Pure Genius: The Biology and Psychology of Fear Based Activity

A life insurance client in New York City often shares with me that although he would much prefer that his 175 person sales team (one of the most successful in the world) sell from a platform of self-confidence and high self-esteem, he acknowledges that oftentimes, the sales process works much more effectively when the sales team is scared…really scared!

“One of the best things that happens to their sales is the birth of a child, a new house with a bigger mortgage, or a divorce,” claims the general agent of this life insurance sales company. “They get really concerned or even freaked out about supporting their lifestyle, and it shows up in their sales! Would I like them to sell in a more progressive attitude? Sure. Do they sell well out of raw fear? Absolutely!”

Well, what do you do well when you are driven by a primal sense of fear? Sell? Produce results? Exercise? Compete?

Fear can work well as a motivator…but at what price? Fear can also bring out the worst in us.

We offer some of the biological and psychological effects associated with fear as a primary operating mode. We will also offer some strategies to shift away from fear.

Let’s go!

What Fear Does to our Physical Body

“When people are frightened, intelligent parts of the brain cease to dominate”, Dr. Bruce Perry explains, quoted in an article published on the Time magazine website. When faced with a threat, the cortex responsible for risk assessment and actions cease to function. In other words, logical thinking is replaced by overwhelming emotions, thus favoring short-term solutions and sudden reactions.

Blood tends to rush to the major muscle groups, a biological safety mechanism developed from years of hunting for food in dangerous locations. At any given time, a human might have to run quickly—presumably very afraid—from a predator. When this occurred (it still does) large amounts of cortisol are released, temporarily ceasing digestive functions, and lessening blood flow to the brain, and increasing the blood flow to legs and arms, so as to use in running or climbing.

Think of your last presentation or speech. Right before you went “live” did your throat get suddenly dry, and your palms sweaty? Did you stagger a bit at the start, with the words not coming out so freely?

All of this ceased once you realized that you were safe enough. Initially, however, the millions of years of biology kicked in, and you had blood flowing to your major muscle groups, but not your brain! Not so helpful when an audience member asks you an impromptu question!

As Dr. Perry points out above, the real danger is making decisions in this mode. How often have you made a decision you regretted out of anger (a form of fear) or in haste? We all tend to regret those types of decisions, as the “cortex responsible for risk assessment and actions cease to function”. The neocortex stands in charge of language and logic, so most likely, you may have used language at that moment that you do not normally use—a bit “spicy” perhaps—and you likely would have decided upon an action or decision that did not fully represent you at your highest values and purpose.

Certainly not your intention, and yet fear drives us to these depths.

The Impact of Chronic Fear on the Body

Living under constant threat weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, and decreased fertility. Other consequences of long-term fear include fatigue, clinical depression, accelerated aging, and even premature death.

Fear can also impair formation of long-term memories and cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can make it even more difficult to regulate fear and can leave a person anxious most of the time. To someone in chronic fear, the world looks scary and their memories confirm that. Their brain creates a closed, self-fulfilling system of anxiety.

Moreover, fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. All of these effects can leave us unable to act appropriately—certainly not at our desired vision of how we would like to act.

So whether threats to our security are real or perceived, they impact our mental and physical wellbeing.

How the Fear Appears in the World

Anger is the primary outcome of chronic fear. Those who act out their insecurities as anger are the most fearful (and dangerous) of all people. Those who act with anger are deeply immersed in fear. When two kids fight on the playground, generally they do so out of fear. It may be fear of looking like a chicken to friends, or losing their girlfriend (or boyfriend), or it may be fear of physical harm. It is rare that fights occur over reasonable issues. Fear is the catalyst that fuels anger. Anger is a state of consciousness that attracts not so attractive “drinking buddies”: insecurity, violence, and poor choices.

The long-term effects of fear can be even more devastating than the short term. We are all what we practice to be. If you practice baseball every day you will become a good baseball player. If you practice being happy every day, you will become happy. If you practice fear (anger) every day, you will become a fearful and angry person. People often train themselves to perpetuate these negative behaviors, most likely unknowingly. There are times when this behavior has been practiced for so long that the person is unaware that they practice fear and anger. It becomes their practiced behavior for dealing with any challenge. Not surprisingly, anger tends to sit foundationally, as the driving emotion behind substance abuse, as the “release” for the anger is found in chemical dependency.

It becomes a bit of a cliché, but how often do you see the scene in a movie where a fight or stressful situation is followed by the main character asking for a drink to settle them down?

Well, if the effects are this significant, how do you remedy the situation and shift out of fear to a more enlightened and healthy state of being?

Every Tension Has an Antidote

Short-term and chronic fear can shift or “be treated” with various antidotes and remedies, depending upon the desire and ambitions of the person involved, and also the level of fear. Consider the idea of living in a constantly fearful state of mind…clearly not much fun at all, and the health effects become devastating.

The shift comes from first declaring a new direction, and then implementing practices that support that new direction. Much like practicing baseball every day will make you a good (or at least better) baseball player, practicing new “exercises” that support a healthier and more sustainable state of mind and health will improve just that—your mental and emotional state, and your overall health!

Here are a few simple remedies or “antidotes” to fear—both short and long-term:

  • Exercise: the more vigorous, the better, as the body has to pause and reset for the period you engage in a spin class, running hills, or yoga. Every exercise works well, and doing so outdoors works even better, as sunshine is great for absorbing Vitamin D, the so-called “sunshine drug” that improves your mood.
  • Meditation or prayer: Both hold the same effect—clearing or resetting your mind, and offloading that which you carry emotionally—at least for a period of time. Your will lower your blood pressure, relax more, and develop a sense of calm by engaging in either practice regularly. Phone apps are a great way to start. Try “CALM”, as it offers 2, 5, 10, 15, up to 45 minute guided meditations, so that you do not have to “be good at it” to get the benefits.
  • Connect with people: As hard as this sometimes can be, a good conversation with a friend or family member works wonders to lower fear, anxiety and anger.
  • Develop your higher purpose: On a logical level, fear is not your goal…and it often shows up in spite of your efforts. Developing a strong sense of (higher) purpose tends to overwhelm or “crowd out” the option to live in fear.
  • Redesign your Self Talk: our brain believes and acts upon what we say. Say negative things about yourself, and your brain will push you in that direction. If you could redesign your “Self Talk” to support what you wanted in life, what would you shift towards?

In the end, living a great life certainly gets easier and more enjoyable free of fear and fearful decisions. Make your choice to shift even higher in the direction of what you want and live your highest purpose.

All the best!

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