The Evolution of Fear & the Journey to the Unknown Article by: Nick Hall, Ph.D.

Why don’t we do the difficult things we know we should, such as asking for a raise, changing careers, or expressing our true feelings? The reason is simple.

Doing something different represents a departure from the familiar — a journey into the unknown. And when you do something new, it may turn out to be the wrong choice. What really holds us back, then, is fear of failure.

You can minimize the impact fear of failure has upon your future by understanding more about the emotion of fear and why it is so prevalent.

Fear is an emotion essential for our survival. It has been argued that those of our ancestors who were most fearful and played it safe were far more likely to survive. The thrill seekers may have been rewarded handsomely for their successes but met with fatal consequences when they failed. Therefore, since people who were more fearful survived, more of their “fearful” genes are floating around.

From a biological standpoint it made perfect sense not to venture into hostile environments unless you knew for certain what you might be up against. After all, playing it safe meant living longer. But in today’s rapidly changing world, the same response that had a clear advantage during the Stone Age can now keep you and your organization stuck in that same familiar rut.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. You just need to understand how the brain responds to the emotion of fear to turn an emotional enemy into an ally. Fear is the emotion of the future. You fear only those things that have not happened because you are uncertain of the outcome. The two things your mind craves — the ability to predict and maintaining control — are gone. The more helpless you feel, the less you can be certain of the outcome, and gradually the fear builds. Threat detectors rule in the brain and for good reason: Failing to respond to danger could be fatal.

Given a choice, we allow fear to keep us rooted in what is familiar. The more familiar something is, the better you can predict what will happen next. The better you can predict, the less fear you will have. Therefore, it’s fear that keeps us from adapting to change.

When you are under minimal pressure, it is easy to contemplate all the options and carefully formulate a plan. However, being able to plan thoroughly in advance is a rare luxury today. When things are going well, we have ample time to ponder the options, seek guidance, and experiment with different approaches. Under pressure, you enter fight-or-flight mode as part of your brain mobilizes you for survival. You see things in black and white to simplify the options, and you feel the need to do something (anything), and, as a result, you begin to act instinctively — responding immediately to simple and incomplete cues. Without information, your ability to predict is impaired, which in turn becomes the catalyst for more fear. Now, the craving to return to the familiar is even greater, thereby eliminating the instincts for curiosity and risk, which are the essential ingredients for success in adapting to change.

Whether you need to change or whether you need to motivate others in your organization to change, there are some simple lessons to be learned from the human mind. First, recognize that the brain is conservative and will cling to the familiar and predictable. But, progress toward a worthwhile goal is also something the mind strives toward but in a gradual evolutionary progression rather than through quantum leaps.

So, while you may not be able to change events, you can change your perception of them. Make change feel more gradual. Connect the novel part of a new initiative to something familiar. Reframe the idea so that the new approach is viewed as a natural progression rather than an abrupt change. In this way, there will be a common thread linking what you do to both the past and future. Your steps will become a logical progression founded on the familiar past as you make progress toward your future goals.

Tips to Survive Fear

  • Fear is the emotion of the unknown future. Therefore, reframe anything new to be a natural progression from something familiar rather than an abrupt change to something totally new.
  • You don’t respond to the world — you respond to your perception of the world. Therefore, while you may not be able to change certain events, focus on changing your perspective of them.

Learn more about Nick Hall and his audio program Change Your Beliefs, Change Your Life.