Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ever feel afraid? anxious? Here's how to deal...

When I went to see "Avatar", I saw it in 3D in an iMax theater, sitting in the sweet spot, which is slightly above the very center seat of the theater. At one point, an actor threw a handful of pebbles at the camera -- and I literally jumped out of my seat! My body sensed that these rocks were coming at me, and flinched before I could think about it. (Btw, I have yet to meet a person who remembers this in the movie -- if you weren't sitting where I was, it made no impression on you whatsoever.)

It turns out that this flinching is normal behavior -- we evolved with it as protection. If a black bear shows up as you're enjoying a picnic, you want to have the adrenaline rush that fear creates so that you begin to run, or freeze, or whatever you should do. This is so important that the neural pathway directly to the amygdala, a part of the brain which registers fear, takes just 12 milliseconds, while the neural pathway to the cerebral cortex, which allows you to consider the information that a bear has appeared, takes 30 - 40 milliseconds, or 3 times as long. So watching "Avatar", my body literally did jump before I could think about it. Researchers call this amygdala reaction "fear".

By contrast, though, most of what we refer to casually as"fear", isn't. It's really anxiety, which is the projection into the future of an expectation of pain. You project that your presentation is going to go badly -- you vividly imagine yourself stuttering, or forgetting crucial statistics, or flubbing your PowerPoint deck -- and you feel a bodily reaction akin to fear.

Fear is a blessing; anxiety, maybe not so much. Anxiety is useful when it prompts you to do every question at the end of each chapter in your math text in order to prepare for a final exam. Anxiety is counterproductive when, having done all that, it prevents you from remembering all the techniques when you're sitting in the exam room.

How do you deal successfully with anxiety? There are techniques that can transform anxiety quickly. One is an NLP technique called the Fast Phobia/Trauma Cure, which works with a traumatic event and changes it so you no longer experience it in the same way. (It's a little tricky to do on yourself; if you want some help, please call me at 888-446-5547). Another experimental one uses drugs to stop those painful memories, which later generate anxiety, from forming in the first place.

Or you can use repeated exposure to whatever makes you anxious, so you learn a normal, useful reaction to it, along with mindfulness.  This is simply noting your bodily and mental states -- and letting them go. It means staying in the present -- while anxiety is all about the future. [If you want to read more, try the book, Nerve, by Taylor Clark.]

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