Anxious About Anxiety? 3 Easy Ways To Ease Your Fear

12 July, 2012

Think about the last time you were anxious. Was it a presentation, wedding speech, job interview, first date, upcoming holiday / travel, first time at a new group? What were you more afraid of, what might happen at the event itself, or the thought of yourself being anxious, and what that would look like to others?

One thing I have observed about anxiety over the years - including my own, kid yourself not - is that more often what winds us up the most is not the anxiety itself - the churning stomach, gurgling bowel, sweaty palms, rapid breath, increased heart rate, sweating, trembling muscles - that gets us, it's the fact that we are getting anxious about this anxiety being there, and the effect this might have on our performance, or what people think of us.

In short, we are anxious about being anxious.

In NLP we have a fancy name for what I am talking about - the Meta Response. Think of it as your response or reaction to the problem itself. For example, someone can't sleep. That's a problem. They are tired and can't perform as well as they could. Then, something more interesting happens. The person thinks and feels something about the fact they can't sleep. They judge it, they get annoyed with themselves, they imagine it happening night after night after night and how awful that would be. They lie there at night and shout at themselves 'why can't you just get to sleep?'. This creates what I have come to term The Sleep Anxiety Loop. This means that the (meta) response to the baseline problem (not sleeping) is what exacerbates the problem and keeps it going. If the person learns to let go and no longer care whether they sleep or not - this can take some work and involves several steps - it can solve the problem completely.

The same thing happens with anxiety.

Let me share a personal story with you; I had a job interview recently. I have worked for myself for nearly seven years, and I've never had a formal job interview in New Zealand. It was brand new territory for me, and something I worked very hard on. I even had to get advice about what to wear to a job interview these days - did I need a suit, or would a would smart trousers and a smart cardigan suffice? My brain lost context - it wasn't capable of thinking 'oh, this is just like a presentation and I can do that' - it was lost for a comparable example. And, observing my body, I was rather surprised by how it reacted. Talk about fight-flight! I hadn't been that scared since the night before my first university final-exam! I spent the day churning and sweating in my smart trousers and smart cardigan. I arrived in Wellington early and had some time to kill. I rang my partner about 10 minutes before I was due: "I just want to run away! What am I going to do about all this sweat?" His answer was "Well, it tells you something interesting about what your body wants to do. If I were you I would just say yes to the sweat, it's there to help you".

And say yes is what I did.

Now, you see what happened? Before, I had an unhelpful meta response to the anxiety; I was fighting it. I thought it was going to trip me up, that I'd get in there and not be able to control it. I was anxious about being anxious in my job interview and my performance being messed up as a result.

As soon as I let go - said yes to it, accepted it for what it was - I calmed right down. As soon as I stopped thinking, feeling and responding to it, it did what it wanted to do - come, and go again. I had broken the Anxiety Loop. I was calm and grounded and enjoyed my interview very much.

(And if any of you are wondering, I got the job, but that is besides the point I am making).

If you recognise this as a problem you can get yourself into sometimes, then here are some skill-building strategies you might like to try:

  1. A mindful meta response: If you are good at meta responding (people good at anxiety will be good at meta) then your brain will be chasing after some kind of response to the anxiety you are feeling. So, give it one, and make it a more useful one. Just acknowledge the symptoms, instead of fighting them. Say to yourself 'ok, my heart is beating a little fast, my breath is a little rapid....'
  2. Remember to breathe: When you are anxious you will be breathing in more oxygen than your body can process. This excess of oxygen feeds into the biological symptoms of hand tingling and rapid heart rate, which feeds into the Anxiety Loop again ('oh god, my body is out of control, I am going to pass out / die..'). So, if you breathe out for longer than you breathe in, it corrects the oxygen-carbon dioxide imbalance in your system. Hold your stomach and breathe in for the count of 4 and out for the count of 8. Do this at least three times. It is a physiological fact and is guaranteed to calm you down.
  3. Let go: Practice saying yes to it - as weird and as counter-productive as that seems. Just say to yourself 'it's just my body trying to keep me safe, it will pass and I will be OK'. Recent research also suggests that a degree of anxiety actually improves public speaking performance, so that's also a good reminder - it's only here to help.
As always, am interested in your experience and comments. Connect in below, and let's have a chat! Charlotte.

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