I love tennis. The Australian Open is one of my favourites. Despite the late nights, watching these gladiators confront the boundaries of their skill under sustained pressure is thrilling and inspiring. It also highlights the important role of presence.
Whether a fan or not, to watch these women and men master their on-court presence is a lesson we can all learn from. Out there on court, with a screaming crowd or broadcast to millions, a player is under intense scrutiny through sustained pressure.
Consider the self-mastery of Tsitsipas weathering the storm of a brutal, on-form Nadal to come back from two sets down. Barty dealing graciously with defeat. Djokovic smashing his racquet in vicious rage against Zverev and coming back to win. The playfulness of Hsieh. Zverev’s sad eyes and exposing his stomach when things go wrong. The steadiness of Osaka. The power of Williams – and, ahh, the clothing.
We know that our physical signals determine how someone responds to you within 40 milliseconds. Given that emotions activate in around 300 milliseconds and thoughts in around 600 milliseconds, the body rules. What we show physically is based on how we master emotion and thought.
There are eight great lessons to help you face the challenges of leadership, parenting, politics, teams, and the hustle of making progress in a testing world. There is no one right way. This is a creative journey of building the presence you want to be in the world. Test the lessons for your own needs. Adapt and refine.
Discipline your Body. Your body sends the first signals. Are you confident? Are you open and warm? Are you fit for purpose? Are you dominant or submissive? What emotion is your body signaling? The body is tangible and malleable. Much more so than your emotions and thoughts. The body is where we must start.
To present in life, recovery the first requirement. Sleep, breathe, stretch and nourish yourself well. Your vehicle must be well serviced. The moment a match completes triggers a structured routine of recovery. Do you believe you are physically prepared for the day?
Unlike other creatures, we adorn ourselves with clothing, gels, jewellery and hairstyles. Creative presentation is great. Are you presenting like a male peacock? What is the signal that you want to send to those you engage with?
Walk and Stand with Purpose
A limp in an antelope is an attack opportunity for a predator. Walk tall, directly, and maintain a spring in your legs. Keep your shoulders open and let your arms swing naturally. Stand with your feet apart, weight on the balls of your feet, balanced and ready to move. Do you have a video or picture of your gait?
Lengthen the Back of your Neck
Keep your spine light and long. This reduces the strain on your neck massively. Well balanced shoulders and neck make you look alert, ready, open and confident. When your shoulders hunch and your head bows forward (i-posture), you look beaten. The signal goes both inwards to your own hormonal status (testosterone down and cortisol up), and out to the impression others receive.
Never Expose your Stomach
We are a predator species. Exposing the belly is the strongest submission pose a predator can display. Watch Zverev. He really must stop this habit. Too much exposed flesh is a distraction at best. At worst, it derails your purpose.
Shut your Mouth
Only open your mouth to speak and in extreme exercise. Breathing through the nose is much better for health and performance. Leaving your jaw slack and hanging has no benefit. Deliberately keep your lips sealed, tongue soft and slow your breathing. This will also help you to listen better.
Restrain Emotional Outbursts
Smashing a racquet, swearing or angry outbursts might have been OK in McEnroe’s time. We are past it now. Destructive emotions must be checked and expressed with respect and skill. While rage appears to excite a part of the population (Kyrios vs. Thiem), we will advance faster when we learn to express the better angels of our nature – respect, tolerance and kindness.
Practise like Crazy
Just as you cannot pick up a racquet for a masterful forehand without years of practice, so you will need to practice this stuff.
Watch different postural styles in contexts that you admire
Review or record photos and videos of yourself in action
See an experienced physiotherapist for a muscle balance assessment
Develop a daily stretch and core strength routine
Mitigate sleep deprivation, overload and hyperventilation
Lockdown for the third time. Calls cancel work booked. Rain pelts down. Businesses are pummelled. We lifted ourselves up, reinvented work and again, we face adversity.
No-one has escaped. Many have worked from home for months, some through long, dark winters. Millions of jobs have disappeared. Families are bereaved and separated. Governments wallow in debt. Climate threats continue to build.
This is our history. Cycles of collapse and growth beset humanity. Often the four horsemen of disease, famine, mass migration and state failure are triggered by climate shifts.
Time and again, we, humanity find a way to makes sense of chaos and despair. We bounce. We innovate, adjust and find new solutions. We reconnect, demonstrate altruism and find our way back to flow.
Acknowledging fully the suffering and insecurity many of us face right now, there are lessons and deliberate actions available to help us bounce.
Lesson 1: Make sense of the downward suck
Resilience fails fast or slow. When the mind is overloaded, we lose focus and then disengage. Creative thinking fades, and the old reptilian emotions activate. Fear, the primitive flight reaction, activates first. We want to run away – go to bed, switch to a screen, drink, eat and procrastinate. If we do not accept and counter this normal reaction, anxiety is the price we pay.
When anger, the fight reaction, triggers, we seek to blame – government, epidemiologists, employers or family members. Filled with the poisonous chemicals of anger, we lash out. Unresolved, this leads to hostility and conduct disorder.
Finally, sadness, the freeze reaction, activates. We withdraw into isolation and ruminate on all that has gone wrong. Again, though normal, we must counter it before we sink into despair and depression.
Lesson 2: Bounce forward fast
Bounce back is delusional. It is a fixed mindset. You cannot go back and reverse change. When we confront adversity we learn, adapt and apply new skills. Adversity can overwhelm but mostly we grow and bounce forward to an improved state of function. Acknowledge the suck, focus on how adversity can motivate for a fresh perspective, learning and constructive action.
Focus on the small things – a powernap, a stretch, a walk, reach out to a friend or colleague, or appreciate the rejuvenation brought by rain. Action is required. Small steps lead to bigger steps. Build your momentum. Tackle bigger challenges.
Lesson 3: Adversity makes you stronger
Despite our brilliance and resources, we simply fail to recognise and action preventive measures – health, saving, moderation, climate or state abuse. We are the archetypal boiled frog.
We can learn by confronting the consequence of adversity. When we get a shock and feel pain, we pay attention and are motivated to act. This is how nature has always learned to adapt and prevail. Being too safe and over-protected leads to complacency and fragility. The body becomes weak, destructive emotions prevail, and thinking becomes sloppy.
There are times that we must protect the vulnerable. We can learn to reframe adversity as a challenge to pay attention, be curious, learn and try again. Engaging adversity with wisdom and courage, allows us to strengthen and upskill the muscles of the body, the emotions and the mind. Growth follows.
Lesson 4: Take care of yourself
Basic self-care is most essential when things are difficult. This is the time to be a little ruthless as coach. Make sure you sleep enough, at regular times and with quality. Do some exercise – even a few stretches, push-ups or a brisk walk. Even a minute can make a difference. Maintain good posture.
Slow your breathing. Focus on breathing slowly through the nose. Aim for six breaths per minute. Four seconds in and six out or five in and five out are well-established options. For the more adventurous, ideally with supervision, you can try the breathing and cold exposure disciplines of Wim Hoff.
Lesson 5: Name, tame and reframe emotions
We are slowly learning to master the world of emotion. For most they ‘do not exist’. They are unconscious experiences that take control of our lives. If they are positive, that is fine. But if your emotions are negative, flight (fear), fight (anger) and freeze (sadness), they are wrecking your life and your relationships.
If you don’t feel good, you are in a negative emotional state. Name it. Pause and ask the question: ‘what am I feeling?’ The moment you accurately name the emotion (fear, anger, sadness), the unconscious and ‘reptilian reaction’ becomes conscious. The pre-frontal cortex activates. Accept it, feel it and engage it.
Once you are aware, you are in charge. Now, tame it. Slow your breathing, relax your face, step back, stretch and let the negative emotional reaction settle.
Now you are ready to reframe it. Fear is countered with equanimity and curiosity. Anger is countered with respect and kindness. Sadness in countered with appreciation, gratitude and humour.
Yes, it sounds tricky. Twenty years of neurobiology and positive psychology shows that it works and triggers the broaden and build of growth and connection.
Lesson 6: Stop thinking
Much of your thinking in wrecking your life. A flight reaction in the body and the emotion of fear accelerates worry loops about an imagined future. The fight reaction with anger, accelerates rumination on the sins and failings of someone else. The freeze reaction with sadness, accelerates rumination on your own sins and failings.
Name it, tame it and reframe it. Notice and acknowledge when you worry or ruminate. Exhale and come back to the present unfolding situation (tame). Focus 100% on a constructive action in the present.
Lesson 7: Smile, laugh and do something you love
Yes, these are difficult times. Many are suffering. Yet life lusts for itself. Adversity activates bounce and growth. We learn, we reconnect, and we build better futures. Evolution is on our side. Our genes are resilient. We have the skills. We can watch the experts. Good studies prove the lessons above. They work.
Imagine your team in a meeting with a consultant is pitching a wellbeing solution. The consultant may be a doctor, nurse, psychologist, neuroscientist or lay person. They will present what they think is “wellbeing”, “resilience”, “psychological safety”, “mental health” or many other labels. Seldom do they define what they mean.
What would you hear in the minds of your team?
Health & Safety Rep: “This might protect people from covid-19.”
Human Resources: “This can help us reduce virtual work stress issues.”
Training manager: “So this is psychological safety”
Operations manager: “Let’s toughen up our non-performers.”
CFO: “We are already spending $2,000 a month on ‘health’ insurance.”
CEO: “This has nothing to do with business performance, but we need to reassure the board on mental health.”
We have little insight into how people process the concept. The focus might be depression, anxiety, bullying, keto diets, exercise, sleep, stress, resilience, emotional intelligence or mental skills. The problem is compounded by a confused research agenda and limited research on the business benefit (ROI).
Here is an approach that has helped us make sense of this confusing topic. Our recommendation is that service providers and leaders take some time to clarify their thinking and communication. There are many legitimate explanations.
The goal is to encourage you to be clear in your thinking and precise in the language you use. Most importantly define the meaning of the words you use.
Sick, Healthy or Well
We operate in a massive, interconnected and reinforcing crisis that is in effect aSICKNESS SYSTEM. The way we live our lives, the products we sell to each other, and distress (physical, emotional and mental) we tolerate make us sick. Preventable diseases – specifically heart disease, diabetes, obesity, anxiety and depression – continue to increase globally crushing the lives of individuals, compromising productivity, and costing us all a fortune.
Unfortunately, the players in the sickness system benefit from more disease and desperation. Industries behind insurance, cure provision, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, guns and administrators have little interest in reform. Globally it is predicted to be worth USD $8.8 trillion in 2021.
Health is perhaps the absence of disease. We have the knowledge and tools to prevent about 75% of disease – physical, emotional and mental. If we successfully prevent disease, we have aHEALTHCARE SYSTEM. We spend less than 3% of our health budgets on prevention.
WELLBEINGis a state of physical, emotional (and social), mental, and spiritual vitality. Life is aligned and feels good. Energy (physical), pleasure (emotional) and realistic optimism (mental) are abundant. Even when we are unwell or suffer serious setback, we are able to access our wellbeing to bounce forward and continue our growth and connection –RESILIENCE.
How to reduce confusion, paradox and conflict?
Be clear as to whether you mean sickness care, health care or wellbeing (or resilience). For example, New Zealand made quite a show of launching a wellbeing budget of NZD $500 million and promptly dumped it all into treating mental illness. Lipstick on a pig. In the US, sickness is so expensive to treat that people will compromise on their careers, entrepreneurship and wellbeing to secure insurance. With employers spending $2,000 a month on “sickness” insurance, it is no wonder they baulk at spending $5 a month on a proven wellbeing or resilience programme.
Develop a coherent concept to embrace a proposed solution. Don’t be seduced by simple, part solutions. Mature employers now have multiple operating solutions – mental health, safety, health, insurance, wellbeing, mindfulness, EQ, mental skills, resilience, EAP, sleep, and engagement. This is expensive, confusing and de-motivating. Each one has its own language, budgets and territorial owners.
Be precise on whether you are mitigating risk – depression, anxiety, substance abuse, diabetes or high blood pressure – or building strengths – fitness, sleep benefits, clarity under pressure, emotional agility, empathy or mental skills. Define the costs and the benefits to the people involved and the business. For example, sleep disturbance is estimated to cost business ~ USD $2,000 per person per year. Can you show evidence of how the intervention will improve sleep – say 25% – and demonstrate how that would save $500 per person per year.
Articulate clearly where responsibility lies. Views are split between total individual responsibility and total employer responsibility. This is not helpful. It is always a shared responsibility. Both individual and employer have a duty of care. Be precise about what you expect from individuals and what you are prepared to contribute as an organisation.
This trap that can cause conflict. Take depression for example. You promote positivity or mental skills (CBT) which have good evidence. A depressed individual has been told that it is an imbalance of chemicals caused by genetics and that the only solution is anti-depressant medication. Then you get a grievance that your bullying triggered the depression. Messy!
Be sensitive to physical, emotional, mental and spiritual perspectives. We are moving into a biological age where objective signs (blood tests or brain scans) are being matched to physical, emotional and mental experiences.
Take anxiety for example. It is described as a mental illness, yet nothing is seen on brain scans. We observe clearly the presence of excess and persisting fear emotions. We also observe that heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol have increased. From a biological perspective, anxiety is a sustained flight reaction. It is a physical state of being. Should we treat with a potent anxiolytic medicine or teach the person to breathe slowly?
Psychologists in particular must watch for thinking traps and be precise. No-one has yet seen a psyche. If our approach and investment in mental illness was sound, mental illness would be in decline, not accelerating.
Spiritual wellbeing must be handled gently. Perceptions are most diverse here and a challenge can be taken seriously.
Finally, there are no quick solutions. An app, webinar or workshop will not solve the problem. Preventing sickness and building wellbeing (or resilience) take years of deliberate attention, practice and reinforcement. The medical paradigm lets us believe that the drug, the surgery or the procedure will solve the problem.
Just as you continuously invest in improving your logistics or digital marketing, so health, wellbeing and resilience is an ongoing journey. Clear definitions, precise language, integration of concepts, patience and tenacity can truly transform your people, your culture, your brand and your productivity.
We are concluding a testing year. Over and above the risks of digitalisation, polarised politics, environmental tipping points, and turbulent markets, Covid-19 is testing our communities, businesses, governments and economies.
As we come to the end of this year, our team recommends that you think carefully about what you need to bounce and recover. Most important, please be deliberate in the execution of your plan. We share some practical suggestions here to help you rejuvenate and re-engage for a constructive 2021.
The five horsemen of apocalypse according to Ian Morris are disease, mass migration, conflict, state failure, and climate change. These have, according to Morris, always been the cluster of factors that have disrupted humanity over the past 12,000 years. All five are at full gallop.
Many are afraid (anxiety), sad (depression) or mad (angry). Under the covers, we are exhausted by the reality of disease, lock-down, job loss, political chaos, and disasters relentlessly broadcast by media engines.
The end of year break is coming, and we need it more than ever. Will you press hard to the bitter end? Will you continue to fidget with your devices and media feeds? Will you splurge on food and alcohol? Will you collapse into illness as the rest allows your defences to drop? Will family conflict erupt?
Here is a plan of action to restore your resilience. To rest. To disengage. To recover. To bounce. To sleep. To restore health. To reconnect with people you love. We strongly recommend a disciplined approach to year end.
Plan your holiday now
Identify what you need to bounce and recover
Create quiet time for rest, sleep and nature
Schedule quality time with those you love
Get out of your home office
Get close to nature
Automate your “not available” messages
Switch off your devices
Allocate a short burst of “work time” each day
Disconnect from the news
Commit to three daily recovery practices
We all wish you a wonderful end of year break and time with your loved ones. Bounce, Grow, Connect and rediscover your Flow.
A resilient mindset appears as a simple, compelling concept. If we could just acquire such a thing – perhaps with a pill or an app – life would magically become better. A resilient mindset could solve all sorts of problems.
For a critical mind, the concept is complex and confusing. Is there even such a thing? If there was such a thing, how might we develop and apply it?
In this article we try to understand and define what a resilient mindset might be and explore whether it is possible to develop such a thing.
What is a resilient mindset?
First, we must define a mindset. The catchy answer is to tease out Carol Dweck’s growthmindset. A fixed mindset takes the position that things cannot be changed – even with dedicated effort. For example: “There is no point in me trying to do mathematics. My mind is just not built for mathematics. I simply cannot solve these problems.” This built on Martin Seligman’s learned helplessness. Research demonstrates that it leads to a less fulfilling life.
The growth mindset, previously calledlearned optimismby Seligman, takes the position that if I apply myself, I can learn to master this. For example: “Mathematics is challenging for me and many others. If I apply myself and practice hard enough, with the right support, I can learn to solve these problems.” Research demonstrates that this belief leads to fulfilling and successful lives.
We cannot see these mindsets in a brain scan. They are beliefs about our abilities and the challenges presented to us. We could say that a mindset is a strongly held belief. There is evidence – primarily from twin studies – that some beliefs have as much as 50% genetic origin. Conservative views, pessimism, risk taking, and anxiety correlate with inheritance.
Nevertheless, we can become more aware of our beliefs and through this learn to challenge and adjust our beliefs. In this way cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can cure depression as well or better than anti-depressants. Likewise, a belief that ‘those people’ are evil and awful can change with constructive engagement to a belief that ‘those people’ are just like me.
In summary, a mindset is a mental representation of how things do or don’t work. Here are some mindset tests.
Which statement describes your mindset?
People are selfish
We should be self reliant
Humans cause climate change
High taxes are good
I will take care of myself
Empathy is a hardwired trait
I believe I can master ‘x”
Life is brutal, solitary, nasty and short
People are kind and generous
We should support people
Climate change is random
Tax should be minimised
Others should care for me
We can learn empathy
There is no point trying ‘x’
Life is a creative advance into novelty
Does one really want a mindset? Perhaps in this age of polarisation, what we need more are flexible perspectives. Rather than having set beliefs, we might learn to explore different perspectives thus testing the pros and cons of each. The BBC advocates aparadox mindset. There is no one right way and therefore, “mindset” may be misleading. We vote for flexible minds.
Second, we must define resilience. Is it a genetic attribute which is fixed at an early age? Alternatively, is it a learned set of skills that we can all acquire with effort and support. Some believe that it is ‘bouncing back’ from adversity. Others believe that adversity stimulatespost traumatic growth.
While we must each come to our own definition, our research shows that the learned ability to bounce, grow, connect and find flow is an integrated set of skills. A skilful performer takes on increasingly difficult tasks. Adversity and failure are inevitable. They must learn tobounce forwardfast. As they learn bounce, theygrowphysical, emotional and mental skills. These skills areconnectedin a team, game, or specific situation to achieve theflowstate. Whilst super-productive and fulfilling, there will be setbacks.
Right here we face one of the conundrums of our time. Should we protect our children and people from adversity? Shall we make sure we are physically safe, emotionallycoddled, and mentally complacent? In this mindset, adversity is the problem. People must be protected. Pressure and challenge must be avoided. We must support people at all costs and ask little of them.
Alternatively, should we challenge people with adversity and risk? Evidence shows that adversity stimulates awareness and growth. Further, serious adversities connect communities and increase collaboration. Rather than seeing people as vulnerable and victims, we view human ability as noble. We expect dedicated self-improvement and altruism.
Either one can become a fixed resilience mindset. These are the polarised perspectives of liberal humanism versus stoic self-reliance. Taken to extreme, both perspectives have risk. If we press the first, people can become frail (unwell), fearful (anxious) and fragile (depressed). If we press the second, people might feel isolated, exploited and distressed.
A flexible, resilient mind might ask when safety is the priority versus when challenge and accountability is a better solution. Pick your battles with wisdom and learn to adjust with new information.
How to build a flexible, resilient mind?
The bad news is that it takes time, effort and repetition. A pill or an app is not the solution. Hard work over thousands of hours defines the path. The good news is that we can learn and master well established, defined skills. There are even some bio-hacks (short cuts).
The goal of a flexible, resilient mind is:
“to construct a conscious, deliberate alignment of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual resources to engage effectively with a defined situation”
Conscious and deliberate cognition is essential. Our thinking must be clear, ordered, flexible and creative. In approaching the situation, we must have a clear view of the complexity of the situation, master our own state, and be able to generate creative options to solve it.
The All Black rugby team has drilled this under the name of ‘red or blue, decide, do’. Articulated well byCeri Evans, it is the discipline of engaging with a challenging moment knowing that we can choose between a ‘red’ emotionally reactive approach or a ‘blue’ thoughtful and deliberate approach. Players practice selecting the ‘blue’ by stepping back, up and in. They ‘step back’ to calm the ‘red’, then step up to get a clear view, and then step into the situation fully committed and deliberate.
In a challenging situation, the body will often react with fear (flight), anger (fight) or withdrawal (freeze) reactions. These strong negative emotions disable clear thinking and decisions. They can set the mind in stone.
The challenge is to restrain strong, negative reactions. To do this we have to name them, tame them and reframe them (step back and up). It is only when our emotional state is calm and positive that we can activate the mental skills required to assess, analyse and solve the challenge.
Our physical wellbeing is essential to support this effort. Good quality sleep, adequate rest and recovery, physical fitness and smart nutrition are required.
We can think of our spiritual resources as faith. Faith that with deliberate practice I/we can learn to master this situation (grow and flow). Faith that self-care is an ethical imperative (grow). Faith that people are fundamentally good (connect). Faith that flexible and creative work can solve the toughest challenges (bounce, grow, connect and flow). Faith that those who love and support us will be there regardless of the outcome (connect).
To apply this approach in your own life, think of a specific situation or challenge you are facing right now. Describe the situation clearly in writing. Reflect on the last time you confronted this situation. What were you thinking? What emotions were in play? What did you experience in your body?
As you describe how your mental, emotional and physical resources lined up to the situation, you can see with clarity how the situation evolved. This is called situational awareness and is the foundation of a resilient mind, emotions and body.
Next, define in writing what sort of outcome you would like to achieve in this situation. When you can define clearly the current versus desired outcome, you have created tension – a gap that you intend to close. This is the purpose of a flexible, resilient mind. We can apply willpower to close the gap.
Then, you must apply the creative solutions that help you close the gap. There are many variations that you might consider and explore. What new thinking might you introduce? What emotions will motivate and inspire action? What sort of physical wellbeing and engagement is required? This is called situational agility. This is the work of a resilient mind, emotions and body.
Once you can build a few potential solutions to the challenge, you are applying integral resilience and situational agility. It may not work on the first attempt. Be willing to test and trial these options with a colleague or a coach. The first time you apply it, it will feel awkward and may go astray. Sit down and reflect following the steps described. What do you need to be more aware of? What other options are available? How can you practice that particular part of the solution?
If you have made it this far, you are on the path to aresilient mindset– sorry –flexible, resilient mind. Well done.
Mindset: updated edition, Carol Dweck, 2017
Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, 2006
The Coddling the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt, 2019
He dare not come into company for fear he should be misused, disgraced, overshoot himself in gestures or speeches, or be sick; he thinks every man observeth him.
Robert Burton,1621, quotes Hippocrates describing a patient.
If you are feeling a little uncertain, uneasy, anxious or worried, you are in good company. We will remember 2020 for fires, Covid-19, floods, hurricanes, moral outrage, and massive job losses. There is little to indicate that we are ‘going back to normal.’
We hear from our clients, colleagues and reputable media that anxiety is the most troubling concern right now. Anxiety is both unpleasant and debilitating. It can range from a very appropriate and necessary recognition of risk to being immobilised in a state of panic.
Depending upon the situation, anxiety can be alife-saving super-poweror alternatively, a psychiatric diagnosis of mental illness.
A clear understanding of how anxiety works and practical steps to counter it will guide you back to calm and curious playfulness.
The five steps are:
A Psychiatric Perspective
Large population surveys show that up to 33.7% of people are affected by ananxiety disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) claims that 18.1% of adults are affected and 25.1% of young people (13 – 18).
An “anxiety disorder” in theDSM-5is diagnosed by excessive anxiety and worry (difficult to control) occurring most days for six months about a number of events or activities. Symptoms include restlessness (on edge), fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance.
Psychiatrists apply a wide range of descriptions including anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobia, andseparation anxiety disorder.
Treatment is counselling, CBT or anxiety medications. The pharmaceutical market is worth about $7 billion (excluding antidepressants ($18 billion) often prescribed for anxiety).
You cannot die from an anxiety disorder or even a panic attack. However, prolonged anxiety has been shown into increase risk of cardiovascular disease and can make inflammatory disorders such as asthma and rashes worse.
A Biological Perspective
Anxiety is linked to the primary emotion of fear. Fear exists from reptiles through to humans. Fear has been retained in evolution because it increases the chance of living long enough to reproduce. In a dangerous world of predators and deprivation, fear saves lives. It is so important, that the flight reaction is a powerful, automatic reaction to threat.
The flight reaction activates before you can think about it. When the senses detect a threat, the amygdala and hypothalamus fire up the sympathetic nervous system. You are flooded with adrenaline. Blood leaves your brain, skin and gut to power up the leg and butt muscles so that you can run.
Just as an impala might dash off with a whiff of a lion, so you might jump away at the sight of a coiled object in your path. Thinking in humans only happens after the event. Your body, gripped by a surge of fear, may just have saved your life.
At the milder end of the anxiety range, is a sense of doubt or unease. A very mild activation of the fear response leaves you feeling uncomfortable (butterflies), tense (neck and back) and wide-eyed. The experience could be triggered by a creak of a door or even an imagined threat. Either way, it wakes you up, you pay attention and prepare for a threat.
There are two dimensions of anxiety: severity and duration as shown here. A quick surge of fear can alert you to threat and help you focus on mastering the situation (1). But we have to tame the fear in order to be calm, focused and connected to the situation. Too much fear will make us rigid and unable to respond with skill (2).
When fear persists and is experienced as chronic anxiety and persistent worry, it is of no adaptive use (3). Chronic anxiety will undermine your life and health (4). It feels awful, thinking is compromised, and you may find yourself avoiding and procrastinating in the face of challenges you need to address.D
Anxiety can be understood from physical, emotional and mental perspectives.
The body is activated by adrenaline, blood flow changes, muscle tension, breathing, and heart rate. We can experience this as a physical experience. The bodily state is felt as a feeling, or emotion, of fear. This fear can express as unease, wariness, terror or even panic. These are emotions we can learn to label accurately. They can be captured on camera and in voice.
Face of fear
Fear focuses our attention on future threats. You may notice yourself thinking: ‘this could be scary’. That is a useful thought that helps you plan and prepare. However, you may find your mind looping around the same thoughts: ‘this is terrible, what if, this is going to hurt, they will hate me.’ This is worry. It is not helpful. Your mental resources are distracted from the present moment.
The five steps from anxiety to playfulness
When you experience anxiety in the body, feel it as emotion, or notice it as worry, name the experience immediately. For example: ‘I feel my heart thumping’, ‘I feel fear’, or ‘I am worrying about x. The goal is to make an object of the experience.
If we don’t name it, we become the subject. We feel lost in a whirl of heart thumping, dread, and swirling worries. You feel like you are the flight reaction. Your reptilian brain is in control.
This step puts you in control as the observer. My body is tense. This is a feeling of fear. My mind is caught in a worry loop. You have just put your pre-frontal cortex in control. The reptilian systems immediately deactivate when you name it. Now you have access to conscious perception, judgement, creativity and can choose the best response.
Once you name the state, feeling or thought, the experience of anxiety and fear is already reducing. There are many tactics to achieve this. Relax your face, breathe out and pause, massage your neck and shoulders, have a cold shower, sing, gargle or reach out for a hug.
Learn how to focus attention on your body or the flow of your breath. Each time the mind charges off to worry, gently bring it back to the rise and fall of your belly.
There is tremendous power in learning to do this well. I believe every student should be taught these skills early in education. It will be life changing. If you know you can reduce your anxiety with practical steps.
Our most popular blog is “Take a Deep Breath is Bad Advice.” Taking a deep breath, especially if it is through the mouth makes anxiety worse. Rapid, shallow and chesty breathing can combine with breath holding and sighing. These are signs of hyperventilation. You may be breathing 18 times per minute. If you hyperventilate deliberately, you will feel anxiety rise.
To start, lie flat, close your eyes, relax face, body and limbs, and exhale fully. Pause a moment and then inhale through your nose. Aim for ten second breath cycles. My preference is 4 seconds in (1, 2, 3, 4) and 6 seconds out (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Keep your chest and belly relaxed. Allow your lower ribs and belly to rise and fall as you breathe.
Two or three minutes of this slow, diaphragmatic breathing through the nose has a huge impact. If you can accumulate this sort of breathing for about 8 minutes a day your vagal tone becomes stronger and your brain becomes more focused and agile.
The next step might be to learn and practice a meditation. Try to do this every day even if for just five minutes.
A reframe is consciously and deliberately choosing a different state. You take your body from tense to relaxed. You nudge your feelings from fear to calm. You test the worry with thoughts of hope and opportunity. The concept comes from CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). You can reframe body, emotion or thought.
The All Blacks use the term ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’. Ceri Evans (see below) uses the aphorism: ‘Red or blue? Decide! Do!’ Approaching a difficult play, notice the fear (red), step back, step up to focus on the goal (blue) and step into deliberate action.
By practicing these disciplines repeatedly, you can learn to reframe in a split second.
Notice that we are not advocating that you deny feeling. The information is an important message. Use it to quickly reframe your body, emotion and mind into a state that can solve the challenge.
When you look at memorable learning moments in your life, they are often found where you confronted big and scary challenges. There is nothing more rewarding than finding a way to engage adversity with curiosity and a sense of play. This is what young animals do in play. In play we engage voluntarily with adversity. We chase, we run, we wrestle, and develop the skills to be able to do it under pressure.
Develop a habit of playful engagement. When adversity presents:
Feel the fear and name it
Breath out and relax your body
Step back and up to look around
Say to yourself: ‘this is interesting, there must be 7 ways to play.’
Make a decision
As you keep practicing this your attitudes to adversity will change from threat to playful opportunity. As your skills improve, you vagus nerve will myelinate and get stronger.Calm, focused connectionbecomes easier. You will learn to trust yourself.
Life and its challenges become a playground for adventure.
Joseph LeDoux, Anxious, 2015 (a sound neurobiologist)
Jean Twenge, i-Gen, 2017 (researcher on young people)
Ceri Evans, Perform under Pressure, 2019 (how All Blacks do it)
Deb Dana, Polyvagal Exercises for Calm and Connection, 2020 (get it)