Turn fear into excitement

by | Jun 5, 2023 | Leadership

Will* came to our coaching session seeking tips for a forthcoming speaking gig. He hated public speaking and was dreading sitting on a panel at a big conference.

We started by briefly exploring what past experiences may have led to him developing this fear – after all, we’re only born with the fear of loud noises, heights and, maybe, wild animals.

We develop fears as a way of protecting us in the face of perceived threats, a fantastic survival strategy. Unfortunately, once we’ve acquired them, they’re not simple to get rid of when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

As the neuroscientist Paul Brown puts it, “We learn not only what to be afraid of, but to never ever forget it.”

Will remembered being ridiculed at school but memories were a bit blurry. The good news is that, whilst it can be helpful to understand why we’re afraid of something, it’s how we manage the fear that’s going to make the difference. 

Feel the fear

In his book Inside Out, author Charlie Unwin shares the story of rock climber Alex Honnold’s approach to the never-before-attempted free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, which I wrote about in a blog a while back, “Fear of failure? Success isn’t a perfect journey”.

A key part of Honnold’s preparation was to imagine the climb. Of course, this involved a detailed mental map and the techniques required to navigate it. However, as he practised the climb with ropes, he also imagined what he would feel at each stage without a rope (read “fear”) and how he could manage those feelings to complete the climb in one piece. Essentially, he was expanding his comfort zone.

You might have heard of Susan Jeffers’ bestseller “Feel the fear and do it anyway. Really, the saying should read “Feel the fear before you do it anyway”.

Imagination is everything

On that note, let’s return to Will. I invited Will to fast-forward to the conference, imagining he was in the room waiting to go on stage, and tell me what he was feeling. Just imagining himself there evoked fear.

In particular, he noticed his hands were cold, his chest was tight, he felt light-headed and his mouth was dry – all classic symptoms of our fight/flight response. When I asked him what was going through his head, his response was, “Oh god, I want to leave now!” He just wanted to run away.

All this while still sitting in front of me on Zoom.

Imagination is reality

The brain is an amazing thing – it reacts to simulations of events in the same way as the real thing. It can’t distinguish between imagination and reality. (If you want to try it, imagine right now falling off the top of a skyscraper and notice what happens.)

I invited Will to imagine walking onstage and sitting in his chair, all the time noticing what he was feeling. Once he was on the stage, we explored what we was thinking about the situation and how he could reframe it – for example, the audience were on his side, not waiting for him to trip up. We helped him get in touch with his “why” for being there which was to help them know that they weren’t alone in their challenges. 

And, importantly, we explored how he could calm his nerves by feeling his feet on the ground, consciously breathing slowly and evenly and making eye contact with the audience and his fellow panellists.

When we finished, he’d gone from feeling under attack to feeling excited about the opportunity, saying, “I just need to reframe fear as excitement. Instead of saying “Oh no”, I need to say to myself “Yes! Let’s do it!””

See and feel things differently

I invited Will to imagine walking onstage and sitting in his chair, all the time noticing what he was feeling. Once he was on the stage, we explored what we was thinking about the situation and how he could reframe it. For example, he realised the audience were on his side, not waiting for him to trip up.

We helped him get in touch with his “why” for being there which was to help people, specifically to help them know that they weren’t alone in their challenges.

And, importantly, we explored how he could calm his nerves physically, by feeling his feet on the ground, consciously breathing slowly and evenly and making eye contact with the audience and his fellow panellists.

When we finished, he’d gone from feeling under attack to feeling excited about the opportunity, saying, “I just need to reframe fear as excitement. Instead of saying “Oh no”, I need to say to myself “Yes! Let’s do it!””

The fine line between fear and excitement

Will’s phrase, “I can reframe fear as excitement” is really key. It demonstrates the latest neuroscience that we can create how we feel. It also points to the fascinating fact that whether we feel fear or excitement can have profound effects on our physiology.

In both cases, our heart rate goes up and we feel butterflies in our stomach. However, when we feel afraid, our arteries constrict resulting in our blood pressure rising – this can lead to heart issues in the longer-term. If we’re excited, our arteries stay dilated meaning our BP stays low.

So just choosing to feel excited instead of scared can make all the difference.

Practice makes permanent

Of course, the work in Will’s coaching session wouldn’t be enough for him to nail the speaking gig. He needed to practise. His commitment after our session was to rehearse the imagined walk-through before the event and up the ante on his breathing practice.

As I wrote in my book, our body is like an elastic band – it defaults to instinct, especially when it senses a threat. So we need to educate it, to condition it to respond positively to challenging experiences.

And it can be done.

As Dr Rob Gilbert said, “It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.”

 

*Will is a fictional Director based on real-life clients

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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