Olivia, a kind, soft-spoken woman with an allergy to conflict, is about to jump out of her skin with anxiety. She’s in business with a former friend. “She can have it,” she told me at our first meeting. “I think I just want out.”
Olivia is in a startup with a former friend. The friend has a hot temper and a less than professional way with words. Instead of discussing opposing viewpoints, the partner bullies Olivia, calling her a liar in business meetings. She’ll tell Olivia that an idea is stupid, using that word. Not surprisingly, the business has stalled and can’t grow.
The business was Olivia’s idea, she told me. It’s deeply personal and meaningful to her and she’s done the lion’s share of getting it up and running. Moreover, if it grows as expected, it’s got the potential of being sold in the high six figures.
“And you really want out?” I asked.
“Not really,” she said, “but I can’t stand feeling like this. It’s not worth it to me. I’m creative, I can come up with another idea. That’d be easier than living like this.”
I suggested that we start with some simple tools to quell her anxiety. “If you make decisions while you’re feeling like this, you are likely to make poor ones.”
I explained how stress compromises our thinking and leaves us exhausted. Our bodies think we are in physical danger and respond with fight or flight hormones that impact our brains. When anxiety has us in its grip we’re unable to think our most critically or creatively. We can’t communicate clearly and powerfully. It’s draining, too—our energy is easily depleted.
I know from personal experience that when we’re caught in a difficult situation, anxiety is a horrible feeling. Our hearts race, our minds roil, our stomachs churn, we lose sleep. When I’ve been anxious like that, I pace in circles, going nowhere, lost in visions of a dreaded future.
Often, anxiety urges us to do something. Sometimes it shrieks. It says it will go away and leave us alone if we HURRY UP AND DO SOMETHING. Frequently it suggests that we give up and run away from a difficult situation.
I first noticed this as an attorney handling divorces. Then I went through one myself. Anxiety screamed at me. Give up. Get out! Give him everything! He can have the house, the bank account, your clothes-anything! Everything! GET THIS OVER WITH!
And then the biggest lie of all: You’ll feel so much better if you DO SOMETHING.
Anxiety told me it would go away and leave me alone if I took swift action. It told me I’d manage somehow, raising two kids as a single mom with a fraction of what I was entitled to. So I did exactly what my clients did–I told my lawyer to settle the case any way she could. Luckily she prevailed over my irrational pain and fear.
I explained the same thing to Olivia–that anxiety might be telling her it would leave her alone if she took abrupt action, but she’d have to deal with it again at some point, during the buy-out negotiations or later, when reality set it and she realized what she’d given up. Or next time she was faced with conflict.
Because when we run from a problem or conflict in order to manage our anxiety, we’re bound to get into another situation where it comes right back. We walk away from what we are entitled to, settle lawsuits for pittances, or quit jobs abruptly without a back-up plan.
Then we deal with the new situation–we’re divorced with limited resources, we’ve given away our business, or we’re looking for work under pressure.
Sure, we might get some temporary relief, but it’s typically short lived. Why? Because we’re making decisions and taking action at our most compromised. Our beautiful minds, hobbled by powerful fight or flight stress hormones can’t find what is truly in our best interests or how to get it.
So what’s the answer when we feel like we’re about to jump out of our skin? The same thing we do with any intensely unpleasant feeling. Name it, feel it, and move.
Here’s a simple, effective way to work through anxiety and it’s DO SOMETHING NOW messages:
- Name what you are feeling—anxiety, upset, tension, stress. Give it a name.
- Drop the narrative, the words, the story of why you’re anxious. Obsessing with words, the situation, the who did what, the dreaded future, the I should haves. Stop thinking and drop your attention into your body. When we drop the story of why we’re anxious—the he said, she said stuff—we’re able to feel.
- Feel the sensations in your body. They’re not really as bad as you think they are once you pay attention and yield to them. The resistance and the avoidance of our feelings is actually much worse than the bodily sensations themselves are. Feelings come for a reason—to be felt.
- Feel what you are feeling all the way through. Feel without words or diversions like food, alcohol, television, internet shopping or whatever temporary distraction may be calling you. Typically, an unpleasant feeling will intensify and build to a peak, and then slowly subside like a wave pulling back from a beach. So stay with it through the peak and to the other side. This can happen in a span of a few minutes.
- Practice non-judgmental awareness. It doesn’t serve us to trade one story for another, for example, I shouldn’t be so sensitive or I should have known better or I’m so screwed up. Attacking yourself for being human or having feelings is simply another way to prolong them.
- Move your body. Those shaky, vibrating sensations need release. Animals lie in the grass and tremble after a threat passes. They’re releasing the stored up stress hormones that they didn’t need for fight or flight. We need to do the same thing to fully function. So after you’ve really felt what you are feeling all the way through, stand up and shake it off. Literally. Arms, legs, torso. Shake, shake, shake. A few moments will do wonders. A two-minute dance break to raucous music will do the same thing if you let yourself move.
- Allow the truth to come into your awareness as the feelings pass. Realize that there is very likely no emergency action to take, nothing to do in this moment, no reason to act right now. Slowly allow yourself consider the situation with a clear mind and a calm heart.
Typically, with these steps, anxiety will settle down within about five minutes. Sometimes we may need to repeat them, if the Do Something Now stories pop up again. And be aware that I’m not talking about the kind of debilitating chronic anxiety, usually driven by trauma, that requires treatment by a therapist. If that’s what you are dealing with, get the professional support you need. But the kind of anxiety that comes with life’s curve balls can typically be resolved on your own.
Then, when your body settles down, and your brain comes back on line, you can decide what to do about the situation. What’s the truth here? What is the best decision for me? What options do I have? What do I need to say to this person that is going to solve the actual problem? Is there something I can do to improve this situation?
When the brain is no longer compromised by the running tape of the story, the brain shut-down of fight or flight, or the numbing from food or wine, solutions we may never have considered can come to us. Our true desires can be felt. We can take action, or not, based on our best interests.
As for Olivia, after a few sessions and some practice with the above steps, she went to her next business meeting with a plan. She calmly told her partner that they needed to end the partnership and that she, Emily, was prepared to buy the business. The partner shouted, name-called, and tried to bully her into continuing the partnership, but Olivia stayed steady. Within about twenty minutes, she was shocked when her partner agreed to sell to her. She stayed steady as she spoke. They agreed to hire a business evaluator and start the process immediately. Olivia still has more work to do, both inside and out, but she’ll get to keep the business she loves. Importantly, too, she’s learning how to deal with conflict, to stand up to a bully, and to deal with her own anxiety.
So next time anxiety comes galloping in to your life with all of its awful feelings and a Big Lie to DO SOMETHING, don’t believe it. Instead, let the truth arise. Try these simple steps and see what happens. Like Emily, it might surprise you.