THE LOOP OF ANXIETY: UNDERSTANDING YOUR ANXIETY AND FEAR
If you view fear as your enemy, you are fighting against yourself.
The anxiety and fear associated with speaking and performing can be difficult and complex, and there's no single best approach to address these challenges. The reality is that what ends up helping one person is often very different from what helps another person. At the same time, there are some basic ways to understand anxiety and fear that can be useful to start with. Here, I’d like to look at one such idea: the loop of anxiety.
Anxiety and fear are involuntary reactions to perceived threats. In some cases, these reactions are extremely helpful because they protect you in times of real danger. In other cases, however, these reactions emerge when there is no clear external threat or the precise nature of the threat is a little vague (like when speaking to a group).
Experiencing a familiar but vague external threat while speaking or performing can be extremely unpleasant, but with good training and/or enough experience, your involuntary reactions can become entirely manageable. That said, there is a different kind of difficulty associated with anxiety and fear that can emerge and be truly baffling: this happens when your involuntary stress reactions themselves become a threat.
When your involuntary reactions themselves become a threat, a loop forms. A common version goes like this:
I have to speak soon. What's happening...? Oh no, I'm nervous. Not again. I wish this wouldn't... It's not going away... Oh no, it's getting worse. My mouth is dry, palms sweating, heart speeding up. Why is this happening again...? It's getting worse... I’m too nervous… Chest is tightening, legs shaking, throat constricting... Mind is going blank…
(If reading that just now was stressful, take a moment before you read further to look at your surroundings and come back to the present. Notice what your eyes like to see around you... Really do that now before you go on. Assuming that you’re not currently being pursued by a wild animal, it’s likely that you’re safe in this moment. Let yourself register that.)
The loop works something like this: at some point, you developed a negative view of the symptoms of your stress response (such as sweating palms, faster heartbeat, or shaky legs). Then, when you’re in a situation in which you feel anxious or afraid, you notice these symptoms, and you perceive these symptoms themselves as negative—which causes your fear to grow. The escalating fear then increases the stress symptoms. Which then generates greater fear. And so on and so on, in a self-perpetuating loop...
Essentially what has happened is this: you've developed an adversarial relationship with your own involuntary experience.
In some cases, working with a great coach can be helpful to address this loop. In some cases, seeking out a gifted mental health professional or trauma specialist is really what’s needed. The path you choose may include basic approaches to working with stress and anxiety as well as approaches specifically tailored to your circumstances. The good news is that once you really understand what's happening, and you have clear ways of addressing it, what once felt terrible can begin to feel so much better...
Some areas that might be helpful to explore include:
Your body and breathing: these house your primary involuntary responses, and the relationship you have to your body and breathing (especially when under stress) can drastically affect your sense of confidence and freedom.
Your relationship to groups and to the environment: you may have habits of perception that make being present and communicating much more difficult than they need to be.
Your content, and your connection to your content: when your material is clear, and you have a strong and helpful connection with it, speaking and performing can become much, much easier.
Your goals for speaking or performing: you may have goals that unintentionally increase your stress, and you may be able to discover new goals that not only reduce stress but also help you focus much more clearly on what matters.
Your preparation habits: the way you prepare for speaking or performing can unintentionally make it so much harder, and so much less effective, than it needs to be.
Your relevant history: sometimes your history holds important clues about what will help you.
If fear of speaking or performing is preventing you from offering your best to the world, and what you’ve tried on your own hasn’t worked, find help. Since different coaches and therapists each work so differently, it’s worth taking the time to find someone who is really right for you.
Good therapists can be enormously helpful. Many people also contact voice, public speaking, or breathing coaches for help with anxiety, and this makes sense. The word anxious comes from the Latin word angere, which means to choke. The breath, the voice, your ability to speak -- all can be profoundly linked to anxiety. However you choose to work on it, eventually you might just view the onset of your nerves as a sign, a truly positive sign, that you’re about to do something thrilling.
A number of traditions inform my work with clients who experience a challenging stress response, including Somatic Experiencing®, Steven Hoskinson's Organic Intelligence® work, Fitzmaurice Voicework®, various meditation and body-oriented practices, and practices linked to the performing arts. See My Influences page for more details. If you need referrals to good therapists, please also feel free to contact me.
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