The neuroscience of fear

31st August by Sheila Campbell-Lloyd

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Coaching and supervision are essentially about change. But change is rarely straightforward - it can be hard and it can be uncomfortable. Just think about yourself – would you share your worries, your shame or your fears with someone that you did not feel safe with?

No, we all hide behind a mask. We are only vulnerable with those we trust, who we feel psychologically safe with.

Therefore, as coaches and supervisors, we need to create a safe psychological space in which to allow our clients to open themselves up to their vulnerabilities and fears. So they can reflect, learn and change.

Professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. That we can feel safe to express ourselves or speak up.’

However research in neuroscience and neurophysiology, shows that when we engage with others, both our brains and our bodies are constantly doing what is termed as micro assessments – am I safe, am I not safe?

We do this consciously and unconsciously. That voice on our shoulder is saying ‘I like this person. I am getting a good feeling about them.’ And then we start to connect and when that happens you can physically feel it. Or that voice says: ‘Hmmm I’m not too sure what it is, but there is something about this person that I don’t like.’

It’s that voice on our shoulder, be careful, this situation may not be safe! And there is a reason for behaving like this. For the past two million years, the human brain has evolved to maximise our chances of surviving. It is in our DNA. We are wired for safety.

There is an area of the brain called the amygdala. If you draw a straight line through your eye and your ear, that’s where you will find it, deep within the brain. We have two of them – one in each brain hemisphere, but we refer to them in the singular.

The amygdala's primary role is to keep us safe. It is constantly scanning for threats – 24/7. It’s like a hard drive storing information from past situations that it perceived as dangerous. If it encounters a similar situation in the here and now, it will automatically trigger the fight, flight, freeze response.

In that moment, the logical rational part of the brain - the prefrontal cortex where we consciously process our thoughts and regulate our emotions - is compromised. We can’t think clearly.

Some research even suggests that when the amygdala is triggered, we can lose circa 15 IQ points. The reason being is that the brain consumes around 25% of the body’s energy, and when the amygdala is triggered, it diverts a lot of our brain’s energy to our body. Our hearts beat faster, our lungs consume more oxygen and we are physically primed, ready to either fight, flight or freeze.

Most of the time we are completely unaware that our amygdala is doing this, yet it drives our everyday behaviours. Let me give you an example.

A client of mine was a very knowledgeable and articulate young lady on a fast track. But as she described to me, she often found herself in board meetings freezing and unable to think clearly. Or becoming overly aggressive when she was legitimately being questioned over team performance.

She went on to tell me that in the run up to and during the board meeting, she had physical reactions whereby her mouth dried up, she could feel her heart racing and her neck would go red and blotchy. Often the other board members would ask “are you ok?” and this just made her feel worse.

On our second coaching session I coached her through the basic understanding of applied neurophysiology and we started by looking at the amygdala. Her amygdala perceived the board meetings as a threat, and that is why she either froze or came out fighting. And all that diverted physical energy contributed to her dry mouth, beating heart and skin rash.

When we looked at what could be in her amygdala’s ‘hard drive,’ her triggers, she recognised that one of the directors reminded her of an old schoolteacher that was horrible to her. Her amygdala was on the defence and created a fear response to the situation and transferred the fear of her teacher onto the board member who looked like him.

By making that link, she could begin to reframe her relationship with the board director and put in place strategies to calm her amygdala and help mitigate the threat response. If you asked my client, she would say “understanding how her basic brain works and learning to manage her triggers has literally changed her life.”

As coaches and supervisors, we are in many cases asking our clients to share and explore their inner fears and worries, all of which can make them to feel psychologically unsafe….and therein lies the coaching paradox. How do we balance creating a safe psychological space whilst at the same time challenge for change?

I really like Hewson and Carroll’s metaphor of creating a ‘safe base camp’ from which to explore the work with our clients. However, it is important that we spend time laying the foundations and creating that safe base camp by spending time connecting with our clients, having that metaphorical cup of tea if you like.

For when we leave the camp and begin to explore the need to change, it can be scary for the client. But it is always good to know that we have a safe space to come back to - for both of us.

When I first started as a coach, I’ll be honest in saying that I didn’t spend a great deal of time attending to psychological safety. I would rush into exploring change and sometimes I got lucky for my client would be open for change. Most of the time though, I was leading my client into areas where they didn’t feel safe with me… primarily because we hadn’t spent time building our ‘safe base camp’, the coaching relationship operated at a superficial level with little, or no true change.

So the ability to create a safe space in a reflective relationship such as coaching, is critical. If we get the balance right, then our clients will feel safe enough to explore their vulnerabilities and defences and be open to learning. If we don’t, our client will put all their energies into protecting themselves – they may go quiet, get argumentative, or disconnect.

When I am now coaching or supervising, I am always conscious of the fine balance between safety and challenge for change, and it is a moment-to-moment thing. As I work with my clients and their enquiry, there is a part of me that is constantly scanning for signs of are we safe or not safe? I will watch their body language and listen to the words they use.

All these cues, no matter how subtle, could indicate that their amygdala is running and they may not feel safe. If I feel or get a sense my client isn’t safe, I will pause and say, ‘I’m wondering how you are feeling right now?’ I give them the space to either continue exploring or to metaphorically regroup back at ‘base camp’ for a wee breather before we go back out. It is their journey, not mine!

And it is not just the clients that need psychological safety, we also need it too, for our amygdala can be triggered in a session. Indeed I will also be noticing how I am feeling in the moment… am I sacred...not scared? And I will be curious as to what this data saying about our working relationship.

As practitioners, one of the best ways to manage our amygdala responses is to really do our own inner work – and for me that is through regular supervision and therapy. Indeed, it doesn’t matter which coaching or supervision book you pick up, they will all tell you about the importance of ‘knowing yourself’, so that when you are triggered you can consciously manage your emotional responses rather than act them out unconsciously in session.

The next time you are working with your client, ask yourself are we safe? If not, what are you now going to do to change that?

Our thanks to Sheila for sharing her insights.

Sheila Campbell-Lloyd has over 20+ year’s senior leadership experience across the public, private sector and third sector. On leaving the engineering sector Sheila now manages her own coaching consultancy. Sheila’s academic research interests are in applied neuroscience in coaching/ leadership and the development of ‘self’. She lectures regularly on applied neuroscience in coaching and leadership and is an associate member of faculty with the AoEC.