A few years ago, my husband and son were away on a summer trip with our church youth group. I love my family, but I am still very much an only child.
I love having uninterrupted time at my behest so I relished having a few days alone in the house. There’s a lot of coffee drinking and reading. It’s a raucous time, I can assure you.
Typically I don’t get too concerned about intruders. The neighborhood we were living in at the time was safe, and the fear of someone on my property really didn’t occur to me too much.
My first night alone I couldn’t wait to settle in and get some sleep. That particular day at work had been a busy one, and I had a lot on my mind as I was trying to drift off to sleep…
BLAM! BLAM! A loud banging noise at the back of the house had me sitting straight up in bed.
I thought maybe it was one of those weird dream-like states, where you hear a loud, banging noise and then wake up.
Nope, I thought to myself. That was definitely real.
Cue the fight or flight syndrome.
My palms got all sweaty, my ears got all whistle-y, and my heart started thumping right out of my chest like a Pepé Le Pew cartoon.
Somebody’s definitely trying to break in, I thought. I fumbled around for my glasses on the nightstand, grabbed my cell phone and dialed 911.
I tried to stay calm as I explained to the dispatcher that I heard a noise at the back of my house a couple of different times. I’ve never heard any noises there before, I told her, certainly not one so loud.
BLAM! BLAM! There it was again, oh crap!
She assured me someone was on their way and stayed on the phone with me until I heard a knock at the door.
I opened the door to see one of our local sheriff’s deputies, looking very relaxed and chill. He got some information from me and went around to the back of the house to check things out.
In what couldn’t have been more than two minutes later, he emerged right back to the front door with the perpetrator in tow… an old dog who had apparently settled in for the night next to my back door.
I guess he was having trouble sleeping, too, because his tail wagged every time something got his attention in my backyard.
Hence, the BLAM! BLAM!
Cue the embarrassing face palm.
While my story turned out not to be this week’s true-crime thriller, my physiological response was unmistakably real.
I felt fear, and my body knew it.
In this case, my reaction was appropriate because I thought I was in real danger. From an old dog.
But what about the fears that don’t come from a predator or a true feeling of danger, things like a tricky conversation with your boss, or a leap into a new life chapter?
What Is Fear, Really?
Fear is our body’s natural response to a perceived threat. It’s a survival mechanism that protects us from danger. When we sense a threat, our brain sends signals to our body to prepare us to either fight, flee, or freeze.
When I felt my heart racing, and my palms getting clammy that was my body trying to give my muscles the oxygen and nourishment they needed to take action. You know, because picking up a cell phone is really taxing lol.
But you get the idea.
Our bodies are wired for those kinds of responses to keep us safe.
But we also run into other fears through things like negative associations, conditioning or trauma. These are responses that we learn as we participate in our families of origin, or have experiences that we’re not equipped to handle.
If you’ve ever been bitten by a dog, you might develop a fear of dogs. Or if you’ve had a bad experience while flying, you might develop a fear of flying.
These fears are not innate but we learn them through negative associations. The brain is excellent at making connections, and once it links a specific situation or object with danger, it’s hard to break that association.
The modern workplace can sometimes feel like a minefield of stress triggers.
An email marked “urgent,” a last-minute meeting request from your boss, or even a colleague’s offhand comment can send your heart racing.
But are these situations truly life-threatening? Hardly.
Yet, your body can react as if they are, kicking into high gear with a fight or flight response that feels as real as if you’re facing a wild animal.
So, how do you tell the difference between legitimate danger and a false alarm?
Understand the Signals
First, let’s get in tune with what your body is telling you. When you’re in true danger, the fight or flight response is invaluable.
But in the office? Not so much.
If you notice your heart racing, palms sweating, or a knot forming in your stomach during work stressors, acknowledge these signals for what they are: false alarms.
Your body is trying to tell you that something is bothering you.
Take a Step Back
I can’t stress this one enough: Before responding to the stressor, give yourself a moment to step back for a minute.
Excuse yourself from the situation for a few minutes (ladies rooms are great for this).
Take a few deep breaths and assess the situation.
Ask yourself, “Is this threat real, or is it a learned response?”
Just like my late-night canine visitor, is the threat really just an old, harmless dog rather than a criminal perpetrator?
Reframe Your Thoughts
The stories you tell yourself about your experiences is often what makes a situation seem scarier than it really is.
To reframe your thoughts, start by acknowledging your initial reaction without judgment. Recognize that while your emotions are valid, they are not always accurate reflections of reality.
Then, consciously choose a new narrative to work from.
- Identify the Negative Thought: Become aware of the specific thoughts that are contributing to your fear response. Is it a general sense of doom, a worry about personal inadequacy, or a prediction of a worst-case scenario? Get to know exactly what kind of negative thought you’re dealing with.
- Challenge Its Validity: Ask yourself, “Is this thought based on facts or on my interpretation of the situation? Is there evidence to support this thought, or is it an assumption?” In many cases, you’ll find you are quite the master at making assumptions.
- Look for Alternative Explanations: Could there be another way to view this situation? It doesn’t even have to be an explanation grounded in reality, literally anything will do. Aliens, gremlins, or other unexplainable phenomena are better than assuming the worst.
- Focus on What You Can Control: Shift your attention to actions and aspects within your control. What steps can you take right now to manage the situation? By focusing on action, you move from feeling victimized by the situation to being the one in charge of it.
- Adopt an Attitude of Growth: View the stressor as an opportunity for learning or personal development. Think, “What can this situation teach me?” Look at the situation in terms of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.
- Visualize Success: Instead of imagining the worst, picture yourself navigating the conversation with your boss with ease, or managing the project efficiently. This positive visualization can change your mindset and reduce anxiety. Studies show that when you visualize something in your mind, your brain doesn’t know the difference. It actually thinks you’re there on the podium getting that Olympic gold medal in the sport of talking to your boss.
- Affirm Your Abilities: Remind yourself of your strengths and past successes. Think about times when you’ve handled similar situations well. No doubt there are many to draw from. Affirmations such as, “I am resilient and can adapt to challenges,” can reinforce a positive self-concept.
By reshaping your narrative, you not only change your perception of the stressor but also empower yourself to respond in a healthier, more effective way.
And every time you do that, it gets a little easier to do it next time.
And if you keep doing that, you might just develop a new habit.
Now just keep doing that!