Nothing to fear but fear itself

As we explored in the last article, one needs to learn to listen to one’s emotions, understand them and react proportionately. We have to control our impulses and use instinct and intelligence to make rational decisions.

The next series of articles will look at some of the key emotions and explore their significance and how to manage them effectively.

Understanding fear

One of the most important and ever present emotions is fear. Fear is the brain’s way of ensuring we are aware of potential danger.  Fear, along with happiness, is a critical component of feeling excitement:  one is looking forward to something but one is not entirely sure what will happen. This is perfectly illustrated by how a skydiver might feel before a jump, or how one feels on a rollercoaster.

Fear allows humans to take chances and to stay alive. It is the brain’s way of telling one to pay more attention, to take care.

For example, skydiving comes with very serious danger. It is perfectly right that the participant feels fear before they leap from a plane. Without the feeling of fear, humans would be doing all sorts of dangerous activities without taking appropriate precautions. In the case of the skydiver, they use a parachute and check the conditions before flying. Importantly, they are able to rationalise that while something may go wrong, the pleasure from carrying out the sport is worth the risk.

Humans are also aware that fear is not always as real as it might appear. Understanding the difference between real and perceived threat helps us to make rational decisions about how we proceed. Fear can be seen in two ways:

False Evidence Appearing Real –  much like the glass bridge we referred to in an earlier newsletter, something may appear frightening but we are able to use instinct and experience to assess whether the threat is material.

Face Everything And Run – this is where the threat is completely real and we do everything to protect ourselves; handing over our possessions to the armed gunman, for example.

Levels of fear

It helps to understand fear as moving along a gradually increasing scale from zero to ten. Zero is serenity and ten is absolute terror.

Imagine you are in a fast car on a racing track. You start off quite moderate speed. It is one you are comfortable with and the driving conditions are clear and dry. At this stage your fear levels would be about one or perhaps two. Your brain needs to be switched on and you should be concentrating. As you start to accelerate, the fear levels should start to increase but driving fast is pleasurable so you also feel joy and ultimately excitement.

You accelerate more, taking the car to over 100mph. Your fear levels are now at five or six. You are still in control of the car, but the corners on the track are becoming more challenging. You know that if you crashed it would be serious but the experience is still rewarding.

You press the accelerator again, taking the car to 140mph. Your fear levels are at seven. You are really afraid. As we discussed in the last newsletter, the animal brain is starting to take over the human brain. Your body is producing more adrenaline which tightens your solar plexus and stops your stomach from functioning. Energy is diverted from non-essentials organs.  Your heart pumps faster, your throat constricts to make you focus. Your fight or flight mechanisms are kicking in and your brain is screaming at you to press the brake.

At this point it starts to rain, the track gets slippery and you lose control. Your fear levels are between eight and ten and you reach ‘nameless dread’.

At this stage you would do anything to get out of situation but even your animal brain switches off. Your reptile brain takes over and – as is the case with some reptiles when they are attacked – you freeze. The body and brain are no longer functioning and you are at the mercy of the car and fate.

Managing fear

Reaching levels seven to ten is unusual. Humans have evolved to prevent getting to the state where we are so vulnerable. Keeping fear in check allows one to stay in control and make the right decisions.

This is clearly extremely important in business. Leaders need to listen to their fear, understand it process it and react appropriately. One of the most important tools we have as humans is the ability to ‘sit with our fear’.

Much like all other muscles, the brain must be worked if it is to get stronger. One particularly effective brain exercise is to sit with one’s fear, which means allow the physical change in body to happen. The next step is to not be distracted and focus on what is happening. One needs to listen to the emotion, feel the fear as it manifests and then take control of it.

The more one sits with one’s fear the more we are able to hear it, understand it and respond to it.

If one chooses to ignore fear or to suppress it, one learns nothing from it and one is unable to make better decisions next time a threat manifests.

Take a company director who fears another couple of months of poor sales will damage the company irreparably. This understandably makes her fearful. If she panics, she makes poor decisions, knee-jerk reactions, or simply freezes. The fear may make her angry and she reacts by shouting at the sales team who in response are demotivated or leave.

She needs to process the fear and use it to spur positive action.

Fear need not be a negative emotion. Indeed it can be motivating and galvanising but only if one learns to manage it effectively.

Strong leaders acknowledge their fear, listen it and use it to drive positive behaviour both personally and across their business.

Fear is one of the most important emotions for humans. Fundamentally it keeps us sane, but it is also instrumental in driving us forward. Fear can be understood as ranging across ten levels with zero being serenity and ten being terror. Humans need to try and keep fear levels well below level seven.

However this emotion can be complex to manage. We need to learn to sit with our fear. This means allowing the body to feel the physical manifestations of fear. To hear what the emotion is saying and to process it. This slows the human brain to stay in control which leads to more effective decision making.

Interested in more information on managing emotions.

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