In times of uncertainty and worry, we are hard-wired to look for the threat - real or imagined - in our environment. We switch from creation-mode into survival-mode. Our focus narrows. This happens automatically as soon as fear, panic or anxiety sets in. We are trying to deduct what immediate action will lead to a maximum increase in survival probability. We look for what out there is a source of potential danger and then decide what to do about it.
We generally don't make good decisions when we're in panic, act from fear or are under extreme stress. As mentioned above, it does not matter to your brain and body whether the threat is actually real, or whether it's just a product of your imagination and projection.
To bring more clarity toward what is going on for you, a helpful question might be: "What emotions and feelings do I experience regularly?" Take a moment to think about that. Is is fear? Worry and/or anxiety? Or maybe it's of a different flavour, maybe it's more around frustration, anger, and resentment? What about sadness, depression or vulnerability?
No matter the quality or intensity of these emotions, they exert a powerful hold over us and it seems hard to catch ourselves when they show up. No matter the external circumstance, we usually have a default way of responding to crises: angry people focus on what they can be angry about, fearful people put their attention on the future and everything to worry about there, and the happy & joyful among us will see the positive and uplifting, even in the darkest of hours.
From time to time, our emotions take over and get behind the wheel. In such moments, we are being totally consumed and controlled by them. Only after the storm is over do we regain the ability to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation.
We all know how such a storm of emotionality feels and the outcomes it might produce. We may say things we later regret, take actions that lead to suboptimal outcomes, or we demonstrate negative behaviour that leads to issues. What matters is for how long we stay in these heightened states and whether we have the tools to shift our focus and make sensible decisions. The heightened states are also known as the refractory period.
It's not about suppressing these emotions as they are part of our humanity. However, there are a plethora of strategies you can employ to shorten such a refractory period.
Here are three such strategies you might find useful:
The distinction between fear and danger
The wheel of emotions
Embodying your core values
The distinction between fear and danger
Making a clear distinction between fear and danger is vital to keep calm, and as a result, make good and informed decisions. By its very nature, life is uncertain. Things can happen that are out of our control. To the degree that we can make peace with that fact is the degree to which we can free up mental and emotional energy to deal with the challenge at hand. If we are prisoner of our fears, we'll be manipulated and won't make decisions that are in alignment with our highest, long-term good.
The pernicious thing about fear is that we are often unaware, or unclear, around what constitutes real fear and what is imagined fear. Many clients I work with experience a mild, yet constant sense of "I know something will go wrong" - and are therefore in a permanent state of low-level anxiety, unease and fear.
Their response to this often imagined threat is trying to control and anticipate as many worst-case outcomes as they can come up with. Then, they mentally rehearse appropriate action plans should these ever manifest. A never-ending drain of energy, life-force and source of a lot of stress.
Danger is any imminent threat to to a person's life, or the chance of serious injury. Fear is the emotion that goes hand-in-hand with danger, plus also any real or imagined threat. And this is where things get interesting and sometimes so confusing.
Danger: imminent possibility of an event happening that is harmful, will injure or kill you, or damage and destroy something.
Fear: an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger (Merriam-Webster)
How can you distinguish between the two? Here is one way:
Create awareness around your fear-response. The particular challenge with fear is that it hijacks our logical brain that leads to fight-flight-freeze. This notq only happens for real life-and-death situations but also imagined ones. Hence, we are called to put some effort into interrupting this hijack by taking a step back when our usual fear-response sets in, overcoming the normal response.
We can do this in different ways. One way is to use the surge of fear as a trigger. When we detect fear in our body, we can pause and ask "Is danger real & imminent?" If the answer is Yes, act decisively. At that point though, your autonomic nervous system has most likely already taken over and protected you. This happens naturally. If you cross the street and a car unexpectedly shows up, you will instinctively jump aside, no thinking required. If the answer is No, then ask "What is real & true in this moment?". We certainly have the capacity to make ourselves fearful by imagination and thoughts alone. Interrupting the default way of being, a question such as this can act as a mechanism to pull you out of an imagined worst-case scenario and brings you back to the present moment.
Then, if necessary, follow it up with "What can I do about it?" If action can be taken with reasonable effort, decide whether that's a path you want to go down to. If it's out of your hands, accept what is and make informed choices most useful to you in that situation.
Naming your emotions
Another powerful way of dealing with strong emotions is to simply name them by either saying them out loud, or even just thinking them.
Researchers looked at brain imaging scans of study participants which revealed that simply putting a word to an emotion activates different parts of the brain and lowers the amygdala response. The amygdala "serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger", the authors of the study say.
Being as specific as possible and really getting clear on the emotion can further help. See the emotions wheel below for a detailed categorisation of various emotions. The wheel can be a great help in pinpointing what it is you are currently feeling.
For example, saying "I'm sad" is a rather general statement. You can gain much more insight from saying "I feel disappointed", or "I sense abandonment". Also, the person you speak to has better information to further get to the truth with you.
Hence, associating a word with your current emotion is a simple and effective way of lowering the amplitude of this emotion which will allow you to be more at ease and relaxed, often making better decisions as a result.
Embodying your core values
In their most basic form, core values are words we associate a lot of meaning with. They are guiding principles which colour our perception of life and therefore dictate our behaviours, actions and how we form decisions.
You can think of them as your inner compass in the sense that your core values steer you towards an outcome that is most likely in line with what you consider to be important and of a worthy cause.
When we “feel off” or say things like “I shouldn’t have done that”, it is often because we are out of alignment with our values.
To know our values means to live more at peace with ourselves and in line with what we truly want. Embodiment means to think, speak and act in integrity with these values.
The core values we embrace inform our beliefs to a substantial degree. Thus, they are an integral part of our day-to-day experience. When we have clarity around our most important values, we are provided with the opportunity to build more empowering beliefs. And as a result of that, we can experience a lot more freedom in many areas in our daily lives.
To get you started with your own core values, a great starting point is to follow the instructions here. It's a three-step process to create clarity around your own values.
What are your values? Feel free to post them in the comments below.
If you are interested in diving deeper: I'm offering group coaching on core values where I guide you through my own process of how to determine and embody your values for daily impact. Follow me on social media or send me a message to stay up to date.