What is fear and anxiety, really?
Fear is your brain’s natural response to something in your environment. Your brain scans the world around you non-stop to assess for any potential threats. When it identifies a potential threat you get an alert and then your brain does further research to figure out how much of a threat and what steps you need to take next.
This alert system is what has kept human beings alive for millions of years and is an absolutely amazing mechanism to protect us! Then the brain responds by releasing stress chemicals such as cortisol and epinephrine that helps to mobilize the body and muscles into action.
The trouble occurs when our brain misinterprets a situation or it sees everything around us as a threat and never switches off. When the brain does not shut off, this leads to the release of chemicals on a chronic basis and to feelings of worry or anxiety.
Anxiety affects our performance by holding us back from taking healthy risks (we are afraid we will fail so why even try) or engaging in healthy behaviors (we are anxious about meeting new people so we do not go to social groups or join a gym, we are afraid of other people’s perception and opinion of us).
Thanks for the neurobiology lesson, but what can I do about it?
While we cannot stop the initial thought or feeling, we CAN control our response to the thought or feeling and then choose how we will behave from there. What gets acknowledged can be changed friends!
Practice noticing what you are feeling at different moments in the day. Set an alarm on your phone every hour to learn to check in with yourself. Begin to recognize the signs of fear and anxiety in yourself (knot in your stomach, controlling behavior, personality change, etc). The faster you can recognize the signs the faster you can evaluate and then change direction if needed.
Ask trusted people in your life for honest (and kind) feedback about their observations of you. This can help you recognize signs in yourself you may not be aware of. For example, if your employee tells you your forehead wrinkles right before your tone of voice changes, this is great feedback because you can start to recognize it in yourself.
Use meditation and strategic deep breathing to reduce the response of your body and the release of chemicals. Guided imagery is a great form of meditation for beginners who have trouble clearing their thoughts. The method of strategically breathing in, holding it and then forcefully blowing it out can help to reset your brain from an alarmed state of mind to a more relaxed and logical frame of mind.
Practice gratitude every day. This helps you to search out positive things in the world around you so you are wiring your brain to be positive and rewire the neural pathways that may send you right to fear and anxiety.
In conclusion, we may not be able to stop the initial feeling of fear/anxiety, but we can evaluate the feeling and see if it is an accurate feeling. Once identified, we can then consciously decide what to do about that feeling. That is where we can gain control over our brains and begin to rewire them to operate in a way that drives optimal performance!