Tackling Anxiety: Change Your Brain

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The real act of discovery consists not in funding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes. – Marcel Proust

I started my own law practice this year. It has been going really well and I’m beyond thrilled that I made the move. However, I recently went through a few days of difficult feelings that arose when my work slowed down. Like many of my very supportive self-employed colleagues have reminded me, maintaining a positive outlook while work is ebbing, rather than flowing, is a skill that all self-employed people need to learn.

My work has always slowed down in August, even when I wasn’t self-employed, so I had no rational reason to be fearful. When employed by others during slow times, as long as I was receiving a paycheck at the same time every month, I could delude myself into thinking my employment was secure. The reality was, however, that my job could be eliminated at any time due to factors beyond my control, as it was on at least one occasion. Anyone who has ever gone through a downturn can attest to the sense of foreboding when work is slow, when the economy is doing poorly or when the people around them are being laid off.

A sense of foreboding can result in anxiety.  It is a burdensome, negative and stale energy that, if left unattended, can permeate the other areas of our lives. It is difficult to find the energy to shake it off, lighten up, shed a fearful perspective and regain clarity and control.

I was taught that feeling “free, open, loving and spontaneous” is our natural state of being. If we aren’t feeling that way, at least part of us – our mind, our emotions, our body – may be fearful. Fortunately, no matter what is going on around us, we can still make our way back to our natural state.

I have learned that the process it takes to get back to our natural state results in even greater happiness than we experienced before we got stuck, in the same way that a healed broken bone is stronger than it was before it was broken.

Step One is to identify the difference between a real threat and a false fear.   Take out a piece of paper. In the left-hand column, right down all of the negative thoughts running through your head. All negativity boils down to fear so just ask yourself what you are afraid of.

When I hit the slow patch in my business, I wrote things like, “The phone will never ring again” and “This started out great but it’s all over now”. I also write things like, “This was too good to be true.” The more you write, the deeper you dig into lifelong fears and beliefs that may have been true at one point in your life, but that are no longer true – and that no longer serve you.

Giving voice to your fears helps them dissipate. The further down you push your fears, the worse they feel when they arise. Panic attacks and anxiety result, because feelings under pressure need to erupt eventually. What you resist, persists.

Now that you have written out your fears, you can ask for help in determining whether they are rational or not. This can be really confusing for some people. Fears can feel so convincing that we may truly believe we are at risk, when we actually aren’t. It is always good to question our fears and ask ourselves, “Is that really a threat? Do I truly have something to fear?”

Ask others for their view. Choose people who have the knowledge and experience to serve as an objective voice of reason at times when you may be too panicked. I asked my colleagues if they were also slow in August and all of them assured me they were. A colleague who has been in practice for almost thirty years explained how she schedules her long vacations in August, since nothing else is happening in her office. That made me feel much better. It also verified that my fears were irrational.

Let’s get back to that piece of paper. In the right-hand column, right down all of the rational, fact-based responses to your fear. I wrote something like, “August has always been slow and this August is no different”, “My colleagues are also slow, so it isn’t just me” and “You know you made the right move, so trust in your own intuition”. This exercise helps to distinguish between the irrational fear messages we receive from the actual facts.

If it turns out our fears are signaling a threat that is real, voicing it allows us to find solutions. If my rational response, corroborated by the objective people around me, confirmed that, in fact, my work slowdown was due to a problem, then this recognition would enable me to solve it. We all know that ignoring a problem and hoping it goes away on its own only results in a much bigger problem.

Sometimes we don’t acknowledge a problem because we are afraid that there is no solution. My fears may have tried to tell me that everything was lost, the situation was hopeless, the business was going to fail miserably and I would become homeless. However, a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.

After a deep breath and some rational thinking, perhaps I would have identified problems with my business plan, my budget or my marketing plan. I could have changed my approach in any of those things and navigated a new course of direction, resulting in increased business. A business that reevaluates itself regularly is one most likely to remain viable.

Figuring out the difference between what is really going on and what is all in our head is key to discerning how we need to respond. Working out cognitive exercises and evaluating input from a rational and objective support system is a wonderful way to facilitate this insight.

What are your fears and how do you determine if they are based in reality or not?

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