How fear controls your life – at work and at home….and what to do about it (3 minute read)

If you have contentious, adversarial relationships with anyone at work or elsewhere, you may have asked yourself one or many of these questions.

  • What’s wrong with me?
  • What’s wrong with him/her?
  • Whose fault is it?
  • How can I prove I’m right?
  • Why is s/he so clueless and frustrating?
  • Haven’t we been there, done that?
  • Why bother?

How many times have you asked any one of these questions just today?

Sometimes just the simple act of asking ourselves these type of questions causes chemical and physical changes in our body that can impact thought, energy and mood.  They also can anchor you to certain patterns that are self-defeating.

You have no choice

Your reptilian brain is the first part of you to assess any new thought or situation. That is right, you have no choice.  When something new comes along, the first stop is the amygdala which has been part of our brain for hundreds of millions of years and is one of the main reasons that we are here as our ancestors survived so we could be born.

Also, to be extra safe, it sometimes fills in holes when it does not have information. Usually this information is worst case scenario stuff.  This can cause you to panic and/or “catastrophize“.

Again, this is a normal initial reaction until our higher brain functions kick in to calm things down when appropriate. More on this later.

What is your next move

If you are not in imminent danger and you are in the office, your next move is critical. It could be the difference between embarrassment, or worse, termination. The trick is to stop and give your neocortex or executive part of your brain a chance to weigh in.  If you are a friend or the manager of someone who is in this state, it is wise to advise them to take a few minutes before reacting.

For instance, if your boss sends you an email at 11pm that says “Meet me in my office at 3:30 tomorrow” in the subject line with nothing else, what would your reaction be?  You could be thinking any of these or something completely different:

  • “My boss is unhappy with something I did.”
  • “I forgot to do something.”
  • “Someone has complained about something I did.”
  • “We didn’t win that last project; but I thought he knew it wasn’t my fault.”

Our world is no longer nearly as dangerous as it once was but our reptile brain does not know this.  Since this initial reaction is seen by our brain as life or death (even though it isn’t) and is the first part of us that gets to choose what to do immediately after encountering something new and/or unexpected, it is going to quickly make the following assessment:

  1. Am I safe? If so, relax
  2. Am I not safe: If so, should I run, fight or play dead

This happened to me earlier this year. I was just about to give a presentation to a number of peers and my mouth went dry and I lost all focus.  I do not really recall what I said.  I enjoy giving presentations but in this case I was intimidated by the audience and my lizard brain went into overdrive.

These decisions are made in fractions of seconds but can stay with us much longer as your adrenaline has kicked in, the blood has been drawn to the large muscle groups which means your heart is beating very fast and your mouth may go dry (as mine did). It can take a few minutes or longer to recover.

In the few seconds after this, we can now go in any one of many directions.  In the case of the person who received the email, he can worry about it until 3:30 the following day or he can write a quick note back asking for more info to prepare for the meeting.  A few more words could possibly help clear everything up and secure a better night’s rest.  Or, he can start panic and possible spiral down into “the pit of despair”.

Here are some simple ways that you can avoid this fate

When faced with a similar situation or for general well-being, you can train yourself to take a minute before you react by asking one or many of the following:

  1. What do I value about myself?
  2. What do I appreciate about him/her?
  3.  Am I being responsible?
  4.  What can I learn?
  5. What’s useful?
  6. What is he/she thinking, feeling, and wanting?
  7. What are the best steps forward?
  8. What’s possible?

What is my mood?

What you can do as well is check in regularly with yourself as to what type of mood you are in. If you are in a negative state of mind, you could be filtering out all the good aspects of an interaction or resurrect other long-buried negative thoughts.

Even though I have focused mostly on the negative, the opposite is also true. If you are in a great mood, you may be too quick to agree to something without putting much thought into it.

In either case, you may come to regret your decision or actions. Taking a minute to assess can help you to make a better decision.


Know that you descend from a long line of survivors and winners or you would not be here. However, know that the main thing that was responsible for your survival is out of place in the modern world.  Your amygdala does not know that the email you got at 11pm from your boss is not life threatening.  It just reacts without thought as it is supposed to.  It is what you do next that separates us from almost every other being on the planet.

Take a minute, assess the situation, ask yourself a few questions to engage your higher functioning brain.  You will then give yourself the best chance to come up with alternative ways to react versus fight of flight. Oh yeah, and do this for others as well to avoid unnecessary conflict and pain.

Please note that this post was inspired by the following books – Tame the Primitive Brain by Mark Bowden and Change Your Questions, Change your Life by Marilee G. Adams.   I really liked Mark’s book and his TED talks. The second book is a bit hokey but does relate some useful information.

Be Exceptional!

I look forward to your comments. If you found this post useful, please share, comment and/or like.

Published by Bill Flynn

Gazelles Member Advisor and early stage startup specialist with a proven track record with 16 Boston-based startups (9 to date with 5 successful outcomes, advisor to 7 others); SMB to Fortune 500 companies. 20+ years of Senior Sales, Marketing and GM experience in industries including mobile advertising, security, digital advertising, e-commerce and IT. Core Competencies: Player/Coach, Metrics-driven, Execution-based philosophy, Life-long learner

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