Why we should learn to embrace fear
Yesterday evening I was privileged to be back at King’s College London (on the other side of the lectern) to give a lecture on Fight or Flight to students and staff. It was an apt topic for me to be delivering a lecture on, given that I used to be a nervous wreck when giving presentations as an undergraduate (and for the first twelve years of my career!). I had no understanding of fight or flight and how it was inadvertently undermining my ability to think clearly and confidently, nor how I could rewire my ‘default’ response to something far more empowering that would enable me to thrive.
Whilst preparing for the talk, I had the chance to reminisce about my four years there studying Chemistry. Reflecting back, I realise now that I was so focused on simply completing my degree and getting a job, that I didn’t take in the awe-inspiring experience of studying at such a prestigious institution. An institution which played a significant part in discovering the structure of DNA and producing the ‘hit’ band JLS.
I gave the lecture in a building named after Rosalind Franklin who was credited with the infamous photo 51 that led to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure by Watson and Crick. Poignant, given the fact that I referenced the effect that chronic inflammation (caused by an overactive fight or flight response) has on our DNA, more precisely the telomeres that sit at the end of our chromosomes and which protect our genetic code from being damaged over the course of our lifetime. Inflammation has been shown to increase the rate at which telomeres shrink, reducing our life and health spans (once our telomeres become too short, cells are no longer able to divide and they eventually die... and then we die). Rosalind Franklin died far too young, at the age I am now, of cancer. As a result, she was never awarded the Nobel Prize for her ground-breaking research (prizes are not awarded posthumously).
Thinking back to Fight or Flight. When asked, most people in the auditorium put their hands up to feeling like an anxious wreck when asked to give a presentation. Of course, it is not just the idea of standing up in front of a room-full of people that tiggers fight or flight and undermines our performance (including the reduction of our IQ by as much as 20 points and an impaired ability to retrieve memories). It could just as easily be financial worries, a performance review, an interview, a conflict or anything else that tiggers fear within us, whether rational or not. It pains me to know how many people are inadvertently undermining their performance, their health and wellbeing and thereby limiting themselves and their ability to fulfil their true potential.
I closed with the caption 'Do not fear Fear... embrace it', which I think sums up nicely the approach I now take and coach others to embrace. All of the time we are inside our comfort zone, we are not growing, we are merely standing still. Or, worse, regressing. If we can redefine our fear as an opportunity to grow exponentially, we are able to draw on resources that help us do just that. We also need to ensure we give ourselves ample time to recharge and recover, so that our brains and bodies can adapt. I left with a renewed sense of urgency and determination to share this knowledge, to help others understand their evolutionary biology and overcome self-limiting beliefs to enable them to thrive.