Something interesting happened to me earlier this week. I was flying from Orange County to San Jose for a busy week of client programs. It seemed a bit windy the morning of my trip and I saw on my weather app that San Francisco was expecting an equally windy day. I didn’t think anything of it. It’s been unseasonably hot in California this month as the Santa Ana winds are in full swing.
I get to my Alaska flight (I love flying Alaska!) and the pilot informs us that the flight attendants will be seated the whole ride because the turbulence is not in our favor. Now, those of you who follow my leadership chronicles know that turbulence and I are not good friends. You also know that we have come to terms with one another by agreeing to disagree and finding my relative peace in the sky.
I knew there would be turbulence on a very windy day but still felt complete nonchalance. That is, until the moment the pilot announced what to “unfortunately” expect. I froze in that instant. My palms started sweating, my heartbeat doubled in pace, and my bladder immediately activated. We hadn’t even left the gate. Captain Daniel’s words triggered me right into anticipatory fear.
The funny thing about fear is that it only exists in anticipation. What actually happened on the flight was moderate turbulence that didn’t even phase me. What I anticipated would happen was sheer terror until the moment I actually passed through the fear (in this case, turbulence) and realized I was completely fine.
I’d urge you to think about where in your life you are experiencing fear – and notice if it is actual fear or anticipated fear. 99.99% of the time, it’s anticipated. What is fear, if nothing more than an anticipation of a terrible outcome from an otherwise normal event or series of events?
What I learned during that flight was that if I had been listening to music or speaking with a neighbor, I wouldn’t have even “taken on” his words. And I would have spared my poor body 20-minutes of a full-fledged anxiety response. It got me thinking about how easily we grab on to other people’s news, predictions, anxieties, fears, and carry them as our own. We have so much input all day (social media, news, family, work) that it’s increasingly harder to find respite and refuge for our brains. Even when listening to folks who are the “experts” in your life (as the pilot was in this case), you have a choice on what you take on to shape your experience of an event. You have a choice on what to internalize and what to simply release.
So, consider how you might take control back from any anticipatory fears you regularly experience (my “regulars” are turbulence, doctors, dread of my parents dying every time the phone rings at odd hours, and quarterly corporate tax payment days). What if you told yourself a different narrative about what’s coming? What if you lifted the assumptions that next time will be like last time? What if you spoke to folks who have zero trigger around that item rather than those who can commiserate with you for temporary relief? Just imagine the emotional freedom possible.
Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.Aristotle
From Theory to Action
Make a list of your anticipatory fears. Public speaking, performance reviews, a visit with your mother-in-law, disease, aging, spiders, small spaces. Whatever it is for you, just claim it by writing it down. Notice how many fears you’ve actually experienced in the moment and how many were simply the experience of anxious anticipation. Anticipation kills presence and rational thought. It takes your adult brain and turns it into a 2-year old brain within milliseconds.
Next time your anticipation fear creeps in, give your brain something else to do right away. Have it count down from 100 in multiples of 7, have it list 10 things a person non-reactive to this stimulus would say, have it re-organize your to-do list for the coming weeks, have it figure out a good date to plan a next vacation by flipping through the calendar. The magic is assigning your anxious brain something all-consuming to do in that moment. After a few tries, you will start to notice that you can subtly control your brain’s reaction to just about anything. You’re the boss of your fears, not the other way around.