What are you scared of right now? When I ask clients or workshop participants that question, pretty much everybody tenses up and the automatic answer is “nothing”. As adults, we’re not used to talking about what scares us. It makes us feel vulnerable and exposed
As human beings, we all experience fear – it’s one of the things that’s helped us survive as a species. Our brains are set up to automatically always be on the lookout for, and quickly respond to, anything that could be a threat. This is the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response that you’ve probably heard of.
The definition of Fear
We feel fear in response to a perceived threat or danger. Note the use of the word ‘perceived’. We can fear things that haven’t happened yet or may never happen. In fact, we often respond to change with an unconscious fear pattern.
When we feel fear, the body believes its very survival is threatened and so it will go into overdrive to protect us, whether the threat is real or not.
Managing your response
In 1936, the scientist Hans Selye defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. This means change, good or bad, can be perceived by the body as stress, or a threat. This can also trigger an unconscious fear pattern.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing. Positive stressors, such as a promotion, can push us out of our comfort zone, we adapt, and we grow and become more resilient. Why do we perceive some stressors as positive? It all comes down to the choices we make - we choose to respond to some stressors, or some situations, as positive.
Let’s use the example of Jason, who has just received a promotion. The new role means increased responsibility, managing three of his former colleagues and a pay increase.
Consider the following scenarios:
1. Jason worked hard for the promotion. A year ago, he created a vision board and made a plan to make himself more promotable, which included reading self-development books, taking in-house training on people management, and letting his boss know that he was interested in moving up the ladder.
2. Jason was put into the new role because of cutbacks in the company. He feels awkward about managing his co-workers, doesn’t want any additional work responsibilities because he’s already struggling with managing his time and he feels demoralized because of the restructuring.
These situations appear different however the outcome is the same – Jason has been promoted. The difference is how Jason feels about the promotion, which will then inform his behaviour, the choices he makes, and ultimately his success or failure.
Three steps to transforming fear into motivation
1. Separate feelings from facts
When managed appropriately, feelings are an excellent guide to helping us move forward. Instead of using up valuable energy to worry, you can transform that nervous energy into action.
For example, if Jason feels worried about managing his co-workers, he can consciously take it as an opportunity to improve his skill set and enhance his emotional intelligence by learning how to lead his team empathetically and effectively. Using his feelings to take action, rather than staying stuck in negative feelings, will help Jason move forward and will improve his relationships at work and at home.
2. Make a plan
When change happens and you perceive it as pain, that means you feel stress or resistance to that change and the different parts of your brain are not working together as well as they could.
When Jason ruminated about the additional responsibilities that he might have, he felt worried about the future and had trouble sleeping. He sat down to write out his worries, which activated his brain’s planning function and helped him realize that he had options to solve the problem.
3. Build a winning team
Fear triggers an unconscious response that we need to ‘go it alone’. You can resist this pattern by getting the help and support you need to live a more fulfilling life.
Jason made a list of what he needed, and who he needed to talk to, to support his success. He scheduled a 1:1 with his manager and discussed the resources he needed, including training. Jason hired a consultant to coach and help him build his individual leadership skills.
Our brains work best when we’re relaxed, rested and open to new experiences versus when we are stressed and feeling like change has been imposed upon us and we have no control.
We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how to respond to it.
Understanding how our brains work and their role in our emotions, actions and how we experience the world can positively change our experience of a situation and how we react.