Fear Is Like a Light-switch

“Fear isn’t actually a bad thing. It’s a primitive instinct that’s your friend. It warns you to pay attention, because you’re in danger. It tells you to do something, to act, to save yourself.”

Nancy Werlin

portrait, grim, girl

I posted a message on facebook last week that read “Stop wasting today’s energy on tomorrow’s problems. Stop worrying about things you can’t control and worry about things you can.” This sounds reasonable and very simple and easy to do right? Well sort of…you see my friend Nancy Werlin is also right and if you aren’t experiencing at least some FEAR right now with all that is going on in the world, you might need more help than this short writing can provide. It makes sense for all of us to be experiencing a measure of fear right now. We probably all had a moment or two of fear about our health, our businesses, the health and businesses of our friends and family. No one can escape this right now, and for me that is also a bit consoling, we are all in the same boat together.

Let’s dissect this a bit more. Our primitive brains are hardwired for survival, so the part of your brain that is responsible for sensing danger (the amygdala) may very rightly be in overdrive in the middle of this Covid-19 Pandemic. So, what is the problem? The problem is that once the amygdala, that is scanning the environment for danger, finds danger your body releases a chemical cocktail of hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and dopamine) into your blood stream that alters your physiology dramatically. It alters us in a way that prepares our physical body for war, and if Covid-19 was a physical attacker then we would be glad to have this surge of adrenaline on board. The problem is that the war with Covid-19 and the battle to keep your business alive isn’t going to be fought in a physical realm with swords and shields. It will be a war that will be won by the people who manage to have the most conscious leadership, resilience, agility, and who maintain a positive growth mindset.  

Fear is much like inflammation in the body in that it was designed to keep us alive if used properly. If it weren’t for the inflammatory process, we would risk dying of infection every time we got a splinter. The process of inflammation is designed to keep us alive and only becomes problematic when the body can’t switch it off. I see fear the same way. As long as we can flip the switch on and off and it doesn’t get stuck on all the time, which is largely the case with people that have anxiety, it can be of use to us as humans. Anxiety can be defined as fear of fear. It is largely fear of things that haven’t happened and most likely will never happen. This is the light switch being stuck on!

Our brains don’t on their own have the ability to tell the difference between a threat to our physical safety and a threat to our ego. The ego being the part of you that is concerned with letting people down, and managing what others think about you, and the stuff that dictates your self-esteem or self-worth. All things that are definitely under attack right now amidst the chaos that is this Pandemic, especially if you are the small business owner in the center feeling responsible for your team around you and their well being. So, when our brain starts to do its job in response to our fear our neuroendocrine system responds and does its job as well dumping the fight or flight cocktail into our blood stream leaving us a bit on edge. This fear-based chemistry stays with us on average for 24-48 hours. Now imagine if you sit in front of the “bad” news mainstream media every night and feed that fear. You may find yourself in a perpetual state of anxiety, stress, and fear.  

I have people ask well what do I do once I have fallen victim to stress, fear, and anxiety? Isn’t there a way or something I can do to “burn” off the fear-based chemistry faster? Here are my recommendations:

  • Don’t let the chemical dump happen at all. This is obviously easier said than done, but what I mean more than anything is to develop the conscious awareness maybe even in your body first to catch it early. Recognize it, treat it curiously, and breathe. Behaviors like this signal the amygdala that the fear hormones may not be needed and can stop the chemical infusion mid dump.
  • Breathe! Taking a couple of deep diaphragmatic breathes can make a huge difference. The reason this can be quite effective is due to the difference in the speed of transmission in different parts of the brain. The primitive fight or flight part of your brain processes and makes decisions much more quickly than the executive more creative part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex. Sometimes just taking a moment to breathe allows the pre-frontal cortex to catch up and use it’s immense problem solving ability to creatively devise a plan of attack for what has you so afraid.
  • Name it, own it, release its power over you. I have developed the habit of saying “Wow Ryan, that really triggered you just now isn’t that interesting…” As you develop the habit of non-judge mental curiosity that que can allow you to see FEAR as it truly is a self-preservation device and decide or choose appropriately if it’s actually warranted. I say is this serving you or would I be better off choosing to feed hope. What we focus on grows and that is the part we have control over.

*Side note most of the time when we are angry it’s attached to fear, look for it in your day to day life. Next time you are angry, ask yourself what am I most afraid of in this situation?

  • Burn those Fear based neurochemicals. Two things that seem to really limit the duration and effect of the fear/stress hormones are exercise and being outdoors. So, exercise outdoors is an obvious solution. Anecdotally, how many people have ever been overwhelmed in a heated argument and stormed out of the house to take a walk? Why is it that when you returned things just seemed to be better? You were able to think more clearly and see your part in the argument, where before you had been blinded. So, get moving and get some sunshine it can shift your perspective.