“Be part of the solution, not the problem.”

This is the advice I gave myself on Sunday night as I wept over the unfolding crisis that is the global response to Coronavirus.  Like many small business owners, I have been heavily impacted with work cancelled and no prospect of it being renewed in the short term.

My daughter, a Stage Manager found her theatre career ended overnight.  As I watched her shock realisation that after just 4 years in the workforce, she is unemployed and the Arts Industry has collapsed under the shutdowns of theatres and events, I realised that I had a choice.

I could sit on my couch and cry tears of fear and regret, believing that the problems ‘out there’ will cause my business and my daughter’s fledgling career to go under; or I could decide to do something, anything, to change the way I viewed the whole situation. By focusing on the fear, I cannot stop the effects that it has on my mind, in my home and in my business life.

In this blog, I will explain how fear works in your brain.   By taking the concept of fear ‘out of the closet’ and into the light, we can see why we feel afraid of certain things and how fear is a normal reaction in the current environment.

In future blogs, I will focus on ways we can change our view of the situation –  and how to exercise the control that we all have, over how fear impacts our life.

I invite you to leave a comment about your thoughts on facing fear so that we join together to help women in business move forward.  I know I am not alone in wanting to see the opportunities rather than the threats in this crisis. I welcome your voice in this conversation as we come together to explore ways to face these uncertain times.

Why do I feel afraid?

Before we can face fear, whether it is the fear of catching Coronavirus or the fear of losing our business with the self-isolation measures, it helps to understand how fear arises and how it is triggered.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has studied fear for much of his career.  He describes the brain as having a fear system.  He says this system is not strictly speaking, a system that results in the experience of fear – the feelings we have and the behaviours we resort to.  Instead it is a defensive behaviour system.  It detects danger and produces responses that gives us the greatest opportunity to survive a dangerous situation in the most beneficial way.

What is danger to your brain?

  • Things that trigger a negative emotion in you
  • Situations that increase your uncertainty about your immediate and longer term future
  • Things that you recognise as potential loss – loss of your business, loss of your status, loss of important social events, and loss of autonomy over where you go and who you see.

So pretty well everything that is happening now!

At the moment, your brain is detecting danger at every media post, every social alert and every news article.  And because the brain is particularly sensitive to status threats, uncertainty and feeling out of control, its defensive behaviour system is on high alert.  Your brain believes that your very survival is what is at stake, and so you may find yourself reacting in ways that you might never normally behave – like bulk-buying toilet paper or feeling afraid to leave the house, or stockpiling food even though you know you won’t starve.

The part of your brain that is detecting all this danger is the amygdala, one of two almond-shaped clusters of neurons (brain cells) in the limbic system of your brain.  

The amygdala is responsible for scanning your environment and detecting cues that indicate threats (dangers) and rewards (pleasures) to your life.  It seems that over our evolution, some things have proven themselves to be sufficiently harmful to the human species that they operate as a faint memory trace in the brain.  Even tiny babies will shrink from certain stimuli more than others.

The fears most likely to be hardwired into humans are the things that posed the greatest danger in our past, including snakes, spiders, big swooping birds, dogs, heights, and reptiles (Carter, Mapping the Mind, p.153).  These things are also the most likely to develop into phobias even today. 

Fear feels personal

Your brain is also alert for cues that you have identified as dangerous or rewarding to you based on your personal life experiences.  Throughout your life you will have developed fears that didn’t arise through evolution but through fear conditioning.

Fear conditioning is the way that your brain protects you from potentially dangerous situations based on your experience in the past with a similar situation.  Your brain recalls that you have faced this danger or something quite like it at another time, and it is letting you know that you should beware of this danger again.

When I felt myself become overwhelmed with fear while listening to the news on Sunday, my brain was frantically warning me that I had been in this position before.  Having lost all my income during the global financial crisis in 2008-09 and needing the sole parent pension to pay my mortgage, my brain was flashing warning signs at me to avoid this new threat at all costs!

The warning that doesn’t let up

Of course, no one can avoid this new threat, and here is the problem with fear conditioning.  It is a useful ‘warning system’ to avoid being bitten a second time by the cranky dog down the street, but it’s not so helpful when you are trying to keep a level head as you attend to your business.  Fears that develop through conditioning take hold in your brain very quickly but are very difficult to shift.

For example, a fear you held as a child about going to the dentist or finding a spider on your pillow, is likely to last your whole life.   Even if you have largely learned to manage your fear reactions to a particular cue, any major stress or trauma can trigger it back with full force. Therefore, any past experiences of business failure, of severe illness or of being unable to provide food for your family, can trigger the same fears that arose at that time, making it even more difficult for you to keep a level head.

Your sense of danger doesn’t even have to have a physical basis to it.  Your brain can create new wiring for danger with a real or imagined trigger, a concrete or an abstract one.  In other words, you only have to imagine the danger that could happen to you for your brain to pair fear with the trigger.  This, I suspect, is why some people are self-isolating in towns and neighbourhoods where there are no cases of Coronavirus.  Simply imagining that the virus is in your community can lead to you feeling afraid to leave the house.

This means that a great range of outside environmental and internal (mental) conditions can act as a new stimulus to fear once it has associated a sense of danger to it.  And we only need to have this occur once for the fear learning to embed.

Therefore, if you notice you are having an oddly fearful reaction to the current crisis, realise that many of these irrational fears occur due to isolated incidents that happened many years ago.  In times of stress (and the current situation is a good example), our fear response is more easily activated by the stress hormones flooding our body.  We react more quickly and intensely to old fear triggers when we are under stress, and worse, our fears can ‘bleed’ over into other fears, cascading into a flood of anxiety or panic.

How our body responds to fear

When the brain detects a threat from something that we perceive in your environment (a cue), it has a practical system to protect our survival.

For any fear trigger, we immediately stop what we are doing, turn towards it, and try to determine its potential for danger.  If we are taken unawares, we may freeze temporarily – straining to identify where the danger is and what it might mean. 

I watched my daughter experience this on Sunday night.  As the global shutdown was a new experience for her, it was evident in her face as she watched the news, that she was in a ‘freeze’ state .  She literally was frozen to the spot and this paralysis was evident in her inability to make any decisions beyond the basics.  

Having no previous memory of this on which to draw, her brain was simply saying, ‘Okay, this is new! Note to self: beware of catastrophic job losses in moments of great global uncertainty.’  How that will play out for her and thousands of others in the ‘gig economy’ will depend on the way they deal with their fear as they move forward.  This won’t be helpful if they want to stay in the industry as it rebuilds, but will be a potential catalyst to send many to retrain in more stable careers.

The fight or flight response

Freezing takes only a few milliseconds (if it occurs) and then, within 0.03 of a second, your brain triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response.  If your brain chooses the flight response, you will feel a strong desire to hide away until the danger is past.   If it chooses the fight response, you may feel pushed to stand and defend yourself.

Your actual feeling of being afraid comes half a second after the amygdala has sent its warning to your brain that a threat has been detected.  In fact, the feeling of fear is triggered by your conscious awareness of your increased heartrate and your emotional reactions to the situation, rather than by the threat itself.  

As I watched the news unfold last night, my brain had already decided, no doubt based on my past memories of global meltdowns, that what I was watching was a threat.   It triggered all the typical responses to a flight response.  I felt a grab in my chest as adrenaline flooded my body and my heartrate increased.  My stomach clenched, I felt tears well up, sadness filled me, and I felt utterly helpless.  Many people choose to leave the room in a flight response, and emotionally, I was running away.  My inner voice was saying, ‘I don’t want to do this.  I want to hide and not face it.’

Because the brain is also particularly sensitive to negative emotions, it will also ‘rate’ any situation where negative emotion such as anger, fear and grief are present, as more dangerous than situations which you didn’t particularly find disturbing.  Sometimes this means you get a very strong reaction to what seems on the surface a quite minor event.  Deep down your brain remembers that an event like it in the past was very upsetting.  As you react aggressively or tearily, your brain is simply defending you – urging you to get away from this situation by attacking or fleeing.

Summary

In explaining some of the ways that your amazing brain works to process fear, I hope to show you that your experience of fear is not a random event.  It is a carefully designed system to alert you to danger, past and present, so that you will take action to avoid a similar experience again.

As you review the past few days you probably see how you have gone into fight, flight and freeze at various times.  This response can last a long time if you don’t take some conscious control over it.  You can see it in the supermarkets as people fight over groceries.   It’s a natural reaction to enormous stress and uncertainty, but we don’t have to stay in this stressful place,  and most of us would prefer to get out as soon as possible.  If you need a little exercise for taking a break from the fear talk, this Practice might help. 

You in fact, have more control than you might believe, even when your brain appears to be calling the shots.   In a future blog I will explore some ways to take control over this defensive system that is now in overdrive, and why you should do it.  Living in fight and flight has many repercussions for your health and staying here should not be seen as a long term option.

In the comments below, let us know about your immediate ‘gut’ reaction to the news of business shutdowns due to Coronavirus.  What response did you have or are you having right now? Are you in fight, freeze or flight? Have you identified the triggers that led you into this state? And most importantly, do you have ideas for how to overcome the fears that you might be noticing?