Are you feeling a little stressed? Anxious? Having a panic attack here and there?
We all deal with stress and anxiety in a multitude of ways. People will often comment on how calm and collected I seem. In the back of my mind, all I can think about is a duck swimming across the pond. How calm and relaxed it seems, until you look beneath the surface and see how frenetic and chaotic it is scrambling to stay afloat. That’s me. I’m that duck. Quack. Quack. We’re all ducks – to a certain degree. I’ve been very interested in how many people have come forward – quite publicly – to talk about their anxiety, stress and depression. Successful people. People you would never suspect. In fact, I love it. There has always been a stigma around mental health, and it’s about time that we recognize how any illness in the mind is no different from any other illness we experience. The marketing industry is notorious for burning people out to the point of deep depression, severe anxiety and more (sexy, I know). Around this time of year, it gets exasperated for a myriad of reasons (end of the year rush, dealing with family through the holidays, the shift towards winter, that moron in front of you who doesn’t know how to park… you get the idea).
It’s all in your head.
Sadly, we still hear that a lot. I wish more people would end that sentence with, " BUT… the mind navigates the body." It’s easy to tell someone to talk their way out of how they’re currently feeling, so I came up with an exercise for those who think it’s as simple as "calming yourself down." Here we go: think of someone you are desperately attracted to. It can be a celebrity, your spouse or anyone (but keep it legal!). Now imagine that they have reached out to you, they’re interested and they have declared that they must be with you. Imagine what that night would be like. Forget whatever relationship you’re in, let your inhibitions loose and really let your mind wander. Think about what they’re wearing, how they smell, where you would meet and how the events of the evening might unfold (make it really naughty, too!). How does your body feel? What are your thoughts? Are you turned on? Now, forget all about it. Don’t ever think about anything that you just thought about ever again. How did that work out for you? Impossible, right? Stress, anxiety and depression are typically a multiplier of that. Once those wires are connected (and they connect for a ton of different reasons – traumatic moment, a chemical imbalance, genetics, etc…) – it is ever-complicated to disconnect and untangle those wires. So, it’s never all in your head. It may start there, but it becomes very physical and very biological very quickly. The mind navigates the body.
It’s less about control and much more about acceptance.
Some people are more anxious than others. Some people produce more types of hormones and chemicals than others. There is no "normal." We are all unique, and with that comes a unique sense of being. I probably spend too much time thinking about my finals days. For me, it is a key driver of success (I don’t want to waste a moment before those last ones), but it is one that can cause quite a bit of anxiety (the uncertainty of it all – from how it will end to when it will end to how sad I will be to leave my loved ones). With that, I can recognize that stress and anxiety is as much a human trait as joy, love and happiness. In fact, finding and accepting the balance is key here. Humans have a full spectrum of emotions. Just as you can’t be thrilled about life all of the time, you also can’t always be anxious or stressed (even though it sometimes feels like it). In the end, we all deal with this spectrum of emotions in different ways. Some have a drink at night to calm down, others smoke something funky. Some might jump out of a plane, while others might go looking for a Swami in the Himalayans. All of those are ways in which we self-medicate and try to tranquilize our awareness that we’re alive and ever-aware of our own mortality.
Give me a break.
It’s not foolproof, but here are a five tools that you can deploy to manage the times when things get a little too stressed and/or anxious. It’s even a great path out of the occasional panic attack:
- Be prepared. The best way to deal with these emotions is to know that you will get them. So, when they come on, don’t act surprised, don’t question why this is happening to you. Just accept it. You’re anxious or stressing out or having a panic attack. It happens. Try reading the book, The Happiness Trap as soon as possible. It is chock full of great examples of how to better understand what’s happening in your mind and body. Having that knowledge and the skills within the book will allow you to be better prepared when you’re not feeling great.
- Stop time travelling. Most people know James Altucher as the angel investor, bestselling business book author and blogger (you can hear my conversation with James right here: SPOS #366 – James Altucher Wants You To Choose Yourself). He’s all that and more. I can’t remember where I read it, but James was talking about stressing out (something he knows a ton about) and he reframed that deep and dark moment by asking himself if he’s time travelling or not. Yes, time travel. Most people suffer with fear and anxiety over things that have either transpired in the past or thinking about things that have yet to happen. They’re time travelling (or as he says: "Don’t get lost in the future. Don’t get lost in the past. Turn off your time machine. Live right now. We need you here in the present moment. We need you because the world is a better place when you are here and not time traveling."). They’re not in the present (where, more than likely, everything is actually just fine). Anxiety and panic sets in when we think about things that have happened in our past (which are sadly done and out of our control at this moment in time) or worrying about the future. Tony Blauer is a very close friend and my former close quarters combatives coach. He always says that fear is an acronym for: False Evidence Appearing Real. So, when we stress about the worries of the future, we are simply building a case with false evidence (you can hear my conversation with Tony right here: SPOS #355 – Overcoming Fear With Tony Blauer). So, the next time that panic sets in, ask yourself if it is legitimate (it’s happening in the now and you should be concerned!) or if you are time travelling. More often than not, you are time travelling. Stop time travelling.
- Breathe better. Remember, the mind navigates the body. When we stress, it causes a chain physiological reaction that manifests itself into some very physical things. What most people don’t realize is that if you can better understand your body, it sends messages back to the reptilian brain that there is no reason for the fight or flight system to be triggered. One of the best breathing techniques I have uncovered is from Dr. Andrew Weil. You can see the full video of this simple three-step technique below (or see a more in-depth explanation right here: Take A Breather). The best part about this breathing technique is that it works. Really works. And, you can do this while being in a room full of people and nobody will be any the wiser. Along with this breathing technique, I’ll also recommend that you think about your jaw. This was something taught to me by Jim Fannin, who is a recognized expert in helping pro athletes get into "the zone." I first met Jim because we were both speaking at the same event. The difference between us, was that it was my first speaking event and it was in front of thousands of people. When I cornered him in the hotel lobby and told him how nervous I was, he asked me to focus on my jaw. Loosening it. Moving it around. Open and closing my mouth to relax the jaw. When you watch pro athletes (think about Michael Jordan’s wagging tongue as he drives for the hoop), you will notice that the most trained professionals are in the zone and relaxed with a very relaxed jaw (you can listen to my conversation with Jim right here). Together these two techniques should help you better understand your body. Many people praise meditation. I enjoy meditating, but find these two techniques exceptional and quick.
- Go with the flow. When the negative feelings happen, we tend to tense up, resist it, ignore or try to fight it. There has been countless pieces of research lately that will tell you how much worse doing any of those things can be. Don’t fight it, go with it. Here’s a simple visualization: when you’re feeling stressed or have anxiety coming over you, find a quiet place. You can sit, lie down or even go for a walk as it happen. Don’t fight it. Imagine you are standing in a river. Everything is safe in the water. You can go against the current or allow your body to float. Let the rushing water take you. Accept it. Go with the flow. Most people try to fight against the current. Don’t do this. More often than not, when you let go of fighting it and let it wash over you, it will dissipate a lot quicker and your recovery time will be much shorter. You’re accepting it as a a part of who you are and you’re letting it run its course. Another visualization (which I may have stolen from The Happiness Trap book I mentioned above) it to focus on the thoughts you’re having. However negative or strange that they may be, imagine that each thought is a piece of clothing on a clothing line. If the thought is a negative one, just unclip it from the line and let it go. If it comes back, just unclip it again. Our mind is full of stories, images and imagery. Most of it is random. So, when you have a negative one, unclip it and let it go. We have millions of thoughts every day. Some are helpful but most are random.
- Get help. I don’t mean talking to a spouse or a loved one. Get real help. Don’t be ashamed. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We wake up everyday and look at our bodies and think about ways to improve our physical health. We do Crossfit, we go for a run, Yoga poses, we diet, we bike, whatever. Why don’t we take the same kind of care and training for everything that is above our shoulders? Talking things out with a professional (who is paid to listen and give an outsider’s perspective) will make you feel almost as good as finishing a marathon. Even if you don’t think you need it, you will be amazed at the self-actualization, empathy and better overall health that you will have when you can hash out your thinking with someone who better understands how our brains work and why we think the things we think. Mental training is as important as your physical training.
It’s Thanksgiving for many people today. I’m thankful for everything that has happened in my life. Yes, the good, the bad, the ugly and the stressful. It’s all a part of what makes me "me." I am also thankful that I have you – out there – reading, listening, connecting and engaging.
With that, what are you best tips, tricks and techniques to find a better center space and more mindfulness?