I’ve been working through a lot of fear lately. It’s the result of the times I’m in. Not due to the state of this country, but my personal struggle with a job loss, an injury, and trying to keep it all on the rails with two kids and my wife.
This last year has been particularly tough on me, and collaterally, my family. Like a boxer being pummeled in the fight of his life, my confidence has waned and I’ve struggled to regain my balance. But I’m making steady progress.
It’s amazing to me how much negativity we’re willing to endure and the profound effect it can have on our psyche. I remained in a toxic environment far too long.
Today, I’m in a much better place, albeit with its own challenges. Particularly, managing fear as I venture into an unknown wilderness. I’ve found that ever-present fear is much stronger when your confidence is low. But I’ve had to face it head on, because I know progress is more important than perfection. So, I’ve developed (stolen) a few techniques that have helped me get better acquainted with what makes me scream and move forward despite it. Combined with a daily meditation practice, these techniques have had a profound effect on my ability to regain my confidence and create each day anew.
1. Visualize success.
This is an add-on to my meditation practice. I usually focus on breathing and empty my mind. Now I also vary it with some visualization.
I’ve used visualization quite a bit throughout my primary flight training. It’s an excellent tool for working through different processes, approaches, and scenarios in your mind before you have direct experience them. It’s a great tool because the mind is an incredible VR / AR machine. With proper concentration, your mind treats the simulation as if it’s a real-life experience.
Here’s the basic approach I use for visualization.
- Get comfortable, sit still, and breathe naturally.
- Clear your mind by focusing on a single point.
- Bring the outcome into focus.
- Run through the scenario in your mind with full focus. See the outcome. Play it back from several different angles.
- When you’ve visualized what it is that you want to achieve along with other possible outcomes, let it all go. Focus on your breath and clear your mind.
You can add some visuals, too. In my flight training, I often buy posters that display the cockpit of the airplane I’m studying. The visual reduces the brain’s workload because it doesn’t have to simulate the whole environment.
The goal of visualization is to see many possible outcomes, including the positive one you seek. As in life, there are not any direct paths to get you there. All you can do is run the scenarios and take note of the actions that led to a particular outcome. Then let go of it.
In the end, you can’t control the outcome; you can only control your actions.
Visualizing where you want to be and the possible paths reduces the number of surprises on your journey.
2. Inject positive thoughts as an antidote to negativity.
This one is not always easy for me, as I tend to go the pessimistic direction first. When I catch myself doing that, I interject with some optimistic thinking. Key questions include: “What if it does work out?” Or, “What if it goes well?”
This is taking the negative thought pattern and reframing it so that I see what’s possible. Like visualization, it allows me to contemplate a positive outcome and prevents me from focusing on a negative outcome.
This is important because the brain tends to get hung up on the negative outcomes. There’s such a powerful mind-body connection that thinking the negative outcomes often results in negative outcomes. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy. As the mind focuses on negativity, it produces negative outcomes. So, as an antidote to this tendency, you replace negative outcomes with a positive outcome. Over time, you can actually rewire your brain to see possibility instead of negativity.
3. Take a breath. Or three.
Breathing is a great way to manage stress and anxiety. I first learned breath control in Tae Kwon Do as a tool to calm the body when it’s in a heightened state. That lesson was invaluable. I’ve used it for sports, particularly ice hockey, and applied it to various arenas of life. These days, I’m using it to capture and release my fears.
Here’s a simple method that I’ve found great success with over the years. It’s similar to the Navy SEAL box-breathing technique.
- Breath in deep and slow, filling your lungs.
- Hold for the count of 3.
- Release for a count of 3.
- Another deep breath and hold for count of 3.
- While holding, talk to your fear in your mind and bring it closer to you.
- Release for 3. Visualize your fear expurgating with your breath.
- Another deep breath and hold for 3.
- Release for 3.
You should feel your body slowly calm itself. You can extend the exercise if you need more time to get the body and mind to a calmer state. I’m typically using this technique just before an activity, which is why it’s compact in nature.
I’ve performed it just about everywhere: sitting in a waiting room; backstage; or even in a small airplane. Wherever you are, it’s a simple and potent tool for managing fear-based anxiety on the day of your event.
4. Talk to the fear and give it a hug.
I talk to myself quite a bit. Much of the dialogue takes place in my mind, but sometimes it ekes out of my mouth. While I may look like a lunatic, this self-talk can be quite useful in getting me in the right frame of mind.
Like breathing, this technique can be utilized before an anxiety-producing activity. It’s super simple: take a moment and talk to your fear.
This is a little like talking to my dog when he perks his ears up, tilts his head to the side, and gives me that look like I’m crazy. What I say to the fear is, “Where are you coming from? Why are you here? Come closer to me. Whisper in my ear. Talk to me. Tell me about yourself.”
I give the fear a voice. I find that once I do this, I begin to better understand where it’s originating from and I then provide an antidote.
“Fear, it’s not your fault.” (Go all <em>Good Will Hunting</em> on it)
Sneak in a few deep breaths, then some more talk.
“Come to me fear. Be with me.”
And I take a few more deep breaths, nice and slow.
The goal is to bring it as close to me as possible, and, again, release the emotion through my breathing.
Usually, fear intimidates with its silence, so when you give it a voice, it has to make a choice — to speak or to flee. And often, it would much rather flee. But if it doesn’t, it appreciates the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation.
Through this exercise, I gain a better sense of what makes my fear tick. Using this information, I work with my mitigation techniques so I can take on increasingly challenging tasks without being demotivated by fear.
Bottom line: it’s okay to have fear. But fear should not paralyze you.
When managing fear, the goal is not to rid yourself of it, but to get intimately acquainted like a lover, to bring it to a place where you can know it, understand it, embrace it, and move on.
Fear, after all, is an important emotion.
It’s served us well for millions of years, but it’s primitive design doesn’t always fit within today’s world. Designed for basest survival in mind, it cannot discriminate between a sabertooth tiger and public speaking, which most people fear more than death itself.
So, if we’re to get on with the business of living and achieving what is possible, we have to manage ourselves. Because it’s going to take another million years for evolution to catch up with us. And none of us has that long to wait.