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This is Your Brain on Fear!
Stop reading this right now and look around where you are. Notice everything that is blue. Do everything you can to remember all the blue items that you see.
(Did you do it? Stop and do it. You will get so much more out of this post if you play along.)
OK, now without looking up from your computer tell me everything you saw that is the color red. This is exactly what happens to us when fear arises. The fear stimulates the fight or flight response, which triggers a bio-chemical explosion in our bodies. This bio-chemical explosion puts our brains on ready alert. Now our brains are prepared to notice any possible threat that exists. Our brain starts looking around only for the "blue."
Said another way, we are vigilantly scanning our environment for any possible threats that exist ("blue"). So, as you just experienced in the opening exercise, you don't even see the "non-threatening" parts of the environment around you. We really don't notice the way in which you are safe and secure.
Now lets talk about the next most important part of this pattern. Is every fear a valid fear? No way! Not every fear is valid. Not every fear that puts us into this hyper alert state is an actual life and death situation. What has happened is that our minds are constantly attempting to anticipate the fear before it even shows up. It's the ultimate human alarm system.
Why does it do this?
Because it can! Because it is critical to our survival. Because the faster and earlier we can recognize the tiger hiding in the bushes, the more likely we are to avoid "death by tiger! The problem is that no one has died by losing his or her job. However, because it can feel pretty devastating, the fear response gets stimulated and we may start anticipating "death by getting fired" behind every bush. Or it may be the fear of "death by break-up." Fear of the pain of losing the love of your life causes you to see all the reasons why the relationship wouldn't work. You only see the blue and don't even notice all the red. And avoid relationships altogether. Risk is another place where this dynamic shows up. With my coaching clients I am constantly walking people through the process of getting their fears into perspective. Without perspective, we end of treating every fear as life and death. It was risky to walk past a bush that might have a tiger behind it. Especially if you are not absolutely, positively sure that there is no possible way that a tiger is there. The safest bet is to not move a muscle. In fact, your brain is designed to keep you from going past that bush. It is no wonder why so many people give up on their dreams and accept the status quo.
What can you do? How do you get past your "bush"? How do you notice the "red" instead of remaining unconsciously hyper-focused on the "blue"?
GET INTO ACTION:
The first step is to become aware of your fear response. Each of our fear responses shows up a bit differently. So, the first step in growing awareness is to consciously observe the fear response in action. Here is an example of a self-observation exercise I use with my coaching clients.
- Choose one activity each day that has a history of stimulating your fear response
- Before entering the activity/action, pause and take a few deep breaths (get centered)
- Enter the activity
- Either after the activity or at the end of the day answer these questions (in your journal)
- What was the activity?
- What thoughts were arising as you engaged in the activity?
- What was the result of taking this action? (Please notice that you didn't die!)
The next step is to get perspective by hiring a coach, starting a mastermind group, or joining a support group of some sort. I don't trust a homeless person to give me good financial advice — it just does not make sense. The homeless person has a history of behavior that has resulted in their being homeless. In much the same way, your brain has a history of behavior that has brought you the results you have in your life. So, if making changes is what you want, why would you put your trust in something that has not been working? This is why outside perspective and support is so critical.
Doug Miller is a personal and professional life coach enjoying life in Los Angeles with his wife and two boys. You can learn more about him and his work at www.coachdoug.com