Days #41-44: FEAR Training
When I get gripped by fear and stress, I can get tripped up by patterns of thinking and feeling that undermine my ability to be effective.
I've had a lot on my mind lately, and have really needed to practice what I preach to work through fear and stress.
But where did these patterns come from, anyway?
Well, it's likely some of my patterns emerged earlier in my life in response to situations and challenges I experienced in my life. I've done some work to identify some of these past experiences and the reactions they established. It's also likely that some were socially learned. For example, from experiences I had or witnessed in my family, friendships and intimate relationships, as well as other social groups from my past.
One of my key teachers - Dr Craig Hassed - outlines in his book 'Know Thyself' that “a lack of awareness and an unwillingness to examine ourselves is a recipe for repeating old mistakes. Truly may it be said, ignorance is not bliss…”
So, although fear can be incredibly uncomfortable, being reluctant to take a look at what triggers my fears and stress, and what consequences unfold, is plain ignorant. Plus, failing to examine and understand myself means I won't learn and grow, and will likely repeatedly experience unhelpful consequences from fear reactions into the future.
When looking at the things that cause me fear and stress - which there are a number - I have selected 4 that fit the apt acronym - FEAR. I will outline each below. I will also provide a training tip I practice (as best I can) when I notice and accept that FEAR is present.
My self-talk gets fixated on an idea - wanting something to be a certain way. I replay stories and mental scripts - fixed in my mind on a loop like a broken record. I can get fixed in a mood. My actions play out like they're pre-programed. I fix labels on myself or others or events without tuning into the current evidence. I can get stubborn, obsessive and unwilling to change and adapt. E.g. “I’m too busy", "I can’t do it, I’ll fail", "It’s too hard”, “I’m not good enough…”, “He’s an a-hole”.
Although it is super challenging when I fall in the trap of fixation, I am getting better at training flexibility. I investigate the consequences of being fixated and consider how I might adapt and adjust fixed habits of thinking, feeling and acting. I realise that I don’t have to believe all the thoughts, feelings, judgments, stories, and evaluations that I have.
Emotions are a necessary and normal part of living. I know that. However, sometimes I can poorly manage strong emotional experiences and situations - like fear, anxiety, and stress. I can react in ways that are problematic for myself and others when these emotions emerge. Sometimes I can really overreact - ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’ and ‘catastophising’.
Like many people, I can become anxious about the future, worry in the present, and ruminate over the unchangeable past. If you're at all like me, you may even be worrying about just how accurate this feels for you... Easy there - inhale deeply and exhale slowly - this is a great way to promote the nervous system's calming response.
Other examples include: “I’ll freak out and no one will help me”, “I didn’t do as well as I thought I would", "I’m worried I’ll never amount to anything”, “last time I screwed up and made a fool of myself”.
Emotional reactions can make it really difficult for me to think clearly and respond effectively. When I notice an emotional reaction building, I accept what is happening and find my earliest opportunity to breath and initiate the relaxation response. At the onset of strong emotions I remember to pause and breathe slowly (e.g. 10 slow deep mindful breaths). My yoga practice has really helped me build this habit and turn it into a strength. In yoga, you are consciously approaching the edges of challenge, discomfort, stress, and even fear (handstands anyone). Accompanying this, we bring focus on the present moment and full breaths to maintain emotional ease as best we can.
So, rather than bouncing from fear to anxiety to worry - and from past to future thinking - I breathe to find ease. With a clearer mind, I can then explore whether my feelings are appropriate and helpful in the current context - or whether I can concentrate on and cultivate new feelings, thoughts, and actions.
Although I am a busy boy, there are still things I can be actively avoiding and withdrawing from if I think they might cause me discomfort. For me, being avoidant shows up in my unwillingness to accept discomfort associated with what is going on. Sometimes this causes me to avoid challenges and risks, and stay in my comfort zone.
Why is this part of the FEAR, you might wonder. It sounds like it's keeping me out of harms way.
Well, it might be, but it also might be holding me back from growth. Avoidance can also lead me to procrastinate on things I have committed to. This only serves to exacerbate the issue when the deadline closes in. E.g. “That’s going to be too stressful, so I’m not going to take part”; “I don’t think I’ll be able to do that well enough, so I won’t bother trying”, “If I say no, people will get mad, so I’ll just do what I’m told”.
Acceptance is another one of my practices. It's another tricky one, too. Feeling uncomfortable and moving forward anyway may be a very necessary part of playing big - being at my best - contributing my best. However, it's tricky because avoidance is cunning. Sometimes avoidance masquerades as acceptance. Acceptance involves allowing what is present to be as it is, without the need to turn my back or run away. I can make room in my mind, mood, and movement for what is present. What's more, with acceptance, I am not resigned to the current state only having one thing in it. That is, if I notice and accept 'anger' is present, I can also notice and accept that 'courage' might also be present - if I can open my mind and heart to cultivate it. However, if I notice and pretend to accept anger by focusing on bringing courage, my courageous actions may be being fuelled by non-acceptance. I am acting courageously as a way to avoid or get away from the anger that is present. So, it's a tricky one but well worth training.
I can focus on what I should have done rather than what I can do better now. “Should's" can become so common they create a habit where I second-guess myself or others - constantly living in the past. Sometimes my incessant “should-ing” can consume my thoughts and distract me from the present and contributing my best performance. e.g. “I should have known that”; “I shouldn’t have done that”; “They shouldn’t have done this to me”; I should have realised that would happen”.
I train myself to bounce back from regrets and ‘shoulds’ by learning to forgive myself and others. I learn to notice what happened but recognise what can't be changed and choose to let go of it - as best I can. This enables me to take what I have learned, and consider how I can apply it now and into the future. If I can't apply it now, I ensure I have recorded what I learned so I can move on to something new in front of me. If I can apply it now, I do my best to practice applying what I have learned to initiate growth and progress. When we can learn from but let go of what can't be changed, we are in a great position for effective action now and into the future.