“I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened”
Welcome to your brain. Your brain is approximately 200,000 years old. Well, not yours personally, but the model has remained unchanged for about that long. Not bad, when you think how quickly we upgrade models of cars and televisions these days.
Our brain evolved for a very different time – one where we lived in small groups with people who were very similar to us. We faced many physical dangers and as a result our life expectancy was relatively short.
The primary function of the brain is to keep us alive. It does this on two levels, firstly by automatically regulating our basic functions such as breathing and heartbeat. And, secondly by making sure we quickly distinguish between what is dangerous and what is safe. This is often referred to as the ‘Avoid Approach Response’. This response was originally geared around our physical safety and is experienced emotionally as fear. Experiencing fear releases a cocktail of chemicals into our brain and body that ensure we move away from Sabre-tooth Tigers and bad berries.
Fortunately today, for most of us anyway, the world is a much safer place and we rarely have to worry about physical harm. The ‘Avoid Approach Response’ however is still alive and kicking. Today most of the anxiety we experience is based not on threats to our physical safety, but on perceived threats to our emotional safety. In the workplace we may experience the ‘avoid’ response when faced with having to deliver a presentation, give a customer bad news, or confront an employee about poor performance. The brain experiences discomfort in these moments and looks for immediate ways to relieve this state. In addition, when we manage to ‘avoid’ the event our brain rewards us with dopamine – basically a hit of ‘feel good’ drug, which reinforces that we did the right thing by putting it off.
Our brain has a strong dislike for being uncomfortable. As soon as the brain experiences discomfort it prompts us to act in ways that will make us feel better now. This may be as simple as not showing up, or putting it off. We can also relieve the uncomfortable feelings through alcohol, drugs, gambling, food and retail therapy just to name a few. These mechanisms soon become our default coping strategies in times of stress regardless of the longer term consequences. The brain is not deliberately sabotaging us. It learns to respond in set ways based on previous experience. It effectively says “When ‘X’ happened last time and you felt ‘Y’ the action you took to relieve that feeling was ‘Z’ – therefore do that again”, thus reinforcing the pattern.
It is not too hard to see that while from our brain’s point of view it is trying to help us, this overactive ‘avoid’ response can have serious impacts not just on our job performance, but also our ability to experience and enjoy life. So what can you do?
- Understand that your brain is overly protective of you and does not like to be uncomfortable. This leads the brain to biases which overplay and underplay the reality of current situation and future consequences in an effort to prompt action that will provide immediate relief.
- Recognise that fear can manifest itself in multiple ways from extreme anxiety to apathy:
- Anxiety – this is all I can think about.
- Denial – this is not happening.
- Procrastination – this can wait till tomorrow.
- Excuse – this is not under my control.
- Apathy – this is not important.
Fear is often subtle and we can easily fool ourselves into taking no action. We convince ourselves that our avoid response is not because we are scared, but because the situation is not that important, can wait, or is not really our responsibility anyway.
- As previously discussed the purpose of fear is to make us avoid whatever the brain has determined is dangerous. We also mentioned that for most of us today, we are rarely faced with real physical dangers to our safety. In fact it is estimated that about 95% of the fear we experience is related to our perception about what will happen in a future social interaction – whether that be the presentation, the customer, or the underperforming employee. The following mnemonic can be helpful in challenging fear and behaving in more productive ways.
Most of the fear we experience is our mind’s assumption about what it believes may happen in the future. Fear always has the question “What if…”associated with it. We take these assumptions as ‘the truth’. We believe that all of these ‘what ifs’ will happen.
In reality there is no evidence that these ‘what ifs’ will happen. If we look critically at the evidence our assumption is made on, we often find that it is baseless and only exists in our mind. Even if the worst case scenario did happen, in reality when we take time to think about it we would say “If ‘X’ happens I could handle it”.
The kicker is that fear tends to draw to you the very things you are scared of because you tend to focus on them.
Eight Things to Do When You Experience Fear
- Breathe! Take slow deep breaths. Breathing releases the tension and helps us to calm down.
- Create a positive picture of what you want. We perform to the pictures we create in our minds.
- Talk positively about yourself and your abilities. Say ‘I can’, ‘I will’ and ‘I am’.
- Hang in there! When the avoid response is triggered we want to do something to immediately relieve the tension. If you can delay that immediate urge, you will be amazed at your ability to calm down and take the next step.
- Focus on the next step. Sometimes the whole goal or task seems too big for us. Break it down to small steps. The next step is always manageable.
- Ask the question “What assumption am I making about what might go wrong?” “What evidence is there to support my assumption?” Often when we ask this question, we discover that our fear is pretty much baseless. Our minds can create a mental catastrophe that has no foundation.
- Practice, practice, practice. One of the major components of confidence is competence. We feel better about presentations by giving them. We feel more at ease with difficult customers by dealing with them. We feel more poise during a performance conversation when we have conducted a number of them. The motto here is ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Remember you will be okay.
- Ask for support when you need it. We all need support and most people want the opportunity to support and help us.
Dean Tuckey is a consultant with TP Human Capital. He specialises in helping organisations improve their people capability and performance through leadership, team and communication based programs. You can contact Dean: firstname.lastname@example.org | M 0400 463 103