How many times a day do you berate yourself for not being good enough? It doesn’t have to be serious self-loathing just daily little thoughts going through your mind like ‘Why am I scared of going to this meeting, no one else seems to be bothered‘ or ‘My presentation sucked, I’m just no good at this’ or ‘I’m never able to make decisions, I just can’t make up my mind’.
When we get nervous, anxious and self-critical it is common to feel like we are not good enough or somehow flawed compared to the rest of the human race. We have a sneaking suspicion that WE are the problem and that our particular genetic make up is to blame for our defective personalities and identities. How many times have you heard someone say ‘This is just the way I am’ or ‘No one in my family is any good at swimming (singing, running, painting, writing etc)’.
When our brain is confronted by something it perceives as a threat, it goes into the area we know as the fight, flight, freeze part, our survival brain. This part of our brain is ancient and evolved to keep us alive. Way back in time, when wild animals and hostile tribes were frequent threats, a built-in quick response unit was hardwired into our brain so that we could react quickly, mobilise strength and prepare for fighting or fleeing.
To remain alert to danger, our survival brain made sure we never stopped thinking about all the possible threats out there and made us hyper vigilant so we were prepared for any eventuality – all of the time. Adrenaline and cortisol, our stress hormones, were pumping through our body to keep us alert. Hyper vigilance? Obsessive thinking that never stops? Rapid heart beat and shallow breathing? Sound familiar? That’s right. All the hallmarks of anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.
These days, our threats are not wild animals but instead an everlasting to-do list, fear of speaking in public or an impossibly high standard of beauty. But even though these threats are very different from our ancestors, our brain still reacts to stress in the same way as it did thousands of years ago.
Our mind does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.
Although we should be grateful for this built in emergency system that kicks in automatically, we need to be aware of the fact it is often WRONG! A to-do list is NOT about life and death. Doing a presentation is NOT going to kill you. Therefore we need to regain control and evaluate what is a REAL threat and only a PERCEPTION of a threat.
If we are anxious about a future event, we produce the same chemical reaction in our bodies as if the event was actually happening RIGHT NOW. This is due to our mind not knowing the difference between what is real and what’s imagined. Knowing this, we can start to understand that it is not our personality that is flawed but our brain that is trying to protect us. It just happens to be misguided to the severity of the threat and just like a naughty dog – we need to keep it in check.
So how DO we get ourselves out of our survival brain and into our rational mind were we can problem solve, have perspective and see things in their proper proportions?
Here are a few tips for instantly calming an anxious mind.
- Stop and breathe. If at work, hop into the loo and spend the next three minutes breathing deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth. Try the 4/7 technique – breathe in for 4 and out for 7. The longer out breath tells our parasympathetic nervous system that all is well and we are safe.
- Spend time with people that makes you feel good about yourself and limit exposure to those that don’t . The positive energy we get from spending time with supportive friends can lift anyone’s mood instantly.
- Exercise. Get out in the park and run. Do yoga. Go to the gym at lunch time or take your dog for long daily walks. There is a well documented link between exercise and mental well being. Don’t feel like doing it? No one does. Do it anyway!
- Think kind thoughts about yourself. If you notice negative and critical thinking, stop! We spend years focusing on our flaws – let’s focus the rest of our lives on feeling chuffed for that which is great about ourselves and our lives. What are you proud of? What you do well?
- Journaling. It is amazing how writing things down can defuse an anxious state. Do a brain dump in your journal and finish off with at least 3 things you are really grateful for. Whether it is your kids, you dog, your house, your friends, your family, a good friend, a loyal partner or simply good at being kind it does not matter, just get as many as possible down on paper and read it out loud (if you can) each morning and evening.
You are amazing so don’t ever forget it… x