Managing a Brain Designed to Notice Fear (ours and others’)

  • The place where fear lives has no eyes….

It is that primordial.   We choose what to fear, even though our fear-response is so fast it seems involuntary. Indeed, part of our brain is actively scanning for danger every 400 ms as we go about our day, so we are filtering innumerable data signals from our environment. How empowering to realize that we alone assign meaning to the events in our lives.  I see a dog and I feel love, but you may feel terror.   Whether that is chosen or not varies by the state the person’s in, their context, and even changes for that individual over time.

Yes, we fabricate fear.  And thank goodness.   We learned as children to actively and intelligently choose to assign meaning to threatening facial expressions as dangerous for example, because acceptance and belonging often meant survival more than self-actualization.  Not because those threatening faces would cause us physical pain by biting us as a sabre-toothed tiger might, but perhaps because of the risk of equally powerful emotional pain such as risk to our sense of belonging/acceptance, credibility/worth; when a value we hold dear is in danger of being breached, we have learned to assign and respond with fear.  Research has shown that emotional pain is recorded in the same region of our brain as physical pain when measured by functional MRI.  Not surprising then, that days and lifetimes spent in threatening environments develop hair triggers and unconscious emotional drives determined to have our needs met.  Since our emotional brain has no access to logic, strategies it chooses to address unmet needs may turn out to be brilliant, or destructive.  But I’ll post about that another day.

Triggers are assigned meaning based on what we experience

These fight-flight-freeze risk triggers were lifesaving and secured our survival when our prehistoric ‘big brain’ intellect/executive functions were being remodeled, so long ago.   The importance of triggers was locked in because they protected us well when we learned from our lived experiences (fear/pleasure) which shaped our stone-age best guess ‘prediction algorithm’. Worked great then, but our living conditions have completely changed.  Our limbic Fight-Flight-Freeze system wiring hasn’t noticed or kept pace.  So accept it.  It is your and my job to learn to manage our emotions e.g. to listen closely to our hopes, expectations and fears, and to ask what is truly at stake here?

Don’t be swept away by your own emotion and monkey mind chatter.

How?  By learning to recognize what is helpful, and what isn’t. Yes, definitely listen to your intuition, then slow down so you can ask “is this fact or fabrication?”  Do your best to align your opinion with objective data. Substantiate the stories you tell yourself by double-checking how others perceive your assumptions about the world; our and others’ intentions and future potential. Reflect on the real meaning of that busy internal running commentary we call “monkey mind chatter” about what is going on about and around you.   What genuine human need is surfacing?  Then you can more easily reassure and quiet your inner dialogue enough so that you can here and be present with the person, priority or process which you are facing in the moment.  This mindful living helps us to be enriched by the experiences of others, to meaningfully track our achievement and development, and to more accurately contribute to our lives and the lives of others.

We can ONLY be mindful by starting with ourselves.

Our life is a forest of different relationships and YES it is much harder to be Calm, Focused, Positive and Compassionate when we are being watched, judged or criticized by others. The fact is, we don’t know how others are interpreting us, so we’re most often distracted or accosted by our perception of what things mean.  Sometimes it can be relentless or worse, violent and merciless. It helped us to be vigilant and on our toes.  The system that was most successful produced a being who was a guarded nervous wreck, but alive.  The easy-going non-triggered beings unworried about acceptance, belonging or that shadow in the background ended up ostracized and/or as a lion’s lunch.  By that design, feeling unsafe was a good thing indeed because it meant survival. Now fast forward to today and this same excellent system which wired a “meaning-making” drive to lock in early learning, now has to be honored, soothed and reassured.  Have empathy when a person feels unsafe and insecure.  Their emotional brain “knows” it is crazy dangerous out there and they would be a fool to let their guard down and be vulnerable.

Have empathy, for yourself and others.

When a jackal is ready to bite you if you make a mistake, it is much less painful and in fact healthier to be guarded, vigilant and keenly sensitive to how our environment needs us to be, in order to reduce risk of injury.   We are keenly wired to avoid mere discomfort, let alone actual pain. We wouldn’t have survived as a species if we didn’t have these innate forces driving us.  But if the pain is generated from experiences in the past, today we DO have a say in managing the voice differently.  It is a voice we have internalised.  If you have Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) , know you also have the agency needed to make a change.  You CAN step up to be the best version of yourself, rather than a compromised guarded one that is wisely protected from potential dangerous judgmental events from the past.  Be bold.  Be yourself.   Don’t hide what you can contribute to the world.

ANYONE can learn this.

Know that you impact others, every moment, in every conversation.  In the same way your spidey sense know when others are nervous or out for only themselves, they also unconsciously notice how you are showing up.  Like it or not. Think of leaders in your past.  You have likely been inspired by those who are confident and helped you to feel confident and competent when in their presence.  Know that you too can choose the impact you have on those you interface with, by you being courageous and being your best.   Recall that “we may not remember what he or she said, but we always remember how they made us feel”.   You get to choose how you want to be remembered.

You can’t “try” to inspire others.  It must be earned.

Other’s must choose to be inspired by you.  You must earn their trust for them to truly hear what you have to say.  You need to be safe with yourself before they will feel safe with you.  Only then will THEY feel safe to be the real them, with you. At the end of the day, inspiring others isn’t something you do as much as how you are being.  How you show up as a leader especially under duress, sits squarely in and is founded by your relationship with yourself.  Be aware of your concerns, and how they show up in your leadership presence.   Think you can hide them?  Think again.

Leaders know things are done most effectively by bringing out the best in others.

When others trust and believe in themselves, the team is happier and gets more done, and you will get more done as their leader.  Remember: being a leader is not about you. You will achieve far more and be better protected from burnout when you can better inspire others by being aware of and more effectively directly addressing tension and fears, then highlighting felt values and hope.  It is an approach to life, like a mindset brought to your day-to-day job, rather than an action or task that can be perfected.  In the same way we can never revisit the river, it is a moment to moment interaction, a presence, which shapes the relationship.   Each conversation is unique.  Leaders inspire trust in self. Leaders give hope.

Be the leader that others want to work with because of the way you MAKE THEM FEEL.

We each have a chance to be a leader in every moment.  It is a decision.  Choose to be in the moment, attending to those you are with and being aware of unmet needs which might be at play, and what will help others be courageous and commit to being their best.   These are not rules or absolutes.  They are mere thoughts and perspectives gained from my experiences which might apply in certain contexts and may provide a new lens. I would love to hear if any parts ring true (or don’t) for you? What have you found works better for you?

Fuel Your Focus

Work these days is getting faster and faster. 

I hear otherwise well-balanced professionals saying they are struggling because they find they:

  • cant slow down
  • are attempting too much multi-tasking
  • and are busier than ever before.


Sleep disturbances are more common now and they make it even harder for a mind to focus.  With so much going on, professionals find it harder to stay calm, which is a foundational element of emotional intelligence.  Staying calm is becoming a leadership imperative; a required competency especially for senior leaders. 


I am not implying that you have a habit of setting your hair on fire or that you infer “staying calm” to mean you turn into Dr. Spock.  My intent is to highlight the power of making a decision to more often leverage a wider field of vision and consider issues at more depth.   Of course you do this already since you are reading this blog.  But maybe not always.  Calm big picture thinking is in fact neurologically impossible when our brain is triggered through stress and change fatigue which compromise our ability to manage internal interruptions to our own thoughts such as judgements and running commentary.  But HOW do we calm our mind when we need to be thinking  a mile-a-minute to not fall behind?


Stay clear on your purpose.  Do you know your one MAIN focus for that moment?  Personally making the decision to focus is a critical step.  Ask yourself if it is a true priority.  Do you really want it?


Presuming you have been coached (by self or others) and are clear with and have made an explicit decision to be committed to it, you can be more present with it, know that you can ignore interruptions and complete your thoughts.  You will have the confidence to keep the conversation topic clean, uncontaminated with other burning platforms (which you will deal with later)  and can resist the temptation to do five things at once.   By using cleaner “fuel” for your focus, your thinking engine will run smoother and at higher efficiency than when trying to use “mixed fuels”.


But that’s much easier said than done.

So HOW do we better manage interruptions and derailleurs and maintain our focus?

1.  Become more mindful

2.  Manage your mental muscle fitness and habits/reflexes

3.  Be the leader that brings out their best


Become More Mindful

Ever noticed that stream of commentaries about the world that goes on in our heads?  Feels silent at times, and very loud indeed at other times.   Who you are is not the voice (the thinker) but the one who is aware of it.  At different times, we need to attend to the different parts of our thinking.  For example, when  the other person is speaking, are you preparing the next thing you’re going to say rather than truly listening to what’s going on for them?


Through formative experiences we may have developed a reflex to evaluate ourselves and what’s going on at all times.  But the greatest gift we can give might be to be truly present for them and listen deeply.   Other times it is essential to be the objective, rational, realistic judge of the data available in order to make a sound visionary, informed, evaluated and strategic decision.  So maturity in this case, is knowing when to be the scientist, and when to be in the moment.  We must learn from the past but not dwell there.  We need to plan for the future but not worry about or believe that once when we have that car/job/lover/whatever THEN we will be happy, because that’s dwelling in the future.  There is no time like the present.   In fact it is all we will ever have.


How can you best serve and contribute?  Depends on your purpose, and the context.


Purposefully paying attention to the moment and delaying judgement will keep you open.   When you have clarity on your goal, have decided on your objective (intention), you will become more effective, the way an engine runs quieter and more smoothly with cleaner fuel.



MINDFULNESS can help you to:

  • Make more effective decisions and be more clear and selective on when and how to take action both in organisations and in life in general because you have a wider perspective
  • Increase your awareness of here and how, which play a huge role in capturing missed business cues and preventing the loss of big picture thinking which affect our perceptions of what is real e.g. threats and opportunities, apparent logic, and knee-jerk decisions.
  • Dampen stress receptor systems and cortisol flood,  which all trigger Fight-Flight-Freeze reflexes, which measurably compromise our ability to see alternative perspectives  (both abstract, and literally with peripheral vision acuity changes), to innovate and be resourceful,  and to be empathic and calm.
  • Develop your capacity to pick up on what a complex situation TRULY requires, rather than just the presenting problem at a superficial reactionary level.


Manage your Mental Muscle Fitness and Habits/Reflexes

Staying mentally aware is work. 

Our thinking mind is DESIGNED to hand over everything it possibly can to our unconscious and our filter sets.  For example, feel the skin on your feet.  Hear sounds around you.  Listen to your breathing.  These are things our brain is supposed to filter out so that it doesn’t explode with the burden of decisions (when should I breathe?  Are my socks too tight?  Oh look, a bird.  Should I digest now?).  These filters saved our hides.  For example, in a crazy noisy room if you hear your child call your name, or you hear a person quietly choking, that same filter system will force you to notice it because they are emotionally relevant.  Or if you are speaking to a crowd and you spot a frown of anger or curled lip of contempt from the sea of faces looking at you, you will most likely notice if you care about your audience.  Conversely, if you are so wrapped up in how you appear and are delivering your message, you won’t notice your audience’s responses as much.  Filters are invoked depending on our hopes, fears, expectations and priorities.  You might as well be aware of them, because they are running your life for better or for worse.


This is where we need to develop our Mental Muscle Fitness, and be more aware of our thinking habits and reflexes which code our responses.   If we are able to stay un-triggered (calm, open and un threatened), we leverage our big brain and remain  open minded, skilled and resilient even in the face of uncomfortable discussions and feedback.   Staying calm even measurably increases  our learning readiness.  This forms a key element of the most admired leaders who are most effective at engaging and inspiring those they lead.

Be The Leaders Who Brings Out Their Best

Ever been in the workplace where an individual was so skilled that people fought to be on his or her team?  Effective leaders manage themselves in a way so that those they lead feel better about themselves.


It helps their team to better incorporate the information available to them, fosters an environment where they can debate, provides feedback in a climate that generates more sound decisions.  They take initiative and take the right actions because their brain RAM isn’t preoccupied wondering and computing the ruckus of stories, false conclusions about what statements might have meant and if they are a threat to their personal credibility, acceptance or belonging.


On the other hand when you are stressed, others’ mirror neurons can hardly stop themselves from picking that up.  While they don’t know why, they tighten up, and are not able to do their best work for you their leader.   Remember, you will influence much more powerfully when you are mindful, manage your emotions and are clear on your purpose.  As their leader, they NEED you to take managing yourself seriously, because then they can do their best work.


These are not rules or absolutes.  They are mere thoughts and perspectives gained from my experiences which might apply in certain contexts and may provide a new lens. 


I would love to hear if any parts ring true (or don’t) for you?

What have you found works best for you?

Is ADHD just another fad?

Could it be ADHD?

Maybe not.  Most people will have some of the patterns described in the Brown Attention Deficit Disorder Scales at some point.   What makes it Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD (or ADD minus the hyperactivity)  is if the degree and frequency is impairing you or not.

Thomas E Brown from Connecticut has clustered together 6 classic areas of impairment*.  These are from the most extreme end and are rarely seen in the workplace.   ADHD absentmindedness and  impulsivity do NOT give you license to be late, hurtful or inappropriate.  It means you need to accept and manage your wiring differences the way somebody with diabetes must accept to pay attention to what they eat.  Even when medicated, pills don’t spell skills.  Alas.


Executive Functions Impaired in ADD/ADHD:

Activation: organizing tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritizing tasks, and getting started on work tasks.

Patients with ADD describe chronic difficulty with excessive procrastination. Often they will put off getting started on a task, even a task they recognize as very important to them, until the very last minute. It is as though they cannot get themselves started until the point where they perceive the task as an acute emergency.

Focus: focusing, sustaining focus, and shifting focus to tasks.

Some describe their difficulty in sustaining focus as similar to trying to listen to the car radio when you drive too far away from the station and the signal begins fading in and out: you get some of it and lose some of it. They say they are distracted easily not only by things that are going on around them, but also by thoughts in their own minds. In addition, focus on reading poses difficulties for many. Words are generally understood as they are read, but often have to be read over and over again in order for the meaning to be fully grasped and remembered.

Effort: regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and processing speed.

Many with ADHD report they can perform short-term projects well, but have much more difficulty with sustained effort over longer periods of time. They also find it difficult to complete tasks on time, especially when required to do expository writing. Many also experience chronic difficulty regulating sleep and alertness. Often they stay up too late because they can’t shut their head off. Once asleep, they often sleep like dead people and have a big problem getting up in the morning.

Emotion: managing frustration and modulating emotions.

Although the medical world (DSM-IV) does not recognize any symptoms related to the management of emotion as an aspect of ADHD, many with this disorder describe chronic difficulties managing frustration, anger, worry, disappointment, desire, and other emotions. They speak as though these emotions take over their thinking much like a computer virus invades a computer, making it impossible for them give attention to anything else. They find it very difficult to get the emotions into perspective, let alone their impact.  It’s a challenge to get on with what needs to be done.

Memory: utilizing working memory and accessing recall.

Very often, people with ADHD will report that they have adequate or exceptional memory for things that happened long ago, but great difficulty in being able to remember where they just put something, what someone just said to them, or what they were about to say. They may describe difficulty holding one or several things “on line” while attending to other tasks. In addition, persons with ADHD often complain that they cannot pull out of memory information they have learned when they need it.

Action: monitoring and regulating self-action.

Many persons with ADHD, even those without problems of hyperactive behavior, report chronic problems in regulating their actions. They often are too impulsive in what they say or do, and in the way they think, jumping too quickly to inaccurate conclusions. Persons with ADHD also report problems in monitoring the context in which they are interacting. They fail to notice when other people are puzzled, or hurt or annoyed by what they have just said or done and thus fail to modify their behavior in response to specific circumstances. Often they also report chronic difficulty in regulating the pace of their actions, in slowing self and/or speeding up as needed for specific tasks.

So given that some elements are genetic and some are socialised (see epigenetics), what can we do about it??  See my next blog post.


Do you recognise any of these behaviours in those you know?

How have you (or they) learn to better manage or make improvements in compromising behaviour patterns?

*Excerpted from