Article

Overcoming fear-based behaviour

Thoughts and techniques for grounding yourself in times of uncertainty

Authors

A point of discussion for many years, the VUCA world is now truly showing its colours, as we all experience high levels of uncertainty and volatility. COVID-19 has propelled all of us into a state of anxiety with fear-based responses, such as obsessing over the news, denying reality, paranoia about our health, feeling trapped and hoarding goods.

As we gradually accept our new reality and find our feet in the chaos, it’s vital that we find ways to reframe the situation for our well-being and overcome our fear-based instincts.

Why do we respond to fear?

Understanding how our brains function is the key to overcoming fear-based behaviour. The brain is wired to conserve energy as much as possible. In fact, 95% of the time, our perception of reality is based on fast, unconscious thinking. In other words, we are programmed to behave on autopilot, moving away from threats as much as possible. This evolutionary mechanism helped us survive by taking instant action against danger and threats. And this learning has shaped our brain to such an extent that today, our brain structures respond in the same way to threatening situations, even though the type of threat has changed.

Nowadays, threats can be categorised into five different triggers:
  • A perceived loss of status
  • A high degree of uncertainty
  • A lack of autonomy and control
  • A lack of relatedness
  • A perception of unfairness

With national lockdowns, physical isolation and potential financial instability, it’s easy to understand why the current situation is triggering us into a state of fear and denial. Our coping mechanisms are anchored in this state of resistance and anxiety and overcompensate for the situation at hand. For example, hoarding food and hypervigilance about the news are coping mechanisms that enable our brain to create a sense of meaning, certainty and control. Instead of thinking about the uncertainty, we focus on gaining control over how much food we purchase and creating certainty by educating ourselves about the crisis.

Fear is a biochemical and emotional response

Fear triggers responses on two levels. On one hand, fear is a universal, biochemical response based on evolutionary patterns. It’s a physiological fight, flight or freeze response that we all experience. On the other hand, fear is also an emotional response that is extremely individual and based on our habits, social conditioning and learning.

Overcoming fear-based behaviour starts with our emotional responses. There are many cognitive processes that contribute to our subjective experience of fear. For example, our self-image plays a role in how we deal with fear. If you see yourself as someone who needs to be in control, who always has the answers to problems and is good at finding solutions, this crisis may lead you to question your self-image, putting you in a state of anxiety, since you cannot provide any certainty to your family or your team at work.

Similarly, our emotional response to fear is also based on memories and past learnings. For example, if you lost your job in the 2008 recession, this traumatic learning experience will naturally heighten your fear of losing your job now. This emotional pathway is something that we all need to understand individually, as it provides us with the opportunity to reframe our subjective perception of threats.

Grounding yourself in uncertainty

This is a challenging time when many of us are being forced to change the ways we work and interact, but if we can overcome our fear-inducing triggers, we may have the opportunity to turn this into a meaningful experience. We’ve gathered four ways to take a step back from fear-based ways of operating and take control over the things we can influence.

1. Connect with your purpose and values

Reframe the situation and make a list of things you can spend your time on. Connect with your purpose, values or passion and use this as a guide for narrowing down your list and thinking about what you want to spend your energy on. Use questions such as “what do I want to be remembered for?”, “what cause do I believe in?” and “what am I passionate about?” to formulate and guide your list.

2. Shift your focus

Change your perspective by focusing on what you can do. Reframe the situation from being a victim to taking ownership over what you have control over. This could be a 10-15min exercise where you write down 15 things you would love to do during this extraordinary time of social distancing.

3. Manage your energy

The full engagement model is a tool you can use to check in on different levels and reflect on yourself. It’s a way of understanding how your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual states are interconnected.

Taking care of yourself on a physical level in terms of getting enough sleep, exercise and nutrition is vital to give yourself additional bandwidth to operate on the other levels. Addressing your emotional needs, for example by connecting with loved ones, is essential in order to support yourself on a mental level. Meditation or other tools to help you reframe how you spend your time can help keep you in balance mentally, while your spiritual level is all about connecting to a deeper meaning and sense of purpose.

The full engagement model is a powerful exercise that can be done individually or together with your team as a way of checking in with each other.

Figure 1: The full engagement model
4. Make a choice the moment you are triggered

Being triggered is unavoidable and it’s something we will experience continuously. What is important is how we respond to the trigger. There is a moment between being triggered and responding; increasing this moment and space will help you overcome fear-based behaviour. Deep breathing is a simple but powerful technique to help you access this space and overcome your stress responses.

Embrace the present moment

Remember that this period of instability is temporary and will eventually pass. In fact, our very existence is temporary, which is why we should aim to live in the present moment instead of focusing on what we have done in the past or what we could do in the future, as both of these things are outside of our control.

The key to overcoming behaviour anchored in anxiety lies in acceptance – accepting the things we cannot control and taking ownership of the small everyday things that we can control. If we can accept the fleeting nature of life and let go of our attachments, we can open ourselves up to new perspectives and meaningful opportunities that release us from fear-based thinking.

Sources

  1. Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: The Free Press.
  2. Rock D. (2008). SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others. In Neuroleadership Journal.
  3. LeDoux, J. (2015). Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety.  New York: Penguin Books.