The fear of the unknown. Cor lummy!
Uncertainty. We don’t like it, do we?
That’s the only thing we’re sure about!
Our brains are hardwired to live in caves, and wrestle with saber-tooth tigers, both of which there’s not much call for these days!
Well, not round here much, anyway!
Our environment may be different from that of our ancestors, but we still respond to uncertainty with fear. You know it. I know it. And scientists at Caltech University, Pasadena, USA, have seen it for themselves using brain-imaging scanners, while poor some sod in the machine was guinea pig for the day.
Time and time again, the subject displayed stressfully erratic and irrational thoughts, courtesy of not quite enough information to be confident of making the right decision.
And as you’d expect, the less information available, the more their brains seem to go into meltdown, inevitably causing anxiety and fear.
Sounds like a lot of fun!
The brain scanner showed activity migrating from the front of the brain, where we do our rational and logical thinking, to the limbic system at the back, where emotions like worry and terror hang out and do their thing. It seems that uncertainty provokes your brain to put its emotional limbic system on overdrive.
This, believe it or not, was a very useful thing for our cave-dwellers. After all, a little fear and uncertainty kept them vigilant and ultimately alive in unfamiliar environments.
We like to think we’ve evolved somewhat, but apparently not much, since we’ve still got the same mechanism, now biting us on the bottom whenever we have to make a decision despite insufficient information.
It takes quite a lot of emotional intelligence to counteract this automatic tendency to overreact, which is probably why the most successful people in business have the highest levels.
But remember, emotional intelligence is learnt. It’s not something you’re born with and stuck with. If you want to learn how to think straight in a crisis, read on…
- Notice when your brain starts worrying, and deliberately force yourself to find something positive to think about. Catch it as soon as it begins, before it gets a chance to take over.
- When your emotions start to show themselves, label them, because, as I’ve explained in an earlier article, You can be glad about that, that very act forces us to use our rational mind. It’s not that having emotions is bad (actually they’re crucial) but you don’t want them taking over.
- When everything seems up in the air, focus on what you do know. And go on a fact-finding mission. You’re always better off when you’re better informed. Don’t succumb to the fear of the unknown. Make as much of the unknown, known as you can and you’ll feel better for it.
- Stop trying to exert control on things you can’t control.
You remember the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Maybe you’ve heard of Byron Katie, whose similar sane-making mantra goes:
There’s my business, your business and God’s business.
So mind your own business!
“I’m talking to you, but mentally I’m in California with my daughter, running her life. Someone’s got to do it. She can’t do it!”
- Don’t sweat the small stuff! Some decisions simply don’t carry a lot of importance, so make a decision – any decision – and move on.
- The perfection trap. As above – no one knows exactly what the outcome will be of your decision. You can guess, but you don’t know. So stop acting as though you should know. It’ll drive you nuts – and feed your inner chimp in the process. Don’t do it! You win some, you lose some. Learn from your decisions. You can always make another one later if things don’t pan out.
- Did I say, learn from your decisions? Learn from them, but don’t dwell on them. If you catch yourself living in the past, take yourself by the metaphorical shoulders and give yourself a firm and well-meaning shake!! Recognise where you are now, and make an even better decision moving forward.
- We’ve got brain cells in our hearts and also lining our guts. Many people are in tune with their “gut feelings” but you gotta know when to pay attention to them, and when to avoid giving into an impulsive knee-jerk in response to merely assumptions. Responding healthily to feelings of intuition takes practice. Listen to it on the small stuff, and see how it goes, before you use it to choose which horse to put all your life-savings on!
- Have a plan B. What’s your back-up plan? Taking the time to explore other options makes you more confident that it’ll be OK in the end.
So as Dev Patel says in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel:
“Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end!”
- What’s the worst that can happen? No really, think about it – because then you can make a plan for that too. And then even that will be OK.
- And smile! When the proverbial hits the fan, one really powerful activity is ‘being in the now’, mindfulness, meditation, relaxation techniques – because unless you really are escaping a roaring fire right now, right now, everything’s OK. Think about that for a moment. On one level it sounds ridiculous, but you might be surprised at how effective it is to calm the mind and allow you to think straight.
And talking of making decisions