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.