How to manage fear

Feel the fear and do it anyway – how many times have you heard that ol’ chestnut! And what on earth does it mean…..really?
Have you ever been alone on a street at night, or even safe at home at night and suddenly there appears a shadowy figure, lurking, clearly an enemy. You know that moment, when time “stands still”, you stop breathing and it seems like your brain is frozen, a bit like when your laptop is overloaded and can’t do anything. You can’t move or think.

In that moment there are some serious things happening in the limbic system part of your brain and you are suffering what is commonly called an ‘amygdala hijack’ – amygdala being a part of the brain that when triggered puts you in that fight, flight – or freeze state. It’s unconscious. It is a process that has served human beings well, especially in caveman times, and still does, however, we are no longer living in caves constantly on the look out for enemies but our brains are still set up to do just that – scan the environment for threats. ( Mind you, it’s really handy when you see a speeding bus coming at you to unconsciously jump out of the way) That shadowy figure is such a threat.

In that moment your heart rate increases, the blood flow to your limbs increases as it gets ready to fight or flee, and you are no longer able to think as clearly as the resources in your brain have gone from your executive thinking function (pre frontal cortex) to the amydgala. But hang on, you take another look and fancy that, it’s not a shadowy figure out there, rather my own shadow – whew, what a relief. Then everything returns to normal – normal transmission is resumed. How often do you feel like that as you lead your teams, run your business, or just navigate through any number of normal daily events? You are in a meeting and get called on unexpectedly for a report, momentary fear, amygdala hijack until you pause and reappraise the situation.

As an executive and leadership coach I see a key skill to develop or leverage which is the ability and awareness to notice when you are in this fearful state. If you can build this awareness then you can help dampen the fear down, and help your brain get back to normal functioning so that you can then deal with whatever this ‘figure in the room’ is. So, a key executives or manager’s tool is to notice how they are ‘being’ (which can be a bit scary in itself). Notice the signals the body gives when in the fear mode: your breathing, how does your body feel, what are you thinking, how are you about to respond – or maybe have already. Here’s the thing, you can use this fear to enable and empower yourself or you can become paralysed by it.

• Build awareness around your responses, behaviours, thoughts

• Learn to recognise within yourself, your body, how it feels when you are facing some fear

• Don’t push it way, rather, pause, breathe and notice what is happening. Maybe reappraise the situation.

• Breathe again

• Now decide what your response will be.

Here is a very quick breathing exercise for you to do to help you ‘get grounded’ again. It is called Piko Piko breathing. There are a number of versions of this. This one is quick, easy and can be done anywhere, anytime:

Sitting straight in a chair, comfortably. Notice how you feel.
Notice your left side. Notice your right side then:

• Inhale (imagine) through the top of your head – exhale through the navel (Imagine )

• inhale through the left shoulder (imagine your shoulder has little nostrils on it) – exhale through your navel.

• inhale through your right shoulder -exhale through navel

• inhale through your chest – exhale through the navel

• inhale through the left hip – exhale through the navel

• inhale through right hip – exhale through navel

• inhale through navel – exhale through navel

• Notice how you feel

This process helps relaxing, and helps maintain mental, emotional and physical balance.
Give it a go, how do you feel afterward?

Working with and breathing into fear is powerful. I had the privilege of working with Adventure Coach Sarah Wilson as she developed her own ideas and created her adventure coaching business. Sarah is an inspiring person to work with and listen to. Take a few minutes out to listen to how she deconstructed fear while facing death.

Gai Foskett is one of two Master Certified Coaches in New Zealand. Gai specialises in executive leadership coaching.
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