Hey Lizard Brain! It’s OK to Be Afraid

by Keith Savage · 29 comments

Post image for Hey Lizard Brain! It’s OK to Be Afraid

When I put in a hold request for Seth Godin’s new book, Linchpin, at my local library, I was something like number 48 in line. That was seven weeks ago. I’m now number eight and my patience is wearing thin. With the horde of travel and lifestyle design blogs in my feed reader, it was inevitable that I’d start picking up on key concepts in his book before I had it in my hands.

One of the ideas that really grabbed me is that of the lizard brain. Also known as the resistance, the internal editor, the analyst, the unwanted adviser, and “no, you can’t.” In high school, it’s introduced as the Amygdala – a fear-wielding collection of complex nuclei focused on keeping us snug and warm, breathing, and reproducing (among other critical functions). In days of yore, this survival instinct undoubtedly helped us avoid brutal gorings by sabertooth tigers or tramplings by enraged mammoths. Circumstances change. Organs and social norms become outmoded and vestigial. Definitions of survival also change – “survival” today could mean providing some unique service or art that no one else can, so you can remain gainfully employed and happy.

The Amygdala, the so-called lizard brain, doesn’t comprehend this change in definition. At least not yet; maybe never. And how could it? That’s like hoping a pet chicken will one day realize it has nothing to fear from predators and will start composing symphonies in its coop.

I’m sure I’ll learn more about Seth’s take on the whole idea once the library rewards my good faith effort to save money. In any event, my visceral response to this information was not to dig out my Amygdala with a spoon, but rather a simple gritting of my teeth and shake of my head as if in acceptance of an enemy long known.


The unknown. What ifs. Even now, six months from pulling the trigger, I’m having second thoughts. Is my writing good enough? Am I outgoing enough? What if something happens while I’m gone? What if we can’t afford the bills? Etc. ad nauseum.

These thoughts are like knives in the dark from your lizard brain. The more frequent and insistent they become, the harder it gets to accomplish whatever it is you’ve set out to do. I look back on some of my failed ventures – guidebook author, advertising creative, actor (I’m ashamed to admit) – and they all sputtered out when the going got tough, when the beauty of the idea faded with age. I’m pretty sure I didn’t think those dreams would be easy to make real; I just didn’t think about what it would really take to execute them.

It seems that given two paths, the survival instincts of your lizard brain will choose the path of least resistance. The path that ensures the status quo (assuming that’s safety). The path that keeps you home at night, going to your office job, watching television, playing video games.

Are these the conditions in which something remarkable is born?

If there’s one simple thing I’ve internalized, it’s that it’s OK to be afraid. You might be planning to quit your job and travel around the world or expecting a child or thinking about accepting an exciting job in a foreign city or going into a war zone to care for the wounded. It’s OK to get sweaty and nervous when you think about the monumental challenge in front of you. Fear is just your stupid lizard brain worrying about it’s own primitive, nearly irrelevant needs. Fear is not the signal that you’re doing something wrong.

Fear is the signal that you’re on the great path to something.

Original photo by thisisanicephoto via Flickr under Creative Commons

Lorna - the roamanticsNo Gravatar February 4, 2011 at 2:17 PM

great post keith! certainly facing an avalanche of change right now (see latest post) and with that comes LOTS of what ifs, fear, self-doubt, etc. but trying to keep my attention focused on all of the amazing possibilities that can come of it. so glad to read this right now 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 4, 2011 at 2:32 PM

Lorna, I’m glad this post is helping you right now. So sorry to hear about the upheaval in your life, but the tone of your latest post indicates you’re on the right path. I agree that much of happiness is perception. It’s can be a big leap to come to that conclusion.

MarkNo Gravatar June 14, 2010 at 11:40 AM

Thanks for this. Your post – and many of the other comments – are just what I needed on a Monday morning after some financial worries over the weekend. I’m just a few weeks into this new, jobless, blogging life, but what is greater than the fear is knowing that I’ve done something real and productive and that I can’t imagine, at this point, going back to full-time work…eventually, maybe. I’ve been following Seth for a few years now. His insights can be priceless sometimes. Good luck, everyone, on your journeys.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 14, 2010 at 11:48 AM

Glad you found this helpful. The key with this kind of anxiety is to not make decisions in the grip of panic. Slow down and make rational decisions. Good luck with your venture, Mark!

AndrewNo Gravatar April 25, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Great article. It seems that travel brings out the lizard brain fear for an awful lot of people. It always amazes me the number of things that people do in their normal life without fear and then get paralyzed by anxiety when it comes to leaving the country.
I love the line “Fear is the signal that you’re on the great path to something.” When I get afraid of something, it is usually the signal that I need to do it. It’s funny that you can actually still tell the difference between lizard brain fear and rational fear.

Secondly, although powerful the lizard brain is still a brain and thus trainable. After forcing yourself to do the things you are afraid of enough, it becomes way easier to keep doing them. Man it comes back though. I moved to Germany to shake up my life, and now I’m settling in again.

KeithNo Gravatar April 25, 2010 at 11:29 AM

Hi Andrew – I’ve had the same feeling of wonder that my brain is “self-aware.” Very good point about training the brain. You’re absolutely right that the more we do things that originally scared us the less scary they become. Hope to see you around again!

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 5:14 PM

Wow Keith, Lizard Brain is raging inside me right now. Check out my new post to see why! Help!
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog .. =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 8:39 PM

The universe is forcing you to make a declaration. I’ve commented on your blog.

CatiaNo Gravatar April 5, 2010 at 2:07 PM

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, how fear has stopped me from doing things that I later regretted. Since I’ve been out travelling alone, fear has become something I’ve (almost) grown to accept and it’s starting to become less daunting. A few deep slow breaths while I try to decide if I’m afraid because I really am entering a scary situation that maybe I should avoid or if it’s just the ‘lizard brain’.

I’m going to have to try to find a copy of that book while I’m travelling, sounds like it could be helpful.
.-= Catia´s last blog ..The True Threat to Travellers – The Shower =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 5, 2010 at 5:05 PM

It’s great to hear that you’re starting to get this ornery reptile under control – especially as a solo traveler! All of the reviews I’ve read on Linchpin have been glowing.

Lauren QuinnNo Gravatar April 4, 2010 at 12:21 PM

Great post, super interesting stuff. I actually haven’t heard of Seth Godin, but the notion of the lizard brain sounds really similar to the negative self-critic—which you learn, in cognitive behavioral therapy, is swollen and enlarged in the minds of depressives and folks with other fun mood disorders. To the extent that it totally paralyzes them from making any changes or taking any steps at all in their lives—why bother, if I suck and it’s all gonna turn out crappy anyway? You learn (this is getting long-winded, I know, but I really saw a connection here) in CBT to ask that puffed-up pompous critic questions: “So what happens if I can’t afford my bills when I’m gone? I’ll have to borrow money or go in debt. Then what? I have to come home and get a new job and work my ass off for a couple months. Then what? I’ll break even eventually.” And when you work through the fears logically like that, they rarely seem so scary. It’s a life skill I’ve had to employ plenty, and it just so happens it comes in handy when taking the plunge with travel-related stuff too.

You somehow got off my blog radar, but man am I glad to have rediscovered you. Good, thought-provoking stuff!
.-= Lauren Quinn´s last blog ..Estudy of Estyle: Chilean Street Art and Figuring Out What the Hell It Is I Have to Say =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 4, 2010 at 8:40 PM

Wow you brought back so many memories from my psych degree with your comment! These are really great tips, thanks for sharing them. Hope to see you around here, Lauren!

GlobetrooperNo Gravatar April 3, 2010 at 11:32 PM

Great post, it’s nice to know that you’re not the only one with these feelings… I’ve been planning to live the “nomad lifestyle” for the past few months, getting very excited, booking flights etc. My partner kept worrying and I was the one thinking (and saying), “What’s there to worry about? We’re going to be living our dream soon!”…
And then it came the time for me to resign. What a backflip my brain did into evil lizard-world. At least my partner was able to console me with the same answers he had heard only a few days before…

Thanks for your posts, I look forward to reading more and more.

KeithNo Gravatar April 4, 2010 at 8:39 PM

Thanks for the story. It’s like the lizard brain is biding its time, figuring we’ll forget about plans and move on to something safer. When the times comes for us to put the chips on the table it lashes out, paralyzing. Will you be traveling with or without your partner?

GlobetrooperNo Gravatar April 4, 2010 at 9:40 PM

I’ll be travelling with my partner. Fortunately, it’s not often that we get the lizard brain at the same time… now we just need to teach it our new perspective

MonicaNo Gravatar April 3, 2010 at 10:28 PM

“Fear is the signal that you’re on the great path to something.” – Love this.

Right now, I’m a little afraid about traveling to Honduras because of all the crime I’ve been reading and hearing about. Does that mean my trip to Honduras is going to be incredible rewarding? Lol

KeithNo Gravatar April 3, 2010 at 10:41 PM

Actually, I know some folks down in Honduras in the Peace Corps who were assaulted by men with machetes. They managed to escape the assailants by running into the mountains. Please be careful!

As Kneeps pointed out, fear undoubtedly has a place. My analysis in this post is on the type of fear we feel prior to large changes in our lives. But you know this Monica 😉

ChristineNo Gravatar April 2, 2010 at 11:10 PM

Thank you for this post! Today was my last day in my “real world” job–I quit to blog and live in Nice, France–and I had a minor freakout while I cleaned out my desk. Am I crazy to give up a steady paycheck for a dream?
I keep telling myself that it’s OK and normal to be anxious and nervous, but I like the way you put it best: Fear is the signal you’re on the great path to something. Thank you.

KeithNo Gravatar April 3, 2010 at 10:04 AM

Hi Christine – congratulations on changing your situation! You are exactly the type of person for whom I wrote this post. I also wrote it for me, because there will come many times in the next several months where I’ll feel the same way. I know I can come back here, read this little pep talk, and maybe calm down a little.

ayngelinaNo Gravatar April 2, 2010 at 5:12 PM

Such a great post. I really started to have the doubt two weeks before I left and the last night I was flipping out inside. Being brave is doing something even when it petrifies you.

I will say as soon as I got through airport security I knew I had done the right thing.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..The Night Before My Life Changes =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 3, 2010 at 10:03 AM

Those final weeks before lift off are always the most intense, stressful period. It’s really encouraging to see that you felt that way after you got through airport security!

NeepsNo Gravatar April 2, 2010 at 7:21 AM

Good insight. Fear can serve a useful purpose but we shouldn’t let the “lizard brain” dictate or make us react thoughtlessly.

KeithNo Gravatar April 3, 2010 at 10:02 AM

You’re right, fear does have a purpose. Let’s just not give it more credit than it’s due.

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