“I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.”— Mark Twain
As some of you may know, when I’m not working for Behavioral Essentials, I’m continually working to advance my career as a professional classical singer. When I was young, I would face debilitating performance anxiety that would result in ugly crying, anger, insecurity and a complete mental and physical shut down. After putting myself and my family through an agonizing hour or so of me freaking out, I would eventually get up there and sing and inevitably be unhappy with my performance, which created a constant cycle of fear for the next time I had to sing a solo. As a singer, nerves and anxiety are especially killler because the first thing that goes is your breath-the single most important thing in singing. I thought (and hoped) one day I would just wake up and my anxiety would be gone and I would just get up and perform to the highest of my abilities all the time. Guess what? That still hasn’t happened. However, I have made significant improvements. Over the years, I have taken many of the practices that we share with you into my life as a performer and everyday they draw me closer to confidence and artistic expression that only comes from a balance of focus and relaxation that is achieved without debilitating anxiety. In some way, all of us are trying to become better performers, whether it be as musicians, at work, as a leader, as an athlete etc, and most of us know how anxious thoughts and nervousness can effect our performance. The good news is there are mindful ways to become more aware of when your thoughts are racing or you’re worrying unnecessarily, and you can learn how to relax into them and release.
There are many technical definitions for anxiety, but I think most of us, if not all of us, know what anxiety is like; racing thoughts, negative self-talk, or an underlying worry or fear that something is going to go wrong. Of course, sometimes anxiety is normal and in response to a real perceived danger. For example, if a bear is running toward you, you’re going to experience a lot of anxiety, and you probably should. However, most of us experience anxiety when there’s no real threat. I recently attended a talk by a Monk in Phoenix, and he described anxiety as “fear on simmer,” which really resonated with me. This excessive rumination and underlying fear is a form of suffering that is dramatically on the increase in the US. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults aged 18 years and older—making up about 18% of the population.
How to Release Negative, Anxious Thoughts
When we observe our life moment to moment—as opposed to spinning around inside our thoughts like a hamster trapped in a wheel—we create a gap that allows us to notice what’s happening instead of completely identifying with it.”
The first step to releasing negative, anxious thoughts is changing your perception. That is, realizing you are not your thoughts, and your anxiety is not a permanent identity. In life, things are constantly changing and Anxiety isn’t an exception. Once you understand that the anxious thoughts you experience are only thoughts, are impermanent, and probably not even accurate in some fundamental way, then those thoughts will lose power over you. Even if there is some truth to the story you’ve developed in your mind, and there is a real threat (you could lose your job, your ill loved one could pass away) it is still important to recognize that your thoughts about a situation can either be helpful or fuel the fire. For example, if you ruminate day and night about the possibility that you’re going to lose your job, you’re sending signals to your body that danger is present and your body goes into “fight or flight” response, which is never helpful and often debilitating. Ruminating about losing your job isn’t going to make it any less likely to happen, so why put yourself through the extra agony? In my own experience, this excessive rumination- what if I don’t breathe well for this high note, what if people don’t like my voice, what if I come in at the wrong time- is never helpful and often results in the very things I was worrying about manifesting.
According to psychologist, Karyn Hall, “If you imagine an event occurring, your view of the likelihood of that event actually occurring increases.” If you worry and ruminate about awful events, such as losing your job, totally bombing an interview, or failing at a task at work, you are also increasing your sense of how likely it is that the event will occur. That of course will add to your misery, though it’s really only a change in your perception.
Without a doubt, stopping this excessive worrying is challenging. If you find yourself constantly worrying, consider letting the ruminating thought pass through. Instead, try replacing it with visualizing yourself dealing effectively with problems that come your way. By doing this, you can learn to recognize these waves of thought and learn to ride them without making them stronger or falling into the dark ocean abyss.
“Your perceptions define your reality, and your behavior is based on what you believe to be real. “
Here is a simple 3-step sequence for you to follow the next time you’re feeling anxious:
1. Identify the Thoughts
If the thought is, “I’m not good enough to do this” or “my job’s never going to get better” or some form of worry, complaining, blaming etc., take a moment to recognize that the thought is forming in your mind. Realize that you are not your thoughts, and your anxiety is not a permanent identity.
2. Set the intention to relax, with gentleness, patience and a sense of humor.
As we’ve discussed, when you’re experiencing negative, anxious thoughts, your body is going into some kind of fight-flight-freeze response. Take a moment to notice where you’re holding tension and make the conscious effort to relax. Take a few deep inhales and exhales, or follow our favorite progressive muscle relaxation sequence to target more specific areas.
3. Let Go & Release
You can use your out-breath to release tension in your body, as well as any negative thoughts. Imagine breathing directly into those negative thoughts and worries and imagine them leaving your body with your exhale.