I know a lot about fear — I’ve been locked in its tight grip many times. But recently, I’ve come to realize that those unnerving experiences can be amazingly empowering.
For administrative assistants, professional growth is necessary. Throughout our career, we will find ourselves challenged by new expectations — public speaking, leadership roles, collaboration, responsibilities outside core competencies — and fear may link arms with us. But we have a choice: see fear as a prison, or an opportunity for a managed partnership.
First, it’s important to understand the chemical messaging in your brain. This is the foundation for controlling how you experience fear, how you will act on that experience, and how the experience will ultimately impact your personal and professional growth.
We will focus on the two most common types of fear: the fear we seek for thrills, and the real and perceived dangers we don’t seek out.
Getting brainy 101:
All fear starts in a region of the brain called the amygdala. A roughly almond-shaped mass of gray matter inside each cerebral hemisphere, the amygdala reacts to threat stimuli, such as someone jumping out at you in a dark alley. It also reacts to the emotions displayed in faces, with much stronger reactions to anger and fear (1). Your amygdala triggers the release of hormones that prepare you physically and psychologically to respond to danger —your heart rate increases, blood and glucose are rerouted to muscle, other organs not needed at the moment slow down. This prepares you to instinctively act on one of the following impulses: fight or flight*.
But before you actually act on these options, two other sections of the brain weigh in.
Closely connected to the amygdala is the hippocampus, and a bit farther out is the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus recognizes the danger, which alerts the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex receives the information and evaluates if the danger is real (1).
Let’s look at what happens when a group of friends attend a haunted house. They expect to be frightened and that there will be no real danger. But that won’t stop the amygdala from reacting when something jumps out at the group in a spooky, fake alleyway. That signal of potential danger — activated by the hippocampus’ memory that such actions are scary — is processed by the prefrontal cortex, which determines the danger is not real, assuring the emotional area of our brain that we are OK (1).
We get the rush without genuine terror.
If the danger was real, the prefrontal cortex would support the fight-or-flight response, providing us with the physical and psychological resources to do either.
Amorphous fear: “Don’t get your undies in a bundle”
So far, we’ve explored fear as a black-or-white experience: either the danger is real, or it isn’t. In the average person’s world today, the most common fears we experience are amorphous fears: perceived fears, learned fears, false beliefs, or fears we deliberately encourage (2). These are fears that haven’t been realized, or may never be realized, but we fear nonetheless (1). For instance, an administrative assistant highly suspects that an upcoming event will have a personal negative consequence (e.g., they will embarrass themselves, fail, or people won’t like their idea or the outcome). Through their constant worry, the assistant experiences fear multiple times before the event happens. Sometimes the greatest fear is overcoming fear because that typically requires actions we don’t want to do (2). These are amorphous fears, and amorphous fears can be at the locus of whether one grows or stagnates as an administrative professional.
“It’s just my imagination … runnin’ away with me!”
Like the lyrics in the classic soul hit “It’s Just My Imagination,” our imaginations can run in wild directions.
In the article “5 Sure-fire Ways to Overcome Fear and Anxiety Today,” self-help therapist Mark Tyrell explains that humans “…developed imagination to be able to project into the future so we can plan ahead. However, the side effect of being able to imagine possible positive futures is being able to imagine things going wrong. A bit of this is useful; after all, there really might be muggers and loan sharks. But uncontrolled negative imagination is a nesting ground for anxiety and fear that can spoil otherwise happy lives. Some people misuse their imagination negatively and chronically and so suffer much more anxiety than those who future-project their imagination constructively. …The role of imagination can prime your mind and body to feel fearful.” In these instances, we are responsible for consciously triggering danger.
Through the power and habit of our own negative thinking, we can initiate, teach and encourage ourselves to be fearful. Through negative future-thinking, we actually train our mind and body to be more afraid when the event finally happens than if we had been thinking otherwise (2). By thoroughly practicing fear, we bypass nervousness and go straight to petrified.
If we can set off a chemical danger cascade, can we quell the flow? To a great degree, yes. As we’ve learned, fear and anxiety don’t always “just happen to us.” Our own actions can make us fearful. Therefore, our own actions can empower us.
The dark side:
Imagine that you’ve been asked to give a presentation to your manager’s staff. Or maybe, through no fault of your own, you’ve been laid off and now you have to look for a new job. Perhaps you need to have an uncomfortable conversation with a co-worker. In such examples, we have the choice, the control, to imagine the worst — or the best. And what we choose to imagine will influence our self-talk, which influences our outcome. You can choose to say, “I can’t,” or you can choose to say, “I can.” Each will result in a vastly different experience.
While fear will be present in both instances, “I can’t” is the experience of avoiding what we fear. For example, an administrative professional may say, “I can’t present in front of groups. Don’t even ask.” Or “I can’t take a leadership role because I won’t be good at it.” Or maybe “I can’t join that team; they seem so much smarter than me.” Or perhaps “I can’t participate on that panel; I won’t know what to say, and I’m just not very interesting.” (That last one was a real response to an invitation to participate on an assistant panel. The assistant did participate and, shaky hands and knees notwithstanding, was an absolute star).
For those individuals who reject growth experiences, they never present, never lead, never join, never find their voice, never grow their confidence.
“I can’t” sets the stage for the habit of being afraid. You’re choosing to live inside your amygdala with the doors and windows shut.
It’s dark in there, folks.
The “I can” journey:
“I can” is the empowering experience of managing fear. “I can” is stepping out and being seen and heard. “I can” is a learning journey with fellow travelers. “I can” is reaching out to others to know them and learn their strengths, as they learn yours. “I can” gives you permission to be afraid along the way. “I can” allows you to reach out for support because, well, sometimes you get a little afraid. “I can” gets you past “I can’t.”
The “I can” path is never done alone. And, even better, there are tools that can help you along the way. Here are three tools for your “I can” backpack.
#1: Deep breathing—when “Too late, I’m already afraid”
You’ve probably heard plenty about deep breathing and may have tried it a time or two with mixed or no results. But are you aware that one of the first reactions of the amygdala is quick, shallow breathing? Short breaths trigger other fear symptoms. This means by controlling your breathing, you gain control over other potential fear reactions (3).
There is deep breathing and then there is effective deep breathing. The formula for effective deep breathing is simple. First, get as comfortable as the moment allows. You’re going to inhale deep into your belly, not shallow breaths into the top of your lungs. Your stomach area should expand. Second, deliberately exhale longer than you inhale. You pick the duration. For instance, inhale to the count of four, exhale to the count of seven. Inhale to the count of seven, exhale to the count of 11 (3).
Do this for a minute or two as it takes the body awhile to accustom itself to the new message you’re sending to your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from the base of your brain to your abdomen, and it talks directly to your amygdala. Because you’re no longer breathing in a quick shallow manner, the amygdala gets the message that it no longer needs to release the other fight or flight hormones.
While deep breathing is a take-it-with-you-anywhere tool for fear and anxiety reduction, it will serve you best if you know how to do it before you need it. Practice. Teach your friends and families.
#2: Activate your “thinking” brain—it’s in the numbers
Remember how we discussed that the prefrontal cortex steps in to assess whether danger is real? You can consciously activate that evaluation by rating your fear. Ask yourself “How afraid am I?” If 10 is the worst fear experienced, where are you on that scale? You may answer eight or six or whatever is your truth at the moment. This exercise lowers anxiety by diluting the effects of the emotional brain (3). As Mark Tyrell explains, “Scaling your fear puts a ‘fence’ around it, making it more manageable, and it forces you to think.” When it comes to amorphous fears, activating the more rational parts of your brain can be an effective response.
#3: Get control of your imagination
We covered this in some detail in the introduction to amorphous fear. But let’s review:
1. When new opportunities arise that will enhance your skills and competencies, give yourself an immediate positive boost with, “I can.”
2. Accept that fear will accompany you on portions of this path. Have a plan in place to manage fear when it joins you:
– Use authentic, positive self-talk.
– Be realistic. Sometimes fear has a point, but don’t obsess only on the negatives.
– Seek positive support and advice from mentors, your manager, your colleagues.
– Know your colleagues and their strengths. Pull those people in when their skills are needed.
– Rate your fear and breathe deep to get your thinking brain back to work.
3. Accept that your confidence and resolve might be weaker on some days than others. This happens to everybody! Move forward anyway.
4. Enjoy the strong days; the days when you “nailed it” and your confidence blooms.
5. Celebrate your “I can” successes!
6. Be proud!
We’ve all walked in fear’s painfully tight shoes and probably will again. But when I accept the “I can” in myself, I find it really doesn’t hurt as much as I initially dreaded.
*Recently added to the instinctive reactions to fear are “freeze” and “friend.” Freeze we can understand; friend has to do with cajolery, sweet-talking, flattering and is too big a subject to include here (4).
1. Arash Javanakht & Linda Saab, “What Happens in the Brain When We feel Fear” https://smithsonianmag.com (October 27, 2017)
2. Barrie Davenport, “How to be Fearless in Everything” https://www.liveboldandbloom.com (May 23, 2010)
3. Mark Tyrell, “5 Sure-fire Ways to Overcome Fear and Anxiety” https://www.uncommonhelp.me (no publication date)
4. Jennifer Verdolin, PhD, Psychology Today, “The Experience of Fear” (January 16, 2018)