For the majority of the last year, most people have been operating on a low-grade fear overload.
Whether or not they are present to the fear that is running through their body is not the point. The point is that fear or the experience of being afraid, living with anxiety, waiting for the next bad thing to happen has been in the air and riddling through our mental, spiritual and emotional selves since March 2020.
What is Fear?
Fear is the paralyzing feeling you experience when your nerves are already shot, you turn on the news and hear that COVID-19 is coming for you.
Within moments of hearing and watching the news anchor, their heightened state of anxiety comes through in their energy, tonality, and rate of speech. Before you know it, your heart is beating faster, you have an uncomfortable feeling in your gut, and your thoughts begin spinning out of control towards catastrophic thinking.
You are so caught up in your thoughts, you do not realize that you are no longer grounded, confident, or clear.
The 7 Levels of Individual, Group, and Organizational Effectiveness describes fear as the belief that one must protect themselves from almost certain loss, attack, or disappointment.
When a person is exercising fear, they almost always are resisting being with a situation, circumstance, person, or thing they believe is causing them distress. We know we are in a state of fear when we are resisting something we do not want or craving something we do not have.
The Vedic traditions of Yoga speak to fear as being a lack of presence.
When we are pushing away what we do not want; COVID, disappointing someone important to us, being embarrassed by making a mistake, or by failing on the job, we are so focused on what we don’t want, we have no access to what we do want.
When we are wishing things were different and they would change, we are not being with what is so. This causes our body and state of mind to either relive and replay the past, or wander towards and beg for a better future.
What Does Fear Do To Our Nervous System?
When we engage in this kind of thinking, the sympathetic nervous system clicks into high gear to alert our body that something is wrong. High doses of cortisol and adrenaline are then released into our system.
This flood of chemicals in the system creates:
- shakiness in the extremities
- sweaty palms
- butterflies in the stomach and chest areas
- breathing may be shallow
The eyes look alarmed – think of a “deer in the headlights” — and are often moving rapidly in an unfocused manner.
Quite often it is difficult for people at this level to connect with their bodies (or feel present in their own skin). It may feel impossible or threatening to pause and check-in with what the body is doing and feeling.
This inability to tune in to our bodies, mind, and spirit is so common, as a society we have learned that “checking out” is a viable coping mechanism for combatting the sense of fear and uncertainty. Overindulging in everything from marijuana and alcohol to Netflix and chocolate chip cookies are common quick fixes to calm the anxiety and nervous system. Of course, these are temporary bandaids that only serve to distract from the core of the dis-ease, and dissipate in a matter of a few hours at best.
30 Possible Thought Patterns That Arise From Fear
BEabove and Insight Principles, my trainers and mentors in the neuroscience and leadership field, share the language, thinking, or the quality of thoughts, that accompany the energy or state of fear.
- I/we need to protect myself/ourselves
- We need to watch out!
- The world is scary and unsafe
- I’ll get hurt (or fail) if I do that
- It’s too big a risk
- What if I lose my job (child, spouse, health, looks)?
- What if they find out I don’t know what I am doing?
- You/I can’t trust anyone
- You/they are a threat
- If only I hadn’t………
- If only that hadn’t happened
- I’ll never have that again
- Don’t you understand how bad things are?
- Isn’t it awful……..
- You’ll get sick if you do that
- Protect your heart
- Protect your belongings
- People will cheat you/me
- Be sure you get ALL the information
- Don’t be taken advantage of
- Sooner or later they’ll find out I am a fraud
- Keep your head down and don’t make people angry
- Stay under the radar
- Don’t stand out
- Don’t get in the way
- Stay with your own kind
- Don’t make demands or they will leave
What If I end up on the streets
What if I die
What if I wind up alone
How Fear Affects Different Sides of Your Brain
The brain’s response to the fear state of mind is withdrawal. Much like the rest of our emotions, it is much easier to spot this in others than it is to see it in ourselves. The flight action of the limbic system (amygdala) is predictable at this level. It triggers our nervous system to protect us, and puts us in a heightened state of anxiety.
Right Brain Hemisphere
In the state of mind of FEAR, a person can only experience happiness 9-10% of the time.
When a person is Right Brain Hemisphere dominant, fear can show up as chaotic, disorganized emotions that feel frenetic and out of control.
Left Brain Hemisphere
If the person is Left Brain Hemisphere dominant, fear may manifest through the fearful person putting more and more restrictions on themselves and the world in order to feel in control (and therefore safe).
When the leader lacks integration of the right and left hemispheres, this may show up in a propensity to focus on one individual scary tree and miss the whole forest (too much left hemisphere), or by seeing too much all at once and losing the ability to focus on individual positive steps that can be taken to move things forward (too much right hemisphere).
We have certainly experienced all of this in ourselves and others during the Pandemic.
How Leaders Can Overcome States of Fear
As a chronic and ongoing way of life, much like what most of us have experienced over the last 9 months, fear often manifests as a general feeling of unease, with an unsettled stomach and a sense of being “high strung.” This is due to the consistent activation of pro-inflammatory biochemical responses. There are heightened amounts of adrenaline and cortisol, and the body is more prone to cancer.
When it comes to Leaders who are operating at this level of effectiveness, we are anxious and insecure.
Our activity is restless and even frenzied at times, as we seek to create a world we are in control of which will not harm us. This often makes the Leader’s personal expression and behavior more and more constrained, and often results in a corresponding need to constrain others as well. This is known as micromanagement.
Leaders in the Level of Fear
When Leaders are in the level of Fear, there is a noticeable lack of calm and an overall sense that they are not centered or at peace. Others may describe them as jangled or fretful, as well as rigid and inflexible. In either case, it often feels uncomfortable to be around them.
When a group or organization is operating at this level of effectiveness, there is often a lot of activity, much of it frenzied or needless.
Meetings take twice as long as they should, and decisions are often immediately challenged or even disregarded (“how could we possibly do that?”). Endless energy is put into protecting oneself or one’s group from possible threat (both offensive and defensive strategies are used). Often information is held close to the chest, and there is very little trust within and between work groups or business units.
An overload of rules and policies is another hallmark of this level.
Anything “negative” that happens is met with a new rule even when it doesn’t make sense or is actively unfair. There is an overall sense that where we are is not ok, as measured by some sort of external standard. The energy of striving endlessly to “make it” is present. This is different than the engaged energy of hard work that occurs at higher levels, in that it is not motivated by the enjoyment of the enterprise, but by the feeling that we are somehow behind, under threat, and/or not doing it “right.”
How I’ve Coped with Fear as Leader
In 2016, when I found myself trapped in an unworkable business situation, I felt like I was drowning in anxiety.
Every morning I woke up, a flush of panic suffocated me; I experienced myself as being weak, feeble, and inadequate.
I invested an enormous amount of time, vulnerability, passion, and relationships in the venture. The damage caused by the breakdown in my relationship with my middle son and a long-term employee was more than I could bear at times. The week before I called it quits, I was so wound up or spun out, I went to see a therapist.
I was certain I needed anti-anxiety medication or deep counsel.
After a two-hour talk, he said, “you are not depressed, and you do not need ‘happy’ pills. You need to follow your heart and your gut. If this company is bad for your soul, walk away.”
In that moment, I realized the fear of failing was trumping my intuitive guidance and was causing me to live in agony.
24 hours later, I went to see an attorney and days later I exclaimed the business deal was not moving forward. The moment I declared I was done, the fear, the anxiety, and the trauma I was causing myself by being indecisive stopped.
Sometimes we are so afraid, we do not know how afraid we are.
Move Beyond Fear With These 4 Steps
At times when we are deeply consumed with fear, consciously or under the surface, it interferes with our ability to enjoy life.
For optimal mental health and effectiveness in every area of life, it is imperative to learn and understand how fear clouds our ability to see and experience life as it is happening.
When we are operating in a state of fear, everything we experience is through that lens. People, situations and circumstances are all colored through the lens of fear and anxiety, and frankly cloud our view.
We cannot see reality for what it is. We only see what fear allows us to see, and our perceptions are framed by our fear. What can keep us in the level of Fear is the refusal to stand up for ourselves. When we are able to make ourselves a priority and we embrace the possibility of a fulfilling life, positive movement becomes possible. This is what the state of Courage offers us.
1. Strengthen Personal and Situational Awareness
To move beyond Fear and to a higher level of Individual, Group, or Organizational Effectiveness (show 7 Level graphic), we need to strengthen our personal and situational awareness. Regular practice of tuning in to our emotions allows us to notice when we are off, and to be with the noticing without admonishing ourselves for feeling the way we are feeling. When we are present to the sense of fear constraining us, we can then do something about it.
2. Understand Your Own Fears
The power of understanding our own fear and learning the mechanics of how the mind works is that we can tap into our higher levels of intelligence, and shift our fear into action. It begins with seeing fear for what fear is. F.E.A.R. is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. There’s no true threat of immediate physical danger, no threat of a loss of someone or something dear to us, actually nothing there at all. F.E.A.R. is an illusion. Something we fabricate in our own minds and pretend is real.
3. Embrace Courage and Innovation
Leaning into the energy of courage and innovation can be very helpful to redirect fear when it includes the positive aspects of logical analysis. Helping people understand that their fear may not be real, as well as focusing on what can and cannot be changed is often effective.
In the state of fear, we have somewhat more awareness than we did in Hopelessness, and thus, more capacity to move towards positive change.
When we find ourselves working with or relating to someone in this state, it is important to help them focus on developing an understanding of what is a rational fear that can be worked with, and what is an irrational fear to be released. Because this is a level of frenzy and paralysis, often the most helpful intervention is to help move someone into focused, positive action.
4. If Fear is Overwhelming, Try Grounding
There has been a myriad of times over the last year when I am coaching a CEO who is in a deep state of fear. They almost never call me and say, “Help I am in fear!” What I do hear is how every mistake and foible they see in themselves and others is experienced as an Epic Failure.
Their fear shows up through their verbal spinning out about everything that is wrong. When I find myself coaching someone in this state of mind the first thing I ask them to do is participate in a grounding process.
Then, I ask them to remind me (and themselves) of their vision for their leadership.
As they tune into their vision, they begin to calm down and come home to their authentic purpose and true self. Once the leader is present, it is much easier to have them tap into their core values and when they do, they almost automatically move from fear to courage.
From the space of courage, I have them look to see what is the root cause of the anxiety, and together we brainstorm about what they can do to navigate the current rough waters. The key in coaching someone through this state of mind is the grounding.
When a person is deep in fear, they experience their situation or themselves through lack, scarcity, and failure. This could feel like standing in a sea of shame. When the leader connects with their higher self, they can access new waters and look at what is happening as an opportunity to grow, develop, and move forward.
The present leader can choose to look at the challenge through the wall of shame or a sea of enlightenment. It always boils down to choice.
Moving From Fear to Courage
In summary, all human beings experience fear at one time or another.
The feelings come and go for all of us. The degree to which we recognize the feelings and energy of fear, and train ourselves to process the emotions of this below-the-line energy, will determine how long we suffer through it.
Our effectiveness, happiness, and well-being in life are all direct correlations to the level of consciousness we allow ourselves to operate from.
A higher level of awareness about our feelings, emotions, and reactions to the things in life we find challenges gives us the empowerment to choose, create, and respond to life from free will.
Free will equates to power.
Join us for Ignite Power, where over 2.5 days you get the training, tools, and experience you need to step beyond fear and into creative action and empowerment.