying to build up this façade of being the tough strong guy, telling everyone at work everything’s fine, I was just driving a $150,000 Hummer wearing $10,000 custom suits. I’m running a $50 million startup like Gordon Gekko on Wall Street.
Jen: On the surface, everything looked like who would have guessed?
Patrick: On the surface, it had to. I was trying to be tough and I wasn’t. When I got to Hopkins I thought, “I’m going to die,” and I just wasted everything. I had this real sense of shame and regret. I thought, “Is the memory my daughter going to have of her dad was a guy who was afraid to get on a plane, take her to Disneyworld, or take her to Paris, or take her to Ireland, or wherever.” I swore if I got out I was going to overcome that fear. Not to give away the story but I lived.
Jen: I was biting my nails there. Wow, what an incredible story, an incredible life to come to that point. You found your zest, you’re like, “No, that’s it.” You were a carrot. You’re going to make it through.
Patrick: That was it, and the amazing thing, Jen, was when I chose courage. I got out of the hospital and it was a day like today in Boston. It was four degrees and rainy or three degrees and rainy. I got out and I would’ve been in such a hurry normally to fix the business, to get back to the company. I stepped out—I told this story a million times—and there was a little leaf in a puddle. This is in a real gray area of Baltimore where Hopkins is, and I stopped and I looked.
I thought, “Wow, that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s just so great to be outside. I’m outside again seeing this puddle and it was amazing.” I had to be sequestered—this was another thing. This is not unfamiliar because it took six or eight weeks for my immune system to build back up, and I couldn’t leave my house. It’s very similar to what people are feeling now.
I had this opportunity to plan it out what I want my life to be now because I had a second chance. As soon as I could start seeing people and going out in public, I went to the local airport and I signed up for flying lessons. I said, “I’m not holding on this fear of flying.” This is the whole reason I wrote the book, Jen. The first two lessons, I was terrified. I peed four times before we even got out to the plane. The whole thing was just as frightening as could be, but then after the third or fourth lesson, I fell in love with flying. I absolutely loved it.
I got my private pilot’s license, I got my instrument rating, I got my commercial pilot’s license. I’m never going to fly for a living but I want to keep learning. Now I compete in aerobatics flying a stunt plane. The thing that would’ve absolutely terrified me the most 15 years ago is one of my biggest sources of joy, and fulfillment, and excitement. I wondered how that could happen to my brain and started talking to neuroscientists. Then I wondered how many people that I meet every day—how many of them don’t realize that all their dreams are on the other side of fear? Everything that they want, and that they’ll enjoy, and that can bring them joy, and that will give them growth, and happiness, and a real sense of joy, and contribution all on the other side of fear.
When it comes to drinking, if you’re afraid that you won’t fit in, you’re afraid that you’re not going to be fun out of the pub, you’re afraid that people are going to wonder why you’re doing that and other people aren’t.
All you have to do is have this faith that on the other side of all those fears is really your dream life and is everything that you want. The more you start wiring to that courage center and you start ignoring the fear center, the more you’re wired there, the more that this has become a habit and courage has this halo effect over your whole life.
Jen: That’s something we try and tell our members or to try to tell people who approach us. They’re like, “Well, I feel fine. I’m so happy with this.” Some people just feel genuinely content. I always say, “What if? What if you could be even more amazing? What if you can rediscover?” That’s what happened to me when I cut my alcohol out. I rediscovered my love for me being an athlete, I started competing. Now that’s a zestful life. When I started doing that, I became curious about other stuff like what else can I do? What else can I be? It’s kind of contagious almost. It kind of gets, “I want more of this.”
It’s so yummy because it doesn’t matter what age you are. I was one of them. I thought, “I’ve missed it. I could’ve done great things. I could’ve become an awesome athlete, I could’ve done cool things. That’s it for me now.” Then something happened and I was like, “No, you know what, I’m going to do it now.” There is no such thing as anything being too late. What were your wildest dreams? Go for it. Don’t be scared of what the outcome might be, just go for it.
Patrick: That’s one of those things where those prior beliefs that I talked about, there are so many upper limits put in there. In my family in Irish Boston, it was you’re going to become a cop or a priest. Maybe a fireman, if you’re not smart enough to be a cop, but that is the upper limit of where you’re going to be and that was the expectation. That gets put into your script, that story that someone else wrote for you is those upper limits. That’s the same thing.
“Oh, no, no. My dad had arthritis when he was 60. I could never go out and run the Mont Blanc marathon at 60 or 65 years old. I missed that opportunity.” Then you see guys outrunning the Mont Blanc marathon who are in their 80s. It’s only upper limits that put in on themselves that they think that. You’re so right, alcohol has such a derisive effect on not just your health in general, I found with the leukemia and everything else, but on your mental capacity as well. You start numbing out your dopamine receptors, your cannabinoid receptors—all these things that are responsible for pleasure.
As soon as you get out—and you probably found this, Jen, and you started competing and everything else—once you pass 45 or 50 minutes, that’s when you start producing the runner’s high as a lot of people call it. If you can work out for 45 or 50 minutes, what you’ll start to find is this starts to feel really good, this is a really amazing sensation. It is unlike anything you can get with alcohol or drugs because you feel good that you’re doing good for your body and your soul. It gives you that same sense of feeling.
Then what happens—and I tell this to my kids all the time, and I’ve seen it firsthand so many times—we’re the average of the five people we spend the most time. If we’re hanging around with people who are at the pub who have this victim mentality who say that it’s too late to do this. They’re stuck in their dead-end job. They can’t wait for the weekend. The way that they’re dealing with this dead-end job is drinking because they’re too scared to go out, and change, and do something else because they’re too afraid of the unknown, of what’ll happen.
If those are the people you’re surrounding yourself with, that’s where you’re going to stay. If you surround yourself with people like Jen and Rory who are smart and they eat great diets, they have a great lifestyle, they’re challenging themselves to do bigger and better things whether it’s business, or whether it’s athletics, or whether it’s adventures, or travel, doesn’t matter.
You start hanging out with those people and then your life and what you’re writing in your mind starts to change that way. That’s probably one of the biggest benefits of getting out of that lifestyle that people might be stuck in.
Jen: You touched something on something you talk about, getting the kids talking about. You’re very proactive with your kids, and you’ve done something incredible. You took your 11-year-old son to Mt. Elbrus, I’m sorry, what was the name?
Patrick: Elbrus, yeah. He’s been out with me. He’s my favorite climbing partner.
Jen: I love that. You live through the fear. Your fear was something that was created—just the bullying, being abused from your family members and all that. That’s something that is deeply rooted, but we can change that. We can break that, but it’s hard. Hard yes, but you can change that. What you’re doing now is you’re making sure that your kids are not fearful of anything, go grab it. What I’m trying to ask is what can we do for our kids—let’s say small things? If they’re scared of a little bit of a spider. Because you’ve always said, “No, go ahead.” You don’t want to go chuck a spider up and go, “Ah.”
Also, what if you scared your child let’s say if you raised your voice and yelled at them because you got upset? Because I have this fear that maybe I’ve created something within them. Obviously, I’ve been learning a lot on fear lately and reading up on your stuff and something like what if I’ve done something—not something awful. It might have to be awful for a child for them to feel quite severe, so it could be me raising my voice or shouting and stuff. What if I created that fear in them, can we do something about that?
Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, when I started doing the neuroscience research six years ago, I found out some things that dramatically changed the way I raise my kids. In fact, I probably do 25 or 30 speeches a year to companies around the globe, from eBay, to Motorola, to MIT. Unfailing, every one of those things someone asks about raising kids. I’m actually going to be writing a Fear is Fuel for Kids. There’ll be something coming up because it’s so interesting.
Remember I said the amygdala—our fear center—is fully developed at birth? We don’t have the prefrontal cortex—that kind of adult supervision fully developed until we’re in our early 20s. The only way I knew how to parent was our parents, or maybe a coach, or something like that. There are lessons that I had that populated my prior beliefs. That’s what I did.
I can remember—this is eight years ago or so—my youngest son was 5 years old and we’re rock climbing in France. I had the rope setup on what’s called a top rope. The rope went up to the top, came down, and then he had climbed, and I’d take the rope up, and he did a great job. He flew up and he loved climbing. He got up to the top, and he looked down. I said, “Okay. Declan, let go. Just sit back and I’ll lower you down.” He said, “I can’t dad. I’m going to die. I’m going to fall.” I said, “Declan, listen. You’re on the system. It’s all good.” “I can’t, I can’t. I’m going to die.” “Declan, get down right now or you’re not getting any ice cream for dessert.” “No dad, I’m going to die.” “Declan if you don’t get down here I’m never taking you climbing again.” The typical Irish-Catholic. I looked and felt like my father screaming at the top of my lungs.
Jen: It’s all that you do, right?
Patrick: Right, but what I was doing was fueling his fear response. The only thing he had was the ability to fight, flight, or freeze. He only had that amygdala. When I was fighting, he was just fighting more. It was a fight until somebody loses the fight and then it’s trauma. Whoever the loser was has trauma. For a 40-year-old adult, it didn’t mean anything. It was a little bit of trauma, ruined our day of climbing that was it. For a 6-year-old kid, big trauma. He’s up here about to die and his dad is screaming at him when he was going to die.
What you have to realize as a parent is we need to be a surrogate prefrontal cortex for our kids. If they don’t have that prefrontal cortex yet, we have to be it for him. We have to understand that they aren’t wired to be able to think through things when they’re in an emotionally charged state. This is up to 16-17 years old before they even start to get the capability to do this. He was emotionally charged.
Once I started finding this out, the next time we’re rock climbing, he’s up at the top, “Dad, I can’t let go. I’m going to die.” “Dec, what would happen if you just let go with one hand?” “No, no, no. I can’t. The rope will break, I’ll die.” “Dec, just let go with one hand. You still get to hold with the other. What happened?” “Nothing.” “Okay. Now let with your other hand just for a second but then grab back on real quick.” You start to talk through what happens being that prefrontal cortex instead of getting mad and engaging your amygdala, your fear center.
That’s probably the biggest thing you can do is understand that when they’re emotionally charged—what’s called hot cognition—if there’s any emotion involved, their default is to defense. They’ve got that amygdala and it’s going to be a fight, flight, or freeze response. That’s it. If you understand that and you start yelling at them, you’ve got to realize that they’re going to see that as a fight. They’re either going to fight, or they freeze, or they’ll flee.
That’s probably the biggest thing we can do for our kids. The second thing that’s really important is we have to teach them not to have a victim mentality. I’ve got a great frame of reference from this woman named Diana Chapman that I use all the time called the drama triangle, which describes how people are either victims or they’re not—they’re in charge of their life. That’s a really important thing to teach kids.
Jen: I can see that. I can see the difference in our two daughters. I can see one has that victim and one has in charge. They’re two very different people, two little creatures. You want to do your best but it’s so hard as a parent. I’m so happy that you’re writing a book because I’ll be your—what do you call it—proofreader. Just send it over as soon as you get it. That’s probably why people always ask because as a parent you’re always wondering, and fear is one of these things. We only know what our parents and our peers taught us.
Patrick: That’s right. There’s no handbook.
Jen: None. Like you said, I can totally relate what you’re saying, “If you don’t let go we’re not coming to do this again,” but that’s not the approach you need. I’ll take that tip, big, big. All of this, you have a point.
Patrick: Jen, while I’m thinking of it, let me hit the—I had something. I did this on a Spartan Zoom the other day. I was explaining this to people. If you think of the victim mindset—if you’re a victim and I’ve hired hundreds of people in my startups over the years. I would say 75%-80% of the people in the world are victims.
Jen, I’m sorry. I would’ve been here on time but the traffic was really bad.
I would’ve won that account but that client was an asshole.
I would’ve gotten that promotion but that boss, he doesn’t like me.
That’s a victim mindset we hear all the time. If you’re a victim, there’s always got to be a villain. If there’s a villain—there’s always someone to blame it on—the only way you can get out of it is if you have a hero. “Oh, I need a hero. Come save me because I can’t do this myself.” Teaching kids accountability—and this is what I was doing this morning on the Spartan thing—that if you go from a victim to being a creator, then you think, “Everything I do in my life I’m making on my own.”
When you change from that—from being a victim to a creator—these people who were villains before are now challengers. They’re someone who’s there to make you better, to make you figure things out, to help you learn something. If you get stuck and you have trouble, you don’t need a hero, you need a coach because everyone needs a coach. They’re not going to get in the boat and row for you, they’re just going to tell you a different technique.
If you switch from that victim mindset which is that, “Hey, this world, this life is happening to me,” and all of a sudden you switch from that victim mindset to a creator mindset, then life is happening by you. You become the author of your own life. That’s actually a critical lesson to teach kids. It’s scary because they want someone, oftentimes, to take control of their life. This is why suicide rates are so high—too many parents take way too much control of their kid’s life.
Bringing them from piano lessons to soccer practice, to extra study class, or whatever. The kids never have any free space to learn on their own, and figure things out, and get out of trouble all on their own which they need to do to develop those neurons. They count on having their life have a hero in it and someone there.
If you can teach them to create their own life, and that everyone there is a challenger instead of a villain, that, “Hey, what can you learn from that guy? What did he teach you? That teacher, how did she make you better?” All that type of thing. It’s a much different mindset. That’s why I love doing big challenges with my kids—climbing with my son, or going on […] with my daughter, or anything like that.
Jen: What you said, it’s good. I don’t like my kids to be entertained all the time. I’m like, “Let them be bored.” If they’re like, “Oh, I’m bored.” “Well, good. Go be bored.”
Patrick: Do something.
Jen: Yeah, yeah. You could do something else. Do it for yourself. People are like, “I don’t want my kids to be bored. I need to entertain them all the time.” No, you don’t need to because that’s their learning. If you keep entertaining them, you get what you just described there.
Patrick: Yes, absolutely. Not only that. There’s a lot of research on neurological development. One, how bad screen time is. That’s not a surprise to anyone. Two, how bad structured time is. Time that is completely structured really hurts the development of the brain. The other thing that hurts—and it’s really difficult to convince people in the United States of this because they’re so litigious. The other thing that really hurts the brain—especially for boys—is not having a coming of age ritual or trial.
It’s the same for girls but to a lesser extent because boys need to know how to determine the difference between aggression and assertion—being assertive versus being aggressive. Normally, that only happens in a way where they actually have to get hurt, where they end up getting hit or punched and they realize, “Okay. I didn’t mean to be aggressive, I was just trying to be assertive.”
It’s a really difficult thing. For sure—from a fear perspective—it’s just as important for girls to have challenges, and to have adventures, and to climb up a wall even when they’re scared, or to stop and look at a spider even when they don’t want to look at the spider. All those things are super important, but many parents—probably more so in the UK and the US—are terrified to do something that might be seen as bad parenting. The parents are afraid to do those things as well.
Jen: We're always worried about looking bad, where we’re doing something different. We need to stick to the rule book.
Patrick: That’s right. Yeah. Exactly.
Jen: Safety, safety, safety.
Patrick: That’s it. God, Jen, I haven’t thought about this in ages. I was in London just before Christmas. There was an ad on TV, and it showed this dad and the son on a backyard swing, and pushing it, and you hear this lovely music. I thought, “Oh, isn’t that great?” Guys out playing with his swing. Then they cut into the kitchen where the mom was inside the kitchen, the dad comes running in with this terrified look on his face. He said, “Call the ambulance service. Johnny’s fallen off the swing.”
Then they show the ambulance showing up, and the son almost dying. They’re saying, “Thank God we had Roomy’s Ambulance service to come in and help us out or our son would’ve died from being on that swing.” My God, they’re playing on fear. It’s like politicians and marketers just go after these fears, and if we let them—if we let them, if we’re victims—we let them write off the script in our life, that’s going into our database saying, “Holy […], I can’t let the kids play on the swing because that kid I saw on that commercial almost died.”
That’s how this database gets populated with all these negative images that really hurt parent’s psyche as well as the children’s development too.
Jen: It’s amazing. That’s why it’s so hard to try and filter out what they’re saying in the media or not. Because some of it feels like they’re trying to control how we feel, trying to control how we react because we are so easily let astray. Like you’re saying, it’s contagious in the way that it spreads.
Patrick: Remember I said the first thing we have to do—and this is dealing with the coronavirus—is having the awareness. Being aware of that and believing that we have the capability to shape our minds, to write our story. If everyone listening today just takes that away, that you can change your mind, you can change the structure of your brain. Oftentimes, I give a whole platform in the book based on neuroscience, but I’ll give two quick things now that anybody can do. If you’re in the grocery store, or you’re listening to something on TV, or searching social media and you start to feel that change from fear, the first thing you should do is breathe.
The technique that I always teach is called the four by four. We breathe for a count of four, hold it for a count of four, let it out for a count of four, hold it out for a count of four, and then repeat that four by four by four by four by four. What that does is it immediately starts to create what’s called bigger heart rate variability. That lets go of the grip that your amygdala has on your sympathetic nervous. Just that breathing and I recommend people practice it every day.
I have a morning routine I do, which is five different things in the morning. The first thing I do is I wake up with gratitude, and I just thank God that I am alive, and I’ve got another great day. You can just thank whoever you want—Buddha, or Allah, or God, or the universe—just for being alive and having some gratitude. Then I do five minutes worth of breathing, just focusing on the breathing. Literally, studies have shown at Georgetown University that after three days of just focusing on breathing, the structure of your mind starts to change. That can really help, that’s the first thing.
The second thing—and Jen, you hit it on all the time and you’re great at it too, by the way—is to smile. There was a study at Emory University—it’s one of my favorite studies to cite—where they had a huge group of people. They divide it in half—control group and another group. They showed them all these horror movies. While they showed them they were scanning their brains and taking their cortisol. What they wanted to test was the old adage of grin and bear it.
What they said was, “This control group was just going to watch it, we’ll take their cortisol levels, we’ll watch their brain scans. This other group, we want to get them to smile, but we don’t want to tell them to smile because they might think of something happy and that might skew the result. What we’ll do is we’ll give them a chopstick, and we’ll have them hold the chopstick in their mouth because that flexes the 42 muscles in your face without having them necessarily think about something happy.”
What they found was the group that had the chopstick in their mouth, 80% reduction in their cortisol just from smiling. If you can do those things and you do it in the morning as a practice, you’re going to start to wire those neurons together that are going to create that connection to courage. Once you have that connection to courage, it becomes easier and easier to do it. Then when you start talking, or you go to the store, or someone calls you up and says, “Oh, did you hear so and so got it?” Then you just breathe, and you smile, and you immediately feel a change in your body.
Jen: I love that. I am the crazy lady in this town where we live because I go down to shop and I’m like, “Hi. Hi. How are you doing?” They look at you and they know don’t look in the eye. I go safe distance go up to sometimes. The people who work in the Subway, “Hey, how are you guys doing?” and they get so happy and they smile. I feel like if I get a couple of people to smile every day I’ve done a good job. Usually our bin man and everyone, I’m like waving at people smiling because why not? Why not? Now you have just proven that it’s good. I got to keep doing this.
Patrick: There is a science behind it. You have the greatest smile so walking into a store in Scotland, you must be able to light the place up.
Jen: It’s a tough crowd, Patrick, I tell you. Now I also know that if I’m having a rough day I’ll just get a chopstick.
Patrick: Put a chopstick in your mouth, that’s it. See, you can’t even keep a straight face now.
Jen: Even if I don’t feel happy, I will never fail. Wow. This is your mission in life now, inspiring others. You have an incredible journey. You’re an incredible athlete. My question is, have you seen the movie Sliding Doors?
Patrick: No, no.
Jen: Old movie with Gwyneth Paltrow. You should check it out. It’s interesting. It’s like different scenarios if life had happened this way or that way. That’s why Sliding Doors is part of what if the subway doors had an open that you got on there, how would your life got on with that. Sliding Doors is very good. If you didn’t become a world-class rower there in Boston, what was your plan? Did you have a backup plan? What was that?
Patrick: I did. It was an interesting story—and this was all in creating the image of someone who wasn’t afraid and wasn’t ashamed and everything else. I’ve worked with a lot of them since then. I was doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for a long time, and I had a couple of friends from the US Naval Academy who were training with me, and we were all at the Olympic training center together.
One of them said, “Hey, if I don’t make it to the Olympic training camp, then I’m going to go join the Navy SEALs,” and he said, “You should come with me.” I said, “Okay, Alden. That’s what we’ll do.” I said, “I’ll sign up. I’ll be a Navy SEAL because they’re the toughest, baddest asses in the world, and that’s what I want to be.” I’m nowhere near there now. I obviously made the training center. He didn’t, and he went on to become a pretty famous Navy SEAL and have a great career and everything else.
That’s probably where I would have gone. I’m not sure. The truth of the matter is, Jen, I wouldn’t change everything that I’ve gone through in my life. My purpose and my mission has all come together to do this. I do live calls, I do all these public speeches. Yesterday someone did one of those Instagram things where they quote from my book with some music behind it. I have no idea who the person was, they just bought it. I’m like, “God, that’s so amazing that my research and all the stuff that changed me is affecting people worldwide.” It’s actually a great feeling to have that kind of impact.
If we all figure out what our purpose is—for you guys, you’ve had a tremendous impact on so many lives getting them away from the stigma of beer. Me, coming from an Irish family and still having tons of relatives in Ireland, I could’ve imagined this happening—One Year No Beer happening—even 10 or 15 years ago. Now I’ve got friends and relatives who are doing it, my wife is doing it, and everything else. You guys had such a huge impact too. It’s a great feeling, isn’t it?
Jen: It’s amazing. Yes, your wife is doing, and loving, and thriving this in her challenge with One Year No Beer. I just love it. It’s just nice to have people. I was going to say our audience who are listening, but our members are just the members because not only are they—they’re proud, and they’re smashing, and they’re going against everything that their family or what anyone is thinking. They’ve gone to the other side if you like, and they can feel the benefits of it.
A lot of people, a lot of them had gone through their 28, 90, or 365-day challenge or some had 2YNB—2 Years No Beer—but they stay within the community to help others and support others because they feed from it. They’re not like, “Okay. That’s me done. I’m off.” They literally stay in the community and they’re there. They want to give because that’s the way it’s always been. They exchange the tribe. We’re all folk people, it takes a village and all that. They’re so strong. They’re so encouraging of each other. It’s so lovely to hear. I love that your wife is loving our community as well.
It’s amazing. I wouldn’t change anything in my life—overcome adversity and all that stuff. Like you said, everything has shaped me into who I am today. The important thing is not to worry, not to fear, not to fear what has been. A lot of people worry too much on what has been. “Oh, I’ve made some mistakes.” Haven’t we all?
Patrick: That’s in the past, that’s in the past. There’s a great study I reference in the book called the Legacy Study from Cornell University. What they did was they were trying to get the wisdom of the elders. Trying to find whatever collective knowledge they had at the end of their life. They interviewed thousands of people from the age of 72-109 years old. They couldn’t find anything in common except for one thing, nearly everyone wishes they had spent less time worrying.
People at the end of their life—and I totally felt that when I was dying. I thought, “Oh my God. I worried about being on this plane, I worried about asking this girl out, I worried about applying to this school, I worried about all these things, and here I am going to die, and I didn’t even try. I was so worried I didn’t even do it. What an idiot I was?”
One of the big things that people have difficulty doing—because again, it produces that free energy—is relinquishing control. Especially in this time of coronavirus, I’ve done so many calls for companies now. One of the big things I say is, “Look, here’s how you can boost your immune health.” I went on Instagram live with a professor of immunology at Mt. Sinai. She was great. She said, “This much vitamin C, this much zinc, this is your diet, this much sleep, this kind of exercise.” Boom, there’s your immune system.
Now your purpose, figure out what you’re doing, why you’re doing it. If you’re at home, let’s figure out what you can change. Okay, your family, your house, your finances all these things you can control, so focus on those. What the president does, what the governor does, what the border patrol between France and Switzerland do, you can’t control that so let it go. Here we go. Speaking of border control, the important thing is to realize what you can control.
Jen: Focus on the things that you can control.
Patrick: Let go of everything else because that’s something you can’t control so you can’t predict the outcome—from a neurological perspective—because you can’t control it so you’re going to constantly be producing this free energy—this fear or this bad feeling. If you realize, “Look, I’m doing everything I can in my control. I’m taking care of my morning routine, I’m taking care of my kids. I’m taking care of my work stuff. I’m exercising. I’m doing the best that I can. I’m going to be happy and enjoy the present.”
Jen: I remember reading the recommendations on the vitamins and stuff on this really good blog that you’ve done on your website. Guys, go and check out Patrick’s website which is fearisfuel.com.
Patrick: No, no, sorry. That’s the book website, Jen. The blog is PJ Sweeney.
Jen: The blog is PJ Sweeney, sorry. Blog is PJ Sweeney. There’s a really good blog there about the coronavirus and what you can do to stay on top of things with your health, and your fitness, and the vitamins. Everything is in detail there because I wrote it all down. I’m like, “I need to go and get this.” I went out to the pharmacy and they’re like, “We don’t have this. We’re out of this.” Obviously, everyone is going, “Give me everything.”
You guys should definitely read that blog because it’s very relevant to what’s going on right now and very helpful. For your book, you’ve got the book behind you. Can you bring it in front of the camera to show it?
Patrick: It’s going to be backward. Here, Fear is Fuel.
Jen: That’s perfect, Fear is Fuel. That’s Patrick’s book. Like I said in the bio, it’s made up number five on the Wall Street Journal, my goodness.
Patrick: I know, I was so excited.
Jen: Congratulations. It must feel so amazing.
Patrick: Thank you.
Jen: This is what you do. You’re the expert. I always love talking to you. I love following you, and I follow you on Instagram. Guys, those are on Instagram check out his profile. Is that thefearisfuel?
Patrick: Thefearguru on Instagram.
Jen: Thefearguru on Instagram, and then the book is also on Instagram fearisfuel. Everyone who loves Instagram there’s loads of Patrick on there. Then on Linkedin it’s the Fear Guru. There’s loads of places you can check him out especially now because I know there are a lot of people out there who want to hear more from you, want to see more, or read more, or hear more. Patrick is on a lot of podcasts so you can’t miss him. He’s the best, he’s the best in the game with the stuff we’re talking about right now.
Patrick: Jen, thanks a million.
Jen: Patrick, anything for our audience right now in this time? A lot of our members they’re commenting and they’re going, “Being alcohol-free now.” Some people’s comments outside of their alcohol-free circle go, “You picked the worst time to be alcohol-free.” We say, “This is the best time to be alcohol-free to not feel the anxiety and stuff.” There are still a lot of members struggling and having to reset their challenges and stuff. Any words of encouraging words of wisdom for them before we end?
Patrick: Yeah, you bet, Jen. For sure. The breathing and the smiling, keep that in mind whenever you start to feel that anxiety or feel that tension. The other thing that’s really important to do is name your emotion. When you’re sitting here at night—whether it’s on Facebook, or watching Tiger King, or it doesn’t matter what it is—and you start to feel an emotion that you don’t like, stop for a second and name it, and say okay, that’s anxiety, that’s stress about my job, that’s fear about me catching this disease. That’s uncertainty about what now knowing happens if I get sick.” Any of those things if you name that emotion and you recognize it—it helps, of course, to talk to someone about it and about how you’re feeling. What you do when we form an emotion, we form two types of emotion.
For everything that happens to us, we form what’s called an episodic or semantic—that’s just the facts. “It’s April 3, I’m talking to Jen. We’re on Zoom.” These are the facts. Then we form an emotional memory. The emotional memory is, “We’re having a fun time together. We’re chatting. It’s really interesting conversation. I’m having fun.” Those are the emotional memories.
If you can’t name what you’re feeling, your brain has a more difficult time storing that memory. If you’re feeling something during the day and you aren’t sure what it is, try and figure out what it is, and then just say, “Okay. Well, I’m feeling stressed.” How I might have dealt with that in the past is try to cover it up with beer—with alcohol. I’m not going to do that now, I’m going to name it, let my brain consolidate my memory, take a few deep breaths, and then go do something I like.
The truth of the matter is, Jen, we won’t have this opportunity ever again. We won’t have this solitude, we won’t have this time with our family, with people we love or we’re together with. We have a great time to figure out how we can come out of this in really good shape. Because what’s going to happen when this is all over, there’s just going to be a waterfall of opportunity.
There’s going to be a ton of pent up demand. There’s going to be people looking for jobs. There’s going to be people who are hiring, so figure out how you can use this solitude time, this time to really think and work things out and figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life and take advantage of this time we have now because we’ll never get it back.
Jen: We should see it as a gift. See it as a gift. It’s weird, it’s an awkward time, but see it as a gift. That’s what we're’ trying to do as well. Look at all the opportunities that come around it and just look some more.
Patrick, you’ve been amazing. On behalf of the whole OYNB community, thank you so much for coming on with us today. Guys, all the information I’ve given you, it’ll be also in the blog for the podcast. You can find more info on Patrick, also known as the Fear Guru. Thank you so much, Patrick, for coming on.
Patrick: Jen, it was a great pleasure. Thank you all for listening, and give my best to Rory and the girls.
Jen: I will do. Thank you.
Patrick: Okay. Thanks. Bye-bye.