I wrote an article for The Littlehampton Times recently. This is an extended version of that article.
Our values, beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, emotions and thinking are all interlinked.
They are formed through our experiences and have a huge impact on our behaviour. And this can be problematic. When we are anxious, our behaviour can become very unhelpful. If we are facing a phobia then our behaviour can become extreme. But our behaviour can also be affected by much more subtle and benign (to some) situations. Just when we want to react positively, we find ourselves struggling.
Typical examples of when this happens include:
- speaking in public, talking to strangers
- managing tricky situations
- talking to someone who is usually aggressive
- saying “no”
- doing something exciting
- being decisive
– basically any situation where we perceive a risk, even if the risk is minimal.
We want to be calm, professional, persuasive and competent. Instead we cringe, avoid things, get distressed and feel super stuck, rather than superhero. Sound familiar?
So what’s going on?
Your limbic system, that’s what.
This is the part of your brain that is trying to keep you safe. It reacts to situations it sees as threatening or risky or just unexpected. But it is very simplistic and responds as if you’re about to die. Adrenalin flows through your body to help you fight an attacker or run away from a wild animal; useful in a dangerous tribal landscape. Not so useful when the perceived danger is a shop keeper, or your friend, or an audience, or your boss!
When the adrenalin is flowing we feel stressed, we sweat, our stomachs churn; we may even shake. Blood is switched from our normal thinking systems (our pre-frontal cortex) and from our digestive system and is sent to our muscles. We prepare to run or fight – we need to do a pooh or be sick (to lighten our load) and our muscles twitch if they aren’t used, which is why we shake. It’s all really unhelpful. We want to do something positive but our bodies are trying to stop it.
What’s the solution?
- Understand what’s happening. The limbic system is an old bit of our brains from an evolutionary perspective and is really dumb! It’s either happy or it’s really scared – no in-between. It’s like having a small child inside you shouting “we’re going to die!” But of course we aren’t. Knowing this can really help.
- Learn to calm your limbic system. Notice what fires it off and then really think about what is going on – what is the truth about the situation. Is your anxiety warranted? If not, tell your limbic system that all is well. And then choose to ignore the symptoms. They may not go away but they will calm down.
- Understand that the way to feel OK about a situation is to face it over and over. The first time someone drives a car they feel petrified. Only by repeating the experience and practice does someone get to the stage where driving is no big deal – fun even.
Practice makes perfect – or at least it makes things possible.
- Practice a range of techniques to control your response, choosing how to behave rather than reacting from fear, e.g.:
- Visualise being excellent before an event that is worrying you, so that your limbic system knows what to expect – you being terrific and having fun.
- When we are feeling anxious we can lose control of our breathing; it can become shallow and rapid. Get control back by breathing OUT, hard and slowly. Then force a normal breathing pattern – shorter in breaths and longer out breaths. Practice this when you are feeling calm.
- Listen to your thinking – is your inner superhero or your limbic system speaking? Telling yourself that you are scared just makes things worse. Instead, talk to yourself about the reality of the situation. For instance, tell yourself that you are in control, notice that there are people around who are looking out for you, remember that what you are about to do is exciting. Research has shown that just saying “I’m excited” is enough to change your perspective and feelings.
- Notice and accept what’s really happening – you aren’t about to fight a sabre-tooth tiger. You may still feel anxiety but you have the strength within you to feel anxious but to choose to go ahead anyway. Because you are in charge – not your limbic system.
Your anxiety is not who you are. YOU are who you are; fabulous, shining, clever, creative, wonderful and loved.
Your limbic system is a pretty dumb thing in comparison – show it who’s boss.
No cape is required.