One of the biggest obstacles for us photographers is overcoming fear – the fear of ‘putting yourself out there’. You worry that your pictures won’t be good enough, that other people won’t like them, that you’ll make a fool of yourself. It’s this intense fear that can often keep us stuck doing lots of ‘behind the scenes’ work rather than actually getting out there shooting and promoting our work. So where does this fear come from?
There are of course many different factors at play when we feel this fear – including past experience, personality and temperament, input from others etc – and this will vary hugely from person to person. However, what doesn’t vary from person to person, and is true of all people, is the biology – and understanding this biology can be extremely useful in managing your fear.
So which biology specifically? It’s the ‘lizard brain’ (and yes we all have one!)
“The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can […] The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”
Our brain has evolved dramatically over time, and contains some parts that are much older and much more primitive than others. The most ancient parts of the brain near the brain stem are responsible for really rudimentary, essential survival functions like movement, breathing, feeding, mating and defence. The “limbic system” is responsible for our basic emotional responses, especially relating to survival behaviours including feeding, reproduction and facing threats or danger. These primitive brain parts are sometimes referred to as the ‘reptilian brain’, or ‘lizard brain’, as it is these reflexive, instinctive, reactive parts of the brain that we share with many animals.
As evolved humans, we also now have a newer, outer layer, the cerebrum, which is a much more sophisticated and advanced brain system. The frontal lobes are responsible for rational and logical thought, complex decision-making, problem-solving, reasoning and planning, and it can help with overcoming fear by regulating and managing emotions because it allows you to process them carefully and formulate a conscious, logical response.
Although our frontal lobes are very sophisticated and powerful, they still live alongside the fully-functioning limbic system, which includes your amygdala – a very powerful little thing that can cause us lots of problems!
BEWARE THE AMYGDALA!
The amygdala is the prehistoric part of the limbic system, near the brain stem, that processes primitive, overwhelming emotions such as fear and pleasure. It’s responsible for basic survival instincts including reproductive drive, fear and anger, and it is hardwired to immediately take over and react to perceived threats or danger.
Our early predecessors were frequently in mortal peril from wild animals or other tribes. The amygdala activates the fight-or-flight response that allows us to react really quickly in an instinctive way without really thinking or processing any factual information – giving us a split second advantage that was at one time crucial to our survival. The two stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, are released from your adrenal glands to prepare your body to flee or fight.
Whilst human civilisation has evolved so that we no longer experience these intense and regular physical threats, our ‘lizard brain’ amygdala is still there, fully-functioning and providing the same service, interpreting psychological ‘threats’ in the same way as physical ones. It kicks in when we feel scared, stressed, anxious, doubtful, angry or upset.
‘DANGER’ VS ‘ALL CLEAR’
Because it’s so primitive, the ‘lizard brain’ only has two settings – ‘danger’ or ‘all clear’. It’s REALLY oversensitive (because back then in primitive times it had to be) – anything that’s not ‘business as usual’ triggers the alarm to go off which can unfortunately cause us a lot of problems when it comes to confidence and trying new things. We’re either in the unknown (which is ‘danger’), or we’re in our comfort zone (which is ‘all clear’). Its aim is to stop you trying new things or taking any risks at all. It’s the voice in our head telling us to be careful, run away, don’t even try it, to do the same things we’ve always done, the things that are ‘safe’. The voice gets louder the closer you get to actually doing the thing it’s warning you not to do because the thing it hates most is change.
We usually feel anxious or worried whenever something is outside our usual experience, so the amygdala is often triggered when you want to do something differently to usual or create something new, especially when you are close to actually doing it. Fear and excitement often go hand in hand when we consider pursuing new dreams or ambitions, and when the fear and uncertainty starts to overpower the excitement, that’s when Lizard Brain steps in to ‘save the day’.
When our amygdala steps in and tries to activate fight-or-flight, our more developed frontal lobes work at the same time to assess whether the danger is real and to formulate a logical reaction to it. If the threat/danger is mild, the frontal lobes ‘win’, override the amygdala and you can respond more calmly and rationally. However, if the perceived threat is strong, the amygdala can override the frontal lobes, and the fight-or-flight response is triggered. Psychologist Daniel Goleman called this overreaction to stress “amygdala hijack” – where the amygdala disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response. Without the frontal lobes to help you, you find that overcoming fear is much harder – you can’t think clearly, struggle to contain or control your emotions and responses, and make irrational decisions.
SYMPTOMS OF THE LIZARD BRAIN AT WORK
- A overly self-critical voice telling you that you can’t succeed with something new or that it’s far too risky
- You keep procrastinating and postponing taking action on things you need/want to do
- You stay in a behind-the-scenes role where you are not visible
- Perfecting and obsessing over details but despite your efforts you never quite feel like they’re good enough
- You make a lot of excuses not to do the things you want to do
- You often project anxiety, becoming fretful about things that haven’t happened yet
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO FIGHT THE ‘LIZARD BRAIN’?
- Be kind to yourself – understand that this isn’t you being weak – you’re biologically hardwired to feel this way.
- Commit to addressing it – it won’t change by itself – you have to change your approach to it – “It’s always going to be here, but I’m bigger than that.”
- Try to think of it fondly like a nervous, overly-fussy grandparent who doesn’t really understand how things are nowadays – one who sees danger everywhere, including where it doesn’t exist, but who is overly cautious because they love you and have your best interests at heart. Thank it, but ignore it.
- Practice actively recognising it and calling it out for what it is. “Ok, this is an automatic response, not a logical one. This is just my lizard brain trying to tell me this won’t work because it’s an outdated fusspot trying to keep me safe. I knew it would show up.”
- Breathe. Breathe slowly, calmly and evenly, and focus on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body. There are some fantastic breathing exercises for your nervous system here. Focusing on your breath will pull your brain’s attention away from the reflexive panic, detach you from the ‘reptilian’ response, activate the parasympathetic nervous system (your ‘relaxation response’) and re-centre you in a safe, calm place. It will give your body the time and reprieve needed to allow the frontal cortex to step in, take over from the amygdala and formulate a rational response to overpower the emotional one.
- Engage the frontal lobes by focusing on rational, logical thought and reasoning. Address your excuses head on. Analyse them and pick them apart. Imagine that you are in a debating contest or advising someone else where you can see the situation impartially and unemotionally and you have to dismantle the excuses and fears and argue why they should be ignored. You will doubtlessly find that the fears and excuses don’t really hold much water. The ‘lizard brain’ does not contain rational thought, so to overcome fear you need to balance it out and outweigh it with rational argument. Keep your brain focused on the logic.
- Learn to see the value in imperfect action. Imperfect action is better than no action, and will rarely cause you any serious problems. Done is better than perfect (I write more about this here). Allow yourself to have ‘bad ideas’. You don’t always need a back up plan. Sometimes things just don’t work and everything is still ok.
- Reframe your feelings about failure. The word ‘failure’ seems so final, like it’s the ultimate end result – whereas actually life is a series of different actions and events – and failure at one thing can often lead on to success at another. It will not be the final and defining result of your life – you’ll go on to do many more things after that. It passes. It’s not a permanent, concrete verdict. How many times have you thought something was disastrous at the time but later felt so happy it happened? What was once considered a ‘failure’ actually ultimately becomes a success. It’s all subjective and it changes over time, so don’t let yourself be bound by something so transient. Learn to see failure as a temporary learning experience.
- Connect clearly and consistently with your vision. Spend time allowing your brain to occupy the space in which the lizard brain feels uncomfortable. Set aside time to clearly visualise, talk about and write about what it will be like to achieve what you want to achieve, and to do the new things you feel afraid to do. Make it so that thinking about doing these new things is not something outside your comfort zone. Allow yourself to feel really genuinely excited about what you are planning and what is to come. The lizard brain is emotional, and responsible for pleasure as well as fear, so while you can fight it with rationale and logic, you can also confuse it with contradicting emotion – make your excitement greater than your fear. This will give you the extra impetus to push through it. The ‘lizard brain’ is a simple beast and it responds to thoughts as though they are actually happening. So if you focus on success and the pleasure of what it will feel like when things work out, your reptilian brain will calm down. You can do this via journalling, visualisation, whatever works for you.
- Just take a really small first step. You don’t have to do the whole ‘thing’ that you’re contemplating all in one go. Just take one baby step towards it, something that will help you along your way. Something that’s unlikely to set massive alarm bells ringing again but which you know logically is still taking you closer to your end goal. Break projects that are feeling scary to you into really tiny easily doable micro-tasks. Take one tiny step, then another tiny step. Eventually you will get to the destination that your Lizard Brain felt really scared to contemplate jumping into – but you tricked it by inching closer to it a bit at a time.
I hope you’ve found this helpful in overcoming fear that you might be feeling around growing your business – this advice was taken from one of the Shutterhood Booster trainings – we have loads around mindset as well as business, marketing and creativity, as in my experience Mindset is one of the biggest things that hold us back in our business – it’s equally as important to get support with this as it is to learn all the business stuff. There’s no point knowing all the strategies if you haven’t the confidence to implement any of it!Do you find yourself getting hijacked by your ‘lizard brain’? What was the last thing it stopped you from doing?
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