You’re walking through the woods, minding your own business, enjoying the song of birds, the buzz of bees, the hiss of a snake… wait, what? Unusual in Forest of Dean perhaps but not unheard of; just go with it. You see the snake, you think snakes are dangerous, they chomp their scary jaws into happy young woods-walkers like me. Then you’re scared. You’re so scared you can’t even run. Then it happens…

I played all the right notes, but not necessarily, as the old gag goes, in the right order.

Plausible, right? Well not quite in the way described, according to one of the granddaddies of psychology, William James. When you saw the snake, I said you saw the snake, thought “snake”, got scared. I played all the right notes, but not necessarily, as the old gag goes, in the right order.

..the deep, ultra-fast, lizard part of our brain

In James’ view you actually saw the snake, got scared and THEN thought snake. The labelling, the interpretation, the stuff of conscious thought came afterwards. Modern neuroscience has backed this up and any psychology book will tell you it’s observable. The outer, conscious part of the brain is always behind the bit that has kept us safe from snakes since we came down from the trees – the deep, ultra-fast, lizard part of our brain that can react to the sight of a snake before we even have chance to think the word, let alone be consciously in control of a response to it. It’s as quick as being poked with hot stick.

My lizard brain, in all of these situations, behaves like its seen a snake.

Well, I don’t know about you but I don’t see many snakes but I still get scared. I get scared of getting things spectacularly wrong at work, scared of going into the free weights section of the gym, scared of confronting someone that needs confronting. My lizard brain, in all of these situations, behaves like its seen a snake. Then my conscious mind kicks in and I can rationalise. At that point I have a choice – do I believe that I’m seeing a snake and give in to my fear or do I ignore the nagging terror and move towards it, knowing damn well it’s not going to bite?

If you wait, the lizard often wins.

If you wait, the lizard often wins. If you let it be a debate, the lizard debates harder. That’s why you don’t do the things you know need to do. If you respond to your rational, human thoughts quickly though, the lizard hasn’t got time to answer back. What that means is you feel the fear, you put a name to that fear and then you just get on with it because you’ve named the fear, you’ve recognised it and you’ve moved close enough to see that it isn’t a snake at all, it’s a stick.

When you feel doubt, you have to move faster than your doubt can. A piece of advice I often give writers is to keep writing their first draft without stopping to consider or edit. Keeping your typing fast and word count high is the only way to outrun the fear; the voice that tells them their writing is rubbish. It’s not just me saying it – check out Mel Robbins book The 5 Second Rule or read the excellent website Nerd Fitness, where you’ll often find references to 10 seconds of fear…

When you feel doubt, you have to move faster than your doubt can.

Why not try it yourself? Those little things that your scared to do: move towards it, acknowledge the fear, then listen to your second, slower thought – after all, the snake is just stick.

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