I’ve just had my weekly brush with fear.
Although I have to admit that I haven’t been involved in some really scary, life –threatening activity.
I haven’t made a presentation in front of three hundred people, or parachuted out of a plane. I haven’t even been asked to answer mental arithmetic calculations under time pressure.
I’ve just had a skating lesson.
I’m a late-to-start ice skater. I’m one of those adults who is now taking a thousand times longer to learn a new skill than if I’d started at the age of eight.
I’m never going to reach Olympic standard. I’m not working to a timetable, so it really doesn’t matter how long this takes me (although I have to admit it’s a little galling when children who have skated for ten minutes can skate faster and with more agility than I can ever hope to achieve).
And I love it. I adore the feeling when all of a sudden, I’m gliding on ice and I feel balanced and strong.
But it also gives me moments of terror.
And it’s fascinating to notice what happens to my body and posture when I’m fearful. I’m not talking about an adrenaline rush, that wonderful feeling of exhilaration and expansion that bubbles up after surviving something that pushed you beyond what’s comfortable.
I’m talking about going rigid. When your legs refuse to bend, the neck goes stiff and you shrink and contract down into yourself. Have you ever felt like this?
Eckhart Tolle* would say it’s often because we’re not staying focused on what’s going on in the present but rather we’re thinking of problems that might happen, anticipating disaster. Don’t know about you but that’s EXACTLY what I’m doing when I get anxious.
My thoughts go something like this, "I'm going to fall and then I'll land badly which will probably lead to lots of broken bones. I'll get carted off to hospital and spend the next few months unable to move. I'll have to be fed with a spoon (broken arms) and will probably never walk again(broken legs that for some obscure reason never mend properly).
This is behind every time I think, “Opps that was a bit slippy! I almost fell over then!”
And yet I know that being anxious has a huge impact on my body and if nothing else makes learning a new skill or performing well, so much more difficult.
Whenever I’m fearful, my neck tightens and shortens, throwing my head back down into my shoulders (this is part of the fight or flight response, more on this another time). Not such a major problem so far you would think. But this simple act sets off a co-ordinated chain of events which have evolved to prepare my body for action.
But we can get stuck here as the body becomes trapped in “rabbit caught in headlights” mode, frozen and locked. Wonderful if I’m playing a game of musical statues. But when I’m skating what I’m really after is fluidity and movement. And I know that the more my poor body is jammed, the more likely I am to fall and the more likely I’m going to hurt myself.
So I’m constantly fighting my fear. But knowing about posture is helping. So I’ve started working through steps to physically help me deal with the anxiety which then frees me up to learn.
5 Steps for dealing with anxious situations
- Take a few deep breaths and keep on breathing (the “keep on” bit is very important, resist the temptation to hold your breath for as long as humanly possible).
- Think of relaxing the neck, lengthening the back of the neck so that the head can also start to lengthen away from the shoulders.
- Notice exactly where there’s tension in your body. When I’m skating, it’s often in the hip and leg joints but you may notice it in your lower back, or your shoulders, it could lurk anywhere. Once you’re found it, see if you can let go of those muscles that are gripping on, holding on for dear life.
- Tunnel vision often happens when we’re anxious so relax your gaze and start widening your focus. Pay more attention to what’s going on around you.
- Allow your whole body to widen and lengthen without strain. If it helps just think of taking up as much space as possible and see if you can add a few more inches to your height.
The more I can do this, the quicker my skating is improving and maybe if I ever take up something really scary (which for me would be bungee jumping), I’ll know what to do.
But I’d love to hear how you get on with this. Do these steps help? Is there anything that you do to help yourself in those situations where you get nervous or anxious? Let us know.
*Eckhart Tolle: The Power of Now