A Research Paper By Heather Nickel, Business/Executive Coach, CANADA
Effective Strategies to Overcoming Fear Using Coaching
Did you know that while 20% of the population sets goals, only 30% of those individuals achieve them? (Vermeeren, 2007). You, or someone you know, may even be among those individuals. What causes the gap between setting a goal and achieving it? Why is it that human beings are passionate to set goals in the beginning, but lose the motivation to execute and achieve them?
Research has revealed that fear is the number one inhibitor of human performance (Whitmore, 2017). People may become stuck in a cycle of stress, avoidance, and ‘staying safe’, resulting in self-sabotage (Winch, 2013). It is important to understand how fear impacts the brain to better coach clients on how to overcome their fear of failure so that they may thrive and grow. Succumbing to fear at the expense of achieving goals results in significant regret (Iwuoha, 2017). This paper will identify what fear is, how it works in the brain, systematic desensitization, and growth mindset to overcome fear using coaching.
What Is Fear?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, fear is an acute, unpleasant emotion that is experienced when confronted with the belief that something, or someone, is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat.
Overcoming Fear & Conditioning
Fear has been studied through a classical conditioning experiment that used sensory stimulus accompanied by an electric shock. Lab rats were placed in a chamber and would hear a tone immediately before a shock was administered to their feet. After a time, they associated the tone with the shock and would automatically physically respond through increased blood pressure and an elevated heart rate. Eventually, the rats demonstrated a behavioral response to being placed in the chamber, even before the tone was heard. The rats had associated the chamber with the impending shock, which in turn created fear (Ashwell, 2019).
This experiment was completed by studying lab rats, though the results apply to humans as well. The brain is conditioned to respond to a real or perceived threat which creates fear. This conditioned fear response is a result of the amygdala in the brain. The amygdala plays a pivotal role in triggering a fear response that is observable in rats and humans alike.
Overcoming Fear & The Brain
The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped cluster of nuclei set deep in the temporal lobe of the brain that is the locus of fear learning (Fitzgerald,2016). When information enters the brain, the amygdala determines where the information is sent by filtering it. Based on incoming information or experience, the amygdala directs the information into either the reactive or reflective portion of the brain.
The reactive brain is an automatic flight, fight, or freeze response that occurs as a result of stress, emotions, or instinctual drives. The reactive brain is often compared to a skittish cat because it can shift erratically when faced with a decision, and because it can become fierce and dangerous under the assumption of a real or perceived threat. (Hollins,2019). The reflective brain is located in the cerebral cortex and is responsible for processing thought, reason, language, and consciousness. The cerebral cortex has four lobes including the prefrontal cortex which is conscious and analytical (reflective) and makes decisions based on the information received. The prefrontal cortex is actively involved in executive functioning by developing strategies to align actions with beliefs.
Recalling the conditioning experiment, the amygdala received the information from the sensory stimuli in the environment (musical tone) and associated this with the negative consequence (electrical shock). Over time, the amygdala pushed the information into the reactionary part of the brain to cause a flight, fight, or freeze response. In the rat experiment, the rats would freeze as soon as they were put in the chamber. The same phenomenon can be observed in everyday life, as a person links situations and experiences with unpleasant consequences. When a person imagines a situation, it can result in fear and a behavioral response because the amygdala automatically filters the information into the reactive part of the brain instead of the reflective. The reactive brain’s response may then be characterized by fear and inactivity. There is evidence that supports these reactions are linked because“When a person creates reasons to defend inaction and avoid responsibility there is an underlying statement saying, “I’m afraid” (Hollins, 2019, p.42)
Influence on the Amygdala
The amygdala routes information based on a person’s emotional state (Willis, 2007). When a person is in a state of high sustained stress or fear, they are unable to filter the information into the prefrontal (reflective) part of the brain. However, when they are not overcome by negative emotions, they can better control the information that enters their brain. A person is at their best when their level of interest is high, and their stress level is low because it allows information to pass more easily into the prefrontal cortex (Willis, 2007). The amygdala can be influenced using systematic desensitization and mindset.
Systematic Desensitization and Fear
While a coach is NOT a therapist, understanding ways to overcome fear is helpful to move the client forward. Systemic Desensitization is a behavioral conditioning therapy built on the foundation of classical conditioning. When presented with a conditional stimulus, systematic desensitization aims to remove the fear response and substitute it with a relaxation response through counterconditioning (Mcleod, 2021). Counterconditioning is achieved by associating a new response to the original behavior that was learned. Systematic desensitization can be accomplished by either imagining the stimulus or being exposed to the stimulus. The therapy is facilitated through three steps:
- The individual is taught deep muscle relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. This is crucial because tense muscles are incompatible with relaxation, the absence of which could ultimately impede the process. Progressive muscle relaxation may be achieved through tensing and releasing muscles throughout the body, and breathing exercises can include diaphragmatic breathing, which is the process of breathing slowly and deeply through the nose and holding the breath for one or two seconds before breathing out through the mouth. Visualization can then be introduced by encouraging the individual to imagine a relaxing scene and concentrating on sensory details like sights and smells.
- A fear hierarchy is created by establishing situations that provoke minimal fear, gradually working up to the individual’s greatest fear.
- The individual then works through the hierarchy from least to most fear-provoking by either imagining or experiencing these situations until there is no more fear associated with it.
Mastering a mindset is an extremely powerful tool to reduce stress and achieve goals. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University and is widely known for her work researching mindset. After studying people and their ability to reach their full potential, she found that people have two types of mindsets: growth or fixed. Which mindset is utilized can profoundly affect the way a person lives their life (Dweck 2007).
A fixed mindset means that a person believes that their qualities are carved in stone. It creates the need to prove oneself repeatedly to look capable. In the fixed mindset, the person assumes that their character, intelligence, and creative ability are static. This creates an all-or-nothing mindset that results in a person giving up in the face of a challenge due to fear or feeling that they are not being gifted enough to achieve a goal (Swart, 2018). With a fixed mindset, there is very little flexibility for those individuals to achieve beyond their perceived capabilities (Tuarez, 2021).
A growth mindset takes the opposite approach. Instead of believing that talent is static, a person with a growth mindset sees it as something that can be developed through hard work. These individuals perceive that the hand they have been dealt is just the starting point (Dweck, 2007). If an individual with this mindset tries to achieve a goal but fails, they will attribute the failure to the circumstance and not to their intelligence or ability. They examine their mistake, change their approach, and try again.
Growth Mindset and The Brain
By approaching a situation with the growth mindset, a person has less attachment to a seemingly negative result. The brain can renew itself and create new neural connections through stimuli and intentions. Systematic desensitization is effective because it uses a growth mindset to reduce the severity of a situation in a person’s mind. The conditioning changes the fixed mindset into a less stressful growth mindset. This results in more effective amygdala functioning as well as more information is passed into the prefrontal cortex for growth.
In a study done by Michigan State University, it was discovered that neural activity is more or less active depending on mindset. When a person has a growth mindset, their neural response is heightened to identify causes that will serve them in the future. The growth mindset causes the individual to adapt and improve for future growth. In addition to this finding, individuals with the growth mindset also experience a greater awareness of errors than individuals with a fixed mindset and are also more likely to go back and correct mistakes. This puts them at an advantage because it reduces stress and increases efficiency and effectiveness.
Overcoming Fear Practical Application in Coaching
When setting a large goal and experiencing fear, the coaching client can get caught up in a cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and anxiety (Winch, 2013). A way to combat this is by breaking the broader goal into smaller, less daunting tasks. The client can use a coaching process to identify the steps and associated barriers to successfully achieving their goals. The client can approach the coach to establish the hierarchy of the feared situation or obstacle, establish methods of relaxation and establish ways to encounter their fear in a more manageable way. In addition, coaches can work with clients to help identify a different and more beneficial mindset that will reduce their stress and allow for the amygdala to filter information into the prefrontal cortex, thus reducing fear.
Some questions to encourage new awareness can include:
- What do you envision for yourself/situation?
- What is the first step you can take?
- What would you do if fear wasn’t a factor?
- What are ways to manage your stress/fear?
- What’s another way of looking at this?
- What is true about…..?
- What do you need to do?
- What are you losing by not taking the first step?
- What does success look like?
Overcoming Fear Using Coaching t0 Gradually Achieve Goals
Fear is the number one inhibitor of human performance. Individuals report considerable regret that they were unable to overcome fear and ultimately became unable to pursue their dreams. In the coaching profession, it is crucial to understand that fear is based on the brain’s response to a real or perceived threat. Often this threat arises in those with a fixed mindset with a predisposition to assume that they will fail. By reducing stress through a growth mindset and being aware of systematic desensitization to break down goals and fears into manageable steps, individuals may then be able to face their fears and gradually achieve their goals. Using the growth mindset will not only make the process more enjoyable and less stressful, but it will also lead to increased functioning of the prefrontal cortex. When the gap between goal setting and achievement is caused by the fear of failure, these steps will help clients move forward and grow in a less stressful environment so that they can achieve their goals.
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