Friday, November 27, 2015

Nerves, anxiety and controlling your “What If?” thoughts

This blog post in just one line: Get control of your mood, mind-set and mental performance by learning to focus on “What IS?” instead of “What IF?”

Remember: nervous symptoms are natural

When you’re nervous, you experience a range of challenging symptoms: physical, mental, psychological and emotional. These symptoms are natural and predictable, even if they do feel far from normal when you’re going through them. That said, they’re usually temporary and they CAN be managed quite quickly if you learn how (check out my “RUM” post for help).

But what if you don’t, or can’t manage these symptoms early on? As I always say: left unmanaged, nerves will ALWAYS get between you and your goal.

The tipping point between nerves and anxiety

If it’s something you’re REALLY nervous about, then these symptoms can combine into a kind of perfect storm that brutally grabs you from your place of uncomfortable (but manageable) nervousness and throws you into a darker place of anxious distress. A place where you can feel pretty powerless and out of control of your thoughts.

This tipping point is different for everyone, but when you reach a state of anxiety, it’s much harder to shake off than regular nervousness. Instead of a temporary flush of adrenaline, it sticks around for quite a while and your sleeping is affected, you might lose your appetite, you can’t think straight and your mood is probably subdued and unpredictable.

So, what’s happening?

Put simply, your brain has been hijacked. Your rational thoughts are no longer in control and your inner soundtrack becomes scared, negative and critical. Worrying questions have started to creep in and you begin to fixate on all the worst possible outcomes of whatever event you feel is “looming over you”. This is no longer a case of normal nervousness – you’re in a state of distress.

It kind of makes sense why our brain does this, though. Think about it: something (like your fear of public speaking) has presented an imagined threat. It’s your brain’s job to keep you safe, so it acts as though the threat is real and orders the release of adrenaline to prepare your body for survival. Sounds fair enough to me! And usually, when the threat passes or subsides, so does the adrenaline and you return to your normal state. 

But your brain is just an organ. Flesh and blood and electric impulses and so on. As humans, it’s our mind, i.e. our thoughts, that causes us the problem. If your MIND continues to transmit danger signals (like the robot from Lost in Space: if you remember this, you’re getting old!), then your BRAIN will keep triggering the adrenal response, just like it’s supposed to.

So, you’re basically thinking yourself into a state of anxiety. 

The anxious mind only knows one phrase: “What if?”

If there was one phrase I’d use to capture the anxious mind, it’s “What If?”

If you’re in an anxious state, you’re continually imagining what could go wrong, no matter how far-fetched it might seem to others:
  • What if … I forget my lines?
  • What if … I trip and fall on the way up?
  • What if … my mouth goes too dry?
  • What if … my brain goes completely blank?
  • What if … no one laughs when they’re supposed to?
  • What if … they DO laugh when they’re NOT supposed to?!

And, yes, I kind of understand this response too: thinking like this keeps us safe. It stops us taking risks. Keeps us focused on the small and the familiar. No danger there! Mission accomplished!

But thinking like that won’t help you to grow. Or to do a great job of your speech, presentation, or interview. Or whatever else is important to you, but at the same time a bit challenging.

As predicted, the unmanaged nerves have now planted themselves firmly between you and your goal.

The solution?

Well, even though your mind is what got you into this trouble, it’s your mind that will get you out of it. See, our thoughts are one of the very few things that are 100% within OUR control. We can decide what to think. It takes practice, but it’s totally true.

If you’re feeling anxious and you’re fixated on the many “What If?” scenarios, then remember:

"What IS?" beats "What IF?" every time.

Just like rock beats scissors or Dublin footballers beat everyone else (couldn’t resist!), it’s impossible to stay fixated on what might be when you fully pay attention to what really is.

So, if your inner soundtrack is stuck on the anxious questions above, discipline yourself to focus on real, concrete, positive statements instead:
  •  My speech will be burned into my brain like the lines of my favourite song. Anyway, I’ve been reading since I was a young child, so if it comes to it, I know I can manage to at least read it off the page. Problem sorted. 
  • I’ve walked up about a million steps in my life and I can only remember tripping on 2 of them. The odds are in my favour!
  • My mouth will DEFINITELY go dry, because I’ll be nervous and that’s natural. But I’ll make sure I have a mint and a glass of water to hand. And anyway, once I get through the first 30 seconds, the nerves will mostly disappear.
  • I’ve tested the speech on a friend and I know it’s good. And as long as I’m myself, people will enjoy it.
  • If something “off-script” DOES happen I can roll with it. I’m only human just like everyone else in the room. And feck it, it will at least give us a good story to laugh at one day!

Be ready to repeat them over and over. Whenever you catch your mind hi-jacking your brain, focus it back on the things you know to be true. The things you know you can control.

It also helps A LOT to talk to a friend, or a professional (ahem … perhaps you can even find an expert confidence coach?). And, for some of you, things may have gotten really extreme and you might even benefit from talking to a counsellor or therapist of some sort.

Getting the hang of mindfulness is a good solution too – after all, that’s all about focusing on what “IS” in the present moment, without attaching a dramatic story to it. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”.

The bottom line is you CAN take control and achieve your goal. (That’s a good line - someone really should use it as their tagline!).

Want more?

Watch this 4 ½ minute video of Jon Kabat-Zinn giving his definition of mindfulness. It’s good!
And don’t even get me started on Eckhart Tolle. He’s certainly a little “out there” and intellectual if you’re not familiar with him, and I’m really not a fan of Oprah, but this is still a good video – especially his brilliant answer to the first question!