Many years ago I decided to learn to deep-sea dive. I loved ocean documentaries and wanted to see all the cool stuff that was down there with my own eyes. I booked myself on a course and was excited to get started.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was completely freaked out by going underwater! I hated my first experience, and spent the week dreading my next lesson. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to pull out – after all, I was doing it alone so no-one was banking on me – and I’d never have to experience this horrible ongoing anxiety again.
Well, not until the next time something scared me, anyway.
And besides, someone was banking on me. Me.
I knew that if I gave in to this, it would be the thin end of the wedge. If I let myself off the hook this time, it would only be a matter of time until I got freaked out by something else… and having given myself a pass on this, I’d be that bit less equipped to cope. I knew deep down that by backing out I’d be handicapping my own resilience, and that was too high a price to pay for comfort. It was time to feel the fear and do it anyway.
Many world-leaders take the position that they simply do not negotiate with terrorists. They know that if they give in once, their position is forever weakened and the terrorists will soon be back with greater demands, putting more lives at risk in the long run. It’s a tough and sometimes unpopular choice, but it makes a lot of sense.
Anxiety is the terrorist that lives inside our heads. The more we give into its incessant demands for comfort and security, the more we strengthen its position and weaken our defences.
Does that sound like I’m saying that your anxiety is your own fault? I’m not, and it’s not. But it is your responsibility, and you are the only one who has the power to loosen its grip on your wellbeing.
There are good, practical ways to manage the symptoms of anxiety, many of which I share in my Yoga Therapy for Anxiety workshops. They largely have to do with bringing the autonomic nervous system back into a state of balance, as anxiety is the state of being trapped in fight or flight. It’s incredibly empowering to know that you have the skills to calm yourself down when you start to feel anxious, and these skills really do work.
But what if you want to stand up to that terrorist for once and for all? What if you could so dramatically reduce the extent to which you feel anxiety, that you could return it to the appropriate function which it evolved to be?
It’s unrealistic to expect never to feel anxious. It’s not even desirable; if you’re standing on a clifftop with nothing between you and the drop, it’s your anxiety – or more accurately, fear – that keeps you from getting too close to the edge. Anxiety only becomes a problem when it’s excessive and interferes with your day-to-day life. And the way to stop that from happening is to employ one of two strategies: avoid or expose.
Avoiding anxiety-inducing situations is a smart move in some instances. If you know that the traffic is likely to be heavy on the way to an important meeting, it makes sense to leave early and arrive in a relaxed state.
But avoidance is absolutely the last thing you should do when it means that you’re missing out on things that you’d enjoy. That’s why I forced myself to carry on diving. I decided I could either take the position that I now knew what was coming, and therefore it was worse; or that I now knew what was coming, and I’d survived the last time so the odds were good that I’d survive again. I opted for the latter. Did I love it? No, not at all. Did I get comfortable enough with it to get certified and see all that cool stuff with my own eyes? Yes, I did.
I took the same approach when I was asked to speak publicly about my experiences in the music business. Like many of us, I hated the idea of public speaking. So I said yes. And I was very anxious beforehand (which I managed with yoga techniques), and it was fine once I was doing it, and I didn’t die, and I now regularly speak publicly when I deliver workshops about, you guessed it, anxiety. I still get a little fizz of nerves before the event, but I reframe it as excitement, and it gets easier every time.
The moral of this story is that things which used to bother me enormously no longer have any power over me – or at least, it’s very minimal and it doesn’t stop me doing what I want. I manage the anxiety I do feel with my toolkit of yoga techniques, and the more I do things which make me anxious, paradoxically, the less anxious I feel. Hiding away would be the easier path, and don’t get me wrong, it sometimes still looks attractive. But I know what’s going to serve me better in the long run, and what will ultimately reduce my anxiety most of all. And it’s this simple: we don’t negotiate with terrorists.