Halloween approaches, and in honour of this festival of “scariness” I am offering a few practices to pull out the next time you experience a spasm of intense fear.
Now, the fear these practices are aimed at isn’t the very real survival fear that is designed to keep us alive, but rather it’s annoying twin, the fear that arises in everyday situations and throws off course.
Case in point, two weeks ago I was scheduled to give a presentation to a group of associates over the lunch hour. I am a seasoned presenter so this event on my calendar shouldn’t have elicited more than the usual pre-presentation jitters, but it did.
I had a nightmare about the presentation the night before and awoke feeling anxious. I was finding it hard to calm myself, and didn’t want to take that anxiety into the boardroom.
I rolled out a series of fear-busting tricks to get past the fear and back to a healthier state of pre-performance jitters.
First I named it.
“I am feeling anxious about this presentation.”
When we name what we are experiencing the act of naming moves us out of our reptile brain and back into the executive centre.
Notice, I didn’t say “I am afraid”, I linguistically separated myself from the emotion, and also expressed the root cause.
Next, I paused to feel into the fear, and notice where I was experiencing it in my body.
“I feel it like a tight little knot in my solar plexus, and as a tightness in my shoulders.”
By connecting with the physical experience, I was intentionally turning my attention away from my thoughts to the sensations in my body. Often, when quietly observed this way, and with a few slow deep breaths, the fear will dissipate.
I noticed my inclination to start up the laptop and run through my notes again. My response to fear is “flight” which means I am driven to act when I am scared. This action usually isn’t helpful because when experiencing fear I am in the amygdala, the reptile brain, and it doesn’t usually have the best ideas about what to do.
I already had the presentation down, and running through it AGAIN wasn’t going to help.
Instead I played with the puppy.
The strategy was to give myself a quick break to do something unrelated to the fear. I have read that combatting fear by moving, stretching, going for a walk, picking up your work and moving to a different space can all help. Playing with the puppy helped calm me down, but not enough.
I voiced the fear, and spoke with my close friend about it. She reminded me about what a good presenter I am, and about how I often underestimate myself.
Commuting to downtown, the anxiety was still there, supported by the voice of my reptile brain inside my head: “You are going to bomb, you know this is a tough topic associates have already heard it all before.”
Standing on the subway, I moved to my greatest fear-busting practice, neural re-mapping.
I determined to name, quietly in my head, fifteen reasons why the presentation would go well. This strategy forced my thinking into some new terrain. I had to get out of the negative rut, and start mapping some new neural connections about why I was going to succeed.
It worked. It took the entire commute to get my list fifteen reasons listed, and by the last one, I was feeling calm, maybe even positive.
This neural mapping practice is also called a gratitude practice and can be used in a variety of ways. There is no set number of positive things you need to list. In the standard what went well practice I have written about before, you just think of three things. When you are using it for fear-busting, and counteracting the voice of your inner critic, I recommend upping the number.
That day on the subway, fifteen felt right. Some days it might take fifty.
If you can, writing the list strengthens the practice, but when you can’t, listing in your head works fine.
The next time you feel afraid, because you made a mistake, you are worried about someone or something, or for whatever reason, pull out these fear-busting practices.
- Name the emotion and the cause.
- Pause, and feel into it, while taking a few slow and steady breaths.
- Don’t take lizard brain action – wait until you are back in your smart brain to decide what to do.
- Do something unrelated, take a short walk, stretch, change locations.
- Tell a close friend about what you are experiencing.
- Neural map – turn your attention to thinking through all the reasons, be that three, fifteen, or fifteen, about why it is going to turn out ok.
When we push ourselves to take on challenges, fear is part of the territory. Put these practices to work, to stretch out of the comfort zone into the scary territory where learning happens.