If you ask anyone if they prefer to feel happiness over sadness, confidence over shame, peace over fear, they will probably give you the same answer. We all want to feel good. and yet when we get bad news, we tend to argue and advocate for fear.
It isn’t just that we prefer to feel good; feeling good is actually really important to our health. When we have a stress response, the brain signals all for all resources to be used to run, fight, or hide. This process severely depresses our immune system, increases the risk of heart attacks, speeds tumor growth, raises blood sugar, and interrupts our digestion.
The most noticeable and immediate impact of stress is that it impairs our cognitive function. Our higher perspective, creativity, rationale, empathy, capacity to understand larger context, strategic thinking–that all goes out the window. When the brain is in its stress response, the older mammal part of the brain – the limbic system – takes over and we get very simple. We seek comfort and avoid danger, according to whatever this furry little animal in us discerns. This shift from cognitive function to safety-seeking makes us less effective in every single area of our lives, and if you are managing a team or running a business, this translates to a major loss in productivity.
Can fear be helpful?
Barely. It’s helpful if you really need that extra burst of cortisol and adrenaline to outrun the wild beast or fight off your attacker. It’s also a great way for your body to get your attention, a wake-up call, like splashing your face with cold water. If you try to go about your day with someone splashing your face with cold water repeatedly, you’ll probably find it hard to think, or accomplish anything. The trick is to let the fear wake you up, and then relax, so you can make good decisions.
I’m not scared, it’s scary.
Once we are on the fear ride, no matter how kooky we behave, it will seem normal to us. We think that our fear is rational because once we are scared, our brain is focused on gathering evidence to back up the feeling. We become hyper-vigilant and cued to noticing anything that reminds us of the thing we are afraid of. Suddenly everyone is coughing.
The things we notice will seem more valid and carry more weight if they are congruent with our fear. Comforting information will seem irrelevant or small in comparison.
When we externalize our emotions in this way, it feels like we have no control over how we feel or how we react. We might not even recognize that emotion is driving us or that we are feeling anything. This cycle is difficult to interrupt because of its momentum; the more fear we feel, the more we see to be afraid of and the more fear we feel. It’s a self-validating cycle. It takes incredible self-awareness and a commitment to feeling good to interrupt the cycle.
Say this with me: “When I feel good, I think more clearly and make better decisions.”
Real friends panic together
We are all predisposed to group-think. It’s a biological function leftover from a more tribal time. We want to think similarly enough to the people around us to feel like they are our people and, more importantly, let them know we are their people. This takes care of the primal need for belonging and psychological safety. It also makes us vulnerable to having our feeling of safety hijacked by the scared mob around us.
On the other side of the coin, when we are feeling panic, we want others to panic with us. If our body’s stress response is screaming that the house is on fire, but everyone around us is acting like all is well, it can make us feel crazy. So what do we do? We make a case, gather evidence, and start proclaiming that anyone not scared is naive or uneducated.
This really comes into play in the workplace. There is a hierarchy and a desire to be seen in a certain way that propels the need to participate and share in fear. Just one more reason why mindfulness and emotional intelligence should be built into company culture.
What if I have a compromised immune system and I’m 80 and I live in NYC and I work at the airport/subway and all of my retirement fund is in tech companies shipping from China? I should be scared right?
Nope. It is understandable that you have fear, and of course, take appropriate care of yourself but you are more able to take care of yourself if you are calm.
I don’t know how to change my feelings.
This is actually the easy part. Take a deep breath in, count 6, hold, out count 6, hold. Repeat this for 1 minute. You’ve just interrupted your stress response. Congratulations.
Your thoughts can undo that really quickly though.
Think to yourself or say out loud, “The coronavirus is really serious, this is a big problem that no one is taking seriously enough; there isn’t enough testing; there is too much travel still happening; the stock markets crashing; it’s only going to get worse”. Now notice how you feel. Does your stomach knot up, your breathing get shallow, your heart race a bit?
Now try this. “Most populations under 70 recover very quickly; we’re going to get more connected than ever over the phone and video; it’s actually really nice to be home more often; I feel great about how much more people are washing their hands; maybe that habit will stick.”
While they are both made up scenarios, your body doesn’t know that. Your body believes whatever your brain tells it.
It’s better to feel good. It’s better for your health and your decision making. There are going to be things and people that try and convince you otherwise, but your emotions are always yours to govern. By better controlling your emotions and staying calm, you enhance your ability to thrive and you create better chances for success.