Originally published on June 28, 2020
Fooled by Fear During Our Most Important Moments
Have you ever experienced something like the following?
You’ve got a big job interview coming up tomorrow. You know, that one for the position you’ve had your eye on for months now. Nothing could matter more to you right now than getting that job, but still, for some reason, all you can think about is not being a nervous wreck during the interview.
Or, how about something like this?
On Friday, you have a date lined up with the prettiest, smartest girl in your class. You don’t even know why you asked her out — you didn’t think there was any chance she’d say yes. But she did, and so, here you are, worrying yourself into oblivion over how the date will go.
Even though you’d absolutely LOVE to show her a great time and make her interested in dating you, that’s the last thing on your mind right now. Unfortunately, all you can think of when it comes to the date is potentially spiraling into a panic attack during it, and thus, looking like a complete and utter fool in front of her.
There are countless other examples of these sorts of situations; I don’t think it’s necessary to run through all of them to get the point across. If you’ve been there before, you know just how frustrating this sort of thing can be.
What you might not know, however, is why this sort of thing occurs and what we can do about it. In this post, I’ll discuss both of those concepts so you’ll be better equipped to deal with these frustrating, tricky situations the next time you find yourself in one.
The Brain’s Negativity Bias
When you really get down to it, the main function of the brain is to keep us alive. It helps us breathe, regulates our internal organs, and sends us chemical messages when it wants us to do something in order to better our standing (be it immediately or in the long run).
Our conscious minds receive these messages in the form of feelings. If the brain decides it needs sustenance, it will tell us so, prompting us to go grab a snack or some water. If it thinks it’s out of gas, it will push us toward sleep with chemical signals that suggest such a thing. And, most importantly for us, when it feels it’s in danger, the brain will trigger fear-inducing neurotransmitters that tell our minds to fight the perceived foe in front of us or run from it altogether.
Again, for the most part, these chemical messages help ensure our survival. On some level, the brain knows it’s better to react with fear to any potentially negative stimulus, even if the odds of that stimulus actually hurting us aren’t all that high. Or, put another way: that noise you just heard in your house is probably nothing, but it could also be an intruder. According to our brains at least, it’s better to get up, grab a golf club, lock the doors, and prepare for action than sit in our rooms, unprepared.
Evolutionarily, this concept makes a good deal of sense. Why not stay alert to anything and everything that could threaten our survival? One small slip-up and that could be the end of us. Better to stay aware of danger than strive for pleasure, the logic seems to suggest.
In general, this focus on the negative is what’s known and our brain’s negativity bias. Yes, we’d all love to think about rainbows and unicorns forever, but doing so might mean we let our guard down long enough for some external stimulus to come along and injure or kill us. Sure, not all that likely to happen in today’s modern society, I know, but that’s the degree of evolutionary programming we’re dealing with here, and that sort of thing can be hard to override entirely.
Why The Negativity Bias Fools Us
So let’s jump back to those important, fear-inducing potential situations with which I opened this post. Even if you’ve never been through a nerve-wracking interview or date before, I’m sure you’ve experienced this phenomenon in some flavor.
For example, maybe you had an important exam on the horizon, and, despite your desire to do well on it, you couldn’t help but stress yourself out endlessly over potentially bombing it. Or, similarly, maybe you had an important competition coming up, and, despite wanting to win first place, all you could think about was stumbling over yourself and getting laughed out of the arena. Scary stuff, I know.
Regardless of the specific situation that fools you, the overall experience goes something like this: there’s something you really want out there, yet, despite that strong desire, all you can seem to think about is the complete opposite of it. That is, all you can manage to do is worry about not only not attaining the object of your desire but also crashing and burning in the process.
So, just why do our minds do this, even though such negative potentials are the last things we actually want to experience? It all goes back to that negativity bias we talked about earlier. I’ll explain.
As I mentioned before, our brains are survival machines; their main purpose is to ensure we stay alive. That’s just how they evolved. Not much we can do about that.
While it’s certainly more desirable to experience joy and positive emotions than it is to experience fear, such positive emotions don’t necessarily promote our survival — at least not directly — and our brains aren’t nearly as concerned with indirect inputs to our survival than they are with direct ones.
For example, while nailing our upcoming singing performance could lead to us landing a record deal, which could lead to us living more prosperous, comfortable lives down the road, fainting on stage definitely would mean we’d have to keep living our current modest lifestyle until our lucky break comes. That is, assuming record labels would even still want to talk to us after our choke-job on stage.
Thus, being the survival machines that they are, our brains are often more concerned with those negative, immediate potential outcomes than they are the exciting, far-off ones. Hence why we often find ourselves ruminating over them endlessly, while simultaneously wondering why we’re doing such a destructive, fear-inducing thing.
While it’s borderline maddening to think about, this is just how the anxious brain works (by default) sometimes. Again, at least according to our brains, it’s better to guard against the downside than it is to daydream about the upside and get caught napping.
The main problem with this logic — and the negativity bias in general — is that, in today’s modern society, such a strategy isn’t all that helpful. Sure, we may occasionally face real threats to our existence, but on the whole, life is safer than it’s ever been before. Our brains may have evolved to fear hungry predators around every corner, but the truth is we don’t face nearly as many predators and true existential threats (if any) as we used to.
So, that begs the question, are we just stuck with our negativity biases? That is, are we doomed to deal with brains that, at times, insist upon focusing on worst-case scenarios? Luckily the answer is no. Though it does take time and discipline, we can use our conscious minds to assert influence, possibly even control, over our brains’ default modes. Just how might we do this? Let’s discuss.
Tactics for Overcoming Negativity Bias
There are many ways we can overcome our innate negativity bias. Of course, as is the case with all strategies, some work better for certain folks than others. Thus, the key to overcoming your own negativity bias is to experiment with a few different tactics and identify the ones that work best for you.
Now with that said, there is one strategy that works for a lot of the people I coach, and it’s the simple tactic of breathing deeply and methodically. The reason why we do this is simple: when we’re stressed out, we’re in our heads. We’re worrying, ruminating, and overthinking. While in that state, the last thing we need is more thinking. Luckily, breathing helps us break that ruminative cycle.
Thus, when you find yourself fooled by fear, put some distance between the situation in front of you and your thoughts about it by slowing yourself down with a few minutes of deliberate, deep breathing. This style of breathing helps us activate the parts of our nervous systems responsible for bringing our bodies back to calm from stressful states. And, let’s be honest, when we’re stressed out, checking in on our breathing is one of the last things on most of our minds.
If you want to learn a bit more about this process, you can check out my more in-depth article on the subject, here. However, for now, just know that breathing fully and deeply can get you out of almost any stressed-out state, which can make you feel better about the situation in front of you and less wrapped up in the potential of the worst-case scenario actually coming to pass.
The second strategy I want to talk about here is one that’s more closely related to the title of this post — realigning with the outcome you want from the situation in front of you.
One of the most insidious things about getting fooled by fear is the fact that once said fear has taken over, we often lose sight of the very thing we’re after. In the case of a high-stakes job interview, this might mean we get so consumed by our worries that we forget we could actually land the job we desire (I talked about this concept in a 2018 podcast episode if you’re interested in learning more).
This not only makes us feel terrible to boot, but it can also force us to question why we’re even going through with said interview in the first place. That is, if we get distracted by our fears for long enough, we may begin to associate this once potentially good scenario with nothing but negative emotions.
In turn, our minds flip into negative-questioning-mode, asking things like, “Why attend such a fear-inducing event if nothing good can become of it? Why put ourselves through such anticipatory anxiety if we’re doomed to embarrass ourselves in the interview anyway?” Though these questions aren’t accurate representations of the situation in front of us, it’s not hard to see why our brains might jump to them once we’ve fallen all the way down the anxiety rabbit hole.
And this is the very problem. As with almost all instances of fear, once we’ve become so fooled by it, we lose touch with reality. We blow our worries out of proportion and start fighting those oversized qualms rather than calmly and methodically looking at what’s actually likely to become of the situation in front of us.
The key to turning this tide of negativity is to get out of your head. Get out of the cycle of fear. Get out of the continually-rising level of worry in your mind that’s only further distorting your perception of the situation in front of you. This can be done a number of ways, though I do like the strategy we’ve talked about already — deep breathing.
Once you’ve breathed deeply for a minute or two, see how you’re feeling. If you feel the need to continue warding off your fear, then I’d suggest this next strategy. If you feel good and want to leave things where they lay, that’s fine too. Again, whatever works best for you.
That second strategy, however, is to get back to rationality and ground yourself in reality. We do this by making a list of all the potential outcomes from the situation in front of us and reconnecting to the one we actually want. You know, like acing that exam, taking home first prize, or forming a deep connection on that upcoming date.
The reason why we do this stems back to the fact that anxiety and fear distract and blind us. When we’re in the throes of anxiety, we’re sometimes so painfully distracted by our fears that we can’t even see the very thing it is that we’re after. Writing down a list of potential outcomes from the situation in front of us helps us reconnect to that very thing.
This strategy also helps us do one other thing — it helps us look at the negative potential outcomes from a cooler perspective.
Once we’ve calmed ourselves down by breathing deeply, going for a walk, or employing any of our other favorite anti-negativity-bias strategies, we typically find ourselves in a better state of mind. This new state helps us analyze what we fear with a more rational outlook.
Sometimes, though of course not always, doing so can help us put such negative potential outcomes back in their place, as we realize that, while they are indeed possible, they’re not all that likely to occur. With such reassurances, we can often get through the time leading up to such anxiety-provoking events with less worry.
And, if done well, we can keep our newly-reconnected-to, desired outcome high in our minds, where it might serve as our north star, helping us navigate the often troublesome waters of important upcoming moments. Don’t worry if you can’t take it all the way there, however. This is anxiety after all. That beast can be really hard to tame sometimes. We’ll also settle for simply walking back our fear and getting to that important moment with less anguish. No shame in that.
Now, of course, these two methods aren’t the only ones out there for overcoming our brain’s innate negativity bias. In reality, they’re just the beginning. But I’m tired, so I think I’ll leave some of those for another day.
In the meantime, however, if you’re looking to grab some of those strategies ASAP, check out my book: Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of those additional strategies as well as some other cool frameworks for managing fear.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my previous articles on managing anxiety, below. As always, thanks for reading, and talk soon!
*Disclaimer: The above link is an affiliate URL, which pays me a small commission when readers make purchases through it.