A young gymnast has been working with me on elevating her performance. Despite being exceptionally talented and scoring well on the bars and mat, she recently developed a completely debilitating fear of the balance beam.
When pressed about the problem, she described a fear of falling; a fear of the anger in her coach’s voice; a fear of letting everyone down. The list was long. And the more she talked about it, the more entrenched her commitment to that fear became.
Her parents were at their wit’s ends. They so desperately wanted to help her get past this. Sadly, no matter how many times they talked with her at night and managed to reduce her anxiety, by morning, the fear was back with a vengeance. Often, it was even worse than the day before.
What was happening to her?
When I spoke with her mom, she noted that the fear started spontaneously one day. The entire family was looking for a rational explanation or cause for this sudden onset. Had she fallen? Had something happened during training that they missed?
Sometimes we look too hard.
Fear is not logical. It’s an emotion. Emotions don’t live in the part of the brain where logic and language reside. Our emotional brain thinks in feelings and images, and it amps those butterflies as a strategy for getting our attention – alerting us to what the mind has come to perceive as a threat.
Humans have a rational brain (the neocortex) and an emotional brain (the amygdala). We like to think our rational brain is in charge. But, in fact, in a threatening situation (imagined or otherwise), our emotional brain is in charge.
The amygdala is activated first in the case of a threat. It gets information and blood flowing before the neocortex does. The amygdala prepares the body for action by flooding it with adrenaline and other chemicals the body needs to take immediate action. (In the case of fear, this would be the butterflies you get). At this stage, the only actions available are instinctive or they’re well-rehearsed habits.
The neocortex takes a back seat until the amygdala has done its job and the chemical cocktail it dispenses has subsided. Then, and only then, do we start thinking rationally. Then, and only then, can we call on memories or experience, such as what we learned in training last week. Then, and only then, can we engage in planning a new course of action.
So every time this young athlete was told to dismiss the fear, it was making her fear stronger. That which we resist persists!
I invited my young gymnast to shift the way she was approaching her fear. (Watch my video blog above. It’s not related to sports but more on a general approach to fears in life.)
Then we started helping her develop a different relationship with her fear.
We explored the worst-case scenarios. What if she did fall? What if she didn’t earn top placement? We played those scenarios through to a conclusion where she realized she would be okay regardless of the outcome.
Then we leveraged her imagination in a variety of ways. Using hypnotic techniques, she was encouraged to manifest images of her fear in such a way that she could alter the composition. She created a wall for her fear and then visualized executing the perfect back flip over the wall, emerging on the other side triumphant.
We allowed her to collaborate with her fear instead of fighting with it.
Constantly asking why you’re afraid just entrenches the fear response. You’re talking yourself into defending it.
It’s better to:
- Stop looking for a logical explanation and allow butterflies to be present.
- Finish the story – create an ending that has you feeling okay.
When it comes to fear, your imagination needs a new strategy.
So the next time you find your logical and emotional mind in conflict, attempt collaboration instead.
Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.