Talk about having to speak in public to an anxious girl and you’ll see her crumble to the ground under the weight of her nerves shaking.
Yeah, maybe you will. Or maybe not.
I was recently asked to act in behalf of my boss for a couple of weeks, travel abroad, lead the preparation of the stuff we had to present, meet our Customer and deliver a 90 minutes presentation twice in two weeks.
My anxiety immediately told me to say “No, I don’t want to go”, but my hard-working attitude and my desire not to let my boss down made me nod and say “OK!”, while thinking “I’ll do it, it’s scaring the shit out of me, but I’ll do it. I have no idea how, but I’ll do it.”
Most of all, there’s a feeling I know all too well by now: whenever I hide up and avoid doing something that scares me, the feeling of having escaped from a dangerous situation lasts just for the time of a glimpse, then it is followed by the mortification of knowing that avoidance has a main disruptive effect: it strengthens the idea that I’ll never be able to perform that scary activity, never ever in my life.
So, my approach was clear: I was going to go (and hope I’d survive).
Needless to say, since that day, anxiety symptoms started to surface again. Usual stuff for me: lack of appetite, tachycardia, stomachache, nausea, poor sleep, cough, running nose, and few other amenities.
That’s when I remembered to use my newly acquired tools: acceptance and self-love. I gently smiled at each symptom showing up: every time I felt my stomach cringe I smiled, every time I felt like throwing up I smiled, every time I had to rush to the bathroom I smiled. I did it sweetly and carefully, the way you’d do with a child who’s feeling sick. It works, because it helps me see the situation in a lighter perspective: if I can smile at it, it means it won’t kill me.
Then, I decided not to hide it: I said it to my boss, talked about it with my colleagues, disclosed it to my family and friends. You don’t need to give away too many details or to show completely how miserable you are feeling. I just was like “Oh guys, anxiety is rising up and I know it’s because of next week’s meetings”. It doesn’t shock anybody. Most of the people hearing that will admit they are feeling the same, many of those who won’t admit it are feeling the same nonetheless. And saying it out loud was enough to make myself know that I was entitled to feel like that.
As you can easily imagine, symptoms picked as the day of the presentation approached. That’s when I started feeling as if I was going to be executed, as if I was going to face a pack of enraged dogs (Glenn, thanks for the metaphor, man!).
I knew it all along that I was not going to be executed, that no dogs were going to be present at the meeting. I knew it rationally, but my mind, my body, all of my emotions were getting set up for the dogs approaching.
That’s when I used my other super-power: reaching out. First of all, I didn’t stop the rest of my life from flowing, I decided to act as if nothing bad was going to happen. I went out with friends and attended a conference about consciousness the day before I left. It helped me understand that those upcoming business meetings were not the only thing happening to me, that the business-me is just a part of who I really am and that means that, should I have failed at those meetings, that wouldn’t have been the end of me as a whole person.
Then I expressed my feelings and my fear of freaking out on my facebook page. One of my friends (Glenn, that’s you again) wrote: “Remember that you are facing the dogs head on, fight the fear, you are the winner.” He was right: that’s what I was doing. I never really considered the option of refusing to go; I was facing the dogs head on. It wasn’t enough to make me feel like a winner (not yet), but that thought warmed me a bit.
The crucial day came, I woke up in a hotel room after a night of very poor sleep (almost no sleep at all, I dare to say). As soon as I sat on my bed, I felt sick, so terribly sick. I let myself feel like that, then stood up, headed to the bathroom and started getting ready for my battle. Before leaving my room I sat for a 10 minutes session of meditation and I deliberately slowed down my movements, got ready, had a light and healthy breakfast, then headed to the office.
My presentation was going to be right after lunch so I had all the morning to try to regain some calmness. I focused on the presentations that were being delivered before mine, I focused on my breath, I engaged as much as I could in small talk with the others. It all helped me regain some confidence. I kind of let go the idea that I was going to decease. Maybe I was going to survive.
Then my moment came, as I was introduced and felt everybody looking at me, a rush of blood moved through my body and my heart rate picked. I told myself that my body was just doing the right thing, that adrenaline was getting me ready for the fight. I let my body do its work and stopped thinking about it. Again, I deliberately slowed everything down. I moved my mouse calmly across the file I was displaying, I got my speech slower and deepened the tone of my voice. That’s how my body sent a very distinguished signal to my mind: everything is ok, you can let yourself go.
Heart rate quickly went down, breathing got natural and quite, anxiety let space to my preparation and to the solidity of my work. The confidence I gained while feeling so relaxed gave me all the energy and focus I needed to answer the questions I was asked. I had no idea about what they were going to ask, but I was feeling so much “in the zone” that I did a great job improvising answers that shot back cleverly and professionally at the Customer trying to ambush me and catch me unprepared.
As I finished my presentation, I knew I had done something huge, I could feel it in my blood, running through all my body with a warm and expansive sensation. I could feel it in the muscles of my face and shoulder getting relaxed. I could see it in our Customer’s eyes, when he asked me if I was new to the Project. I heard it in my colleagues’ voices congratulating with me. I heard it in one of our managers’ voice saying that I “did an amazing job at keeping cool and replying at those tricky questions. It wasn’t easy.”
It wasn’t easy, he was right. But I had just managed it like a piece of cake.
While travelling back home I couldn’t stop thinking about how cool and in control I felt during those 90 minutes. I couldn’t stop reminiscing all the questions they asked in order to test our choices and experience and all the replies with which I defended our point and showed them we had done a good work.
I’m quite used to that: reliving some event that’s just happened time and time again, by analysing every single detail, ruminating on it for hours. But a big change happened this time: I wasn’t ruminating on something I had done wrong, I wasn’t blaming myself. Rather, I was congratulating myself and tasting my success to the last bit. I was rewarding myself for being great in front of my fears, for facing the dogs, realizing they weren’t as invincible as I thought, defeating them and discovering what was lying behind them. And behind them, there it was: the awareness that I can do it, that I can show myself up, present my work, defend it and collect appreciation for that. Behind them, there was the warmth of success, the cuddling feeling that I’ve no reasons to hide, that I’ve nothing to be ashamed of, that it may be hard, but it’s never impossible.
I had felt like I was going to die, then it turned out I not only survived, but thrived indeed.
God bless the journey that has lead me this far, the suffering I had to go through, the people that have taught me so much and the surprises that are still ahead.
 If interested, you can have a look at what Avoidance Coping is on Wikipedia.
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