No, not that f-word. I’ll explain more in a second. First, I have to tell you about an incredible moment in the drive-through window the other day.
I was in the middle doing of four things. I was stressed out, distracted, irritable, and edgy. I was called to the drive-through window to counsel a patient on one of her medications. I ran over to the window, looked at the computer to see what it was that I was supposed to say to the patient, then looked at her, and for a split second, I noticed something in her eyes. It was fear. She was afraid. But there was more than that. I recognized her fear in that split second and also in that same split second I recognized my own fear. It was like her fear and my fear were amplified in that moment.
This experience stopped me in my tracks.
It was not the kind of fear you’d have as if you were walking on a trail and saw a mountain lion in your path. It was more like you’re walking on the trail and you saw the most magnificent flower that you don’t recognize right away. I stopped myself from speaking, relaxed my body, looked at her gently in the eyes, and said, “But first of all, good morning Ms. Lovely!” (Not her real name but that describes her essence.)
Ms. Lovely immediately softened, her eyes lit up, she smiled and said, “Well, good morning Ms. Mary!” In an instant, she was happy and relaxed, and so was I. I took a breath enjoying that transition from fear to happiness and peace. I told her what I had to tell her about her cholesterol and heart medicine. Ms. Lovely seemed to really hear what I had to say. She took it in.
That drive-through window encounter reminded me that many patients are still stressed out, anxious, and fearful. They’ve been in this biological state for over a year. Let’s dig in a little and learn about how fear affects people.
How Fear Affects the Brain and Body
When a person experiences a perceived threat, an area of the brain called the amygdala gets activated. The amygdala is part of the limbic system and helps us process emotions including fear.
The amygdala sends a message to the hypothalamus in the brain which sends a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is an area where the hormonal and nervous systems hang out and talk to each other.
Then, the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the fight or flight response, tells the adrenal glands to release epinephrine. Epinephrine prepares the muscles for action (fight or flight).
Cortisol is also released at the behest of the pituitary gland. Cortisol increases blood pressure, blood sugar and helps turn fatty acids that are moving around your blood, into energy for the muscles to use.
These hormones—epinephrine and cortisol—also increase lung and heart activity, slow down the digestive system, dilate the pupils, and produce tunnel vision and a reduction in hearing.
It’s no wonder people seem distracted. It’s no wonder that they aren’t listening to us when we give advice and try to help them remember to take their medicine and call their refills in on time. If you think that people aren’t thinking clearly, you’re right. They aren’t and it’s not necessarily their fault. If people seem jumpy, cranky, or short-tempered, it may be the stress they’re under or the fear that they’re experiencing. You don’t have to take it personally. This state of stress and fear does make our jobs harder. Here are some things that might make your days easier.
A Simple Way to Minimize Fear
When the phone rings, take a deep breath and smile. Then pick up the phone. Speak slowly and clearly. I know that sounds so simple, but when you’re doing a lot of things and feel pressure yourself, it’s easy to think of that phone ringing as an annoyance. The annoyance in your voice will get transmitted to the person on the other end of the phone. Remember, we want to help people stay calm. If you’re speaking in a way that is calm and reassuring, they will relax. They will also be more likely to speak in a calm and concise manner to you. This will help you provide the help needed much faster. You won’t have to repeat yourself because they didn’t hear you or repeat yourself because they weren’t listening (remember that cortisol release hinders hearing). And that smile will translate to the other person in your tone of voice. You want the person calling you to feel like you’re glad they called. This is reassuring. This is helpful.
When you speak to someone at your pharmacy counter, or at the drive-through window, these same tips apply: speak slowly and smile. Make gentle eye contact also. Darting eyes makes people nervous. If you avoid eye contact, that could cause a fearful response too. Gentle eye contact lets people know that you are there for them, you care, and are willing to help. This is reassuring and calming. Be aware of your body language. Remain still and relaxed, with your arms relaxed at your side.
When you see someone you can’t help right away, just take that extra second to make eye contact and tell them in a calm tone that you will be right with them. If someone knows they are seen and heard, they are much more likely to wait patiently.
Even though it’s tempting, please refrain from explaining to your patients how short-staffed you are, how busy the place is, or how stressed-out you are. You won’t get the desired response of empathy. In fact, you’ll make things harder on yourself. Your patients will feel more anxious. They won’t be confident in a medical office that is “understaffed,” or “too busy” to do what needs to be done. They’ll wonder if you are getting their prescriptions correct. They will have less confidence in you. They will have more anxiety. This is the opposite of what you want.
Creating these moments of calmness reassures people that there is no threat here. It allows them to relax. It allows their brains to take in the information you’re giving. It fosters good feelings about you and your staff. People like to give business to places they trust. A key to building trust is interacting with people that are confident and capable.
People are fearful and stressed out. It doesn’t matter what they’re afraid of or if you feel that their fear is justified. Their fear must be addressed if we wish to connect with people and inspire change in them. We can’t just hope they get over fear on their own. We can’t judge them for being scared, this will make it much harder to connect to them.
Many of your patients are afraid. I want to challenge you to learn more about how fear affects the brain so you can respond with empathy and serve your patients well. It’s good for your customers, it’s good for you, and it’s good for business. I’ve put together a few helpful resources below: