The Debilitating Effects of Fear and how to start moving past them….
“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!”
Franklyn Delano Roosevelt
It turns out that FDR was absolutely right……at least PARTIALLY so, anyway. Fear is indeed something to avoid unless you’re actually in danger and need to attend to it! But here’s the typically accompanying, paradoxical rub: Like fearing anything, “fearing” fear…. actually compounds it! That’s because the amygdala and the limbic brain (the part of the brain that processes fear) has to keep “checking in” with itself to make sure it’s avoiding the thing it fears. Which of course, brings your focus back onto the thing you fear……And whatever you focus on, expands. So it’s kind of the equivalent of tying a tin can to your foot and then trying to out-run it! The weakening effects of fear on the body are easily proven by kinesthetic testing. And after presiding over close to a third of a million auditions for 31 years when I was a professional film and television casting director, the effects of and solutions to fear are now well-known to me given my experience helping literally thousands of actors in high-pressure auditions. That very unique experience combined with a life-long, parallel career as a performing, professional musician, directly informs my work as a presentation and performance specialist helping to prepare my clients for public speaking, endorsement and communications endeavors.
But there’s something else that fear does which is even more problematic for us if we have to focus and use rational thought to solve our problem instead of just react. It actually makes us less intelligent when we’re under its influence! The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that we use to engage in rational thought and reasoning. It’s much smaller than the amygdala (The part that processes fear) and is always overridden by the limbic/reactive brain when our perception is that we’re under attack or in danger. That’s because this is the part of the brain that is charged with our survival and induces the flight or fight response that helped our ancestors survive when being chased by a saber-tooth tiger. So the immediate need for survival, always overrides the luxury of rational and logical thought processes. When you add cortisol and adrenaline, (the stress chemicals that are needed for true “flight or fight) it’s a soup that definitely inhibits reason and logic. Perfect for running away from that saber-toothed tiger though which is the very function for which this process is designed and hard-wired into our neurology. Unfortunately, even when the boardroom, the workplace or our relationships are the places where it arises, we respond the same way even though the saber-toothed predator is nowhere in sight. Our brains do a better job of reasoning when we’re calm and relaxed enough to use the part of the brain actually designed for this function. If fear of our own character traits is profound enough that we subconsciously reject and deny them, we can even end up projecting them onto others and hating them for it. This form of fear does real damage to personal relationships.
Believe it or not, the number one greatest statistical fear is glassophobia-the technical term for the fear of public speaking! Even before death!! I guess those who rated it first figured that death would logically put an end to any public speaking possibilities they might have to endure, so there was no reason to put death first! And there’s a kind of perverse logic to that so it would seem they were using the pre-frontal cortex to reason that one out!! In my work as an executive presentational media coach, fears about what could happen, naturally come up for my clients. Their first thought is to ask me how to avoid those fears. The problem is that according to numerous studies on “ironic effect,” trying to NOT do something makes you much more inclined to actually DO that thing you’re trying to avoid! As I mentioned above, that’s because the limbic brain has to keep “checking in” with itself to make sure we’re not actually doing the thing we’re not supposed to be doing! And just when we need our rational brains the most to organize and present our thoughts cogently, our fear-induced fog, blocks out those thoughts since the brain can’t entertain two conflicting thoughts at the same time. And the one charged with our survival is always dominant. Unfortunately, most public speaking trainings focus on empirical and deeply flawed studies on body language and seek to avoid anything that doesn’t look or sound “presentational”…whatever THAT means! And they usually try to remove any quirks you may happen to have to make you look more like everyone else. Exactly opposite of what I’m looking to do with my clients! What I’m working toward is to help you be even MORE your authentic self, whether you’re speaking in front of five people in your own living room or five thousand in a large venue. Quirks and all! When you can streamline your purpose and reduce your distractions and fears, you’re in the best possible shape to present or perform in a way that invigorates you and brings real value to your audience. In short, a win/win.
And from a neurolinguistic standpoint, (the relationship between language and neurological response) the language we use can have profound impact on the neurological assignments our brains make! And new studies in quantum physics are finding out more and more about the impact that energy has on the subatomic particles that transfer between us during verbal AND non-verbal communication. As an example, lets examine the famous line Scarlett O’Hara has in the classic film, “Gone With The Wind.” She emphatically declares, “As god is my witness, I will never go hungry again!” Unfortunately, she’s doomed herself to a life of hunger by almost tying it to her foot like that proverbial tin can I mentioned above. Now if she had said, “As god is my witness, I will always have abundant food!” THEN she’d be on to an actual solution. When Mother Teresa was asked if she would attend a protest against the Afghan War, she replied: “No, thank you. But if you should organize a march for peace, please let me know!” In my work with my clients, I help them focus on this crucial, energetic aspect of the content they’re presenting and check it for fear-based terminology and statements. They’re pretty easy to change into statements that actually move TOWARD what is wanted rather than AWAY from what isn’t wanted. Or expansive (love-based) vs contractive (fear-based). Most are quire surprised by the ramifications of switching just this simple influencer and they become pretty good at sussing them out for themselves after we work together!
So what do we actually do about our fears? I actually encourage my clients to delve even further into and examine them! But with the rational brain directing the focus. It’s EXTREMELY important engage in this inquiry when we’re safe and can fully use our pre-frontal cortex to examine our fears. NOT WHEN WE’RE IN THE THICK OF THEM! So when my clients are able to relax and focus on their thoughts, we engage in a process I call “pulling vine weeds”. If you’ve ever pulled vine weeds, you know you’re going to end up somewhere other than where you started. It goes something like this: “I’m afraid of ______. Because if ______ happens? Then_____ will be the result. And if _____is the result? Then________. And if _____ happens?…etc.” The process keeps breaking down the answers until we get down to a single “bottom-line” fear which in many cases, actually ends up being a fear of death! All from a public speaking engagement! But if we don’t engage in this rational examination, we’re likely to just find ourselves in the fear-induced grip of this nameless, faceless and menacing “something” we can’t even identify. Engaging in the bottom-line fear process allows us to put a a name and a face to that boogie man. And the advantage of doing that, is that we can then ask ourselves if that fear is even a possibility of happening as a result of our presentation which many times, is HIGHLY remote. And if it actually IS a possibility, asking the question of whether or not we’re willing to risk it, allows us to engage with it with our rational brains and trying that possibility on for size. Looking at this possibility with the rational brain, actually helps to disempower the fear mechanism since you have to use your pre-frontal cortex to weigh the possibility of enduring it or not. If the answer is a definite “no!” I don’t encourage the client to give the presentation. But if they’re game, they engage in something the Buddhists, call the “law of detachment,” the Christians call putting it into God’s hands, the Jews call Yad Vashem or the “hand of God,” or the Muslims call, putting it into “the will of Allah.” And God doesn’t have to be part of the process if you’re an atheist. You can just call it, “what the hell!” When you can find the same ideology among disparate ones, you know you’re on to a central truth. Basically, you let go of the result and logically manage your expectations of the presentation. And when you do, your priorities change from mere survival and protection of self, to allow for a more fuller focus on the actual intention of your presentation. Something far more useful than simply surviving your presentation since that isn’t likely to impact your audience much. And if your intention is actually being in service to your audience, you begin to forget about yourself! If THAT happens, you’ve got the makings of a truly great basis for your presentation! But if you try to hide any fear you have, forget about the possibility. Everyone knows so at some point, you might even just admit it and get it out of the way. As is oft and accurately said, the least “conflicted” participant in any situation, is always the most powerful one. That’s because when you have no considerations to have to accommodate, your intention is streamlined to the maximum amount. When you’ve asked yourself if your worst fear coming true is something with which you’re willing to engage if it should come up, then it loses it’s power over you and you actually make room for it! And when you do that, it paradoxically becomes far less likely to happen! Either way, it will have the least possible impact if it actually DOES happen!
The actual intention of your presentation is something far more important than we are typically given to realize. I frequently work with political figures. And if you’ve ever heard one of them saying something that wasn’t making much sense, there may be a very a good reason for that. Especially, if they’re speaking from the fear-induced part of their brain. And that can be compounded if you’re LISTENING from that same fear-addled part in your OWN brain!! Whatever side of the political spectrum you inhabit, rational thought and more importantly, critical thinking have never been more essential to figuring out what the hell we stand for and why. Especially with sometimes fake news and “alternate” facts abounding. And when we’re whipped up into fear of the “other” whether that’s someone of a different religion, political party, sexual identity, nationality or race, the last thing we need is to have our fear-induced brains do our thinking for us in navigating the terrain with each other. Truly a faulty tour guide as both the research and our common experience, more than shows. And with less fear clouding our thinking, just maybe we can muster more of the balm of compassion and understanding that sometimes seems in such short supply. And we can reach across ideologies to help forge some amount of logical compromise and consensus.
So…..Fear not!!! Find something to actually move TOWARD!! It’s much more useful! Here’s more on possible solutions!
great read, insight and mind set Stephen, looking forward to your book to learn more about your methodology …I am marrying some dear friends in Sept and of course addressing the assembled mass just before the ceremony, butterflies brewing, even with my greeting / introduction being short & sweet …
August 9, 2017
Thanks for the kind words, Marco. I’m looking for a publisher at the moment and will update folks as soon as I have something out. In the meantime, I’m happy to chat on the phone about your ceremony and how to better handle the butterflies if you’d like!
August 17, 2017