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anxiety

A couple of weeks ago I went on a California vacation. I was excited to take a well-needed break from work and drive down the Pacific Coast Highway for a little wine tasting in Sonoma.

As I always do prior to a vacation, I put my out-of-office notification on. Then I boarded the plane and settled into my much anticipated, guilty-pleasure, marathon catch-up session of Scandal.

Then my phone rang. It was my doctor’s office.“I’m on vacation!” I shouted in my head and happily sent the call to voicemail. They’ll leave a message, I figured. Back to Scandal with my phone in airplane mode. Sayonara.

Except…

My doctor’s office didn’t leave a message. They decided to email me instead.

And then my out-of-office email responded to their email. And then their server responded to my out-of-office email with their automated “this email cannot receive replies” email. And then my out-of-office email responded to their “this email cannot receive replies” email, and then their “this email cannot receive replies” email responded to my out-of-office email.

These two emails soon became old friends, ping-ponging back and forth for the five hour flight. When I arrived in California I had over 2000 undeliverable emails in my Gmail Inbox.

“Oh my god!” I said out loud when we landed — 2,000 undeliverable emails, and they kept pouring in. But, with every ounce of my vacation-cool, I ignored it. I got back in the present moment thinking I would just batch delete them later.

Except….

The thousands of emails piling up in my inbox resembled a spam account, which triggered Gmail’s algorithms, and they (Gmail? Code? Bots? The Illuminati???) disabled my account. If you emailed the account you received a message that it wasn’t a real email account, and this was both my personal and professional account.

I run two businesses via this account, and any email account I’ve had over the years forwards to this account. I know, I know…this is a terrible practice, but when easy works, I like easy.

Panic is an understatement for what I started to experience.

Contracts. Contacts. Paper trails. Years of correspondence. History. Files. Folders. Memories. My life!

Gone.

How to remain intact when the shit hits the fan. 

These are the moments in life we hope never happen, but they always do. It doesn’t matter if you’re on vacation, or watching your kid’s soccer game, or having the worst week of your life. It’s not a question of if but when. And the choice in these moments is always the same — how will you handle it?

Yes, I thought about cancelling the vacation and flying back home. I thought about holing up in my hotel room until this mess was figured out. But this vacation was important to my husband and I. I needed to remain intact and present.

So, here’s what I did…

I paused and assessed what I could and could not control. This is called an internal locus of control: the belief that you can influence events and their outcomes; as opposed to an external locus of control, which is the belief that the external world controls you and is therefore to blame for whatever happens to you.

I took the necessary steps to reinstate my Gmail account. I filled out the reinstatement request form Gmail offers if you feel your account was wrongly disabled — a form that feels akin to writing the request on a piece of paper, putting it into a glass bottle and throwing it into the ocean.

I took to the Gmail forum message boards, searching for anyone who could help. I contacted friends and associates who might have insider access to the Google kingdom.

Whether Gmail would heed my calls and reinstate my account was out of my control.

So my next step was to look at cool art in Santa Cruz.

Of course, finding your internal locus of control is easier said than done, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier.

1. Give yourself space to freak out.

When going through stressful experiences I recommend a solid hour per day of what is known in the psychology world as a controlled freakout.

Ok, I made that up, but it should be a thing.

Each morning for the week we were on vacation, my husband would awake at about 5:30AM to the cool California morning breeze, the feel of crisp hotel sheets, and the sound of frenzied typing as I drummed up support on Gmail forums.

Then we’d talk about it. Talking helped me figure out my action steps, both physically and mentally. Without talking and processing, it all stays in your head and continues to grow. When you talk about it you release the anxiety.

Then I would move on. I was still alive, the earth was spinning, I was on vacation.

Every day I made a choice to find my internal locus of control.

2. Release anxiety by naming your emotions.

This is a process called “Affect Labeling,” it’s been around for awhile, but has only recently been named.

UCLA psychology professor, Matthew Lieberman, did a study that showed that labeling your emotions reduces the effect of the emotion. He coined the process “Affect Labeling.”

It works.

I talked about the situation with my husband, but also explained what I was feeling — sad, scared, anxious, and angry. But my emotions while watching this weird looking fish at the aquarium in Monterey were happy and curious.

By naming what I was feeling, I gained control over those feelings.

3. Recognize that you are in a period of intense learning.

I talk and write a lot about resilience and how it’s a major component for successful leadership, but I’m not Tony Robbins. I’m not always as resilient as I should be.

This was my opportunity to walk the walk. And a funny thing happens when you make a conscious choice to shift how you think about a situation: life becomes less scary.

In the moment, it often doesn’t feel like you have control over your emotions. But like everything in life, it’s a choice. Instead of living in panic, I chose to view the situation objectively, as one that would help me hone skills that are incredibly valuable.

Because the truth is, we should be activating our internal locus of control on a daily basis. It starts with recognizing that ultimate happiness doesn’t come from perfect lives or perfect vacations, happiness comes when we choose to take control over how we react to our emotions.

The shit will always hit the fan. How you respond is up to you.

Waiting, blaming, procrastinating, wondering, and self-pity will always make time for you. Inaction and external focus can bolster anxiety. Positive action, however, quiets the critical and anxious mind. When you take ownership and action, even if the end game is a losing one, you will know you did what you could do; you’ll sleep easier because you acted, you focused on what was in your control.

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like, “If you can do something about a situation then why get angry about it, and if you can’t do something about a situation then why get angry about it.” That’s some ancient leadership development for you.

Oh, and one bonus piece of advice — prevention is key. If you’re going to build your whole life and business on a single account, use one that has a customer service department, like G-Suite or Office 365.

And if you notice that your out-of-office notification starts going crazy, turn it off immediately!

And finally, if your doctor calls, answer the phone.


I would love to hear about your own coping mechanisms and times when they had to kick into gear!

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Sometimes when my husband isn’t home at the expected time I assume he’s dead on the side of the highway being eaten by wolves.

So far, this hasn’t happened (but that doesn’t mean it won’t).

Hi, my name is Nicole and I am a Catastrophist.

Catastrophisizing is but one of many cognitive distortions we all fall prey to from time to time, sometimes on a daily basis.

Psychologytoday.com defines catastrophizing perfectly into two parts so I’m quoting them:

Part 1: Predicting a negative outcome.

Part 2: Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.

It’s interesting that anyone thinks like this because it so obviously doesn’t serve us, either in leadership or in our personal lives. Yet we do, because we want so badly for the good to happen, that we put equal amount of energy into fearing the worst might happen too.

Catastrophizing is – excuse the redundancy – catastrophic for leaders. As a leader you need to be a beacon of resilience. And unfortunately…

Excessive Worrying Reduces Resilience

One of the most important traits for a leader is resilience. Inherent in leading, building teams and building a business are setbacks. Actually “setbacks” has a negative connotation to it; really what we should call them are “events that happen that move us towards the events we’d rather happen.”

It’s part of the game. It’s actually part of life in general and resilience is crucial for your personal life too, but when it comes to leadership, resilience or the lack thereof can make or break you.

You therefore want to build an arsenal of tools that support the tendency of resilience. You want sleep, exercise, a good diet, recuperation time, and a growth mindset to focus on challenges as opportunities.

The irony about anticipating stress is that it creates stress, so you immediately bring into your life the very thing you’re trying to avoid when you worry that it will come into your life.

Assumptions and expectations that cause anxiety arise from our past experiences, what we witness from other people’s experiences, and what we see in society from film/TV/books/magazines/etc.

You might have been fired in a past job and assume you will be fired in your new job. You might have seen someone else get fired and assume you will also be fired. You might have seen someone in a movie get fired for something similar to what’s transpiring in your own life and you assume you will be fired too.

These are all fictions and fiction never fully reflects reality.

Furthermore, the future is a landscape that doesn’t exist. Worrying about the future is the same thing as worrying about anything that doesn’t exist. Would you worry that you’re never going to get to visit the country of Alparnia? Probably not, because it’s a country that doesn’t exist.

Keep your mind focused on what exists, which is the moment you are living. It is the only timeline you can control. This will help build a resilient attitude, which will in turn:

  • grow your self-confidence
  • give you a flair for adaptation and flexibility
  • cultivate the belief that you can influence life events

The Benefits of Anticipatory Anxiety

  • Makes you feel terrible
  • Creates the reality you fear most
  • Raises your blood pressure, stress level, and can lead to disease
  • Stresses out everyone around you
  • Makes you look incompetent, non-resilient, and fearful
  • Emotional contagion will spur others to leave you

Obviously none of these are benefits, but I wanted to label them as such to shine a light on our flawed thinking.

There’s an illusion of strength with your anxiety, that it is giving you control over the eventual outcome. Somewhere in the back of your mind you think “If I worry over it I can effect the outcome I want by thinking of everything I need to do to make sure what I don’t want doesn’t happen.” This is neurotic behavior that only attracts what you don’t want, because you’re only focusing on what you don’t want.

What you do want is nowhere in the equation.

Would you go about making a cake by focusing on all the ingredients that you wouldn’t want to be in it? You’d never make a birthday cake with broccoli, cumin, beef, sesame oil, and a microphone. At least not for someone you love.

Worrying about what you don’t want to happen is putting all of the aforementioned ingredients into a bowl, stirring them together, and putting it in the oven, all the while saying, “I hope I don’t make this cake.” And the only thing you’re doing is making it.

Why some of us are prone to anticipatory anxiety and excessive worry comes down to our core beliefs, which I wrote about here.

How to Deal

1. Take a moment to stop the train. You may have to forcibly take a moment to stop doing what you’re doing and just pause. Sit, breathe, close your eyes, and project what you want coming true rather than what you don’t want.

2. Find Something Immediately that Makes You Happy. It can be a video, a picture, a memory, it
doesn’t matter, just go there mentally, visually. You need to replace the anxiety with different thoughts. For me, it’s animals.

3. Full Steam Ahead. The best method is to proceed as though catastrophizing is something you’ve never even heard about. Make small choices towards your goals; keep putting one foot in front of the other towards the end game. This helps focus on the here and now while simultaneously keeping the anxiety at bay. What you don’t want is to sit in a chair ruminating without taking any action and/or taking preventative action towards a reality that doesn’t exist.

4. Make the Choice. The easiest and hardest part of moving past your anticipatory anxiety is making the choice to move past it. You have to want to move past it; you have to consciously choose happiness over suffering; resilience over stagnation; growth over regression; peace of mind over anxiety. It’s a choice, and the good news is you always have that choice available to you. Make little choices rather than huge sweeping ones. So, agree with yourself to make the choice not to have anticipatory anxiety. It’s not easy, and it’s not an immediate cure, but it’s a start.

Let go of the delusion that your worry is controlling the external world and creating desirable circumstances. Worry is not control.

The solutions, as the saying goes, “are in your head.” You may not permanently solve your catastrophizing, but you can learn to deal with it more effectively.

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