The cost of fear

President Bill Clinton, in a Sunday morning interview, suggested that “conflict makes good politics; collaboration, good economics.” He said that “the American people need to be able to think.”

We do need to be able to think in order to advance economic stability within this country. We need to think in order to engage in productive civil dialogue to creatively resolve issues within our communities; within our workplaces; within teams; and within our families.

Given the current climate of fear, our capacity to think has been dramatically compromised. In order to regain our capacity to think and respond, we must first be aware of the signs of fear within ourselves and others.

Can you feel it?

In our work with leaders and in circles of friends, family and colleagues, we recognize a collective, pervasive fear that seems to reside right under our skin.

Each of us is in a state of “red alert,” whether it is conscious or unconscious. We are bombarded with real life issues that elicit levels of fear that are unfamiliar to us. The noise level is rising, relationships are polarized, and we are experiencing a collective emotional hijack.

The signs are available if we are willing to recognize them. The more certainty we experience and the more inflexible we become, the more we are living inside a perpetual state of fear. We are frozen in fight or flight, a natural response to danger. Physiologically, when we are in the grip of fear, we cannot think. And when we engage in decision making rooted in fear, rarely is the result what we envision.

Fear interrupts our ability to think.

When fear takes over, there is a part of our brain called the amygdala, site of our emotional learning and emotional memory, that releases chemicals that shuts down our neo-cortex, site of our intellect, logic and problem solving…and we literally cannot think, resulting in an emotional hijack. Because the process of an emotional hijack can happen in degrees, we can live in a chronic state of low to mid-level fear and continue to function as though we are thinking and responding within our full capacity. The dynamic is deceptive and requires a great deal of self-awareness as well as an ability to be aware of our collective emotional hijack.

We don’t want to eliminate fear from our lives. It is a gift of survival.

However, when we are functioning unconsciously inside the grip of fear, we are not able to live and work effectively. We cannot maximize our strengths, and we do not have our full ability to think, to resolve problems and to creatively respond to the multiple challenges that we face in our everyday lives.

Leaders are not able to effectively plan for a sustainable future and stretch into unimagined possibilities if they are paralyzed by fear.

What can we do about it?

Recognize the signs:

  • Are you feeling more pessimistic than you normally feel?
  • Do you find yourself getting angry or frustrated more often?
  • Ask yourself what your level of ability is to listen to others who have differing opinions.
  • Do you immediately react with a belief that “there is only one way”?
  • Are you so invested in selling your solution that you are not able to fully appreciate the problem in all its complexity?


This is a strategy that will help you to release the emotional hijack of fear and restore a level of balanced thinking.

  • Stop – When you experience the signs: increased heart rate, palms sweating, jaws clenching, or an overall sense of “red alert,” stop. Interrupt the pattern.
  • Oxygenate – Breathe. We know that breathing can help to restore our physiological equilibrium.
  • Strengthen appreciation – Scientific research suggests that the one emotion that calms the amygdala is appreciation. Consider something or someone that fills you with appreciation. It may be a favorite spot at the beach; the sound of grandchildren laughing; a sacred space in your home … whatever the image is, when you can recall it, the chemistry in your brain changes and your ability to think is restored.
  • Seek information – Ask questions with a desire to learn more … even if it is an opinion that you do not hold. Listen with curiosity.


Consider giving yourself the gift of 10 minutes each morning to breathe and prepare your mind and your heart for the day ahead. This practice, over time, will help you to recognize and manage your fear.

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (, a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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