I’ve experienced intense anxiety for the last couple days, as today I had an afternoon meeting in which 3 incredibly intimidating professors evaluated my research progress. I characterize this type of anxiety as acute and specific, because it’s short-term and has a definite cause (as opposed to chronic, nonspecific anxiety, where your brain just plays endless loops of horrible scenarios for no obvious reason).
Fortunately, I’ve endured so many of these acute/specific-anxiety-inducing events that I’ve developed effective counterstrategies, which I’d like to share!
As the best defense is a good offense, I attack acute, specific anxiety by:
1. acknowledging the cause
The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, so I first identify what exactly is causing my anxiety (in this case, an impending meeting) and forgive myself for feeling nervous. I also try to get specific about what I’m afraid of (i.e. they’ll think I’m stupid, I did everything wrong, I’m a slacker…), and then imagine the worst that can happen. Amazingly, this seemingly painful exercise usually is reassuring, as even the worst possible outcome isn’t that bad…
I also acknowledge that some uncharacteristic thoughts and behaviors may stem from this anxiety (for example, I apologized to my boyfriend for being curt with him and told him that my response was really due to anxiety, not him), and I am gentle with myself, as I know that I’m enduring a temporary stressor. I don’t try to keep my anxiety to myself.
2. reframing my feelings
I remember that I’m anxious because I care. If I’m worried about a meeting, it means that I care about the work and about how the audience will perceive me. Anxiety is just excitement without the breath. Furthermore, anxiety correlates with high IQ. When I reframe my anxiety as excitement and commitment, its occurrence becomes reassuring, as it is simply an indicator that I care.
3. doing the work
Tom Edison says it best: “when it comes to worry, work is better than whiskey.” The only way I can be confident in meetings is to know that I did the work to the best of my ability. On deadline days, I naturally wake up early, avoid email/Facebook, and put on some focus music (I Need R3hab are my favorite hourlong tracks of house music) or just headphones, which also get me in the zone. I usually end up analyzing data and composing presentations and writeups right up until the meeting starts, and this timecrunch makes me incredibly efficient.
If I’ve already done the work and just have a presentation, I go for a morning run, which helps clear my mind and make it sharper later. If I haven’t done the work, I conserve that energy and get my ass to my desk/lab bench and do the work, and I instead get my boost via cold shower 😉
5. fueling properly
On days when I give presentations, I don’t even mess with crappy food that will zap my energy. I put together my meals (or a plan on how to obtain food) the night before, and I make sure that I’m not hungry before the meeting.
6. silently repeating mantras
When I’m feeling stupid or overwhelmed, I repeat the following mantras to myself:
“I can and I will”
“I’ve done harder things”
“do my best and let God do the rest”
“fear is just excitement without the breath”
“stay in it”
“it’s about the work, not about me”
7. relaxing after
I don’t schedule anything difficult after a big meeting or presentation, and I try to have a fun, relaxing reward lined up (like pottery class tonight!). I celebrate the fact that I did my best and that I’m a constant work in progress 🙂