Do you have difficulty managing people who seem easily “triggered” or simply lack motivation (especially when dealing with stress, change, or challenge)?
Maybe they seem stubborn, resistant, argumentative, disengaged, or otherwise difficult to train, mentor, and motivate.
What do you do when you also want to embrace and respect diversity, equity, inclusion, authenticity, belonging, and mental health (understanding that there’s far more to each person than meets the eye)?
You can start by asking yourself, “What does it really mean to be brave, strong, and courageous?”
The actual scientific answer may surprise you (that’s probably the most important tool to have in your toolbelt to manage people effectively!).
Understanding the Neurology Of Fear
Fear is an important neurological state to understand when it comes to developing and maintaining healthful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that begins by understanding brain health, mental function, and neurodiversity.
Fear can be either an instant motivator OR an immense barrier, depending on the person and circumstance.
For some, fear can be quite thrilling and exhilarating thanks to the sudden burst of adrenaline it triggers, that may even motivate them to seek thrills and chills for entertainment.
For others, fear can unconsciously trigger panic, anxiety, PTSD, hyperventilation, cardiac arrest, or a number of other physical and mental health conditions that are not easily regulated with conscious effort alone.
So how do we navigate deeply-rooted fears in healthful ways to achieve healthful outcomes (without causing harm to ourselves or others)?
To solve this mystery, let’s do like Scooby-Doo and rip the scary mask off of fear to see what’s inside (SPOILER ALERT: it’s not the creepy neighbor)!
Why is Fear So Scary?
To understand why fear is so scary (and how to healthfully navigate it), we must understand the basics of how our brain and nervous system work.
First, it’s important to know that fear is not a sign of weakness but rather a natural neurological response of the autonomic (or unconscious) nervous system intended to protect you and keep you alive.
Your unconscious nervous system keeps your heart beating, your organs functioning, your immune system working, your emotions signaling, etc. with no conscious effort. The unconscious part of your nervous system accounts for 90-95% of brain activity, processing around eleven million bits of neurological information per second (AMAZING, isn’t it?!).
Since this part of your nervous system is so large and in charge, and operates separate from your conscious nervous system, it cannot be consciously controlled by “willpower” alone (that’s actually not really a thing, as the mask is removed in this article).
Your fear response could be due to any number of unconscious neurological factors, whether the result of your health and development, past trauma that impacts how your unconscious nervous system operates, or how your nervous system has been conditioned through repetition and reinforcement by reward or punishment (i.e., fear).
This is why telling someone to stop thinking, feeling, or behaving in a way that’s driven by their unconscious nervous system is about as effective as telling them to stop digesting.
We may be consciously aware of our feelings and our breathing as they happen, but they happen without conscious control. We can only consciously try to calm and regulate them in the moment with conscious awareness and anticipation, not stop them completely.
The assumption and expectation that we should be able to consciously stop or control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so easily is what fuels the toxic shame and stigma around mental health, that’s a bit like adding gas to a fire or trying to empty a bucket by filling it (adding stress on top of stress). Your brain and nervous system just don’t work that way.
(JINKIES! The clues are piling up, Velma!)
Your Focus Goes Where Energy Flows (and Vice Versa)
Deep beneath the skin, your autonomic nervous system has two branches that work opposite each other, and unconsciously dictate where neurological energy flows.
One is your parasympathetic nervous system that’s most active at rest, powering cellular growth, repair, and digestion (this can be considered the “growth and development” system).
The other is your sympathetic nervous system that’s activated when you’re afraid or stressed (a.k.a. “fight, flight, or freeze” — that takes energy away from your parasympathetic nervous system).
The unconscious neurological activity between them is largely driven by a tiny part of your brain called the amygdala (derived from the Greek word for “almond” for its size and shape). The amygdala is generally fully formed at birth, which is why we cry for what we need as babies before we’re able to consciously comprehend and communicate (and why we consider such behavior as “acting like a baby” or “immature”).
But wait, there’s MORE! Also competing for energy is the prefrontal cortex that powers higher functioning conscious cognitive processes (that are considered acting “mature” or “grown up”), including impulse control, emotional regulation, comprehension, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and empathy.
While the prefrontal cortex is larger in size with higher functioning, it’s also much slower to operate and develop, only processing around 50 bits of information per second and not fully developed until around the age of 25.
How the amygdala and prefrontal cortex develop, function, and work together depends on a number of health and developmental factors, which is why understanding neurodiversity is so important.
Just think how much life impacts your unconscious nervous system in those first 20+ years — long before you are able to navigate life on your own (without a fully formed or functioning prefrontal cortex) — especially if you don’t have adequate care, safety, and support!
When we’re afraid or stressed, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and takes energy away from our prefrontal cortex. This is why fear can feel so scary, when we don’t feel “in control” and have a hard time thinking clearly — when our basic animalistic instinct takes over.
When the prefrontal cortex is not fully energized, optimized, or engaged, neither are those higher functions. So you can imagine how helpful it is to tell someone to, “Stop acting like a baby!” or, “Grow up!” (that’s about as productive as two dogs barking at each other).
Bring in the Clowns…Wait, WHAT?!
Question: Why are some people entertained by clowns while others are terrified by them?
Answer: It depends on how their unconscious nervous system responds to it, largely based on developmental factors and previous emotional experiences (i.e., love, loss, pain, trauma, etc.) that forge long-term neuropathways in their unconscious nervous system.
How we perceive a threat is highly subjective based on how it impacts our sense of reward and safety in our unconscious nervous system, that impacts how we unconsciously perceive and differentiate what is “safe” from what is not, based on how we feel (including your “heart” or “gut” sense). This is why our perception is not based on conscious logic or reason that’s powered by the much slower prefrontal cortex.
Fear can also be triggered by “real” or “imaginary” threats based on how our unconscious nervous system responds to those neurological signals. This is why we can be just as terrified by a story, the news, a nightmare, or a movie as we are terrified by an actual physical threat in our immediate environment.
This lightning-fast neurological response that helps us differentiate “good” from “bad” goes by many names. In academic terms, we often call it “unconscious bias” (typically used when the outcome is “bad”). In artful terms, we often call it “following your heart” or “trusting your gut” (typically used when the outcome is “good”).
How’s that for a neurological twist? We refer to the same neurological phenomenon differently based on our subjective perception of it (whether we perceive it as “good” or “bad”).
This is why the same exact person, place, thing, or animal (like a clown, shark, or politician) can be perceived as “good” by one person and “bad” by another at the very same time, when different people experience it differently based on how it makes them feel neurochemically (either safe or threatened).
Just because something makes us “feel bad” doesn’t mean it’s an actual threat to our safety, health, or well-being. How we feel may be the result of a neurochemical imbalance related to a mental or neurological health condition like anxiety or depression; or it may be that what we perceive as “bad” is actually healthful and healing but incredibly challenging due to the state of our unconscious nervous system.
When our unconscious nervous system has been conditioned to fire a certain way, the energy wants to keep flowing that way, and efforts to redirect it naturally cause a sense of resistance and discomfort — like trying to redirect a raging river.
This is why developing healthful habits (that requires redirecting neurological energy) can be SO CHALLENGING!
Therefore, it’s important to be consciously aware of how you feel to think critically about it, whether something (or someone) is truly safe or healthful. This can only be accomplished by energizing and activating your prefrontal cortex with practices that help reduce and regulate your unconscious stress response (without shame or judgment that compound the stress).
Use Fear as A Signal, Not A Shackle
While the neurological signal of fear may be healthful in the short-term by triggering a burst of energy, alertness, and alarm, chronic fear and stress (i.e., -phobias) can have unhealthful neurological consequences in the long-run. These neurological impacts can be quite damaging, destructive, and debilitating, including anxiety, depression, inflammation, hypertension, hypervigilance, fury, rage, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation.
This is why it’s so important to understand our neurological differences for our own health and well-being, to experience and process fear in healthful ways, to take care of our nervous system and not abuse it, to prevent internal and external harm, illness, and injury.
So How Do We Regulate and Redirect Our Unconscious Stress Response to Achieve Healthful Outcomes?
What we can do is learn conscious practices that help regulate our unconscious stress response — like breathing exercises, taking a break, talking to someone, journaling, playing a game, taking a walk, learning something new, working with a trainer, working with a therapist, etc. — that may differ for different people depending on what their nervous system needs.
AWARENSS / EDUCATION
Reading this article is a great first step! Ignorance is never bliss when we don’t know what we need to know to live our best life. Proper education with factual information is necessary to establish a solid neurological foundation for continued learning and development that reduces fear and fosters curiosity (to energize and optimize the prefrontal cortex). For this reason, beware of:
- Fear-based education — Feeling pressured, threatened, or otherwise intimidated to agree with someone impedes all of the higher functions of the prefrontal cortex by triggering our “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This may trigger anger, aggression, avoidance, or conformity (as a form of fear-induced surrender). The most effective form of education is one that engages the prefrontal cortex by encouraging questions, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity.
- Only seeking information that validates and reinforces your fear — This is known as “confirmation bias.” Your unconscious nervous systems naturally wants to flow as it does through the established neuropathways, that is more energy efficient with less neurological resistance (that feels “good”). This is why trying to redirect unhealthful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be so challenging and exhausting, because we are actually forging new neuropathways that require redirection, repetition, and reinforcement to grow stronger than the old neuropathways.
UNDERSTANDING / ACCEPTANCE
From awareness and education come understanding and acceptance, that further reduce our unconscious stress response to energize and optimize our prefrontal cortex. Accepting that fear is a natural unconscious stress response of the human brain and nervous system helps reduce the shame and stigma that so often get in the way of fully energizing and engaging our prefrontal cortex (sorry Scooby-Doo — it’s time to reveal the real villain here… FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN!).
- Be gentle and forgiving with yourself (and others) — Trying to navigate and regulate your fear response can feel incredibly uncomfortable and counterintuitive since your nervous system is just trying to protect you. This is not because you’re weak but because you’re human, with a human brain and nervous system that require proper care to energize and optimize.
To learn more about Scott Mikesh, click here.