*Disclaimer: This post is about the frustrating but benign and temporary anxiety that comes when you are worried about a specific event or feeling stressed/overwhelmed. Prolonged, chronic and/or excessive anxiety, anxiety that is accompanied by physical symptoms or anxiety that results from past trauma is something different and more serious and might require help from a medical professional or therapist, which I am not
As many of you know, we do martial arts as a family. Last weekend, we participated in a black belt test that started at 8 am on Saturday morning and ended at 1 pm. These tests are hard. We are going almost non-stop, with only short breaks to change, grab gear, hydrate and eat a quick bite. For a couple days after, we are tired and sore. It’s hard, but it’s also really fun.
The night before the test as we were eating spaghetti and preparing ourselves, the girls were talking about how nervous they were. We’ve done a good handful of these tests by now, so we know what’s coming, which is both good and bad, I guess.
As the girls were getting worked up thinking about how hard the next day was going to be, I said, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
This led down a rabbit hole of scenarios where people were passing out and breaking arms and losing their lunch during the test. The extent of their imaginations made us both giggle and grimace.
“Okay,” I said after a particularly morbid anecdote, “What’s the worst thing that might actually happen?”
My oldest daughter, Aleida, got serious. “Master Stites could ask us to do Twilight Zone.” Twilight Zone is an extremely difficult form that Aleida learned about a year ago. Set to the music of Twilight Zone, it is fast and furious with a double tornado kick and other challenging combos. It isn’t a form in the normal rotation, so Aleida hasn’t kept up on it.
“Okay, so what if he does?”
“I won’t be able to complete it. I won’t remember all of it. It’ll be so embarassing.”
“Yes,” I reply, “it would be embarrassing for you, but we’ve seen this happen to other people, and honestly, you wouldn’t be the only one in this situation if he does call it. I think many people have forgotten it. And if you forget that one form and do well on the rest--which you will--you won’t fail. You’ll probably just get told to practice Twilight Zone before the next text, right?”
She nodded, took a bite of dinner, and seemed a bit more at ease.
The day after the test (which went great--no Twilight Zone), she was worried once again, this time about a speech she had to give in class in front of her peers. Obviously, if public speaking is the number one fear of Americans, she is not alone in her anxiety. She practiced for the family and we all agreed she had an interesting topic and was prepared and well-informed. Still, she sighed and furrowed her brow, clearly scared and picturing disaster.
Again, I said, “Okay, what’s the worst that can happen?”
And once again, the family had fun with this one, imagining everything from passing out to farting loudly. When the hilarity settled, I again asked, “Okay, but what’s the worst that might actually happen?”
“I’ll forget what I’m saying or I’ll miss a big part of my speech. Or I’ll have to start over.”
“Okay, so what will you do then?”
“Look at my note cards…? Keep going…?”
“Yes! Exactly! The notecards are there if you get stuck. If you forget what’s next, just take a breath, look at your notecards, and keep going.”
She still looked worried, of course, but the furrow in her brow relaxed just a bit.
She rocked her speech, by the way. After school she even said, “I was really nervous right before, but once I started, it wasn’t so bad.”
We all know from experience that anticipation and not knowing is far worse than actually being in the middle of something difficult. Our minds almost always imagine a much worse scenario than what happens in reality. And even if the very worst happens, we just live it. Anxiety is never happening during...it happens before, when our minds mess with us.
This is my new favorite strategy for anxiety. Something about the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” followed by “Okay, but what’s the worst that might actually happen?” puts things in perspective. First of all, once you imagine pooping yourself in front of your peers, forgetting a few lines doesn’t seem so bad. Often, our worst case scenarios simply aren’t likely. Secondly, when you verbalize the worst thing that might actually happen, you demystify it. It’s similar to naming your emotions. When you call anger “anger,” it takes a bit of the edge off and lets you move forward with presence and intention. Likewise, when you get to the heart of what you are afraid might actually happen, you can name it and understand why it is causing anxiety. My daughter wasn’t really afraid of forgetting her form at the karate test; she was afraid of the embarrassment she would feel if she froze up in front of her fellow martial artists and her instructors.
The other benefit of naming the worst thing that might actually happen is the ability to strategize and focus on preparation. Anxiety is the enemy of proactivity unless you allow your awareness to move you into action. If you are anxious about freezing up during a speech, think about what you can do to avoid that happening. Practice more? Write better notecards? Have a friend cue you if necessary? Role play what you will do if you do forget what you were saying? Role playing or talking through what you will do should minor disaster strike gets you one step ahead of the fear.
Anxiety has the habit of building like a snowball rolling down a hill, taking a little issue and growing and growing until it is unrecognizably huge. You lose perspective once the real issue is hidden in a ball of anxiety. As always, awareness is the first step. If you can catch it early, if you can recognize when your mind starts to skip like a broken record, returning again and again to an anxious thought, you can begin to break the pattern. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Have some fun imagining bodily functions and natural disasters. But don’t forget the important step of bringing your mind back to reality. “What’s the worst that might actually happen?”
Anxiety is a normal part of the human condition. We just have to make it work for us, not against us.