In 8th grade I was passed over for an advanced class that most of my friends were put into. Ironically, not being seen as one of the “smart” students was what motivated me to be a really good student in high school. My motivation was fear. I was simply afraid – afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my friends, afraid I would flunk tests. I was so fearful that if I didn’t know EVERYTHING I would fail and probably overly prepared for every test. What is surprising to me now, is that even though I did very well on tests, I never developed enough confidence to relax a bit and not spend all my time studying.
Pain and Fear Motivates.
Turns out, according to science, the secret to maintaining motivation might actually be more counterintuitive than we originally thought.*
“When we first embark on a task to achieve a goal–like losing weight, for example–we first focus on the positive outcomes. We’ll be able to feel lighter, more confident, and get new clothes. Yet, what really pushes people to effective, consistent action isn’t necessarily focusing on the potentially happy ending that could come from our actions. It’s thinking about the potentially negative outcome–not being able to wear clothes that you barely fit into now, not being able to look good for a certain event on your mind–that get us thinking about concrete steps we can take to actually achieving our goals.”
“When people begin to experience the fear that accompanies a potential failure or disappointment, it actually encourages them to work harder to prevent that than if they were motivated by positive, promotional reasons. The desire not to let someone down–even if that person is yourself–is strong enough to get us on the path to success.”
I was much smarter than I knew choosing fear
as my motivator!
Anxiety triggers the stress response. Anxious feelings are rarely about what is actually happening in the present but about the IMAGINED POSSIBILITY of what might happen in the future. People with the best imaginations can create the worst possibilities.
Anxiety and fear are “just” feelings in your body, they are not facts. Your brain creates feelings to help you know how to respond to situations. Unfortunately, your brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and actual circumstance. Fear and anxiety are there to help you cope, but they are made to cope with imminent danger. However, your brain doesn’t do a good job of distinguishing among the past, present or future
When you are flooded with anxious feelings ask yourself, “Am I about to die or suffer severe bodily harm in the next 10 minutes?”
Take some deep breaths. Getting oxygen to your brain will help you feel calmer.
If the answer is no, take some time to look more objectively at the situation. (If the answer is yes however, run for your life.) Separate your feelings from what is actually going on. Examining the worst case, best case and most likely outcome will help you do this:
Surprisingly, looking at what the worst-case senario can help you feel better. This is because we usually don’t ask ourselves specifics of what horrible thing might happen and when we do, sometimes the most horrible outcome is not life threatening.
Next look at the best-case scenario. What could go right? How could the situation turn out well? Doing this helps you imagine good possibilities signaling your brain that everything is ok.
Most Likely Outcome
What ultimately plays out is usually somewhere in-between the best and worst case. Often, what happens is something you haven’t even planned much less imagined. Based on past & present circumstances (not future imagination) what would be a neutral or ok outcome?
In Your Control
Make SPECIFIC action plans
Plan “A” is what you could do if the worst case you are imagining really happens. What is in your control? What is NOT in your control? Who might help you? What resources would you need? Do you know anyone who has been through something similar?
Plan “B” is about what action you can take right away. What is in your power, your control, to do now to impact the outcome? Ask others for ideas or looking at what other’s in similar situations have done that worked is helpful.
Here’s the outline to use your imagination to create less stress.
Write your answers down – it helps empty your brain:
1. What is the worst case?
2. What is the best case?
3. What is most likely to happen?
4. If the worst occurs, what is your plan/how can you cope?
How often have you felt anxious at best and terrified at worst from your own imagined possibilities?
More importantly, how often has what you imagined actually happened?
Humans don’t learn to become terrified of spiders and snakes — we were hard-wired millions of years ago to fear them!
Apparently, as a scientific study* concludes, the spider/snake specific response conferred an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors- who were able to identify and react to the creatures more quickly.
- I used to be fearful of aliens coming to “get me”. I am pretty sure that the time it would have been useful for them to study me has passed.
- I used to be afraid that my mind would go before my body. Since watching the decline of my own parents I’m now fearful that my mind will NOT go before my body. It may be a blessing not to be aware of what my limitations are.
- I used to be fearful people wouldn’t like me. I now consider it a compliment that certain people don’t like me
I used to be fearful of snakes. I spent hours in my early 20’s watching snakes (behind a glass exhibit) noticing how beautiful their markings were, how incredible it was that they navigated their way with their tongue and how remarkable their ability to move was. I still am afraid of snakes. It’s hard-wired, you know.
- I used to be fearful of not getting good grades in school. I’ve got all the diplomas now I need . . .or want.
- I used to be terrified of dying. I’m not afraid of that since I’ve embraced the Baha’i belief about the celestial realm.
- I used to be fearful of never having a boy ask me to dance at high school dances. Now I fear that if anyone asked they’d find out I can’t dance
- I used to be afraid of heights. I took a Wilderness Course in my 30’s where we had to climb poles, walk across streams on tiny logs and fall backwards off ledges into people’s’ arms. I am still afraid of heights.
Hey! My list of fears has really been whittled down!
All I’m afraid of now is that there are snakes in heaven, I will be a dance instructor for eternity and that heaven is REALLY HIGH up.
What are . . . or were . . . your fears ?
I met some remarkable people working as a therapist in a hospital psychiatric ward. One of the most memorable was a Vietnam veteran who flew into rages. He’d lost his lower left leg in battle. But the war or being severely injured were not what made him rageful. He had always raged, even as a child. His father raged as well.
His wife was the main target of his rages. He would become uncontrollably angry at the smallest of things like forgetting where she left her keys, or spilling a beverage . . . until he learned the “1/4 second secret” to controlling unwanted anger.
To understand the 1/4 of a second secret you need to understand the fight or flight reaction.
We have an ever vigilant watchdog, a small almond shaped organ in our midbrain called the amygdala (amygdala from the Greek word for almond) that looks out for us 24/7 and alerts us to any POSSIBLE threat.
When our brain receives a threat-cue, sounds, sights, smells, touches or even our imagination, our brain wants FAST action. No waiting around for a sign of safety, no thinking things through just FLEE or stay and FIGHT (there is also a “freeze” response but that’s another post).
Our amygdala floods the cells in our body with neurochemical signals to increase blood pressure, raise heart rate, send blood away from major organs to your muscles, constrict capillaries near the skin, increase breathing, and tamper down anything that isn’t crucial to fight or flee for survival.
Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t discriminate between real threats, imagined threats, conditioned or potential threats. That’s why things that are, in reality, not threatening can become threat-cues.
Luckily, many people tend to go with flight more easily than fight. But for those whose brain directs them to fight here’s the “1/4 second secret” that stopped the vet’s rages:
The thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, can STOP the fight or flight response. We have 1/4 of a second to interrupt the signal from the threatening stimuli (sounds, sights, smells, touches or our imagination). In that 1/4 split second tell the amygdala “Stop” or “I’m safe” and take a deep breath.
If we don’t “catch it” in 1/4 of a second a neurochemical cascade will flood our cells. Once the cells are flooded it takes 15 – 20 minutes for the neurochemicals to metabolize out of our body (provided no new information saying the threat continues to exist is received).
This is what the vet learned to do:
- First, he identified the triggers that sent him into a rage.
- Second, when he anticipated a trigger he used his pre-frontal cortex to say “stop” to the amygdala.
- Third, if he failed to anticipate the trigger and felt the stress response building he would take a 20 minute walk to speed up metabolizing out the stress response.
I admired his remarkable determination. It took him 1/4 of a minute at a time to stop his rage response, change his marriage and improve his life.
Do you have a “secret technique” to control your stress response?