I have a friend who volunteered to help the psychology department in their study of willful blindness. In one part of the experiment, she was given a seriously horrible picture (it was an extremely graphic murder scene that not even the horror movie writers could describe). The picture was hidden underneath twenty sheets of thin paper, like onion paper or tracing paper, and all she could see on the top was a gray shadow. She was to remove one sheet at a time, look at the shadow for 30 seconds, and if she could tell what the picture was, she was to tell the administrator and stop. If she could not identify the image in the picture, she was instructed to remove the next sheet of paper and study it for 30 seconds. This would continue until she could recognize what she was seeing. “I swear,” she told me, “the closer I got to the picture, the more blurry it became. I could not for the life of me figure it out.” She was almost to the actual photograph when she knew what they had given her. She said she actually screamed and dropped the assignment. It had taken her eighteen pages, because her brain had refused to see what it knew would upset her and possibly give her nightmares. So how do we avoid this willful blindness? How do we work with our brain so that it stops being such a scaredy-cat and helps motivate us toward our goals instead? Well, my friend, here’s a list of 10 ways you can overcome fear and be the successful cupcake kind of person that you deserve to be.
SCIENCE: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN FEAR WINS
The brain, as you know, is tricky. Its whole purpose is to keep you safe from harm, and to the brain, change is not “safe from harm.” It perceives unfamiliar activity as a threat, especially if it triggers negative memories. Any time we encounter something new and unfamiliar, fear is triggered in our amygdala. Simply put, the amygdala’s job is completely emotional as it thrusts us into “flight or fight” mode. The stronger the fear, the more blood flows to the amygdala, and the stronger its vibration. Think of the amygdala as an earthquake. The more blood flows to this little almond-shaped compartment, the stronger its vibration, and the more shockwaves it sends through the rest of the brain, including the pre-frontal cortex, which controls our thinking and decision-making skills. The stronger the earthquake, the more damage it does, and the more jumbled our thinking becomes. The stronger our negative memory, the stronger the amygdala reacts, and the less clearly we think.
You may have already read some of the brain’s hormonal reactions in another blog of mine (click here if you have not). Now, here is where things really get fun. When we produce memories, different spots light up all over our brain instead of in one isolated area. Since the brain cannot compartmentalize this to one specific area, our memories are sometimes skewed, which makes them unreliable. This makes the amygdala’s reaction unreliable. Need I say more? It has been conditioned to fear. This is why eyewitnesses to the same event have different testimonies. It can also explain why a person may exhibit willful blindness.
When an opportunity presents itself, the brain feels fear in two ways; conscious and unconscious. The conscious fear is easy to detect: sweaty palms, breathlessness, and you may feel (or hear) your heart beating hard. Unconscious (unaware) fear is harder to detect, because it is more subtle: we start making several mistakes, our thinking gets confused or “foggy,” and we find we lack motivation to continue. We may forget important dates. When unconsciously fearful, we tend to get “stuck” and have no idea why.
Unconscious fear rises in two ways: the fear of failure, and the fear of success. The fear of failure can come from negative memories. If you have not realized your past memories are untrue, they now appear in the form of “helpful” questions.
“What if you start this and it fails? Remember what happened last time?”
“Why do you want to do that? You’ll look like a fool and get laughed at.”
“No one even believes in you. Can you quit now and avoid the humiliation?” I am sure that you have had similar thoughts.
The fear of success is a different set of “helpful” questions, but it has the same effect.
“You have never done this before. How can you possibly succeed?”
“What happens if you make it to the top?”
“What if you succeed, and your friends get jealous of you and no longer like you?”
“What if people start asking money from you?”
“Will you be able to trust anyone new that you meet?”
As you can see, these fears seem real at the time. The scenarios can be unappealing and daunting, which is exactly what the amygdala wants so it can keep you safe. However, if you really want to achieve a new skill, or make more money, or just do something different to improve your life, you need to get the amygdala to work for–not against–your conscious desires.
10 WAYS TO CLEAR FEAR
Dr. Srini Pillay, author of Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcoming Fear and Assistant Psychology Professor at Harvard University, has a system he calls “CIRCA.” The anagram stands for Chunking, Ignore, Reality check, Control check, and Attentional shift. Some of these may seem familiar to you. When you perform these steps, blood quits flowing to the amygdala, and flows to the prefrontal cortex (thinking part) of the brain. When this happens, the fear reflex is stopped.
- CHUNKING. Instead of looking at your long term goal, turn it into smaller, more manageable goals within a certain time frame. What do you want to accomplish next month, in three months, and in six months? Still overwhelmed? Put your goals into smaller “chunks.” What will you accomplish this week, next week, and the week after that? Make a list of sub goals—things you know you can accomplish—and shut off the amygdala.
- IGNORE mental chatter. Pillay assumes you have already acknowledged the negative thoughts. You have to be aware of something before you can ignore it, right? Bonus points for you! How do you ignore it? Pillay suggests MINDFULLNESS: Breathe deeply in, breathe deeply out, and focus only on your breathing. Try to do this mindful meditation for 20 minutes every morning and 20 minutes every evening. (If you’ll remember in another blog I wrote that you can also do this for 1 minute every hour.) The point is, still your mind and breathe. The more you can do this, the more you calm the amygdala earthquake. Pillay claims that through consistent mindful meditation, you can change your “brain function, your brain structure, and your genes!”
- REALITY CHECK. Remind yourself, “This too shall pass.” Anxiety is temporary, even though it feels like it can go on forever. When you feel fear, ask yourself, “What was the longest time that I have ever held an anxious thought continuously?” The average human can sustain focus for only 5-20 minutes. This means fear is brief, and it is not permanent. Reframe your “time” in memory so you can dissolve negative thoughts and chatter.
- CONTROL CHECK. When a person panics, she usually thinks she is out of control. The truth is that we all have control over several things in our lives. Remind your brain what you control. You raise yourself out of bed. You control the clothes you wear, how you travel to work, what you watch on TV, and 124,000 other things in one 12-hour day. The more things you can remind yourself that you control, the more the brain will relax and change its pattern.
- ATTENTIONAL SHIFT. Take your focus off the problem, and focus on the solution. Ask yourself questions. Is there anyone in your position who has risen to make 7, 8, or 9 figures? Is there anyone who can help you? Ask yourself, “How can I emulate not the rule, but the solution?” Christie Sheldon tells her clients to ask themselves, “What would it take to accomplish this goal?” And then she tells them to “transmute” their doubts, because our negative memories are not true.
- RECALL A PREVIOUS SUCCESS. What did you accomplish? The goal itself does not matter, but you need to make it a happy memory. The brain will remember what it did to achieve your success, and it will find a way to remap that victory again, no matter what the new target is. The more details you can remember, the better. How did it feel to reach the objective? Who celebrated your accomplishment with you? How did you succeed? Were there several steps? How did you navigate through frustrations or setbacks? What did you think and do so you maintained resilience, and remained motivated until you claimed your triumph? When you remember your achievement and the joy it brought to you, several parts of your brain light up as one part engages another to remap the previous path. This strengthens your brain’s desire to succeed again. This desire shuts off the negative wave from the amygdala, and actually causes it to motivate you!
- STRETCH. Yay! Something ridiculously easy! You deserve it for reading so much, Cupcake! Slowly stretch your arms, neck, and torso (upper body) for 10 seconds a couple of times every hour. This is especially important if you sit down or stay relatively still for long periods of time. Take your time, enjoy the blood flowing to other parts of the body, and relax. As you stretch, your brain will again release its happy chemicals. And it will tell you that you deserve sprinkles on that frosting.
- REMIND YOURSELF OF ALL THE GOOD YOU DO. Do not ignore this, Cupcake. Think about what you do to make the world a better place, and celebrate this! If you need further help to remember how awesome you are, go here (skip to the end if you are tired).
- FOCUS ON CONTROLLING ONE SMALL BODY PART FOR TEN SECONDS. I know it sounds cheesy, but give it a try. Scrunch up your toes. Spread out your fingers. Spread your toes. Move your eyebrows up and down. Try to move one eyebrow up, then the other. Alternate closing your left eye while keeping the right eye open, then switch: close the right eye and open the left eye at the same time. This forces the motor cortex to focus, which draws blood away from the amygdala. Balancing exercises will also produce the same result.
- EXERCISE. It doesn’t matter if you move hard for 30 seconds, take a pleasant walk for 20 minutes, or do yoga. Get your body moving so the brain will release its three “happy” chemicals into your entire body.
To make sure the brain understands and remembers, give these a try. Go for five of them. Be brave. Go for the whole 10 ways you can help your mind overcome its fear, and be the successful cupcake kind of person you deserve to be. Do whatever you need to so you can make sure you release fear from your mind, and achieve more in your cupcake life. After all, you are worthy of it!
As always, let me know how it’s going. What are some things that you do to stop the fear before it stops you? How do you banish your doubts? Feel free to share, as you are sending a goodwill Karmic boomerang out.
Have a great day, and stay frosted!