Fear is beneath my every hesitation so I typically recognize it right away. Not this time. It baffled me as to why I procrastinated for weeks to submit the required reflection notes for my coaching certification. I typically love to write and even more-so journaling. But here I was, back against the proverbial wall with only a weekend left to complete tons of notes.
To that end, I woke up before the break of dawn that Saturday morning, slipped into my overpriced Lulu lemon loungers, my oversized East Coast Lifestyle sweatshirt and with a mug of my favourite java, plunked myself in front of my little think pad to get down to work. Nothing was going to get in my way this time.
Then, this happened: nothing. I blinked into my screen. My mind was as blank as cement. No words, no sentences. Nothing. I stared some more, I fidgeted, I agonized until my mug needed a refill.
Then, as I made my way back to our Nespresso machine, I picked up scissors needing to be returned to our ‘junk drawer’ (don’t judge, everybody has one of these, right?). Once there, and for reasons beyond my comprehension at the time, I rummaged through that drawer with a fascination only seen on Storage Wars. I re-discovered Indian & Thai Food brochures, hair clips, dead batteries, elastics, a Costa Rican coaster with a toucan bird, and inkless pens.
Two hours later, the drawer was organized, so too, was the adjacent cupboard of Tupperware (I’m convinced there’s a place in our galaxy where lost socks have hooked up with missing lids). My linen and broom closets didn’t escape my wrath and they, too, were sterilized. Here’s the thing. I had wasted two hours to clean, something I hated to do, in order, to avoid something I loved to do and, worse, something I critically needed to do. What was wrong with me?
Then it hit me. The procrastination and my apparent “writer’s block” could be traced to what’s popularly known as our fight/flight response. This fear reaction was developed in our brain millions of years ago, for our survival. In short, when a threat is detected, our amygdala in our midbrain (aka: our mammalian brain because it’s shared with our chimpanzee cousins), shuts down our cortex and, with it, our ability to speak or think, by redirecting blood flow to other parts of our body, namely such extremities as our hands and feet (get sweaty, twitch,) so we can automatically fight or run from danger.
Not only does it save us from sabre tooth tigers in our external environment, but our power-hungry amygdala patrols our inner world for psychological threats as well like potential romantic rejection or public humiliation. Hence, we can thank it for all those times we needed to be eloquent but instead we tuned into tongue tied clammy catastrophes on first dates and on stage.
My guess was, that despite my love for regularly journaling, I had never shared any of my personal insights before and it occurred to me I was downright petrified with having my own opinions of myself judged and potentially rejected (kill me now). So, you see, my amygdala felt my fear even before I did; and in doing its job as commander in chief, pulled the plug and drained creative juices out of my cortex (the few drops that I might have had).
This was making sense, except that my overactive amygdala didn’t explain my urge to clean. If I wanted to procrastinate through a bout of writer’s block, why didn’t I do it while binge watching Game of Thrones ’ like a normal person?
After much research, and by, that I mean, I entered the topic in my Google search bar, I’ve since learned that my urge to “nest”, as it were, is not really that bizarre and not just instinctively reserved for “expectant moms” but for other reasons deeply rooted in our reptilian brain (located in our brain stem; our first brain, developed brain millions and millions of years ago, when we were reptiles)
Apparently, back when we roamed the earth in our leopard skins, we kept things simple; we were either hungry or happy. When hungry (most of the time), we were in high alert mode, always in danger fighting off predators or hunting. It was only when we were safely back in our caves, when we contentedly engaged in other stress-free activities like nesting, eating, and sex. Fast forward to today and our primitive brain still associates happiness and security with these activities and why we use them to soothe ourselves when anxious or feel threatened. This explains some, otherwise, inexplicable behaviour tendencies like organizing junk drawers, “nervous eating” or diving into a container of ice cream when we’ve been dumped, or still others who get it on sexting or watch online porn when under pressure at work.
Workplace studies say fear impairs our judgement and decision- making. These findings corroborate the brain research that says when fear shuts down our cortex, we’ll make decisions without accessing our full rational thought and our sense of compassion thus causing defensive, reactive, short term focused decisions producing results to business that negatively impact long term sustainability.
In a world where we are feeling collectively terrified with the bombardment of shocking headlines around political instability that produce anxiety around our lives and future, we do risk reverting to primitive thinking and wanting to hide under our beds.
But, that behaviour is when we know our primal instincts are guiding us. Those days, when we slithered around on our bellies and walked on all fours, should be behind us. We’ve been able to walk erect for some time now and have since grown parts to our brain for rational thinking and compassion; these are the human behaviours that have evolved us to this point; we’d better not get paralyzed with fear and shut them down now because we need them more now than ever to get us past this point.
If not, well, at least I know my house will be clean for the next four years……