A Life Strategy – 8 minutes read.

“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.” — Winston Churchill

Once, shortly before a major concert before a standing-room-only audience, a member of Arturo Toscanini’s orchestra approached the great Italian conductor with an expression of sheer terror on his face. “Maestro,” the musician fretted, “my instrument is not working properly. I cannot reach the note of E-flat. Whatever will I do? We are to begin in a few moments.”

Toscanini looked at the man with utter amazement. Then he smiled kindly and placed an arm around his shoulders. “My friend,” the maestro replied, “Do not worry about it. The note E-flat does not appear anywhere in the music that you will be playing this evening.”

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What are fear and worry?

Fear is a biological and physical response to a threat. It’s what you feel when a burglar is breaking into your house, or you’re confronted by a big angry dog. Fear might not feel good in the moment, but it serves as a very important protective mechanism. When your body senses a threat, its fight-or-flight response kicks into gear, preparing you to either face the danger or run.

Worry is a series of repeated thoughts that leads to anxiety. Our minds cycle ahead to potential dangers and obstacles that may or may not happen. While it isn’t harmful to worry from time to time, doing it constantly or excessively can get us stuck in a cycle of harmful thoughts and behaviors.

And even if we realise that worry is harmful and makes us feel bad, it’s hard to turn off the feeling.

a. Steer away from unhelpful thoughts:

Recognise your thought- emotions – behaviour cycle. Think of a situation that causes you distress, such as standing at the top of a ladder. Then, identify the thoughts (“I’m going to fall”), emotions (fear), and behaviors (immediately climbing down) that you display in response to that situation. Charge up. When you are facing distress, practice small, manageable activities that give you energy and motivate you. Make sure these activities are doable, measurable, and lead to success. Explore thoughts. When you have a negative thought (“I’m a failure at work”), consider the evidence for and against that thought. Now, generate an alternative, positive thought (“I made one mistake, but my manager constantly tells me what an asset I am to this company”). Face what you’re avoiding. When we are afraid of something, we tend to avoid it. Instead of avoiding your fears, approach them—move toward and embrace them. Do it one step at a time. Solve problems. Whenever you are faced with a problem, identify your goal and brainstorm ways to accomplish that goal. Choose the most promising solution, and then create a step-by-step action plan to carry it out.

b. Use skills to cool off your brain:

When your brain is racing at a thousand miles an hour and your body is caught up in a state of fight or flight, it can be hard to dial everything down. Unplug. Give your brain a break. Turn off the news. Stop scrolling social media. Take a day off from your stressful job. Do whatever you need to do to dial down the fight-or-flight response. Charge up. When you feel anxious, your default protective mechanism might be to do nothing. But to get energy, you need to expend energy. Your body is very much like the battery in your car. To recharge its battery, you must drive it. You can jump-start your battery by choosing an activity that is doable, measurable, and repeatable, such as walking. Anchor. Connect yourself to something that motivates you. Link an activity to your goals (such as walking every day to achieve your goal of exercising more).

c. Focus on self-care:

In our constant drive for success, we have neglected one very important thing: ourselves. Studies find that we don’t eat healthy foods, sleep, or exercise nearly enough. A poor diet, sedentary behaviour, and lack of sleep are causes and also byproducts of stress and anxiety. It’s easy to say, “Eat better, exercise more, and sleep seven to nine hours a night”, but much harder to do. Try to improve these areas with small incremental steps.

d. Face your fears:

Just about all of us have something we’re afraid of, whether the object of our fear is heights or loud noises or making a presentation. To overcome your fears, you need to learn the difference between a real threat and a false alarm. Recognise your avoidance behaviors. We’re all hard-wired to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. Avoiding the object of our fear might help us in the short term, but in the long term it gets us stuck and even less able to face our fears. Build an approach ladder. Create a list of things you are avoiding, so you can slowly face each one. The bottom rung is the easiest thing, while the top rung is the hardest. Identify an opportunity to approach. Figure out how you want to tackle that ladder. For example, if you’re afraid of heights, your first step might be to stand on a stool. Gradually increase the height until you’re standing on the observation deck of a tall building. Practice. Practice navigating your fear over and over again.

e. Practice problem solving:

One way to gain more control over situations that trigger fear and worry is to treat them as problems in need of a solution. First, ask yourself some questions about the situation:

• What is the focus of your anxiety?
• Why do you think it makes you anxious?
• When is your anxiety most bothersome?
• Where does it happen?
• Who is involved?
• What in your life might be contributing (for example, troubles at work or in your relationships)?
• What makes your anxiety symptoms better?
• What makes these symptoms worse?

f. Practise Mindfulness:

When you’re anxious, you react in the moment to things you think might happen. When you’re mindful, you focus on the present without any judgement. Staying focused on the present prevents you from falling down the rabbit hole of worry. You stop dwelling on your past actions or fearing what might lie ahead. Focusing on the present moment frees you from the endless cycle of negative thoughts that spin around your mind when you’re anxious.

Deep Breathing Breathing is something so intrinsic that we barely think about it. In fact, you breathe about 20,000 times a day without conscious thought. You might wonder how something as simple as taking deep breaths can do anything for your anxiety. Yet the breath, which yogis call “prana,” has powerfully calming effects on your brain and the rest of your nervous system. When you’re anxious, your breathing quickens. Purposefully slowing your breaths helps you gain more control over your mental state. Deep breathing is simple, and you can do it anywhere. Here are few examples you can try

Meditation Meditation takes deep breathing one step further, by combining it with mental focus. Research finds mindfulness meditation helpful for not only relieving anxiety symptoms, but also for improving our ability to cope up with the stressors that life throws our way. Set aside a few minutes each day to meditate. Sit somewhere quiet and close your eyes. Breathe deeply in and out while calming your mind. You might repeat a sound, word, like “Om”. If your mind wanders, as it inevitably will, gently steer it back to the present. Acknowledge them, but then let them drift away.

How anxious are you?

During the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by the following problems?

Rate each of the statements below, using a scale of 0 to 3, where 0 is “not at all” and 3 is “nearly every day.”

Anxiety isn’t always harmful. In fact, it can work to your advantage in certain situations. Have you ever been so anxious about a job interview that you spent extra time preparing for it? When anxiety motivates you to make an extra effort, it can help you perform better. Yet there is a limit to how much anxiety is beneficial.

In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson did a series of experiments in which they gave mice a series of mild electric shocks. Yerkes and Dodson learned that the more they increased an electrical shock, the more the mice’s performance increased, but only up to a certain point. Then the electrical shock became detrimental to the rodents’ performance.

This principle posits that there is an optimal level of stress that correlates with an optimal level of performance. On one side of the curve is low stress, which correlates to boredom or apathy. At the top of the curve is moderate stress, which is the ideal level for positive performance. And at the bottom of the other side is high stress, which correlates to high anxiety and poor performance. Keeping your anxiety level at the top of the curve will benefit you. Letting it get too high is counterproductive.

All illustrations by Kanupriya Singh

In continuing with the theme, the next issue will be on Secrets for using stress to build you up, instead of break you down.

“Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.” – Jodi Picoult

Picoult’s quote reminds us that, while worrying keeps our mind occupied, inevitably it leaves us exactly where we started. More time passes, more tasks pile up, and our anxiety sticks around.

Taking action, no matter how small, is an effective way to tackle anxiety.