Note: this article applies to pre-performance anxiety; severe general anxiety requires more complex, professional treatment
You cannot avoid anxiety. It is our internal gauge of pressure, stress and anticipation. It hounds our thoughts and actions, preventing the latter and polluting the former. We strive to be rid of it, longing for a life where their desires are free to be pursued and expressed without the hindrance of anxieties and doubts. But is it the demon we make it out to be? Is it an immutable part of our nature?
I argue that anxiety is one of the essential essences of living – a life energy that pulses and rings with purpose, a feeling that is as much a part of healthy living as food or air, and should be greeted like a friend, not an enemy.
Fantasies and Fictions
Think back to a time when you’ve pursued a goal. Perhaps your felt you needed to stand up for yourself, and assert a boundary; perhaps you wanted to express your desire towards a member of the opposite sex; perhaps you wanted to do something that went against the grain of culture norms like chase a career dream against the wishes of your peers.
I’ll bet you felt anxiety. I know I do in situations like that. A feeling in your chest, breath, palms – an expression of internal discomfort. A shivering heartbeat and constricting muscles. Fight, flight or freeze.
I’ve been there. The experience often results in the goal being dropped, followed by shame or convenient cognitive dissonance – ‘I never wanted to do it that much anyway.’ Then follows the fantasy, the ‘what ifs’ played out in your internal cinema. Actions taken with a clear intention and a rock solid confidence. Results, success, power.
But those fantasies never seem to become real. Haunting us like Greek Gods; playing tricks to reveal our weakness, frailty and powerlessness before fate.
And it’s terrible right?
Why can’t we just be rid of anxiety?
Shadow of the Dream
One of the hallmarks of violent criminals is they have an extreme resistance to anxieties. This is referred to as psychological hardiness. It allows them reserves of boldness that is deprived to those of mental health. It allows them to commit to actions that would cause us pause for thought. Freedom from anxiety ironically correlates with removal of personal freedom – incarceration.
The fantasy of conquering, defeating, killing or removing anxiety is exactly that – a fantasy. You cannot exist as human being and not have it as part of your emotional make up. To say you can be rid of it is as great a lunacy as saying you can be rid of happiness, sadness, anger or calm. For it not to be present, there has to be something wrong to begin with.
The reality of the anxiety free fantasy is life of living hell. The life of a human being who doesn’t exist on the same spectrum as his fellow man, deprived of the emotionally commonalities that bond human social groups – leaving those incapable destitute and alone, and often inside a maximum security prison.
Anxiety is the pause for thought, before the plunge. It is not an enemy, but a friend. An intrinsic part of your emotional family. Treat it as such.
Language and Labyrinthine Identity
Our emotional states aren’t unique to us, but our language is. Where our similarity to our animal kin ends is that we have complex forms of communication that exist in our extra personal and intrapersonal relationships.
Where this affects our relationship with anxiety is in our intrapersonal relationship. Anxiety is first felt physiologically. Its effects have been described in broad strokes above, but they are uniquely expressed in all. The problem arises in how we define our physiological response as it arises.
Our conception of identity is the patterns we spot in the chaos of the living experience, the truths we attempt to impose on our own disorder. The labels, the slights, the overestimating, the underestimating. It’s the conversations that keep occurring in our own mind. A lot of what we believe about ourselves is simply the language we apply to our own physiological responses, instincts and emotions; our relationship with ourselves. When we feel lonely we describe ourselves as lonely, then we ascribe our worth to this fact, and so on – when it was as simple as a need for connection all along.
When we attempt something and it is met with an increase of heart rate and muscle tightening – we come to describe these feelings as anxiety; we describe these feelings, and the cause itself as negative and threatening. Now trying to rationally explain to yourself that the trigger is harmless is going to do nothing to avoid the onset of the physiological response. If you’re a healthy human being, it’s perfectly normal, and it’s going to happen.
But what you can do is change your language.
Think about anxiety for a moment. Its effects on you, how your body feels, when it arises, why it arises. Now think about excitement. Its effects on you, how your body feels, when it arises, why it arises.
Increased heart rate, muscle tightening, a feeling of anticipation of a positive or negative response?
Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin. They feel the same, are brought on by the same trigger (anticipation of a future event), they only differ in the context of the trigger.
Anxiety is a response to a perceived negative. Excitement is response to perceived positive.
It’s all a matter of perspective, and language.
Legends of the Men in Black
This year the New Zealand International Rugby team, The All Blacks, competed in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Hosted in England it was said to be the most competitive Rugby World Cup yet, with no clear favourite and a handful of teams vying for the top spot.
Yet on paper, The All Blacks were the favourites. Historically they were the most dominant team in world rugby. They had an almost 90% win rate, they’d won the World Cup twice, and their 2015 team was home to some of the greatest players the game had ever seen.
So why weren’t they the favourites?
Well, because they’d never won the World Cup outside of New Zealand. And when it comes to World Cups, they had a reputation of being chokers; of not handling the pressure; of crumbling under the expectations; of falling prey to tournament anxiety.
And it was true.
The All Blacks went into almost every tournament the clear favourite. And then they got knocked out and sent home.
Something had to change.
And it did.
Overhauling their culture for the ground up, The All Blacks had slowly but surely improved themselves as a team and as individual players. And their response to the pressures, stresses and anxieties of the 2015 tournament was evident.
Making their way through the pool stages, the All Blacks faced a match with their ultimate Northern Hemisphere rivals – the French; the team that knocked them out of the 2007 world cup, and almost stole their 2011 victory from them. Doubted by the media, they were hounded at press conferences and interviews by questions related to fear, self-doubt, pressure and anxiety. Faced with these questions and the history between the two teams, each and every member of The All Blacks team from coaching to management to players responded the same way.
‘We can’t wait to get out there.’
They defeated France 62-13 and proceeded on to the semi-finals.
The game was against their most competent and respected opponent – South Africa; the team that had beaten New Zealand more than any other, and had won just as many World Cups. But unlike New Zealand, South Africa had won the tournament at home, and abroad.
Hounded again by the press for admissions of fear, self-doubt, pressure and anxiety; The All Blacks responded the same way every time.
‘We can’t wait to get out there.’
They defeated South Africa 20-18 in a game that was decided right up until the 80 minute full-time whistle. The All Blacks nerve never broke.
Proceeding to the final they came face to face with Australia. Their bitter trans-Tasman rivalry has long been the stuff of sporting history, and Australia had been the only side to beat New Zealand in the game’s leading up to the 2015 World Cup.
Again the press was littered with articles heralding The All Blacks defeat. Predictions of choking, declarations of Australia’s incredible ability were made, and as before, the Press questioned the players on their feelings of anxiety, pressure and fear.
They were met with smiles and the same responses.
‘We can’t wait to get out there.’
The All Blacks defeated Australia 34-17. They lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for the third time in history, the only team to win three times, and the only team to successful defend the title. They won it for the first time abroad, and they silenced any and all naysayers with one of the most spectacular shows of coolness under pressure in any sporting final.
They went home heroes.
And there’s no secret to their success.
The All Blacks always had the history, the culture, and most of all the skill. That was never in doubt. But their relationship with pressure was holding them back. They were beating themselves before they stepped on the pitch.
But in 2015, that all changed.
Their stark refusal to step back before anxiety, but instead embrace the sensation as excitement and eagerly await the challenge of the future cast their preparation in a different light.
They couldn’t wait to get out there, and you could see it in their eyes.
The Alchemy of Anxiety
The relationship between anxiety and excitement is decided by the relationship you have with the future, and where you focus your thoughts. It is from there that you derive your language, which helps to shape your actions.
Like you, the feelings of anxiety are common to all, even to sporting professionals like The All Blacks. A Tiger hunting in the jungle feels nerves dance throughout its body, but the excitement at attaining food and ultimately survival is where its focus lies.
Depraved of those ancient impersonal motivations you have to simply make do with the magic of word play, your human ability to imagine and physiological commonalities between excitement and anxiety.
The sensations, ever the same for either, are energy for or against. They are sizzling reactions of life within your body that dance in anticipation or fear. Excitement or anxiety.
Is the future a threat, or a challenge?
Something you can’t get wait to get away from or something you can’t wait to get your hands on?
Does the prospect threaten your ability to succeed, or inspire you by its challenge?
Ultimately, the alchemy of anxiety into excitement lies with you and with practice. Change will not occur instantly; like any relationship this is something that is developed over time. It’s the skill of emotional understanding, of handling yourself in the world. It’s a question of relationships, words and commitment.
Sensations of life
Emotions are impersonal. They have no inherent meaning save what we choose to impose. Anxiety, terror, excitement, rage, passion – these are the purest expressions of life’s experience – electricity in the veins – the realization of, or the resistance against, the truth of cosmic uncertainty; of our own powerlessness. Anxiety isn’t something to be resisted but instead brought into the fold and understood. Anxiety, like all emotions is something to build a relationship with.
Anxiety is necessary. It’s a check on your own behaviour, a biological warning sign that is yours to transmute into excitement, or to concede to its wisdom. It’s not something that you can get rid of, that would be a sacrifice of your own humanity; and like the silent suffering of psychopaths, would leave you desperately alone.
Anxiety isn’t ours; it’s recognition of life, and the activity it brings. It’s the screaming awareness of life’s mortality, whilst also the fuel for its energized survival; converted through simple psychological alchemy. Anxiety and excitement are always just a word away.