We are living in a climate of unprecedented economic and social fear.
The specter of fear shrouds us in our workplaces, communities, schools, and homes. If we try to outrun its eerie and suffocating presence, we will simply bump right up against it only a few feet away. Like an apparition in a children’s cartoon, this fear has equal power to keep us frozen in place both in mind and deed.
And from that frozen place, we lose our connection with our creativity, our ability to think innovatively, and our access to problem-solving skills. In fact, it has been shown that when we are deep in fear or under stress, we actually become less intelligent.
According to Dr. Ellen Weber, CEO and President of MITA International Brain Based Center for Renewal in Secondary and Higher Education, “Cortisol is a potent chemical that surges when you slip into stress, and is now recognized as a drug that can literally shrink human brains. It leaves other damaging footprints behind too … [r]esearchers have known for some time, for instance, that cortisol shuts down learning, creates anxiety attacks and can cause depression.”
So, where does fear originate and what purpose does it serve?
In her latest book, Steering by Starlight: Find Your Right Life, No Matter What!, Martha Beck notes the following:
"The entire purpose of your reptile brain is to continually broadcast survival fears – alarm reactions that keep animals alive in the wild. These fears fall into two different categories: lack and attack. On one hand, our reptile brains are convinced that we lack everything we need: we don’t have enough time, money, everything. On the other hand, something terrible is about to happen. A predator – human or animal – is poised to snatch us! That makes sense if we’re hiding in a cave somewhere, but when we’re home in bed, our imaginations can fixate on catastrophes that are so vague and hard to ward off that they fill us with anxiety that has no clear action implication."
Martha is simply explaining that when we were trotting around as early homo sapiens, doing our best to survive, our reptilian brains served us well by alerting us to danger and to the scarcity of resources. Now, however, in our modern world, those reptilian fear “broadcasts” can prevent us from accessing the very skills we need in order to innovate and take sensible action in the midst of a challenging environment. Our ill-defined anxiety takes over and blocks our otherwise natural, free flow of positive imagination and innovative problem-solving abilities.
“The fish rots from the head.” – Ancient Chinese expression
Understanding the roots of our fears is all the more important for those in leadership positions, regardless of whether you are leading a small team of entrepreneurs, oversee hundreds of employees, or if you are simply leading yourself. If the organization’s leader succumbs to reptilian fears, the quality of leadership (e.g., the leader’s ability to remain focused, tap problem-solving acumen, and engage in and inspire innovative thinking) wanes significantly. Moreover, fear ripples through the organization at a devastating pace. Emotions are, it seems, contagious.
The social contagion phenomenon of emotions is caused by what are known as “mirror neurons.” In Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman states that mirror neurons are the brain cells which "reflect back an action we observe in someone else, making us mimic that action or have the impulse to do so.” Mirror neurons, therefore, allow us to feel, in a very real sense, what others are feeling. Goleman points to the dangers of “toxic connections” (e.g., relationships/interactions which are unhealthy) and states those connections affect our immune system, our ability to operate, and our personal wellbeing.
A leader immersed in the so-called reptilian fear spiral will cause those following to exhibit the same, debilitating “doom loop.” Knowing just this bit of neuroscience gives us more than enough impetus to learn how to stop our inner doom loops of fear and get ourselves and our teams back on track.
Before we begin, know this going in: we are each capable of great denial. And by that, I mean that we have each had a lot of practice avoiding painful thoughts. It will take a bit of practice to rein in your distracting activities. Just persevere – you will find that the process gets easier and that the path to relief and enlightenment becomes shorter.
Nine Steps to Stopping the Doom Loop of Fear
1. Stop and recognize the fearful thought(s) you are experiencing. This may sound easy enough, but actually practicing this can be difficult. Notice how creative you get in avoiding the work of actually diving into your painful thoughts. Are you deciding to retrieve a snack out of the refrigerator? Calling that friend you haven’t talked with in a while – possibly even sharing a “woe is me” tale? Endlessly updating your Facebook page? Obsessively reading online news alerts? (As an aside, I suggest the cumulative, toxic effect of taking in negative media messages cannot be overstated. Please consider going on somewhat of a “media fast,” at least in the short term.) These are all avoidance techniques, and signals that our denial is setting in, and that we are diverting attention from a difficult issue.
2. Name the thought(s) – specifically – (“I am afraid that [blank] is going to happen or not happen,” etc.). Try to articulate this thought out loud to yourself, or better yet, try to put the fear in writing. Even if you immediately destroy what you wrote, the discipline of writing the fear will focus your mind on it and will help start your natural problem solving abilities.
3. Work on dissolving the thought(s) one at a time. This is where the rubber meets the road. In order to dislodge stuck thoughts, I recommend using the four questions from Byron Katie’s Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. Her four questions comprise a process she refers to as “The Work.” Katie describes The Work this way:
"The Work is simply four questions that, when applied to a specific problem, enable you to see what is troubling you in an entirely different light. It’s not the problem that causes our suffering; it’s our thinking about the problem. Contrary to popular belief, trying to let go of a painful thought never works; instead, once we have done The Work the thought lets go of us. At that point, we can truly love what is, just as it is."
The Four Questions from "The Work."
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
3. How do you react when you think that thought?
4. Who would you be without that thought? And, turn it around. Can you find alternative thoughts that may be as true or truer than the painful thoughts? Write down these alternative thoughts.
To illustrate an example of how to do The Work, let’s use an all-too-common phenomenon many of us are now experiencing: the loss of a job. Each question from The Work in this example is followed by fictional (yet realistic) responses to show how our thinking can shift during this process (which opens us up to seeing powerful alternatives).
Fear statement: I will become homeless because I have lost my job.
1. Is it true (that you will become homeless because you have lost your job)?
“I feel it is true, yes.”
2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
“Well, again, I feel it is true. I’m worried it could be true, that it could happen.”
3. How do you react when you think that thought?
“I panic, I feel the walls closing in. I worry that my family and I will be out on the street. I worry my spouse and I will argue, or maybe our marriage will fall apart. I feel desperate, alone, and frightened. I feel completely overwhelmed. I feel the world is very dark and lonely. I can’t think – I don’t know what to do.”
4. Who would you be without that thought?
“I would feel light, free, and secure. I see creative options and opportunities that I had not thought of before. I imagine myself finding a new job or starting my own business. I would wonder if losing my job was possibly even a blessing in disguise – a chance at having a fresh start or pursuing my dreams for the first time in my life.”
And, turn it around. Can you find alternative thoughts that may be as true or truer than the painful thoughts?
1. I will not become homeless because I have lost my job.
2. I will become a creative problem solver because I have lost my job.
3. I will become knowledgeable about myself in new ways because I have lost my job.
4. I will become employed in a different job.
5. I can create my own job.
4. Brainstorm ideas, problem solve, and think creatively. Once again, it will be helpful if you write down potential solutions to the problem(s) as you can then review your potential solutions later, and determine which are viable. Try not to edit potential solutions, write down everything that you can as an initial step.
5. Identify a series of small steps you can take to move you toward what it is you want to have happen. Once you have brainstormed ideas, it is important to identify actions you can take to implement those ideas.
6. Take action on the first step. Now it is time to actually do something, rather than simply to think about doing something. Any actual action, however small, will help to reverse the doom loop.
7. Take action on the second step. Continue to implement steps, however small, to recapture control of your mind, and to dislodge the fear and doom.
8. Take action on the third step, etc. You are now on your way back to a positive, pro-active solution-based existence.
9. This is not a clean, linear process. Your reptilian brain can go into overdrive throughout the process. When that happens, stop. Work on dissolving the fear first before you move forward.
A word of caution: remember that the brain looks for evidence to prove that a painful thought is true. If you find yourself pointing to circumstances to provide evidence for painful thoughts and/or feelings, notice what you are doing, stop yourself, and return to the thought-dissolving process.
Here is the good news: your brain can build new neural pathways. Human brains possess amazing “plasticity,” meaning we can literally rewire our brains. As we move out of ruts of fear, we create new pathways for creative possibilities and innovation. As Dr. Ellen Weber noted, “Robert Kennedy noticed that most people build their best visions more from problems they solve to move forward, and less from opportunities that life hands to them.”
Our current climate, therefore, while challenging, offers unique paths to achieving break-through creativity and innovative thinking. And it is up to us as leaders of our own lives, as well as leaders of others, to dive into our fears and systematically dissolve them.