Let me tell HOW REMOVING ANXIETY RELATES TO the time I tried acid…
Yes, I’m going to share something a little risque and personal here (sorry mum). So over 10 years ago, a friend and I had planned to take half a ‘tab’ of LSD each and then sit down and hallucinate to Disney’s The Lion King. I was a dumb teenager and thought it would be a fantastic night in. And it started out that way.
The speakers next to the TV started to swell and move, and the pattern on the couch started to crawl over my legs. It was great! I was in a nice safe place, with a mindset of “Don’t panic, just let the drugs do their thing”.
Then it all went horribly wrong…
Some friends turned up, all energetic and enthusiastic, wanting to drag the two of us to a party. We looked at each other with growing horror. The thought of facing a social and public situation in our current state was a daunting prospect to say the least. Before we knew what was happening, we were bundled into a car and driven away.
Walking into the party I clung like a koala to a friend’s arm, feeling waves of panic rolling through my body. The trees were glowing unnaturally, and it seemed like I could hear every single conversation at once. All I could think of was “Please let me escape!”
Then a fight broke out between some party guests. The ruckus was loud, fast, violent and confusing. I don’t remember this part, but apparently all my friends turned around to look for me, only to see me sprinting down the road. I must have made it almost a kilometer away from the party before they caught up with me.
But that’s just the drugs, right?
Not exactly. Illicit drugs simply command your brain to release your own natural chemicals in unusual ways and inappropriate amounts. The LSD I had consumed simply amplified my reaction to a normal experience, one which any of us could go through completely sober. I had been in a nice calm isolated situation and had then been unexpectedly dragged into a high intensity social situation. We all have this sort of thing happen.
My drug experience allows us to see in exaggerated form what happens to us when we get “out of state” and panic.
The leading cause of in-the-moment anxiety, self-doubt and hesitation I see in my work with clients is simply being in the wrong state of mind. Think of your brain as a group of separate compartments. Some of them are best placed to deal with high-energy social situations. Others are designed to build things with your hands. Another part is best suited for isolated concentration, like studying or writing. And creativity. And so on.
When you are suddenly thrown into a situation which does not match your current state of mind, anxiety kicks in. Your brain was all set up to deal with a completely different scenario and now doesn’t know what to do. The tools you usually have at your disposal for the situation you now find yourself in are currently on stand-by. The tools which are available to you are now useless.
Panic sets in, which only serves to create ‘blockages’ in your neural functioning. Problem solving and stress-management go out the window as you prepare for fight or flight. Your brain is so uncomfortable that it assumes you are under threat, and reacts to keep you safe.
So what’s the solution?
Part of my coaching programme focuses on how to train the mind to be comfortable in any situation. This allows my clients to enter new and unfamiliar situations without anxiety, or to overcome anxiety with situations they don’t normally perform well in (e.g. public speaking).
I’m going to share with you today one of the simple methods you can use to teach your brain to be comfortable and confident.
It is all about in-the-moment desensitization to fear. Those of you familiar with coaching and therapy will know that desensitization is a step-by-step process whereby you bring yourself into increasingly intense contact with a fear stimulus over time. For example, a person with arachnophobia might start with simply looking at a picture of a spider, while de-escalating their anxiety through Mindfulness and breathing exercises. Then they build up to a spider in a cage, a spider on the table, and eventually a spider in their hand.
But what about when you’re given last minute notice to deliver a presentation and the thought of public speaking scares the hell out of you? Well, the solution is the same, only you need to condense the timeframe.
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Step one: Calm your mind
In order to prepare for this situation properly, you need to disconnect from the fight or flight response you are now feeling. The flight or fight reaction is only really appropriate for life-threatening situations, so it’s not going to help you with public speaking… unless your plan is to either run away or beat up your boss.
Get some peace and quiet and meditate for at least five minutes to relax your brain. I recommend Sam Harris’ guided Mindfulness meditation. This will allow your brain to “relax” and focus, which will open the door for some creative thinking to emerge, so you can resolve this issue.
Step two: plot out your desensitization plan
On a piece of paper, write out the fear in its worst form at the top. For the public speaking example, you may write something like “delivering the presentation at work”. At the bottom of the page, write out the fear in its least scary form, something you can handle, such as “speaking to two people at once”. What I mean by “least scary” is that you take the basic action involved and figure out what it would look like at it’s most manageable level. So public speaking as an action is simply talking to people, therefore in it’s mildest form it’s just speaking to more than one person.
This is your field of desensitization. This is your fear on a scale from 1 to 5. Now we need to figure out steps 2, 3 and 4. Go through and brainstorm different ideas which are on this scale going up towards the scariest one.
In our public speaking example you might have things like “speaking to a stranger for the first time” as a 2, or “walking into a room full of people” as a 3, and other such things. They don’t need to all be about public speaking exactly, they just need to require the same state of mind.
So if your fear is social, make it social activities. If it’s physical, do active things. And so on.
Step three: follow the path (with meditation preparations)
You will now move up this path you have designed one step at a time. Before you take each action or step, first do five minutes of meditation to remove as much anxiety as possible. Then simply do whatever the next step is until it feels comfortable. Continue this process up until the big event you’ve been dreading. For our public speaking example, it might look like this:
1. Meditate first thing in the morning
2. Call a friend and chat to get the social state of mind warmed up.
3. Arrive at the venue.
4. Approach at least two strangers and engage them in small talk.
5. Find somewhere quiet and meditate again.
6. Enter the main speaking hall.
7. Start talking to people about my presentation. Aim to speak to at least 10 people before I go on.
8. Slip away and meditate before I go on.
9. Walk up onto the stage, search the audience for those I spoke to earlier and smile at them
10. Give presentation.
You should be able to plan out a day of overcoming fear in small, easy-to-manage steps, leading up to the thing you’re most anxious about. Not only will this help with overcoming anxiety by exposing to you to the fear in small doses, it slowly changes your state of mind too.
Doing something like jumping from quiet and introverted straight into giving a public presentation will only set off alarms in your brain. So instead try moving towards it slowly. This will allow your mind the time it needs to deactivate the unnecessary circuits, while simultaneously warming up the neural pathways best-suited for this kind of work.
I always tell my clients: Confidence is a set of skills. This is training to develop and strengthen those skills. “Not being afraid” is something you learn. Instead of fretting and panicking, for once try to actively control the situation. Most importantly, start by realising that there is only one person who can control your brain and therefore your anxiety:
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