“I think, therefore I am.”
You have most likely heard this famous quote by Descartes. What happens, though, when your feelings are so incredibly powerful that you can’t quite access the "thinking" or "logical" part of your brain? What if you suddenly freeze when you long to communicate an idea or share an opinion? How can you execute and maintain presence when your mind becomes clouded with negativity, self-doubt, and apprehension?
This is undoubtedly a tall order and unfortunately, this task is one that is incredibly familiar to most of us.
How anxiety grows
You're in a meeting or a conversation and it’s your turn to share. Or is it? You’re not sure. Your ability to maintain focus has been compromised. This is when you either adopt a fight-or-flight mode. First, you attempt to fight back. You sit a bit taller, make eye contact with the woman across from you, but are suddenly halted when you feel exposed. You are now convinced that she can tap into your thoughts and is therefore judging the hell out of you. Your inner dialogue shifts and you become critical and self-shaming.
What is wrong with me?
Why can’t I get myself together?
This always happens.
I shouldn’t even be in this group.
Everyone thinks I’m so awkward.
So on that note, you shift to flight mode and begin to question what your role is and whether or not you really need to speak up. Maybe you should just be a good listener. But wait. You can’t even follow the conversation because you’re trapped in an anxiety cycle! Now you’re too busy second-guessing yourself, thinking of every potential negative outcome, and assuming that others are judging you.
But what happens if you don’t say anything? The others may think that you’re incompetent or lack the creativity to even generate an idea. You begin to wonder if exiting the room is the best option.
The physical symptoms you are experiencing are growing stronger. You can feel your heart pounding and you wonder if it is distracting your neighbor to the right. Sweat begins to make its way onto your forehead and you frantically try to recall if you put deodorant on this morning. You’re nodding and smiling, but it is very difficult to maintain eye contact and even compute the words that are being spoken. Yes, this is unfortunately what we refer to as an anxiety attack. Its intensity grows as it continues to soak up a great deal of your energy, functioning, and ability to be in the present moment.
You have survived scenarios like this before, but wonder if this is just your "normal" and question if others ever experience similar symptoms.
You are not alone. This is incredibly common and there is hope.
Tips to gain self-awareness and retrain your brain
Imagine that your brain creates tunnels, almost like a train tunnel. Some of these tunnels harbor anxiety and negative self-doubt and are very strong as they are used to heavy "traffic." Then there are others, associated with optimism and confidence, that tend to need some nurturing as they are generally overlooked.
View the shift in your body and the activation of apprehension as an opportunity to choose which tunnel you will select and venture down. Take a breath and acknowledge that this is when the battle begins. Choosing to fight back and rewire your thinking patterns takes a massive amount of strength. But you can do this! Each time, each second you fight back, you are gaining a rep. You are cultivating a healthy tunnel that encourages positive self-talk and in time, traveling down this tunnel will not require much effort. It will become more automatic.
We often forget that people do not have the ability to access our every thought and emotion. The majority of individuals with debilitating anxiety are pros at hiding it and can appear cool and collected. Remember that people tend to be caught up in their own thoughts or are busy combating their anxieties. They simply do not have the space to hyper-analyze and excessively criticize you simply because they are overrun with their own internal tasks.
Practice giving yourself grace. It is amazing how we are so quick to give others the benefit of the doubt, but forget to share that same kindness with ourselves. Anxiety will not completely go away, but it can be managed and viewed as your mind’s way to alert you. Validate the alert, but then practice managing anxiety rather than continuing to allow it to take full control of you.
You can’t get fit overnight. It requires consistency, deliberation, and lifestyle changes. Think of managing your anxiety as a similar endeavor. In order to build confidence and regain control, you must maintain your basic needs, strengthen your productive tunnels, and take positive risks.
In order to challenge your negative self-talk, you must first be aware of it. Take a pause and take note of the messages you are repeating to yourself.
How are they helpful?
How can you reframe this thinking and stop yourself from traveling further down the negative tunnel?
For every negative thought you have, try to combat it with at least two positives. This may not feel genuine at first, but don’t stop trying. With practice, this exercise will feel more natural. You have had so many different types of experiences. Tap into your past and validate the strength that it has required to feel and think and navigate everything that life has presented you with thus far.
You are worthy. You are brave. Now... go get your reps in!