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  • Writer's pictureDrDavanaPilczuk

Don't let fear lead your decisions

Tuesday is a big day. Midterm elections are happening all over the country and we the people have some big decisions to make. Whether you’re voting for the right, left or somewhere in between, be aware of fear being your primary decision maker.

Fear has been and, unfortunately, always will be, the greatest motivator when it comes to making people behave differently. Companies, parents and politicians all use fear to motivate us to behave the way they want us to. If a teenager breaks a rule, there is the fear of getting into trouble. If employees stand up and voice concerns about bad management, they fear repercussions. Fear motivates greater than any other emotion because its role is to protect us from harm. It is the most primitive of our instinctual emotions and, although it keeps us safe, fear isn’t very smart.

Why is fear so powerful? Deep inside our brain is a complicated set of structures that help create the fight-or-flight response. These structures, like the amigdala and hippocampus, alert us when we sense fear. When we experience scary things in life, like seeing a rattlesnake or being alone in a dark, creepy house, the primitive brain jumps into action and tells our bodies to release adrenaline and cortisol. Once the scary event passes, the primitive brain builds a strong memory of the event just in case later in life, we find ourselves in a similar situation and need to set off the alert system again.

It’s a great way to keep us alive and safe, except for one small defect. It’s easily triggered and highly illogical (as Mr. Spock would say).

Unfortunately, our primitive brain can’t really detect the difference between a rattlesnake and an intimidating boss. It just knows to set off the “Danger Will Robinson” alert so we will react. Here’s the catch, though: Politicians and companies know this and they will often present things in a way that will elicit the fear response. People can be scared into working long hours at work due to fear of being fired. And politicians use this same ploy to tap into our greatest fears (e.g., terrorists and immigrant invasions to play on our greatest fear of lack of safety) to get us to vote for them.

How to recognize fear

So whether you are trying to decide how to vote or making some other decision in your life, here are two ways to recognize if fear is leading your decision making:

• You feel like the victim. Fear makes us feel helpless, especially if we think we have no control over our situation. When life feels like it’s happening to us versus us being active participants in it, we feel like victims. And victimhood offers few if any options for us to feel OK.

• You feel like you have limited options. When you feel like there is no other choice but to fight back or run, you have put yourself in a “sucker’s choice.” When people tell me they work in toxic environments, so they just “put their heads down and focus on their work,” I know they are being driven by fear. A sucker’s choice is an emotionally driven response, not a logical one, and it greatly limits your perception of options when dealing with emotionally charged issues.

How to beat fear

• Practice empathy. Force yourself to see the situation from another person’s point of view. This is easy for some and near impossible for others, but practicing empathy moves the brain from being emotionally driven to more logically focused. Empathy also helps us become better negotiators, salesmen and leaders.

• Be curious. Question everything. Don’t take things for face value. Always assume you’re missing a piece to the puzzle. Curiosity lowers our stress level, because like empathy, it moves us from being adrenaline charged beings, to calmer, more rational creatures.

• Recognize when you’re in fear mode. If you feel either angry or like you want to run, this is a fear response and not the time to make crucial decisions. This is the time to practice empathy and curiosity to lower your fear response.

We are, and always will be, emotional beings first and logical thinkers second. The trick to good decision making is to allow the emotion to motivate you to act, but to let the logical part of your head guide you on how to proceed.

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