How do you let go of fear? Give it what it wants.

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In my work as a public speaking coach, fear comes across my desk in many different forms: fear of speaking in front of an audience, of voicing your opinion in a meeting, of making small talk in groups or social situations, of stating your needs in a relationship, of being your own advocate and standing up to a boss or co-worker.

It seems that if we could just erase fear from our realm of possible reactions, we would get so much more done. We could do what we’re passionate about, live the life we dream of, find the partner that we want, request what we need to succeed in our career. Everything we want is on the other side of fear.

We know that it’s purpose is to protect us, to keep us alive. So, how can we allow fear to do it’s positive thing without blocking us from doing our positive thing? 

Face it: Start by getting to know Fear.

Fear is a chemical reaction. Dan Goleman (youtube link here) walks us through the structure in the brain responsible for our fear reaction: the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain’s sentinel. A small part of everything we see in every moment goes directly to our amygdala. It scans the information to see if it is a threat: “Do I eat it or does it eat me?”

The biological reactions are as follows: cortisol is poured into the bloodstream as a result of the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) Axis activation. This is Fight, Freeze or Flight (FFF), the classic stress response. We’ve all experienced this one: shallow breathing, racing heartbeat, dialated pupils… sweat. This activation also suppresses the immune system, digestive system and reproductive system. If this activation is sustained, over time we develop chronic fatigue, adrenal burnout…. blah blah blah….hormones.

But, this is the part I found fascinating: Look at what happens in your mind…

The triggered HPA axis changes the way that your brain prioritizes information. For example, if the snake on the trail in front of you is causing an overwhelming reaction of fear, then everything that is relevant to that snake is what preoccupies all of your attention.

Therefore, if you are giving a speech and you walk on stage, fearful that your audience will not like you,  then you have already manifested your worst nightmare! 

Biologically, you are programmed to notice and fixate on every detail in the room that substantiates your reason for being scared stiff and lifeless:

Your boss checking her watch, your colleague smirking, the man in the back on his cell phone, the angry face in the front row. You’re not just imagining that people are sending you these signals, they are, but from your perspective, in the grip of an amygdala heist, they are heightened and these small, negative details are the only ones you see. 

It’s a downward spiral…

This “amygdala hijack,” this hormonal activation, creates hypersensitivity to all the scary stuff and also changes the hierarchy of your memories. The memories that your brain chooses to bring to the surface, at this moment, are those that substantiate your fear.  

Your brain is very kindly reminding you, again, why putting yourself in this situation has been (in the past), is currently, and will forever be hazardous to the survival of your species.

Thank you, brain.

As Golemen says, “fear response is suboptimal to life,” to put it mildly. So, really, facing your fear is about knowing yourself well enough to know when you’ll be stepping into a situation where your system will be activated. Once you have the knowledge, you can prepare in advance, to send signals to your body that there is no threat and you are calm and at ease. 

“So, what do I do about this?” 

Answer: Manage your fear before it has the chance to start its vicious cycle by preparing your body and mind to be relaxed and present before you do that thing which scares you most.

How do you do that? Stay tuned for next week’s blog or click here to get immediate, fear preparation strategy. 

The importance of an interior life

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It’s like a movie.

This summer I had the opportunity to be with my family on a remote island off of Vancouver island. Quiet, free from technology’s reach, distractions, social obligations and rat-race requirements. I was able to follow the threads of my curiosity and notice, without too much eye-raising or judgment from loved ones, what was “up” for me.  What began to fascinate me was the process of watching my inner life, like a movie.

Our inner life is always “on”, whether we are aware of it or not. We are running stories, memories. All the other parts of ourselves (the inner critic, the fearful child, the rebellious teenager, the dominating bitc–etc…) are reacting and responding to what’s going on outside (see the Pixar movie, Inside Out). It can color, warm or darken, our external experience. It can run wild like a film. One could even imagine our internal life set to a thrilling musical score, mirroring the rise and fall of our curiosity, inspiration, joy and the extremes of vulnerability, loneliness and even rage. All of these colors are present throughout our day  and often we don’t know why. There is an internal experience to everything. What is yours?

Is an interior life a good thing?

I get myself into trouble because I often find my interior experience to be far more exciting than what’s happening in front of me. This poses a problem in social situations. Great big grins to the left and right, silly pranks and antics, conversation for filler and shock value, provocative jokes and tirades against this or that group, extreme familiarity– arms strung between bodies, intertwined and suspended, clutching half-committed, are fun for a while but feel like we all have a great need to perform our internal experience rather than relishing savory moments and simply being with what is happening.  

Drawing yourself inward in the morning, for a moment of meditation, prayer, deep breathing can familiarize you to this place inside of yourself, inside of your experience, and alert you to some very significant signals throughout your day. How do I feel? What’s “up” for me? How do all the different parts of my body feel? What muscles am I needlessly holding?  Is my mind repeating a word, a song, a thought, a memory, over and over that I have tuned out? What is it saying? Where am I now and where do I desire to go? What can I do with all of this new information? This type of check-in can bring surprising clarity and direction.  

What’s the first step in getting to know our inner world?

Try this for a day: total external rebellion. Don’t read the news. Don’t read what other people think about what’s on the news. Don’t take pictures of your experiences. Don’t look at pictures of other people’s experiences, deciding whether you like them or judge them. Instead, appreciate the wealth of your own current existence, be in the soup of your own experience, and let everything else fall away. How fortunate we are to be so complicated! It makes for great entertainment.

The uniqueness of this moment will never come again– these people, this place, this fresh wind, this bite, this thought, this internal age of every cell, this coalescence of the right elements, at the right time, intersecting for a perfectly imperfect you, right, now.