This weekend has been long-awaited by me. The author of one of my favorite blogs (let’s call her LE) who also happens to be a coaching client has arrived in Calgary from her home overseas. We had never laid eyes on each other until last night when I picked her up from the Greyhound terminal.
Earlier that day we had been texting and had agreed that she would stay at our house for the weekend. It hit my wife and I that in many circumstances that would be akin to allowing a stranger run of our house. Somehow it had never occurred to me before we had that discussion.
Last night LE and I had dinner with another local blogger (DS). DS and I had met once before but not LE and DS.
Over drinks LE told a story of her meeting with yet another Calgary blogger (LG). LE recounted a story about how LE ‘s 20-something daughter had expressed her fears about meeting strangers while in Canada. Something like “Mum, these bloggers could be rapists or ax-murderers!”. LG laughed, saying her 20-something daughter also expressed a similar fear: “Mom, what if this LE person is a thief!”
Us 50+ types had great fun with this, marveling at what our children will do to protect our parents. Sitting there in a restaurant laughing about these fears, it was truly laughable in reality as well.
But perhaps not laughable in the minds of the 20-somethings who had expressed a real fear. What it brought to mind for me is that all emotions have a gift to give us, provided that the emotion is accessed in “normal” or “healthy” ranges. The gift of fear is to protect us (or help us protect our loved ones) from impending danger. It is our oldest emotion, dating back into our times living near saber-toothed tigers and strangers that might wander into the middle of our clan campfire.
Fear can be powerful. When it arises, it does something Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ called an “amygdala hi-jack”, which describes an emotional response which is immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat. In such a “hi-jack” our emotional brain can shut down our rational brain with a powerful chemical cocktail that triggers a “fight/flight/freeze” response.
This system evolved in the times of saber-toothed tigers. Like all evolutionary capacities, they take many generations to further evolve, and we haven’t lived in times of relative safety for long enough yet for some other system to appear. So our 21st century behavior is still governed by eons old biochemistry.
I’m not saying the 20-somethings actually had this happen to them. I only use this as an example of how the emotion of fear is by definition irrational. They had only thought of their mothers meeting strangers and it triggered the emotion of fear.
How often does that happen to each one of us in a day?
- We make a mistake at work and we fear getting fired.
- We walk into a room and the conversation stops, triggering a fear that the room had been conspiring against us.
- We’re driving on a busy street and we fear another driver is going to do something stupid.
- A person approaches a line-up at the cashier in the store, and we fear they are going to cut in front of us.
I wonder how many times we have irrational fears in a day. Probably many. Probably 10 or more times. Some are probably pretty simple (perhaps like the latter two in the list above), and we quickly process them and likely don’t give them much more thought. We access the fear, identify the threat, judge it harmless and re-establish rational control.
Others are more complex and more significant in the nature of the threat we feel and thus the emotion is more difficult to release. The story we tell ourselves of the threat becomes our reality and we hold the fear for much longer perhaps even disrupting our enjoyment for the rest of the day or longer.
The secret here is to learn to apply our abilities to dismiss the simple fears – access the fear, identify the threat, judge it harmless and re-establish rational control – to the complex ones. It isn’t as easy as it sounds as we have to work through that screen of powerful biochemicals that are in the process of shutting down our rational brain.
How might we learn to do that? Here’s 5 steps to getting there
- At some point after the initial fearful reaction, recall as vividly as possible and make the situation real for yourself again. Notice how you feel it physically. Is it a tightness in your chest? A flush in your face? Now name the exact emotion, as fear can have many faces? Is it worry? Panic? Dread? Naming the emotion allows you to associate the physical feeling with it.
- Now deliberately let that physical feeling go. As it releases ask yourself what is really happening in the situation? What do you know and what are you making up? In the example of the conversation stopping when you walked into the room, you’re actually making up that the people were talking about you. Perhaps they were talking about something embarrassing to them!
- Determine if there is a threat. If there really is, then it is okay to act on it and remove the threat. The emotion evolved for a purpose after all! Many times though there won’t be a real threat. What there might be is a threat to our carefully constructed self-image that isn’t worthy of this powerful chemical reaction.
- Start a calming process to release the fear and the powerful biochemicals, then work to replace the emotional reaction with a rational response. In this example such a response might be “I have no idea what they were talking about, and I don’t care”. Or “whatever they were talking about, I know I’m good with the way I am”.
- Here’s the real secret. Become very familiar with the physical feeling we have with fearful responses and become alert to it. We can monitor such somatic feelings even in the midst of a hi-jack more easily than assessing the situation rationally. As we become more adept at spotting the somatic feeling, we can more quickly invoke steps 2-4 and become adept at handling stronger and stronger reactions.
What experiences do you have with being hi-jacked? How often do your fearful reactions turn out to be false alarms? What are the best tricks you’ve learned for releasing false alarms?