3 Ways To Master Your ‘Lizard Brain’ And Fear Of Social Settings

To conquer fear and become more magnetic in social situations, try the following three tips. If I can get myself through it, so can you.

Esmée St James | Source: Courtesy Photo
Esmée St James | Source: Courtesy Photo

While hiking with my partner Jeff, a bear cub crossed our path about 50 feet away; and we both thought—whip out my phone and take a video.

“Hi, little bear. You’re so cute,” I cooed.

The cub stood still. I was thrilled to have gotten so close to a wild animal in its natural habitat!

Then the sound of rustling branches high up in a tall redwood across from the cub caught my attention. “That must be some giant squirrel up there, or… it’s getting louder,” I said to Jeff. Then we see her–Mama Bear.

Branches snapped like twigs under her weight as she slid down the tree to protect her baby. She was angry and enormous! Mama Bear stopped part of the way down to size us up. Down she slid again, faster this time. The sound of her claws shredding tree bark sent a shock of adrenaline through my body.

“Film it!” Jeff hissed. But his voice was drowned out by the one inside my head screaming, “Ruuuun!”

Visions of Mama Bear’s claws disemboweling me suddenly became too real. But I didn’t run because I read somewhere that running from a threatened animal is just a terrible idea. Plus Jeff played college football (a free safety and wide receiver), so he runs a lot faster than me.

We backed away slowly just before Mama Bear hit the ground. Once out of sight, we turned our backs and walked away briskly, hearts pounding in our ears.

Have you ever experienced a primal fear like that? Even being in a near car accident can trigger it.


Survival instincts

It’s the same kind of fear I experienced early in my modeling career when I booked a major fashion show alongside some of the best models in the country, we rehearsed all day and then it was show time!

There I was standing and preparing to sashay down the runway. All eyes and spotlights were on me. Except I froze. Suddenly my mouth felt as though it was full of cotton balls, my palms were oily with sweat, and my mind went blank. I was so terrified I couldn’t remember one single step of the choreography. A voice inside my head screamed “Ruuuun!”

My mind was instantly flooded with visions of the crowd laughing at me. Yet, I stood there because I read somewhere that running from a paid job is just a terrible idea. Instead, I pulled myself together and faked it down the runway–with my heart pounding a hole through my chest.


The fears we all share

Did you know that the fear of failure and rejection feels every bit as visceral as having your life endangered by a real menacing threat?

There’s a part of our brain called the limbic brain, or lizard brain. It’s the part that controls our automatic survival instinct and body language. The lizard brain is on permanent truth serum and cannot tell a lie.

“The lizard brain is on permanent truth serum and cannot tell a lie.”

Moreover, it doesn’t discern between physical and emotional danger–it’s all the same. When a threat is present, whether it’s physical or emotional, it immediately signals our nervous system to shoot adrenalin through our body. Our blood runs cold, our eyes bulge, and we’re covered in goosebumps no matter the temperature.

“The lizard brain is the source of the resistance,” according to best-selling author Seth Godin. In his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth talks a lot about the term “lizard brain” 1 (also known as “reptilian brain”) to refer to the most primitive part of our brain, where the instincts that warn us of danger when it lurks reside.

Hopefully, you’ll never experience a life-threatening event, but feeling emotional danger happens to all of us in love, life, and business. It is a result of various triggers.


Rewiring our ‘lizard brains’ in social settings

For some, it’s a sales meeting. For others, it’s public speaking, a client dinner, or walking into a room full of strangers at a networking event.

The common denominator is that all these events mean something to us. Of course, we want to succeed, but the fear of blowing it and being emotionally injured puts us in a vulnerable position. Our lizard brain automatically shuts us down and commands us to drop everything and put up our dukes (or get out fast).

This is a feeling you can overcome. I’m convinced my modeling career lasted 25 years because I trained myself to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You can do this too!

To conquer fear and become more magnetic in social situations, try the following three tips. If I can get myself through emotional “lions and tigers and bears,” so can you.


1. Take a few deep breaths

When you feel you’re in a stressful situation, take a few deep breaths to activate the pre-frontal cortex, your brain’s command and control center. It’s the part of our brain that can tell a lie, which means you’ll be able to override the lizard brain. You can then think more clearly and take charge of the situation.

Here’s how to breathe effectively: Place your left hand on the left side of your ribcage and your right hand on the other side. Now breathe in and out deeply, feeling your ribcage expand fully like an accordion.


2. Be welcoming

This tip is great for any gathering where you don’t know anyone. Stand by the entrance and greet people as if you were the host. Look them in the eye, smile warmly, give them a firm handshake and introduce yourself. Say “Welcome, how are you!”

Starting a brief icebreaker conversation is one of the smartest things you can do in such a situation because guess what? It will boost your confidence in a jiffy since you were the one who initiated the contact. The bonus is that you also made the other person feel welcome and special. You might even become their “safe person!”


3. Be curious

Ask open-ended questions. That means asking questions that require long answers instead of a simple yes or no answer. The best way to pose an open-ended question is to start with one of the following words: what, why, how, and when. For example, when you meet someone at a networking event, you might ask, “How did you find out about this organization?” Listen intently and then ask another question based on the answer.


Now that you have the keys to becoming less fearful, and more socially magnetic make a game out of it and start in small increments. Practice this often, and notice the difference it makes for you and others.

When you focus on making others feel special, you’ll notice how good it feels to see their eyes light up. The next time you meet someone new, give it a shot and keep at it. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to charm the room. You’ve got this!


Esmée St James uses her over two decades of experience in communication, presence, and connection as a Charm Coach and Author, to help people powerfully connect with one another. Whether you’re struggling to connect with a love interest or you’re looking to capture the audience of a room at a networking event (or even from stage), Esmée can help you identify and leverage your unique qualities that will magnetize people and opportunities to you like never before. Esmée’s wisdom and insights have been featured on DatingAdvice.com, KCAT TV15, KSCO, and more.


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