Emer O’Donnell is a founder of TeenReconnect and a creator of Q Pathfinder. As a coach, with a background in psychology, she understands what successful people do differently to achieve well-being and performance. Her mission is to bring that learning into the world of education so young people can transform their lives, find their purpose, and thrive in our modern stressful world. She combines 4 factors to achieve this outcome – Science, Psychology, Coaching and the 7Q Fast Track TeenReconnect Formula. To learn more about Emer’s educational work to empower young people to live a life they will love, improving well-being, reducing stress and supporting performance please visit www.teenreconect.com/EmerODonnell
Fear comes in many shapes and sizes. It is relative to every individual, so what might scare you may not be an issue for others. We are born with two innate fears, loud noises and falling. We all have the capacity for gathering more fears from 100s of possibilities as we journey through life, especially with our modern world triggers. More on this later. Despite what we imagine to be our truth in those moments of fear however remember 95% of the things we fear will happen to us never will.
Step 1: Understanding your fear response
Human survival has depended on our ability to react well to real-life threats e.g., a wild animal in the jungle. To protect yourself your senses, kick off a fear response in your brain. Then your stress response is triggered. Chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol are released flooding your body so your heart races, muscles tense and breath quickens. Vital blood flow moves away from internal organs and is pushed outwards to support rapid movement if needed. This all boosts your strength and sharpens your senses for a take flight, hide or stay and fight reaction. The stress response is therefore encoded in us for survival. It can also drive us forward at times so switching it off totally is not wise.
In our modern world, our bodies can struggle to tell the difference between real-life dangers and day-to-day stressors. The fears we experience are often more perceived threats to our safety than life-threatening ones. We can struggle with things like managing change, self-image, making decisions, multi-tasking, and handling pressure and setbacks. There is also the difficulty of avoiding 24/7 media selling fear e.g., the economy, world disasters, and scary crimes which we are programmed to tune into. Next time you check your news feed note the number of stories with negative headlines rather than positive ones! Fear can show up repeatedly as stress, anxiety, a phobia or just holding back where we can stay stuck in a comfort zone that won’t serve us well in terms of our longer-term learning and development.
Step 2: Fear and body impact
What makes humans so unique is our brain’s capacity to think about problems repeatedly, reliving them over and over even though they are in the past. We are also excellent at story-making about our future with doom-and-gloom predicted outcomes. If our brains are left to their own devices 70% of our daily thoughts will be negatively repeated as if on a continuous loop.
Our brains can’t tell the difference between an original fear event or our imagined reliving of this event. So, by our thoughts alone, we can turn on our stress responses even when the event has ended. We then react with a repeated stress response. Our bodies end up living in survival mode. They are not designed to be constantly reacting and switched on to this stress response mode. Indeed anxiety, usually a fear of the unknown can stay with you long after the perceived stress has disappeared and tends to last longer than a normal fight, hide or flight stress response.
Psychology has shown that some stress and anxiety can have a positive impact on performance but if it continues to rise performance will decline. It ultimately erodes both our mental and physical health and can be fatal especially when you consider stress to be one of the main contributing factors to heart disease. At the start of the 20th century, only a few died of heart disease and now it is the leading cause of death for men and women. Stress also makes us more reliant on our instincts to just react to what is in front of us, which isn’t always wise when not facing a life-threatening event, especially with negative emotions triggered. We have less ability to think creatively about how to solve our problems.
Step 3: Benefits of managing fear.
You can create less stress, learn to release negative thoughts and emotions and build more positive ones, gain more well-being and energy, and develop better health and the ability to perform with greater clarity and creativity. Therefore, if we want to live life to the full it is essential to learn ways to thrive despite our fears.
Step 4: Key understanding
A calm mind is your superpower.
My grandfather once said, “It is not about the journey but the joy you can create for yourself and others on it that really matters”.
Creating positive emotions in your body by switching the focus of your thoughts to trigger these, is a powerful way to calm your mind. Thoughts drive feelings and feelings drive thoughts. If you’re thinking content and it is not kept in check, negative loops will hardwire in the brain to create an ongoing pattern of old unhelpful thoughts keeping you stuck in your past story. We can choose to tune into negative thoughts and accompanying feelings or focus on having more positive ones. Our human gift of imagination can let us create new stories, but it takes practice.
A ritual of finding three things at the start of each day, regardless of your circumstances, that you are grateful for will activate areas of your brain connected with dopamine, the happiness hormone. It will kick off your brain’s focus as it will want more dopamine hits during the day and will be in search of more things to be grateful for. Positive emotions also have a higher vibrational frequency of energy than negative ones and support you to be more open to thinking creatively and developing wider possibilities to choose from. Meditation practices the science shows also support synchronising more helpful brain waves moving you from conscious thought to more relaxed and creative thought. It’s worth it.
Where your attention goes your energy flows
When looking at a stressful situation remove the labels of good and bad in the story you perceive. Reframe the experience and become neutral and curious instead. Stay present to get to the truth of what is going on. Ask yourself what your values are and the outcome you want e.g., if you want friendships that are trusting, caring and fun and you are getting the opposite then consider what is the next obvious behaviour needed to achieve what you want. Become more comfortable sitting with the tension of the unknown until you get there. Keep a clear focus on the end goal and an open mind on the how. Recognise if you are compensating for something that you feel is missing in you e.g., I am not worthy of having great friends. Always remember you are indeed unique and whole in every way and if you don’t believe it, you can just assume it to be true. Always question where you are putting your power too. Is it into what you love and want to create or are you running away from what you feel you can’t create?