Something many people don’t know about me is that I am nervous pretty much ALL OF THE TIME. Need to make a phone call to a stranger? Debilitating anxiety. Going to a new optometrist? Serious jitters. Perfectly tame social gatherings? Nausea. Driving in city traffic? Palpitations. My life has been shaped largely by fear and anxiety and the ability to hide it. I never talk about how nervous I am because I know how illogical fear can seem. I know that it’s unlikely I will say “the wrong thing” in yoga class and be fired, but the physiological sensation of fear persists through my body.
At some point in my life, my brain learned that certain situations warrant a strong physiological response (sweating, trembling, tension in the chest) in order to protect myself. The body and brain recognizes certain environmental occurrences as cues that, “Shit’s about to go down,” and instantly my body is pumped full of adrenaline and norepinephrine to get my blood flowing. My body is preparing to run from a grizzly bear, and I’m just standing in my closet wondering what I should wear today.
I think one thing people mistakenly believe about anxiety is that it’s based in irrational fears. I don’t literally think wearing the wrong tank top to my yoga class will incite a riot that will cause my students to maim and kill me…it just FEELS that way. The stress response in the body is instantaneous. (As it should be, so that we can run very fast away from above-mentioned grizzly bears.) The brain recognizes something that’s kind of similar to a past experience (Fun Fact: It could be an experience you don’t even remember.), and it doesn’t have to ask your permission, how you feel about it, or what you think. You are afraid, now.
I currently teach yoga at a local private school, and yesterday, before the first class of the term, I felt extremely nervous. I was pacing my apartment trying to remember everything I needed to say, and yes, deciding on what to wear. There were no grizzly bears to run from, but I was using all my adrenaline to think very quickly of every possible scenario of how this one class could go to crap and ruin me forever.
I took some deep breaths, which helped a little. I called my husband (who is also a teacher, but not of the yogic variety) and asked him how his class went. After all, I had already come up with about 15 different ill-fated yoga class scenarios, and I’m sure he could give me just a few more ways it could all go wrong. As I listened to his day, I came to a clear realization. He had moments where his teaching was successful, and he had other moments that just didn’t work. Fear had me looking at my class as a pass/fail, all or nothing scenario. The truth is, my class was more likely to be filled with grey areas, room for improvement moments, and growth opportunities peppered with a bit of success. He made me realize that my class wasn’t a room full of hungry animals…just teenagers. If something goes wrong, it wasn’t a death sentence. There were no rabid grizzlies, only people in bear costumes. I was seeing a beast out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look, it was just a snarky fifteen year old in a brown sweater.
The purpose of fear is to protect us from danger–to be able to wrestle or run from ACTUAL bears. The reason fear works so well is because it is an instant physiological response. If you have anxiety, plenty of benign people and events start to look like bears. The only way to train your brain to stop seeing 15 year olds as two ton killing machines with claws is to stop and look. You have to take some deep breaths and get curious. Notice the absence of a proper snout, presence of speech, and lack of foaming mouth. You have to question. How is the standing in the closet trying on 10 different tank tops like standing face to face with a hungry beast?
One wrong move and you are dead.
Wait..is that even true?
You take more deep breaths and keep looking until you realize: There are no bears here.