You are sitting in front of your television and suddenly remember that you were supposed to send an email by 5:00 p.m., and it is now 8:15 p.m. The amygdala sends an alert to the left brain to start the warning system. Suddenly, a red ticker tape crosses your brain with a lovely, hysterical message that reads something like:
“The project could fail because I forgot one email and then I’ll lose my job, and then I’ll lose my house, and then I’m living in my car, and then I lose my car and now life as I know it is forever gone!”
Your body prepares for fight or flight as your heart rate accelerates and you develop some sweat on your upper lip and you start rapid shallow breathing all while watching a Tide commercial. Why? Because your body believes the frantic story about total life annihilation, so it kicks into its fight, flight or freeze mode to help you respond. And perhaps you need to run, not from the white t-shirt stains, but from the story your brain has told you about losing everything in your life because you forgot to send that email.
You pull out your laptop and write the overdue email, apologizing profusely for the delay. You hit the send button with a dry mouth and pounding heart, anxious about the angry responses you might receive. When you hear an email come in, and you approach your laptop screen and see a message from your manager, and open it as if it were a bomb waiting to detonate. The note says:
“That wasn’t due until tomorrow evening, but thanks for getting it out early.”
Crisis averted. Or was it? You just put your body through absolute hysteria over a frenetic story created by your brain. The problem is, most of that story was not true. The brain wasn’t at fault – it is just doing its job, but your body took the brunt of the attack.
I spoke with a coaching client years ago who had been looking for work for over a year. I found her to be very bright and talented, and was slightly confused by her inability to get a job offer. She let me know that she was financially okay, but had not been out of work in years and felt panicked having nothing to do every day. She had averaged at least two interviews a month, yet received no offers.
I asked her about how her latest interview went. Her response was that she woke up realizing she needed to nail the job “or else”, and that there must be something wrong with her because nobody was hiring her. Then she put on her outfit and immediately spilled coffee on her blouse, got stuck in traffic, and got to the interview sweaty and frustrated. She answered all of the interview questions but couldn’t remember her answers because, by the way, the brain can’t function rationally when in panic mode.
She was desperate, and interviewers can sniff out desperation in a heartbeat. So we worked together to create a new story. For her next interview, she started with a belief that she needed to find the job that was right for her. She decided this was as much an interview for her as it was for them. While her fear kicked in the morning of the interview, she didn’t accept the crazy stories her brain was sending her way. She let them pass, and used the adrenaline to prepare. She did the Amy Cuddy Power Pose for 2 minutes before walking into the interview.
And she got the job.
Fear does not have to lead to failure; in fact, it can be used as a source for success. Just let some stories go and replace them with better ones. Your body will thank you.