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Working With Fear As A Leader. Self Coaching Through A Stress Or Fear Response

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

We’ve all had THAT moment. Even at CEO level. Something happens, something that’s not good. Something that’s REALLY not good. What happens to us? That short intake of breath, quite often holding of breath, we feel our heart pounding, we get hotter, our thoughts lose clarity. There is focus on what could go wrong further. We are going into a stress response often brought on by fear.

Very senior level leaders usually give the impression of getting this under control. You know that people need to see strength. They need to see a leader. Taking some control also helps you with decision-making. However, this is sometimes façade. Sometimes when you get home a stress or fear response resurrects and manifests itself as insomnia.

The physiological reaction we have to stress and fear originates from when we were cavemen. This is a fight or flight response and it’s shown in most species of mammals. When something happens that’s a perceived significant threat, our body takes action to protect us. It unconsciously creates an increase in stress hormones which make our heart beat faster. This also re-routes a significant amount of blood from all the non-essential organs and oxygenates our muscles in order to either fight or run away and increases our lung capacity. There are some side-effects which aren’t necessarily very useful for us in the world as we are currently. We have extra blood in our brains, but this is for alertness for danger. We have high adrenaline and cortisol levels, which tells our body to get ready for something, but sometimes this is not useful for logical thought. We are in a hyper vigilant state.

There isn’t the physiological need to fight or run away in the modern world. We do not need to fight or flee, but often the threat appears real to us. Therefore we need to understand and react in a productive way. Excessive surges of some hormones like adrenaline can damage your blood vessels and arteries increasing the possibility of heart disease or heart attack. We also need sleep to help us with mental and physical restoration.

Please know that this response is common in everyone. Even the most senior leaders feel this at some point. So if you’re a leader in this position right at this moment realise that you are absolutely not alone. It is okay to feel like this. It is a natural response which many others will have been having over the last 12 months. What really matters is how you respond to this.

When you are a leader in this position here are some questions that you can start asking yourself to help resolve what might be happening.

How does this feeling serve me?

Some people really need this fight or flight response in order to really take action. In some cases it’s protected people, in some cases it’s helped generate creative ideas. If it’s not useful for you at all it’s time to take a breath, keep breathing, and decide how you are going to harness this energy that you’re creating at this moment in time. Can you flip it into something else? Can you welcome this and know you are going to have a great idea for recovery? Can this become excitement, knowing you are going to become resourceful?

When I go into a stress or fear response how does this feel in my body?

Some people feel hot, they clench their jaw, they clench their fists. What do you do? Next time you have a stress response notice what is happening in your body and relax. Make a conscious choice at that moment to unclench your fist. Relax your jaw. Relax your face and breathe. Do a quick check in head to toe to ensure you are as relaxed as possible and count your breath 1-10 and the back down once. This will stop your muscles tensing up, will reduce your heart rate and allow the blood to be flying back into your brain when you need it to start conscious decision making.

What do I need to do differently right now or in the future to help myself and the people around me?

Whatever that might be, do it. Even if it means taking five minutes out just to take a deep breath and walk around the building or moving outside. Many people find that moving helps start to re-adjust the blood flow. This can reduce stress. It also allows the brain to become more creative and increases cognitive ability, problem solving and reasoning.

What can I focus on which brings me calm?

Can you focus on or repeat a word like “calm” or “relax”? Can you visualise a scene where you feel peace and tranquility? What works best for you?

How can I switch off when I get home?

Consider what stories you are running in your head. That repetitive one which you are telling yourself. Is it really true? How does this story serve you? It is just a story as it has not happened. Can you practice changing the story? Making it have a better outcome? Mindfulness can help and then focusing on a positive or different outcome. A technique for this is here. Remember, just 10 minutes of mindfulness a day, can give you ability to focus on what YOU choose to and not the untrue story, which has not happened and is hijacking your sleep!! An article on coaching through insomnia is here and a lot of these exercises will help.

Can I gain social or other support from others?

If you are feeling stressed or fearful you can speak to friends, family or colleagues this has been proven to help reduce stress and increase protection for your health. Research here looks at how important this is.

Start making a mental checklist of all of the above and this will definitely start to help you create that path to mental wellness and super recovery from that very moment when you have a stress and fear response. Increasing your ability to remain calm, focused and have clarity to move forward. This may even save your life!

Caroline Langston is the Founder of Successful Consultants Ltd, an Executive, Personal and Career Development Coaching company in Hong Kong and New York. She is also the Founder of a nonprofit providing free information and coaching to people who are unemployed. Caroline is dedicated to coaching people for success and happiness in their careers and lives. She is degree qualified with a Certificate in Professional Coaching Mastery from the ICF, Certificate in Team Coaching from the EMCC. Also further certifications in Neuro Linguistic Programming at Master Practitioner and Coach


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