Fear can deter us from what we really want to do because we’re unsure whether to heed it or not. Is the fear I’m feeling because there is true danger or is it simply holding me back? Are there ways to differentiate between fear that is a useful warning and fear that isn’t?
In this episode, I explore the idea that if we can examine fear, we can redefine the experience. To begin, if we better understand our physical responses to fear, we can better identify their purpose. We can actively pull what we’re passively feeling into the more practical part of our brain. From there, we can ascertain whether we’re dealing with fear as friend or faux.
“What if you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be and fear doesn’t mean you’re making a mistake? What if it just means you’re considering stepping into the next version of you?… What if discomfort is the currency of your dreams?” – Dr. Sara Dill
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I’m Dr. Sara Dill, and this is the Stress-Less Physician Podcast, episode number 16. Welcome to the Stress-Less Physician podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Sara Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.
Hey, everyone, welcome back to the podcast. How are you? I am doing great. My puppy, Teddy, has recovered from his surgery, he got neutered or fixed about—almost two weeks ago. And I have to say, it was hard on me. I’m sure it was hard on him too. But I don’t think I did a great job of coaching myself through it, I worried a lot about him. So I just want you to know, even when you’ve been doing this a long time, and you are a master certified coach as I am, I also have a human brain and it was on overdrive, about poor Teddykins. But He’s great. He’s fully recovered again. I think it was harder on me than it was on him. So all is well here.
So today, I wanted to talk about fear. I know it’s probably not a super fun subject for everyone, but I think it’s incredibly important. And it’s come up a lot lately in some of my coaching sessions. And it comes up a lot, especially when I do my free consultation calls with you all. And so I think it’s really important to talk about, because I certainly, I think, misunderstood the implications of feeling fear, of being afraid, and what I made it mean, and how long it took me to sort of go after the things I wanted to do, and how fear and my fear of feeling fear, right, my fear of feeling afraid and what I made it mean, how that held me back.
So I talk to a lot of physicians who tell me they feel really stuck. And then they usually tell me, they aren’t really sure what to do, they aren’t really sure what the problem is, they don’t really know what they want. And then the more we talk, the more clearer it becomes to me that they really do know what they want to do, or they do know some of the changes that they want to make. But they’re just afraid to do it. And very often, what we do is we make the fact that we’re afraid, mean that we shouldn’t do it. Or maybe we aren’t quite ready to do it, or it’s not really the right time. Those are all more thoughts that we have, that just sort of justify the fear. And I totally did this, I would know what I wanted to do. But I would think that it probably wasn’t a good idea to do it until I wasn’t so afraid. And maybe the fact that I was afraid of doing it, meant that it was a bad idea, that that was actually true and that I shouldn’t do it. So it was sort of circular thinking that just kept me stuck.
I would also believe the thought that I wasn’t ready yet, or it was a mistake, or it could be a mistake. And so I just want to tell you that fear does not mean that you shouldn’t do something, except when it does. So sometimes fear does mean you shouldn’t do something, sometimes you should listen to it. And sometimes you shouldn’t. So I want to help you navigate, when to listen to your fear, and when not to.
And so you know I always like to start with a definition. So I went to Google, as I usually do, and put in fear and definition. And this is what it came up with. And I really liked this definition. So the definition of fear according to Merriam Webster online, is, “An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat.” I totally agree with this definition, which is good since it’s the dictionary. So fear is an unpleasant emotion that’s caused by a belief that we have that someone or something maybe an action we might take or something we might do or say is dangerous, likely to cause pain to us or a threat to us.
So I want to start just by reminding us that fear is pretty necessary for our survival. People that didn’t feel fear, people that don’t feel fear, often don’t survive. We need a certain amount of fear, I would say, to warn us of real danger, to keep us safe, to keep us alive. I would say that I think fear is useful and helpful, and in fact, essential in terms of avoiding true danger. The issue is that most of us don’t face a lot of true physical danger. So most of the time, these days, when we’re afraid of something, it’s probably not an actual physical threat to our survival, or potential threat to our survival. And yet, our brain doesn’t know any better.
So when we perceive something as a threat, our lizard brain, our limbic system, our amygdala in particular, it gets activated, it primes us for fight or flight, freeze, right, we get stressed hormones, we get activated, we’re looking for danger. Some of the changes that we might notice in our body or that are part of this fear response, our pupil dilation, our breathing accelerates, our heart rate and blood pressure rise. It’s very easy to let our fear drive us, it’s what it’s designed to do, right? It’s designed to cause us to take action.
However, in our modern world, when often, we’re activated and afraid of something that’s not a real physical danger, what we can do, however, the way to combat this is to pull ourselves more into our rational brain, into our prefrontal cortex. And you can do that by noticing when you feel nervous or scared or afraid, just check in and then remind yourself, maybe of some rational facts that you know are true. So that’s sort of where we start. So feeling fear is normal. It’s not a sign that you are not brave or strong or competent. It means your brain is perceiving something as a threat and warning you, your brain is working the way it’s designed to do so, nothing’s gone wrong. Fear is normal. Fear is an emotion, we know how to feel an emotion.
Our brains are also very risk averse. It’s how we made it here. You can think your ancestors; thank you for getting me to this place thanks for being afraid, thanks for looking for danger. As physicians, most of us are also very risk averse. We want good outcomes, not bad ones, we try to minimize all risks to us, to patients, to our practice. Maybe not every single physician of course, some specialties are maybe a little bit less risk averse than others. Dermatology, we’re pretty risk averse. It’s a good fit for me, it’s a good fit for my brain. Most physicians, we like to avoid risks. It’s part of our doctor brain.
So not only do you have the human brain tendency to look for danger and avoid risks and stay safe, right? Sometimes I say stay in the cave, that’s what my brain wants me to do, to stay in the cave, no need to change, no need to go out there, to stay where you are, it’s totally fine. And then we have our physician programming that just emphasizes our aversion for risks and potential danger even more. So basically, our brain is always warning us that we might die, that’s sort of the end result, that this could be harmful, this could be dangerous, we could get injured, we could get hurt, we could die, that it’s a bad idea, that we aren’t ready, that there’s nothing wrong with how things are.
So our brain does this, not only when you hear the rattle of a rattlesnake, which is a very terrifying sound, once you know what it is. But again, it also does that when we think about changing jobs, or going on a date, or asking someone out or not agreeing with someone. All of those, the brain also perceives as dangerous and then we feel afraid. I would argue that feeling beer when you hear the rattle of a rattlesnake is appropriate. I’d like to feel fear in preparation for possibly needing to take action to avoid potential real danger. A lot of the time, when we’re avoiding danger, we don’t even feel fear that I think about this when I’m driving and suddenly someone cuts in front of me. I don’t even necessarily feel fear until after the fact. Usually, I rely on my instincts. And then after, I might feel afraid as my brain sort of goes through what could have happened. Feeling fear, however, and not taking action when you really want to regarding something that is not actually life threatening is not helpful, in my opinion, it’s not useful. And it’s the main reason we don’t do a lot of the things we want to do. Or take the risks, whether it’s a big risk or not, that we want to take.
Fear is the emotion that’s responsible for most of what we don’t do in our lives. Just think about that. Fear is the emotion that’s responsible for most of what we don’t do in our lives. So what do I do when I feel afraid? This is what I do. The first thing I do is I notice it, hopefully, sooner rather than later and I name it. I’m like, “Oh, I’m feeling afraid.” As I get better and better with this work and my awareness, I can catch it a lot faster. But sometimes, just like you, I’m just like, caught up in the story my brain is telling me, and it takes me a while to come out of the trance, right, the trance of the narrative in my head, and then I’m like, “Oh, I’m just really afraid.” So I notice it and I name it.
Then I asked myself, “What am I afraid of?” Get very specific, right? Write those thoughts down. Is it a real threat? Could I handle the thing I’m afraid of? What is it? Is it being afraid of rejection, or failing at something, of getting into debt? I’ve been afraid before when I took my sabbatical of running out of money, maybe disappointing someone? Are you afraid of someone being mad at you? What are you afraid of? Write all the thoughts down that you aren’t ready, that you aren’t prepared? That might be messy, you might make a mistake. Those are all the thoughts that are creating your fear, your feeling of fear.
And then I asked myself, do I want to do what I’m afraid of? Do I still really want to do it? You could ask yourself, if you weren’t afraid, right? I might ask myself this: if I wasn’t afraid of whatever, failing or someone being mad at me? Would I want to do it? You can check in here. This is the area where I can tell whether I should pay attention to my fear or whether I should not. So if I’m afraid to do something, and I genuinely want to do it, then I don’t pay attention to the fear. I know the fear is just coming from thoughts about what if I fail? Or what if people don’t like it? Or what if someone says something to me, or about me. But if I’m afraid and it’s an actual physical threat that seems pretty realistic. Or I feel dread about the thing I’m sort of trying to make myself do and I’m afraid to do, then I listen to my fear. And it’s always up to you. You can practice this. Mostly, I know when it’s something I want to do, and I’m just afraid to do it. Or whether my fear actually is coming from the wise part of me. Maybe my intuition, or wisdom, right, when I want to pay attention to it.
And so if it’s something you genuinely want to do, and it’s not an actual physical threat or danger, I would then talk my brain down a little bit reminded that it’s all okay, we aren’t going to die, and then go ahead and do it. And then expect to feel anxious and jittery and scared and excited feeling all of that, that’s been my experience. Questions I like to ask clients when they’re feeling afraid, is what if you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be and fear doesn’t mean you’re making a mistake. What if it just means you’re considering stepping into the next version of you? What if discomfort, of which I would say fear is very uncomfortable, what if discomfort is the currency of your dreams?
So for me, I have found that navigating via excitement plus fear will always keep you headed in the right direction. That’s sort of how I know to go ahead. So excitement plus fear, which I sometimes call scare sighted, right, you’re scared and excited. That, to me, is a go. However, dread and fear, that’s a no, that’s a stop, that’s a pay attention. And again, even though I’m a master certified coach, and I’ve been doing all this work, plus mindfulness and meditation and all the things and reading all the books for years, I still get caught up in my thoughts and believe them and get afraid and have to catch myself. I still get anxious and worried like about Teddy, and forget that I don’t have to believe my thoughts just because I’m thinking them. It’s totally normal.
So nothing’s gone wrong when you feel fear. Just take a deep breath and check in, what’s going on in your brain? What’s happening? What are you afraid of? Is it real? Is it useful? If you didn’t feel afraid right now, what might you be doing? Do you want to be doing that? If you’re telling yourself you’re stuck and don’t know what you want, notice, ask yourself if you weren’t afraid, would you know more? Would you be less stuck? My guess is yes.
So I have a little challenge for you. I haven’t done this in a while. So maybe I’ll challenge myself o. I’ve done it in the past and it was scary and fun and amazing. So my challenge for you is to try doing something every day for a month that brings up a little fear for you, do something that feels a little scary, but also exciting. You just notice when you feel excited and scared, I would say scared as maybe lighter fear, not terror, right? We don’t want you terrified. So just try challenging yourself. Try to expand your ability to feel fear and take action anyway. So you just want to keep practicing doing it anyway. That’s what courage is, feeling fear, and yet still taking action on things you want to be doing.
All right, that’s what I have for you this week. So good to talk to you. As always, reach out for help with this questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you. And I will talk to you soon. Bye.
If you are a busy practicing physician ready to start feeling less stressed, enjoy work more, and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life, sign up for a consult call with me at www.saradill.com. That’s S-A-R-A-D-I-L-L.com. It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.