Are you driving under the influence of fear (and what to do next)?

If you have driven a car for long you are likely to have experienced the fear of being pulled over by the police at least once, most likely many more times than that…

The sight of the red and blue lights in your rear view mirror can be intimidating. Imagine you are waved down by a police office just after you have turned a blind corner or driven over the crest of a hill.   How would this feel?

Unfortunately this experience is likely to happen to all of us.  We’re not talking about being pulled over for speeding here.

It’s the random breath test.

Random breath testing is not the most pleasant experience in the world. We’ve all seen the billboard and television ads warnings haven’t we? Why is this sort of thing really necessary? Don’t people trust each other to be responsible?

Do the random breath tests conducted by the police really even test our ability to operate machinery?

The test is simply a scientific estimate of the amount of alcohol in our system. This helps the police to single you out from a sample of the population if you are over the limit.

The limits are the same if your judgment has been impaired or not

Testing methods have been developed to measure the actual level of impaired judgment.   Why are we testing only for level of alcohol and some drugs in our bloodstream instead? What about everything else that can impair our judgment?  What about fear?

Fear and the effect on judgment

… Doesn’t fear influence our decisions and judgment every day?

You’ve heard of the fight, freeze or flight responses haven’t you? When we are threatened we have a number of instinctive responses. Rational decision making isn’t one of them.

The instincts that served us well on the African plains aren’t so useful now we’re not being hunted by sabre toothed tigers.

Not many of our daily choices are life and death decisions. Yet our brains are over stimulated with threatening images and situations everyday at work, in the street and on the news.  One of the consequences is dealing with our primitive fear response.  Fear is uncomfortable so we generally try to escape from it any way we can.

Imagine if we could smell fear like sharks?

Sharks have finely tuned biosensors in their nose and face that allow them to sense electrical impulses in other animals. They can even sense changes in your own heart rate, if they happen to swim near you.

We have a way to measure fear too. It’s called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI for short. Using this imaging technique we can see what fear looks like inside our heads. We can measure the appearance of fear and know where to find it.

The amygdala is a very specific location in the brain and is well know to be activated during the threat and fear response.

Neuroscientists have known about this for some time and have studied people using fMRI over many years.

In 2016 they conducted a study of the brain of the world’s greatest solo free climber, Alex Honnold, and compared his brain to that of an average rock climber (the type who actually use ropes).

Alex Honnold and fear

You may notice in the photo of Alex above that solo free climbing is done without the help of any ropes or protective equipment and is certainly not for everyone. Free climbing is an excellent example of how some decisions can provide extreme focus and confidence when there are no escape hatches.

What the scientists found when looking at Alex Honnold’s brain scans was rather surprising. When Alex was shown images designed to stimulate his threat response while lying in a fMRI machine they discovered his amygdala wasn’t firing at all. In control subjects, however, the amygdala was lighting up just as expected.

fMRI brain scan without fear response

The part of the brain that lights up during the fear response is marked by the cross-hairs in the fMRI scans above. When shown arousing images Alex Honnold’s brain displayed no activity in the fear centre of the amygdala (left) The same area lit up in the amygdala in the brain of an “average” rock climber of similar age (right).

So the test exists but somehow I doubt we’ll see this on the roadside anytime soon.

I am sure it wouldn’t be used by governments if a simple test for fear did exist right? Well, ok. Maybe it would…

…But until a roadside test for fear is available we will need to be responsible for it on our own.

When we are afraid we feel vulnerable to attack, don’t we? We all sense that showing vulnerability to our competitors is not a good idea but is this an effective tactic? So far we’ve talked about how fear is important to our perceptions and the idea of how being afraid can impair our judgment in a similar way to alcohol.

We can avoid the effect of alcohol by not drinking but how can we avoid the influence of fear? Here are three tactics we can try that have been proven effective for others.

Safety in numbers

Martin Luther King recognised the importance of overcoming fear. He saw fear as one of the biggest obstacles to the progress of the civil rights movement in America. People were afraid of retribution if they took a personal stand and for good reason.

“Only through our adherence to love and nonviolence will the fear in the white community be mitigated”Martin Luther King

King helped people overcome their fears by deploying non-violent protests in large numbers. The collective strength of the crowd empowered individuals who might not take action alone. This is the concept of safety in numbers. If you can band together with even one other you can begin to do things you might not attempt alone out of fear. In his Antidotes for Fear letter King spoke about four antidotes for fear.  Kings solution was to face our fears with courage, love and faith and the use of non-violent protest in large numbers was the most powerful expression of this.

This is why trade unions survive. When employers overstep the mark and employees feel intimidated in some way they can use the structure and safety of numbers that a union provides to take action. When part of a group, individuals feel more confident and as a consequence are less likely to be acted on individually by the company. Wherever unions form you can be certain that this is a defence against a fear of something. This could be a fear of speaking up individually or of being singled out for poor treatment if taking a stand alone. So safety in numbers is a very practical and useful response. But it can also be polarising and cause relationships to deteriorate into justification and entitlement can’t it?

And so we need other tools to handle and address our fears. As well as using safety in numbers we can deploy the tactic of reappraisal.

Changing your interpretations

Reappraisal is where we take a look at the strong emotions we are feeling about a situation and reinterpret them.

For example, let’s say your boss closes the door to your office and informs you that your job is under review and could be made redundant. This could certainly cause a cascade of fear to unfold in your head. Unmanaged this news could easily escalate into worsening job performance and stress. You might interpret this as “my boss hates me’ or ‘he wants to get rid of me’ but this doesn’t help you deal with the situation.

You may start pandering to your boss and try to please him to his face but then secretly plot to subvert his authority. Not a very helpful response but one that could be fueled by fear and expressed as revenge.

But this is just one, in many possible interpretations of what happened.

All of these fear based emotions can be redirected if we re-interpret them.

Instead of just reacting to your fear become curious

We can ask questions that might changes our perceptions of the situation. What is causing your feelings?

How might you interpret the situation differently? The boss could simply be telling the truth of what is happening and is just keeping you informed. Maybe he didn’t consider the negative impact the news might have on you and is lacking some skills in the empathy department. Perhaps the message he really wanted to deliver was to motivate you to step up and contribute more value to the business. Alternatively, he may just be trying to motivate you and can only think of doing it through fear and intimidation.

By reinterpreting your emotions you may even find yourself changing your perceptions about your boss completely. Such a change in perception is difficult to achieve if you are in the grip of fear already. What if the thought doesn’t even occur to you?

To protect yourself from this perceptual trap the simplest approach is physical. Take regular breaks from work, use your holidays to regain perspective and get enough sleep and exercise. Without these habits we can start to live in a downward spiral of degraded perception under the influence of our fears. So safety in numbers and reappraisal certainly help us address our fears but there is one more tool we need to cover. That is practice.

Practice until your fear is extinguished

We know that the police train their horses this way don’t we? Before a crowd control horse is allowed in the public it is conditioned to nuisances starting from minor obstacles and then moving to loud noises, smoke and powerful stimuli over a period of time.

The purpose of repeated exposure to the stimuli we would normally avoid is to dampen our fear response to threatening situations through practice. By doing the very thing that we fear most we train ourselves to fear it less. The more we can do this without severe negative consequences the better. Just like the police horse training, start off small and work your way upwards. For example, if you fear public speaking your first efforts may be to simply tell a story around the dinner table or to your trusted friends and work up from there.

If you do happen to stumble at first, the impact will be minimised because you are learning in safer environments. But remember the saying about getting straight back on the horse after falling off.

A some point you will fall off your horse

That’s just one of the risks of riding a horse. When it happens consider that it’s just part of your practice to get back on the horse and start over.

After a negative experience during our practice we may need to exercise our skill of reinterpreting what just happened. Take for instance the experience with your boss I discussed earlier. Your gut response may be to avoid him and to do even less work. That approach can only end poorly for you.

Instead you can decide to reinterpret the his feedback as an opportunity to learn and grow. You might think of ways that you can help the business and bring him a proposal without him prompting you. Instead of avoiding him find ways you can become more valuable to him and the business and show him your worth. It has to be better than the alternative of burying your head in the sand.

So we covered three tactics for overcoming our fears. They were safety in numbers, reappraisal and practice.

 The obstacle of fear

What is common to all of these approaches is that it is our own responsibility to overcome the negative effects of any fear that we are feeling. It is not likely there will be a roadside test for it any time soon.

The antidote to fear is faith

Excerpt from Martin Luther King’s, Antidotes for Fear, sermon available from The King Center online archives.

Your response to fear can determine your perceptions, decisions and actions.

So let’s embrace our fears as opportunities to learn and grow stronger with courage.

“Courage is the inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations”Martin Luther King
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