The Other F-word at Work: Fear


We are a fear-based society, and there lies before us the invitation to stop surviving and start evolving.

Fear is good when it is related to consciously. Fear’s main function is to act as an alarm to danger, threat, or motivational conflict, which then initiates unconscious natural adaptive responses that are a part of human evolution.

Fear responses have evolved to protect us. These responses are very useful and necessary.


There are reasons to feel scared or afraid in the workplace or life. These situations are not life-threatening, and our survival is not at stake, but we need to consciously recognize the psychosomatic experience of them and pay attention when we act out or shut down and go into one or more of our conditioned fear responses – let’s review them:

Fight. In the workplace, the fight response looks like defensiveness. Symptoms include verbal and non-verbal defensiveness or attacks, and also repetitive explanations, reasons, and justifications. The chin is forward, and the hands are acting out – every verbal and non-verbal cue is that of a fighter boxing in the ring with no opponent, usually more vocal and very loud.

Flight (or Flee). At work, this may look like mentally tuning out during a meeting or looking at your laptop or phone. The body is there, but mentally, you’ve left the meeting, stopped participating, and are no longer present. Sometimes, people may literally walk out. Situations in high-growth companies where people become afraid that the culture is dying are only one example. People become scared when experiencing more change than they can handle, so they leave the team or company.

Freeze. Going into mental and physical lock-down while at work – so frightened or surprised that you are frozen – is a freeze response. This happens because you are scared. When frozen, you usually aren’t speaking. Someone could be waving a hand in front of your eyes, saying, “Hello? Is anyone home?”

Faint. In the workforce, this may look like spacing out. My clients describe their faint experience as: “I can’t find the words” or “I go stupid” or “My thoughts become foggy” and “I can’t articulate what I want to say.” Fainting is a self-protective strategy from too much stress on the nervous system.

Tend & Befriend. There is brand-new research pointing to this response in women. Women will try to tend to the situation and befriend their opponent. Furthermore, new research suggests that some of the most intense fear responses are from mothers – a natural heightened response to “protect their young.”

When someone is in a fear response, it’s like talking to a wall or a caged animal. You can’t rationalize the irrational – and they will act irrationally. Fear is the enemy of reason. The individual is not connected to themselves and has been hijacked by instinct.

Because fear responses happen automatically and unconsciously, people don’t realize they’ve been hijacked. Fear does not discriminate – we can see irrational behavior from CEOs, PhDs, therapists, top-notch engineers, and presidents of anything.


It’s important to understand and be knowledgeable about the physiology of fear. Fortunately for us, there is brand-new neuroscience that points to the biology of our experience – and with knowledge comes the opportunity for more evolved behavior.

There is a massive neurological and physiological – and very real – event that occurs in the body when we’re in fear:

  • Our sympathetic nervous system engages.

  • The amygdala, a part of our brain, processes sensory signals and generates a fear response by stimulating autonomic responses such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and involuntary muscle reaction.

  • Blood rushes to our core to protect our organs.

  • The amygdala hijacks our prefrontal cortex during this response, leading to a narrowing of our sight while wiping out our ability to think clearly and intelligently.


People differ from animals regarding fear-centered physiological events. A gazelle on the savanna won’t engage the sympathetic nervous system unless there is a direct threat, such as a lion.

The gazelle will try to outrun the lion, and it will need its sympathetic nervous system to do so. One of two things will happen: it will either outrun the lion or it won’t. If it does, its body knows to turn off its sympathetic nervous system and return to physiological homeostasis.

Where humans differ is our sympathetic nervous system will engage when merely thinking about a threat. Even with no real threat, we go into survival mode based on our thoughts of what might happen.


To reiterate: even without a real threat, this is a real physiological event – your physiology is fighting you. To make matters worse, with no real threat, your nervous system doesn’t have an outlet to move out your fear-driven energy naturally; therefore you feel terrible – contracted, constricted, and uncomfortable, and unable to think clearly. This exacerbates the experience and puts us into a deeper survival mode.

We experience survival mode based on an infinite number of thoughts, and we create an experience centered around the belief that we are psychologically unsafe:

  • If I don’t do well, I won’t get promoted.

  • If the project doesn’t go well, will I lose my job?

  • If I tell her the truth, I will hurt her feelings.

  • What will people think if I say I don’t know?

  • If I compare myself to others, I’m not good enough.

  • I should do better.

  • What will people think if I leave the company to align with my values?

  • Last time I screwed it up. I better not do that again!

To shift out of survival mode, re-engage your parasympathetic nervous system!

DO exhale. When you exhale, your sympathetic nervous system turns off, and then your parasympathetic nervous system turns on. Start exhaling, and the inhale will take care of itself.

DON’T eat. Known as the “rest-and-digest system,” your parasympathetic nervous system turns on when you eat – don’t fall into the trap of stress eating.


Fear unconsciously runs most of our society. Many interlocking aspects of society have become increasingly sophisticated in communicating messages and information that produce fear responses. Advertising, political ads, news coverage, and social media all send the constant message that people should be afraid – very afraid.

Because thoughts are so pervasive, fear is pervasive. We live in a culture of fear, and most people are in survival mode. We end up fearing the wrong things, incredibly out of proportion to reality. For example, we have a much higher chance of being killed by lightning than by a terrorist.

A huge opportunity to evolve past survival mode is possible: Recognize your fear pattern and shift out of it by breathing through, and being with, your fear-based energy, and from there, paying attention to whatever wants attention.

If you are simply following your thoughts – stop! Exhale to engage your parasympathetic nervous system. Breathe, move to support yourself, and come back to presence. Then ask yourself, “What wants to happen now?”

Most of all, gain insight from the experience of being in survival mode versus not. What caused you to be triggered? What worked for you to shift from survival mode? Time to raise your awareness.


My book Evolution Revolution: Conscious Leadership for an Information Age is your handbook on how to recognize and manage the effects of fear:

“The wisdom behind fear is there’s something that wants attention. Fear is an invitation to be alert, see, notice, and take productive action.

With a promotion, a new project, or when you’re poised on the edge of your next learning experience, you may feel fear energy. This is a call to be clear about what to focus on within yourself while you expand in your career.

Fear is momentum energy designed to put us into action. Consciously experience fear rather than allow fear patterns of fight, flight, freeze, or faint to put you into survival mode. When we are in survival mode, we create unconscious, unwanted outcomes and results.”

~from Evolution Revolution: Conscious Leadership for an Information Age, Chapter 5 – Emotional Intelligence 101

This article was originally published in July 2016 and has been updated