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December 29, 2020

Making Friends with Fear

by Johanna Lyman in Blog Roll, Conscious Communications

Why on earth would someone want to make friends with fear? Isn’t fear the enemy? A glimpse inside the minds of so many these days: “There’s too much to be afraid of these days: if I focus on fear I’ll never get anything done and I’m already struggling to be productive while working at home and what if I get COVID and I’m trying to corral the kids into online learning and, and, and…” (this is the abridged version).

The problem we have with fear is that we usually do everything within our power to avoid it. Unfortunately there is truth to the old adage, “what we resist, persists.” Fear is trying to tell us something, and the longer we resist it, the longer it takes to get the message. More on that in a minute. But first, it’s important to understand how fear can hijack the brain.

The default response to fear is the fight/flight response, compliments of the limbic system. The limbic system has gotten a lot of press lately, but as a brief refresher, it’s the part of the reptilian brain that’s responsible for keeping us alive.

What’s commonly known as the fight/flight response is actually the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. While anyone can technically access any one of the survival responses, we usually have a “favorite” that worked well when we first had to activate the response as children. Here’s how they work, with both obvious and less obvious examples:

  1. Fight: The obvious expression of this is the “punch out the bad guy” version. But the fight response is also evident in the mother lifting a car to save her child, or when a colleague argues relentlessly for their point.
  2. Flight: You’ve been told to run away from the bad guy, an obvious flight response. Less obvious is repeatedly leaving relationships or jobs when faced with some kind of adversity, or even being unable to commit to a relationship or job at all.
  3. Freeze: The proverbial deer in the headlights is what usually comes to mind when you think of the freeze response. Less obvious would be someone who has difficulty making decisions. Most of us struggle with really difficult decisions, like moving away from family and friends to pursue a great job opportunity. But when someone struggles with more everyday decisions, the freeze response is likely (at least partly) to blame.
  4. Fawn: This is the least well-known of the four responses—at least to members of the dominant culture. One obvious version is Stockholm Syndrome, when a captor develops a psychological attachment to their kidnapper. They try to make themselves as pleasing as possible to the person in power in order to stay alive. A less obvious but far more common example happens when BIPOC “code switch” in the presence of a white boss or co-worker. Code-switching is when BIPOC speak (and act) one way in front of white people and another when they’re among close friends. It’s a way to stay “safe” by fitting in.

When we experience fear, it’s the limbic system sending us a message. It wants us to do something, even if that something is nothing, in order to stay safe (read: alive). With the exception of the freeze response, the other three responses to fear require action. And action brings about change. Specifically, taking new or different actions brings about change.

Taking new or different actions are essential to both personal and professional growth and development. Nobody gets a promotion by doing the same thing every day. Nobody has ever invented something, or designed something new, or coded a new program by doing the same thing every day. All growth requires change.

Unfortunately, the limbic system conflates change with danger. It’s a major flaw in our operating system: the only thing the limbic system knows you can survive are things you’ve already survived. Which means that any time you try to do something new, you’ll activate the fight/flight response.

But growth requires change. The first response to impending change is usually the freeze response. In order to do something new, you have to get over the inertia that fear begets. We have a coaching strategy to help with that. It goes like this:

  1. Identify the desired behavior change.
  2. Ask yourself, “What could I gain by doing this new behavior?” Write down your answer. Journal to go a little deeper.
  3. Ask yourself, “What might I lose if I take on this new behavior?” Journal your answer. It might take a while to uncover what you’re afraid of losing, but give
  4. yourself 15 to 20 minutes to write.
  5. Identify how likely it is that you’d lose the thing/person you’re afraid to lose. Spoiler alert: it’s usually highly unlikely that what you’re afraid of will actually happen.
  6. Then ask yourself this series of questions:
    1. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
    2. “And then what?” “And then what?”
    3. “And then what?”

Ask “and then what” as many times as it takes to get to the place where your body relaxes. This happens when your system realizes that you’re not actually going to die. Once it recognizes that you won’t die, you can move forward with the new behavior.

Sometimes, however, that freeze response can be your friend. We call this “positive procrastination.” Think of it as an incubation period. You have a thought about doing something new, and then it goes “into the hopper.” You put it aside and don’t think too much about it, at least not consciously. But your subconscious brain loves to solve problems, so it goes to work on figuring out how you can accomplish this new thing without dying. When you give yourself time to breathe into this incubation period, you might surprise yourself with the creative solutions your mind comes up with.

Fear isn’t fun, but it doesn’t have to be the enemy.