My recent coaching sessions have inspired me to write about fear and anxiety.
Fear is very useful.
As a response to clear and present danger, fear can save our lives, and energise us to take the necessary action to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
It generates adrenaline, diverts resources away from less urgent things – like digestion – to power our muscles. It can even sharpen our vision.
So, fear definitely has a place and is here to stay.
However, many of the people I meet and talk to, and coach, most commonly aren’t facing some kind of clear and present danger.
They are simply anxious.
I don’t mean for a moment to underestimate the debilitating results of anxiety – it’s hugely common in society. But it’s wholly unnecessary and usually doesn’t serve us.
According to the National Office of Statistics, about a third of us in the UK suffer from moderate to severe anxiety regularly – with a smaller percentage of people (but still huge numbers) reporting panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Let’s unpack what anxiety actually is: It is believing our thoughts about some future event.
Or, in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s taking some event that did happen in the past, and projecting it into the present moment.
Thinking about the future isn’t a problem – it’s believing that your thinking is telling you something truthful about it that’s the problem.
Last week I coached a senior manager called Jackie. She had an important upcoming presentation at work.
(This is still the number one fear stated by many people – both in the UK and in the US. In fact, one research study found that ‘fear of dying’ came about 3rd or 4th in their list of fears. So, many people would literally rather die, than give a presentation! Which always tickled me, because it just shows how irrational we are).
So, Jackie’s done her homework, and has prepared thoroughly. But now Jackie begins to think about the presentation which is scheduled for a couple of weeks’ time in an unhelpful way:
- “Supposing my laptop crashes?”
- “I’ll probably forget the most important things I’ve planned to say, and then I’ll look like an idiot”
- “Oh God, why did I ever agree to do the presentation in the first place?”
Because of the way the human system works, this type of thinking (if believed) will immediately create feelings of anxiety, with all the associated physiological symptoms. Now, Jackie is feeling really bad, and so she has some more thinking about how bad she’s feeling… and the cycle continues. At one point, Jackie told me she was seriously considering resigning from her well-paid job – that she mostly finds rewarding and enjoyable.
Note that ‘positive thinking’ works in exactly the same way, except with different results. If Jackie had thoughts like:
- “This is my chance to really prove how knowledgeable I am. I know my stuff – so they’ll definitely be impressed”
- “There are lots of people who support me in the audience – and they’ll be rooting for me”
- “This will be really useful for them because it’s an important topic for the company”
And she believed those instead, her feelings would be positive, happy and confident.
But it’s still all just thinking. By the way, if I only had the choice between the negative and the positive thinking, it’s a no-brainer!
But we don’t just have that choice. We can begin to truly understand the nature of Thought.
We can settle down into knowing that the best ‘state of mind’ to be in about the presentation is to not have much thinking about it at all.
Yes, we still need to prepare. But we can do so from a calm and easy place – from a place of ‘flow’, where we have access to all our resources – conscious and unconscious. We also tap into the huge invisible power of creativity from this place too – which can’t help but make our presentation the best it can be.
We’ve been talking so far about an event that is almost definitely going to happen in the future. But the vast majority of things people get themselves anxious about things that probably won’t even happen.
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes – a few of which actually happened” Michel de Montaigne
So, do you feel fear when there’s a good reason to feel fearful? Good, keep it! It’s a survival mechanism.
Do you suffer from anxiety? Contact me for a conversation about how you could say goodbye to this unnecessary drain on your energy, creativity and joy.