Institute For Quality and Innovation
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IQI Blog


Two types of fear.png

Authored by Eric Budd

Choice and autonomy are distinguishing conditions. Fear can produce two different brain hormones. One creates invigorating action. Another creates potentially debilitating stress

A sense of control and autonomy distinguishes the two types of fear. If, as a leader, you must always be in command, make the decisions or overrule the decisions of those working for you, chances are good, you experience the performance inspiring hormone Noradrenaline while the people in your organization experience the stress inducing hormone, Cortisol.

John Medina’s definition of stress is helpful (author, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School). If all three parts happen simultaneously, a person is experiencing stress. 

  • There must be an aroused physiological response to the stress, and it must be measurable by an outside party.

  • The stressor must be perceived as aversive. This can be assessed by a simple question: "If you had the ability to turn down the severity of this experience, or avoid it altogether, would you?“

  • The person must not feel in control of the stressor.

Friederike Fabritius, (“"Fun, Fear, and Focus: The Neurochemical Recipe for [...]" | Talks at Google”) tells us that noradrenaline, is a positive stress hormone. Tasks that are challenging—not in one’s comfort zone, slightly beyond our capabilities—are a common source of the useful type of stress. This enables the body to perform well in short-term stressful situations. 

Fabritius says that cortisol, the negative stress hormone, is released under chronic stress and the number-one protection against cortisol is autonomy. Long-term production of cortisol leads to amygdala growth (producing reflexive responses such as flight, fight or freeze) and shrinkage of the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain we use to think) and hippocampus (learning).

People who experience choice and autonomy in their work are less likely to feel the debilitating lasting effects of stress and more likely to be invigorated by challenges of the task at hand. 

Tina M