How to Best Manage Your Fear and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are a double-edged sword – they can both shut you down or help propel you to new heights. In this nine minute video, you’ll discover:
- What role “catastrophization” plays and how to avoid going down that path
- The importance of accessing exactly how you are feeling
- The distinction between controlling and influencing
Listen to this podcast online, or just click the play button below.
So fear and stress and anxiety, they’re complicated issues, right? Because on the one hand, it’s fear that wakes you up at three o’clock in the morning and has you in a bit of a cold sweat. It’s fear that chokes you up and makes you feel bad at work. It’s fear that makes you kind of shut down, bring out the fight-or-flight instinct in you. So it can really be a limiting experience having fear.
But what’s ironic is that the way you grow, the way you expand your capacity is actually through experiencing stress and experiencing anxiety. It’s actually those concepts, anxiety and stress in particular, are often avenues to the next big thing, to great work. I mean, I once thought of the phrase, anxiety is great work tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, pay attention here.” I read recently something saying, “Fear was when reality started to reveal itself.”
So, on the one hand, we want to avoid these things. On the other hand, we actually want to go, “That’s the way that I continue to grow and stretch and increase my own capacity as a human being.” So how do you manage fear and anxiety? How do you kind of keep that in check so you get the best of what that can bring you without being limited or shut down by that?
Well, I’ve got three ways to think about it that might be useful for you. The first is this. I just say, find out or ask yourself, “What’s really at play here? What’s really going on?” And the starting place for me, and always in this, is to ask myself, “What’s the data here? What do I know to be true?” Because what I’ve discovered for myself, and this may be true for you as well, is that often the cloud of fear, the cloud of anxiety has at its core a very, very small amount of data, and then around it, a whole amount of judgment and made-up stuff that we’re assuming about the data.
And it’s a really powerful exercise to strip it away and go, “What are the facts? What’s true? What do I know to be real here?” And then, “What am I making up about the data and the facts?” So one of the things to understand what’s at play is to go, “Okay, what’s the ground? What’s reality here?” As you understand where your judgments are in this, it’s worth understanding the process of catastrophization. And some of you may have heard of this term, but if you haven’t, this is how it basically works. And you may recognize it.
Catastrophization is when you start imagining the worst things that could possibly happen. So you make an error on the report that you’re writing for your boss, and you think to yourself, “Oh, my boss is going to be unhappy because I made an error. And then she’s going to call me in and she’s probably going to tell me off. In fact, she’s not just going to tell me off, she’s going to fire me. And in fact, if she fires me, I’ll never get another job again, because, you know, I’m basically unemployable. And if I don’t get a job again, I won’t be able to afford the mortgage, so I’m going to lose the house. And of course, the wife will leave me, take the kids with them. So I’ll be all alone. And of course, if I’m all alone, I’m going to start drinking and I probably have that gene for alcoholism. So I’m going to start becoming an alcoholic instantly. And you know what? Before I know it, I’m going to be in the gutter seeing my life ebb away.”
And that’s catastrophization, when you go, “Okay, I’ve made this small error on this report. And it’s going to end in my eventual demise and catastrophe.” So it’s useful to understand in yourself, “Do I have catastrophization playing out here in terms of how I’m imagining things?” And again, this idea of looping back to what’s the data can be extremely powerful.
The third piece I’ll just add in this is asking yourself what’s at play is to be asking yourself, is this connected at all to your quest to do more great work? You know, at Box of Crayons, we stand for people doing less good work and more great work. And one of the paradoxes of that is good work is more comfortable, it’s more familiar, it’s less scary, it’s less anxious, but it’s also a bit of a comfortable rut.
When you step out to do great work, the work that has more impact, work that has more meaning for you, you’re also stepping out to the edge of your own confidence, your own level of experience. And that can be a bit of a challenge for you. So one of the things that might be at play is, this is what comes of doing great work. “If I wasn’t feeling fear, if I wasn’t feeling anxious,” then it would be fair to ask, “Are you actually up to great work right now?”
So the second thing that I would point to you in terms of how to manage fear, how to manage anxiety is actually to ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” Now this is a tough thing to do. At least, it is for me. I find this whole feeling thing really tricky. But annoyingly in some ways, I’ve read the research, and it says this: “People who are unable to access how they’re feeling actually don’t get to think as well as people who are able to access that.”
They did a study with New York Stock Exchange brokers, and they found that the brokers that were better able to kind of connect to how they’re feeling made far better decisions, were more successful, than the brokers who were, “I’m not going to feel anything, I’m going to stay purely rational.” So it’s a paradox. The ability to feel allows you to be more rational.
So there’s something about understanding how are you truly feeling right now. Because sometimes, fear and anxiety can just feel like this big gray cloud of overwhelm. And one of the things that I try and do—and again, I struggle with this myself, but it may be powerful for you, is actually ask myself, “Where am I feeling this in my body right now?” Sometimes it’s in my chest, sometimes it’s in my stomach, sometimes it may be in my shoulder, sometimes I feel it in my jaw. But locate where that sense of anxiety, that uncertainty is and see if you can actually be present with it.
And what I’ve noticed on those times when I’ve been able to do that is actually that being present with that anxiety and that feeling, it kind of changes. It dissolves. It evolves. It becomes something different. And by being able to sort of sit and notice it and kind of be present with it, it actually gives you a way of diminishing its power. It stops being so unknown and kind of looming in the corner of your eye, and becomes something that you better understand because it’s just part of who you are and part of how your body is reacting to the situation.
So as difficult as this is, or at least it’s difficult for me, the second piece I would offer to you is actually understand how you’re feeling about it. First piece, get the data. Understand what’s at play. The second piece, tap into how you’re feeling about things.
One of the ways that might be a technique or a strategy to get better body awareness, for any of you who struggle with this or even if you don’t, is through meditation. Now, you’ll have heard, people are banging drums about the power of meditation at the moment. And it’s a kind of hot topic. That’s because it actually works. There’s just so much research now that says, “If there was a silver bullet out there about how to be calmer, happier, smarter, better with people around you, it’s by finding time to do a little bit of meditation.”
I heard Tim Ferriss the other day say that he’s found that the key differentiator with top performers is they all tend to have a mindfulness practice. So one of the things that’s worked for me and may work for you as well is if you’d like more body awareness, if you’d like to get better actually at figuring out “How am I feeling and where am I feeling it?” that process of meditation, five minutes, ten minutes in the morning, can be one way of accessing that.
The third piece I’ll talk to you about in terms of managing your fear, managing anxiety, is a simple one. I think I first came across this through the Stephen Covey book, Seven Habits of Successful People, and it’s a very powerful tool and it’s about, do you understand what you can control?
You know, the distinction is what can you control, what can you influence and what you can neither control nor influence? And there’s something very powerful about understanding what exactly is within your sphere of control. I heard a—I think it was an American—U.S. professional football player talking about this, and he goes, “Look, I don’t fear—feel anxiety. I don’t feel stress, because if I can’t control it, there’s nothing I can do about it. So I let it go. And if I can control it, then I’m going to control it. I’m going to bring my full attention to that.”
And what I find that even if you know this distinction about what you can control and what you can influence, we don’t tend to bring it to the forefront. So if you’re feeling fear, if you’re feeling anxiety at the moment, look at what’s going on. Look at the data. Look at how you’re feeling. Look at what you can control about the situation, what you can influence about the situation and what’s beyond control and beyond influence, and act accordingly.
And I think if you use those three strategies, that’s a way of using stress, using anxiety, using fear, which often shows up when you’re doing great work, so that rather than shutting you down, rather than diminishing you, it can be the stepping stone for you to expand your own capacity, expand your own potential and enable you to do more great work.