When Fear Takes Over…

When fear takes over...

When we face a high stakes situation our emotions kick in generating fear. It can be debilitating. We get stuck, unable to move forward. Instead we get small and constrict our thinking. We step into survival mode.

This can happen in many situations. It has happened to me many times over my career. The bigger problem is not the initial fear. It is when we build on the fear to make it something that is overwhelming. The fear becomes so great, it can be more impactful than the original trigger.

We can become our own worst enemies

I read an article in the New York Times this morning that illustrates an emerging situation in China. Their numbers of Corona virus infections are dropping but the consequences of maintaining a long term quarantine are becoming severe and growing. People are losing their jobs, and now are unable to sustain themselves and pay for their homes.

This illustrates the importance of not letting our assessments escalate. It is easy to build on our initial assessments and speculate what may happen. If we continue to do this, we escalate our fear, step by step, until the outcome is seen as catastrophic. It no longer resembles the thing we were worried about.

A useful way to avoid escalating our fear

I’ve learned a helpful way to counteract this natural tendency. It involves separating the facts from our assessments. Take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. The first column is for facts, the other is for our assessments or interpretations.

Step back from the situation we are in fear of and start by writing down all the facts. To be a fact, it must be completely objective, everyone would agree it is true. I suspect this will not be a long list. Now write down all your assessments or interpretations in the next column. Make a big list, write them all down. In contrast to your list of facts, I am confident your list of assessments will be quite long.

Once you have separated your facts and assessments, ask yourself which of the assessments you’ve made are reasonable. In contrast, which ones need a big leap to get there? By doing this I find it is easier to see how I have escalated the severity of the situation in my head. I’ve taken a few facts and turned them into a novel.

Once I ground myself using the facts and my reasonable assessments, the situation no longer seems anywhere near as serious. And when I realize this, it is amazing how much clearer my thoughts become.  And then I can take thoughtful action to improve the situation.