by Daniel Kingsley
If you’re reading this blog there’s a very good chance that you worry a lot. This isn’t because readers who come to this website are special in this regard. Pretty much everyone worries a lot, and a lot more than is good for us.
One of the reasons for this is that our brains were not designed to deal with the modern world. They evolved slowly over many tens of thousands of years, and this evolution hasn’t yet caught up with capitalism, mortgages, job interviews, promotions and public speaking. Fortunately there are some useful things that we can do about this issue. But first, to understand the issue better, let’s compare us with other animals.
We are not giraffes
Imagine you’re a giraffe in the Kruger national park in South Africa. Pretty much every decision you make provides an immediate benefit to your life.
- If you feel hungry, you wander over to a tree and eat some tasty leaves.
- If dark clouds come across the savannah and threaten to drench you, you take shelter.
- If you spot a lion in the distance who seems to be taking an interest in you and your family, you run like hell.
If necessary and you do need to run, your brain floods your system with the hormones it needs to activate your fight/flight mechanism (adrenaline and cortisol) and when you are out of trouble again you shake it off, the hormone levels subside, and your stress levels return to normal. This is what scientists call an immediate return environment, because your actions deliver immediate results relevant to your life.
Now imagine you’re a human watching the giraffe from a jeep on safari. We, as humans live in a delayed return environment.
Most of the choices and decisions we make will not benefit us immediately. If you have paid work, and you do a good enough job, you’ll get paid a few weeks later. If you invest in insurance, you’ll be protected if someone burgles your house later this year. Many facets of modern life are designed in such a way that they delay rewards until a future time. Our minds therefore tend to think of most things happening right now in terms of future consequences, and then worry about those possibilites.
For example, bouncing around on safari in your jeep you might think: “I’m enjoying this! Being out in the open air taking photographs…Maybe I should become a photographer…but am I good enough? Perhaps I should change jobs and become a gardener? But would I be able to earn enough money doing that?…”
Sadly, for us humans, living with these issues often tends to lead to chronic stress and anxiety. This plays out in the areas of public speaking, leadership and in all other areas of our lives. Why is this the case? Because our brains simply weren’t designed to handle the problems of a delayed return environment. (1)
The healthy function of stress and anxiety
In an immediate return environment (such as the one inhabited by giraffes, zebras and our earliest ancestors) stress and anxiety played a vital role in keeping us safe.
If a zebra is calmly eating and a stressor (such as a lion) appears, their brains secrete the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to get them ready to fight or run. These hormones put their body on a heightened state of alert, diverting energy away from their brains and digestive systems and towards their muscles. Once they are out of danger, the hormone levels return to normal and the zebra will go back to finding some food to eat. This was likely the case with our ancestors too.
Similarly, if a zebra hears thunder in the distance, its brain would secrete cortisol (the stress hormone) which would generate an uncomfortable feeling of anxiety in the animal. This would help to motivate it to solve the problem by finding shelter. Once shelter is found, this hormone would subside, the animal would return to comfort and normal resting behaviour.
So, these hormones are meant to be an emergency measure for getting out of danger, which is almost certainly how they functioned in early humans too.
How this plays out in modern human life
The difficulty with the world we live in is that many of the challenges we face can’t be solved in the present moment. (We live in a delayed return environment). I’ve got a speech to give next week – will it go well? I’ve got a job interview next month – will I get the job?
These not-solvable-now problems lead to our systems being flooded with stress hormones for days, sometimes weeks on end…and for some of us this becomes a way of life.
Also, it becomes a vicious circle. The more stress hormones you have in your body the more you tend to worry! All in all, not good news.
What can we do about it?
Happily, there are lots of useful things we can do about our tendency to worry get anxious. At Presence the ones that we focus on most are getting into relationship with ourselves and our worried minds, and helping them to calm down from there.
Start with compassion
The first thing to do is to recognise that we are not broken. This tendency to be fearful or worry is built into us as human beings. There was an evolutionary advantage to assuming the worst and considering everything that could go wrong in a situation. Our brains still hang onto this programming, even though it doesn’t serve us so well today.
To make things worse in a social situation like leadership or public speaking, we are programmed to worry about what other people are thinking about us. Combine this with our tendency to assume the worst and that’s a whole lot of worrying we’ll all tend to do.
This isn’t a problem – this is simply how we are. Rather than beating ourselves up for being anxious or scared, we can start with being kind to ourselves.
It’s not all of you that’s anxious
This may not be obvious, but when you are fearful, worried or anxious, it’s not all of you that feels these feelings. It’s only one part of your brain and only certain parts of your body.
You may be able to feel anxiety in your belly, your throat or your diaphragm, but at the same time you will probably be able to notice, if you check in, that your feet (and often your hands) feel fine.
This technique is what psychologists call disidentification. We go from saying to ourselves “I feel anxious” to saying “A part of me feels anxious”. This gives us a much greater psychological sense of space.
Try this out now. Try saying “I feel scared” and then saying “A part of me feels scared”. Notice the difference.
You can also notice where in your body you can feel the anxious sensations, what they feel like, and how large or small the area is. This will help you to further separate from your fear or anxiety. Once you are separate from the anxious parts, you can support them to calm down, rather in the same way an adult would comfort an upset child.
Now we know that there is a part of us that is worrying, we can ask it what it is worrying about and listen to the answer!
(This is what we’d do if a friend came to us and said “I’m really anxious about this thing next week” – we’d say – “What’s the thing and why are you anxious about it?”.)
This is a really simple step but is often neglected in the midst of our worrying – to be a kind listening ear for ourselves.
Empathise with and validate yourself
We can start to calm down the anxious part of ourselves if we start by empathising and validating it in its worry. To empathise is simply to reflect back what you’ve heard. To validate it to tell that worried part of you that its feelings make sense to you.
Here’s an example:
Empathy: “I can really hear that you’re worried about that interview tomorrow – you don’t know what questions they are going to ask you and you’re not sure that you’re going to be able to give good answers.”
Validation: “…and it really makes sense to me that you are a bit worried about it – you really want this job, it would really improve our lives if we got it, and there’s lots of competition for the position”.
Now offer yourself some (realistic) reassurance
Now it’s been listened to and validated, what the anxious part of your brain needs to calm down is some reassurance that it can believe in.
It wouldn’t believe you if you told it “You’ll definitely get the job!” – it would object “You don’t know that!! (This offering unrealistic reassurance is a mistake that people often make, telling themselves things that they know aren’t true. It doesn’t work very well as it sets up an internal conflict).
So instead – What’s the most positive thing you could tell yourself at this moment that is still truthful?
It will might be something like: “You’ve got a really good chance of getting this job, you’ve prepared really well, your CV is great and you’ve done some pretty good practice interviews. You’re a great fit for this position. They’d be a fool not to take you! And if they don’t, that’s their loss!”
Or in a public speaking context it might be: “The audience really wants to hear what you have to say. You’ve got a great message and you’ve planned an excellent speech. You’ve practised it a couple of times and it went well. Even if you’re nervous, it doesn’t matter. Your nerves will probably calm down after a few minutes. You might even start to enjoy it!”
This process is akin to a more grown-up part of ourselves (green) comforting and calming down a more child-like part of ourselves (blue).
Use the LEVER
I call this technique of relating with the worried, scared or anxious parts of ourselves the LEVER method – Listen, Empathise, Validate then Reassure. (The second E is silent!)
I use it very regularly with myself and have taught it to hundreds of clients. Pretty-much everyone has found it to be amazingly effective for massively reducing fear, worry and anxiety. All it takes is a little bit of kind attention and practice. You could do this quite easily for a child who was upset. We are just learning how to do this for the upset parts of ourselves.
The key (which many people forget) is the first 3 stages – in particular the listening with an attitude of kindness. You wouldn’t trust a doctor who prescribed medicine without listening to your symptoms first. Your own brain works in a similar way.
Once you have listened, the empathy and validation open the door for the realistic reassurance to really land. If you do this effectively, you should be able to feel the anxiety reducing in your body and your mind calming down almost immediately.
You may need to go through the sequence several times to get optimal results, but with practice this can all be done in just a few seconds. The whole process rarely takes longer than a minute, and in some high pressure situations I’ve done a really effective version for myself in 3 to 4 seconds.
So, the next time you find yourself worrying, cut yourself some slack and use the LEVER! And do let me know how you get on in the comments below. I love to hear from you.
(1) For more detail on this issue, check out this excellent blog piece by James Clear, who I also borrowed the Safari metaphor from. For lots more detail on how this all works in humans, check out Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers by Robert M Sapolsky.