Here’s an incident from the days when I was a school girl in pig tails.
There were 5 stray dogs in the area we lived in. One evening, way after sunset, as I walked back home after a game of Badminton with friends, the dogs appeared, and began to chase me. I froze, and then ran…my heart rate went up, and with this there was a quick, automatic sequence of physical reactions.
After this incident, each time I walked back home post sunset, I felt worried. I would panic with the thought of “what if the dogs chase me again?” In other words, I was anxious that I would have to experience the same situation again! Although the dogs didn’t chase me once after that, the feeling of anxiety and fear remained.
Now that I reflect back on my life, and/or look at others’ life experiences, I find that a lot of us live in the world of ‘what if’. What if I fail? What if it doesn’t work out? What if I get the promotion…will I actually be able to deliver? What if xyz doesn’t love me?
Time and again I’ve asked myself this question too… until recently when I re-read (for perhaps the 5th time), the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She asks a powerful question in the book – WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE NOT AFRAID?
I took some time off about 6 months ago to ask myself this question – “What would I do if I was not afraid?”
1. Make lifestyle shifts (especially when in social settings – food and alcohol)
Why was I afraid? – Social anxiety. In a world, where all of us want to be liked, my imagined fear about making lifestyle changes was “what will my friends say/do/think/feel?” I wondered whether I would still ‘fit in’?
2. Play more Golf
Why was I afraid? – Child hood experiences. I wasn’t ever really the best at sports in school. I considered Golf a sport…my self-image was that I can excel in academics, and other activities, but not sports. It was time to change this.
3. Make that exciting career transition (work towards setting up my own venture combining my passion in Psychology with Yoga, Lifestyle and total well-being)
Why was I afraid?
- Letting go of a sense of security, it was almost like letting go of my identity
- Letting go of the mental pattern “I can only succeed if someone is leading me”
- Facing my fear of failure or ‘imperfection’
6 months later, as I write this, I have made the 3 big changes…and yes, it is challenging, I’m still learning, and have a long way to go.
As I’ve made these changes, I’ve understood and experienced the depth in Marianne Williamson’s words – It is our LIGHT, and not our DARKNESS that most frightens us. Each time someone is inspired by a lifestyle change I’ve made, or I hit a good Golf drive, or I make progress in my own practice, the first thought I have is “Is this real?”, “will this last?” It is in these moments where I remind myself – it is my light, and not my darkness that frightens me…and the ONLY WAY to overcome my fears is to face them.
Whilst facing my fears, here are 3 things that stood out as lessons for me:
- Personality matters – Your colleague and you could be in the same situation, yet react very differently. Personality traits refer to dispositional ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that show individual differences across situations. Of the BIG 5 Personality Traits, the Trait Neuroticism has the highest correlation with feelings of anxiety and fear. If you are high in Trait Neuroticism (TN), it means that you are: 1) sensitive to stressors, 2) you are likely to have more frequent activations of negative emotions; 3) your reactions are more likely to be intense; and 4) they will last longer and it will take longer to return to baseline.
However, it’s not always doom and gloom. Research has discovered the ‘healthy neurotic’ type, who are the individuals that will channel their worry into positive behaviours, such as going to the gym, eating healthy or meditation. Also, such people tend to be highly perceptive, with the inherent ability to tune into others’ emotions.
So, if you think you are on the higher side of TN, look at how you can manage this…also, don’t miss out on the strengths that come with it!! On the lower side of the TN scale, that’s great – keep calm and carry on (but don’t be complacent!!) Most importantly, don’t judge yourself for feeling (or not feeling) worried. A lot depends on our inherent traits – let’s accept who we are, become aware, and then leverage our strengths, as well as channelize negative emotions into positive behaviours.
2. Being mindful – The simplest way to understand this new buzzword, Mindfulness, is ‘a mind in the present moment.’ So simple yet one of the toughest states to achieve. On average, human beings have 60,000 thoughts a day… This implies that a lot of our thoughts are linked either to past memories, or the future. Now, a mind that is oscillating between the past and the future, is probably experiencing significant levels of anxiety and fear (whether it manifests in the form of neuroticism or not).
I found that being ‘in the moment’ (aka mindful) helped me navigate this gnawing feeling of anxiety. Mindfulness allows fear to be, just as it is, without diving in. Being in the present and immersed in each moment actually doesn’t give us the opportunity to over-think or worry.
Regular meditation, spending some time in nature, walking, focusing on our breath, zooming out to look at the bigger picture, are all ways that can help one remain mindful. I apply the ‘RAIN’ model to my everyday situations, i.e.
R – Recognize and acknowledge what is happening A – Accept it as it is, i.e. don’t fight it or ignore it I – Investigate the physical sensations, thoughts and feelings within you. Don’t ask why, just observe and be a 100% aware N – Non-identification. This process as a whole should bring you some distance from whatever is going on, an understanding that you are more than this single feeling or experience.
Mindfulness may not completely eliminate our anxiety, however, it will help us act despite the fear.
3. Anxiety has both Psychological and Physiological implications – Often, we know what to do, and ‘train’ our minds, because we understand the psychology of our fear. Yet, we continue to experience anxiety. This is because of the physiological changes we experience in the body – some of them being an increase in heart rate, faster breathing, activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System leading to slow digestion and release of stress hormones.
However, there is a silver lining – while anxiety can cause these physiological reactions, the reverse is true as well. Taking the right action to the reverse the impact on our body physiology, can help restore the balance and calm in our mind – e.g.: consciously taking long deep breaths, help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the release of stress hormones.
We can restore our balance to an extent that even if you are very high on the Neuroticism scale, you will learn to feel a sense of calm!