Expanding your Comfort Zone like a Champion: Fear and Anxiety Cures
I remember my first day on the job. I was teaching website design at a local college, and I was so nervous I nearly fell over. My skin was cold and clammy. I stuttered as I spoke. Memories of how, as a pre-pubescent boy, I was too shy to even order at Macdonald’s kept flashing into my head. And yet somehow I stumbled through to the end of the class when the students, recognising my ordeal, encouragingly gave me a warm round of applause.
A few weeks later, I was teaching a different batch. This time, I was lounging around in the chair, totally relaxed. I was having fun teaching, and they were having fun learning. I had conquered another one of my demons. Like to know how I overcame my anxiety?
Let’s get cracking!
Before we begin
This post is in response to the requests for me to cover anxiety and fear as an extension to the emotional mastery series.
First off, if you have physical symptoms that you can’t handle, please consider seeing a family doctor before confronting your fears. Also, don’t discount this article if you don’t suffer from anxiety – there are likely to be other areas in which we could use a bit of courage. Finally, if your condition is severe, or they lead to panic attacks, please consider professional help.
Important: Please note that I am not a trained professional, and am not a substitute for one. This is basic information for discussion purposes only. I have only ever dealt with social anxiety, and have no experience with the other forms. Please use common sense when applying this, and always stay safe. By reading on, you agree that I cannot be held responsible for anything that might happen. Sorry, you never know with stuff like this.
To begin with, it is important to know your symptoms and physical reactions. If they are major, please find professional help. Otherwise, find some information on the Internet or elsewhere to deal with your symptoms.
Take over-breathing as an example. It is one of the most common symptoms. It drops the amount of carbon dioxide in your body. A quick search online will reveal that a good way to deal with this is by breathing into a paper bag (not plastic, you’ll suffocate!) for a few minutes. This helps you take the carbon dioxide back in until you stabilise and calm down. It helps to be prepared in this way.
Now, there are two ways you can approach fear and anxiety. The first is to deal with it on the level of emotion. This expands the previous emotional mastery series, so it helps to have read that. For anxiety, though, it might be wise to stick to the first two steps only! Often times, observing your fear is good enough, so this article is optional.
The other way is to deal with the thoughts that cause your fear. That is part of a huge series I am researching and writing at the moment, and cannot be covered in one post, but we will go into the basics. To deal with your thoughts, you need a journal, preferably one you can carry around daily, so get one.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get cracking!
The thoughts that cause fear
Where does anxiety come from? While it sometimes feels like pure emotion, almost all of them are based on an underlying belief or a thought. It only feels like the emotion starts first because:
- You didn’t catch the thought fast enough
- You are unaware of the underlying belief
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, these thoughts and beliefs stand between you and reality. You might think an event triggers your emotions and your reactions directly, but it doesn’t. An event happens, your mind filters it through your thoughts and beliefs, and then we have the end result: Your fear, or any other reaction.
The problem arises when these thoughts and behaviours are unhealthily distorted. Now, distortion is the norm for us. This is why no two people react the same way to the same event. Take a gory movie. Some people in the cinema would be grossed out, but others will probably find it hilarious. Same input, different distortions, and therefore different responses. More information in What your Ego is.
The key, then, is to catch your distortions if they are unhealthy. I believe healthy responses come from seeing the situation, your thoughts and beliefs as realistically as possible. (Seeing things exactly as they are is highly unlikely, and probably means enlightenment. But that’s moving out of psychology, so I’ll shut up now). Some people recommend positive thinking, but I don’t recommend it as it could be another form of distortion.
Now, the more realistically you can see your fears, the better you can split it into the logical and illogical. From there, you can take steps to deal with each.
To picture this, let’s revisit my old social anxiety. It stemmed from an unrealistic view of my circumstances. A portion of it was logical and realistic, but a portion of it wasn’t. Once I knew what I was realistically afraid of, I can take steps to deal with that. The unrealistic portion would be dealt with differently.
So: How much was logical, and how much was illogical? In my case, my only logical fear was inexperience in dealing with large groups. But there are many other possible realistic fears. What if I was out drinking the night before, instead of preparing today’s lesson? I would understandably be anxious if I entered the classroom with a hangover and without any notes.
What about the illogical? Briefly, they stem from three areas: Core beliefs, mental conditioning, and cognitive distortions.
An example of a core belief would be “You will probably end up saying something stupid”. These are often unconscious, meaning that you don’t know that you have such beliefs. Even then, it still affects you.
Mental conditioning is based on past actions and thoughts. I was a shy child, and that means I have been conditioned by my past shyness to continue being that way now.
Lastly are the cognitive distortions. Similar to core beliefs, these refer to fresh distortions that happen right there in the situation. We will deal with these in this article.
Out of the list of possible cognitive distortions, here are the two that are most relevant:
1. Overestimating the chance of something happening.
I tend to say stupid things. This is because swear words and rude names never bothered me much. I was just born like that. Therefore, as a child, I assumed that they wouldn’t bother others as well, and I was very generous with my cursing. I’ve learnt my lesson, though, and watch my words carefully these days, but slip-ups still occur. Fear of these mistakes made up some of my social anxiety.
However, what are the realistic chances of slipping up? Based on past experience, once every five conversations. Translated into the classroom environment, one wrong word per five lessons. One wrong word per week.
Does that seem so scary, now that we’ve looked at it in this way? However, before I looked at it rationally, I reacted as if I would slip up with the first word out of my mouth. It is a common saying in psychology that fears are never as scary if we face them directly. How does this apply to your own fear?
2. Overestimating the fear.
Another similar exaggeration is the fear itself. What is the worst that can happen if I did accidentally slip in a swear word during class? Based on previous experience, the most likely response is an awkward silence. Maybe a few students would find it funny. A particularly uptight student might report me to the boss, who might give me a firm warning. Hardly the end of the world. My job won’t even be in danger.
But just like the first distortion, we automatically assume the worst if we don’t look at it rationally. We fear being fired, being laughed at or humiliated. Instead of “Awkward” or “Embarrassing”, we make the situation “Shocking!”, “Awful!”, “Terrible!”
And sometimes, just sometimes, so what if the fear does happen? In my case, so what if I am laughed at? Big deal.
Your own practice
Now, can you see how this might apply to your own practice? This is where your journal comes in handy, for it helps to keep everything in perspective. When it happens to you, your thoughts are likely to be already distorted. So having prepared for it beforehand makes your job much easier.
Now that you have a bit of information about how your mind distorts your thoughts, take some time to think about your particular situation. Write down as much as you can now.
Done? Here’s a list of questions to further guide your self-inquiry. Refer to this list only after you’ve written down all you can, otherwise you might shape your answers to fit, and lose the authenticity.
- What is your anxiety or fear based on?
- What are your triggers?
- What are the thoughts running through your head at that moment?
- What do you think might happen?
- Are those realistic, or are they distorted?
- If they are realistic, what steps can you take to protect yourself?
- What are the chances of it happening?
- If they are not, how can you prove to yourself that this won’t happen?
- What are the chances of it happening?
- What could realistically happen?
- How do you react when you are anxious?
- Are they realistic or are they distorted?
- What are your physical symptoms, if any?
Does that give you a better idea of your fears? Sometimes, this rational viewing of your fears might be enough to stop it. But don’t worry if it doesn’t. Intellectual agreement often isn’t good enough. You have to prove it to yourself on a deeper level, and that often requires placing yourself in the situation and showing yourself that what you fear won’t happen (most of the time, anyway, since nothing in life is 100% certain). If your fears are realistic, well, then use your common sense and don’t put yourself in any danger.
So, let’s start the next step.
Planning like a scientist
Notice that I used the word “prove”. Yes, we have to treat this like a science experiment. But don’t worry, it’s the furthest thing from boring! In the third emotional mastery post, I discussed how I slowly exposed myself to an old relationship pain, dealing with as much as I could, before I exposed myself again. This process went on until it was all gone.
The same principles apply here. You expose yourself in small, safe, doses to your fear. Then once you are no longer scared at that level of exposure, you step it up a notch.
So, your next task: Break down your triggers and fears in your journal. Think of different levels of exposure and make a list starting with the weakest and moving up to the strongest.
Another option is to jump right into the deep end, but it is potentially dangerous. I did this with my social anxiety, but my worst symptoms were cold sweats and stuttering – minor stuff. Can you handle it with your own fear? Apply common sense. It is better to play it safe with gradual exposure unless you are sure you can handle it.
If I were to expose myself gradually (Argh, sounds like I’m a flasher in a trench coat) to my fears, my list of levels might look like this:
- Smiling at a stranger.
- Visualising small talk with a stranger.
- Making polite small talk with a stranger.
- Giving a practiced speech to a friend.
- Giving a practiced speech to a group of friends.
- Teaching design to a group of friends.
- Visualising teaching a group of students.
- Teaching a group of students.
Taking action as a scientist
The next step then would be common sense. Please make sure you get the consent of a professional before moving on, though.
Just like the previous emotional mastery series, you would expose yourself to each level, until they no longer cause distress. This is based on the principle of habituation – your system “gets used” to the surroundings. The same principle is at play, for example, when you step into a cold swimming pool. It’s freezing at first, but you soon get used to it.
Here’s a little tip: You can visualise it. Instead of actually exposing yourself to your levels one by one, you can picture yourself in those situations. Very likely you will get the same fear reaction, but weaker. This is a good way to build up to the real thing, and much safer.
Once you expose yourself to each level mentally, observe your fear. Pretend that your fear is a crying baby, and you are the mother. Embrace it. Don’t deny it or push it away. Pick it up; let it cry itself out as you lovingly cradle it. As always, stop if it gets too uncomfortable!
Sometimes you might have stronger physical responses like a racing heart, shaky knees and so on. In this case, you can expand your practice with deep breathing and muscle relaxation. This is good enough to cancel your physical responses. I described these processes in detail in the meditation article.
There are a few key points you have to take note of here:
- Always apply caution and common sense!
- Keep your levels challenging but not overwhelming. Smiling at a stranger, for example, might be too easy for you. If it is, skip it and go straight on to something else. If your exposures are too gentle, then it simply makes you avoid exposure even more. On the other hand, don’t jump in too deep if you lack the confidence you can take it.
- In the journal, you should have listed what you are afraid will happen. Now, you should set up your levels so it is likely that your feared results will not happen. Nothing is 100% certain in our world, but do your best. For example, if I were afraid that I would get fired for swearing, then I would do my best not to swear.
This last alternative is for social anxiety only. It might apply to other types, depending on what you have.
This alternative approach is letting your fears happen. If I am afraid of getting rejected by a woman when I ask her out on a date, I might simply go out and get rejected on purpose. It proves to me that it’s not the end of the world.
To encourage yourself, it is a good idea to record your progress in your journal. You might give your discomfort a rating of 1 to 10, and you can keep a journal. Write down your level, and next to it, make a column called anticipated discomfort. Give it a rating from 1 to 10. Then make another column next to it – Actual discomfort. Give that a rating from 1 to 10. This is also good for making sure that you are doing is working, and allows you to adjust your program to suit.
Since purging my emotions I have had many interesting experiences, which I’ve spent the past few weeks integrating and researching. The results are a series on compassion, so stay tuned for it. I’ll finish off the emotional mastery series first, though.