Our brains are hardwired for survival.
From the very beginning, our brain’s primary function has been to keep us safe, secure and from harm. It’s what makes us instinctively duck a low-flying bird. Or flinch at a loud and unexpected noise. It’s what throws us into fight, flight or freeze mode.
Our brain does this by constantly monitoring our environment and classifying the threat level. It continually places us on a scale from threat to safety; and events on a scale from risk to reward. And this is the brain’s single overarching organising principle:
“To minimise threat and maximise reward.”
In this context, a useful thing to know about the brain is that it is hugely bias towards the threat response. The threat response is far more easily triggered, is felt more acutely, lasts longer and is harder to recover from.
“We walk toward, but run away.”
When fear becomes unhelpful
When we’re in a place of threat, not a lot of thinking is going on: our brain downgrades its own function and diverts resources to our arms and legs, gets our heart pumping, our blood flowing. All far more useful in response to a threat: if the house is burning down, we want to act, not sit and ponder over what to do next.
But in our regular day-to-day, when the house isn’t coming down and our goals have moved on from just pure survival, this bias towards threat can be decidedly unhelpful. It might be keeping us from taking calculated risks; preventing us seeing and embracing opportunities and choices; or have us limiting our thinking and our actions. In short, keeping us comfortably in our comfort zone.
In this scenario, our prioritisation of fear is no longer serving us.
To overcome our brain’s bias to the threat response, here are 9 brain-based strategies to help us see fear as our brain and body gearing us up for the challenge; and to get us stepping out of our comfort zone to achieve new levels of success.
1. Bring your “thinking brain” online
When we’re fearful or anxious, our conscious brain goes offline as our brain diverts resources away from what become lower priority functions like thinking and into higher-priority functions like running or fighting. Bring your “thinking brain” back online with numbers. Rate your fear on a scale of 1 – 10. Label the emotions in just a word: “fear”, “anxiety”, “anticipation”, “excitement”. Just doing these things will dampen your limbic response.
2. Use the power of your imagination
Use your powers of imagination: for good! Often, our fear gets out of proportion through the misuse of our imagination: catastrophising, imagining negative outcomes, unfounded fortune-telling and mind-reading. Instead, imagine yourself embracing your pivotal moment with cool, calm, collected aplomb. You’re comfortable. You’re on top of things. It’s going well. Doing this will recondition your mind to feel calmer and more upbeat about your pivotal moment.
3. Observe your fear
What are you really scared of, here? Fear of failure? Fear of success? Is the fear about what you’re moving towards? Or about what you’ll be leaving behind? This is more “thinking about the thinking” from a third-person perspective. Use this to understand a bit more about the source of your anxiety.
4. Champion courage over security
Fear is often borne of our need to feel secure. To move past this, we must consciously prioritise our successes above our security. Take a fresh look at the challenge in front of you in terms of security. Yes it’s a challenge; but quite often no more or less secure than the status quo. Current reality is the more familiar – and so the more “secure”, by default. Challenge that assumption.
5. Have your rational mind override your reactive mind
Your reactive mind often magnifies an opportunity to create unnecessary overwhelm. Counter that with your rational mind. Say to yourself: I’m not going to do the full enormity of the task. I’m just going to do this one small thing instead. Often, just getting started on a small action is enough to move us beyond the fear.
6. Make it an experiment
We often find a daunting prospect easier to handle if we simply consider it an experiment. Nothing permanent or that can’t be undone or retreated from. Something easily reversed. So “just give it a try” before returning to “normal”.
7. Have fear be an immediate call to action
In the moment you’re struck by an onset of fear: take action. Immediately. Before anything else. Don’t give yourself time to think on it and instead take some small action that gets you moving.
8. Reframe fear as excitement
And remember to breathe! “Fear is excitement without the breath” said Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. Breathing releases the tension that otherwise comes with fear and lets us get on top of it. The resulting excitement is a useful and motivating state.
9. If you couldn’t fail
Ask yourself the powerful question: “If I couldn’t fail, what would I do?” Really get into an expansive mindset, full or energy and possibility. Bring to bear all of your resources and resourcefulness. Make your plans as big and as colourful as you can. Imagine doing what no one else could or would do. Where’s your fear now?
A new perspective on fear
In her seminal book Feel the fear and do it anyway, Susan Jeffers says in her first “Fear Truth”:
“The fear will never go away as long as you continue to grow.”
Every time we take a step out of our comfort zone, we experience fear. It’s simply part of the package.
And that’s a useful thought. Because with this realisation, we separate the fear of doing something from being able to do it. We remind ourselves that we can (are able to) do it; but we’re choosing to prioritise fear. And that keeps us from our success.
Instead: accept fear as our brain and body gearing us up for the challenge. And choose to prioritise your success over your fear.