Three steps to being brave.
When you think about bravery, what comes to mind? Is it the square jawed hero saving the day because that’s what heroes do? Is it the daredevil jumping off a cliff or a mum walking 10 miles in the snow to get her child medical attention? Is it a man running into a burning building to rescue his grandma or someone stopping an armed robber? Or is it maybe the person sitting next to you at work who turns up every day on time. The truth is all these are examples of bravery; it is just that some of them are less obvious than you think.
About 20% of people develop some form of life affecting anxiety disorder which can range from specific phobias, exaggerated worry and tension, social anxiety, panic attacks and right through to OCD and PTSD. While there are numerous factors which can cause anxiety—genetics, personality, negative life events and traumatic events, for example—for someone with an anxiety disorder it can be a debilitating illness affecting almost every aspect of your life. Those who haven’t had an anxiety disorder may trivialize or marginalize anxiety as “nerves” because they simply don’t understand. But even simple things like walking out your front door can be herculean task.
My own special flavor of anxiety is social anxiety. Events in my past have basically trained my mind to recognize people as being threats. I do Latin dancing at the moment and attend a social dance once or twice a week. To give you an idea of what SAD is like, while I am driving to the social I have my air-con turned up to level “arctic winter night” to help stop me sweating. I usually aim to arrive slightly early so I am not confronted with one overwhelming crowd of people but can watch people start to arrive. Right when I enter the room is the point where I start to shake from the adrenaline entering my system and this takes about 5 minutes to settle down into just being twitchy. My pulse is probably up around 120 bpm.
For the rest of the night I am constantly scanning the crowd for danger—it’s almost impossible to sneak up on me while I am like this. I find it hard to have conversations because my brain is in overdrive and there isn’t much processing power left to converse meaningfully. I will usually disappear outside about every 30 minutes or so to gather myself together and after about 3 hours of this I hit a brick wall. I am not sure of the chemistry behind this but basically I don’t have the energy in my head to make decisions, and my thoughts become sluggish, thinking becomes really hard and the next day I will have a headache the size of a really bad hangover even though I haven’t had anything to drink.
Aside from the sweating most people can’t even tell that this is what I go through to have a night of fun because you become adept at hiding it. This happens to me when I go shopping, through the mall, a new place of work or anywhere there is a group of people I don’t know. You might wonder why I put myself through it and truthfully sometimes I don’t, it’s too hard sometimes but I also need to socialize, to shop and work, just like you do. Some places like work where I get to know the people there it becomes a lot easier over time but not for places where there are always going to be strangers.
So how to be brave, how do you put yourself through something that makes you want to run like hell away. Believe it or not it is a lot like doing a disgusting household chore such as cleaning a blocked toilet.
1. Recognize you are avoiding doing something
The first step is to recognize you are not doing something you want to because you are afraid. Fear has many flavors—from doubt right through to mind numbing terror. Of them all I find doubt is the worst because it sits in your head quietly eating away at your confidence where as terror gives you something concrete to focus on. So like when your toilet starts to backup, if it hasn’t flooded yet are you avoiding unblocking it just because it hasn’t reached the point where it overflows.
2. Make a decision
I know I am going to be scared, I’ve been through it a billion times before, just like when unblocking a toilet you know it’s going to be disgusting. You want to avoid doing it but in the end you know it has to be done, you recognize that you can no longer avoid doing something. This is the decision point, when you reach the point where you know you want to or need to do something that scares you then you need to commit to doing it.
This is the most important part, if you can’t commit to doing something you will never get to the part where you act and sometimes it requires a very strong surge of willpower to commit rather then walk away. Your doubt will sit there trying to convince you “what if this”, “what if that”, “I always fail or stuff it up”. Life rarely hands us single life altering events every day that we can’t recover from if we fail. So if you fail, so what, the next time you try this you have had some experience to work on to do better next time.
Finally there is the doing. This is where people can become unstuck. After you make a commitment to do something this is where fear will start to double its attempt to stop you. Doubts will stream in at twice the speed, “I can’t”, “Things will be worse”, “Bad stuff will happen” and “What if”, around and around in circles it goes. It’s your brains last resort to stop you between committing to act and to doing. Have you ever heard on the news how a hero who ran into a burning building and saved someone said “I didn’t think about how scared I was, I just did it”?
So stop thinking, pick up the plunger and yeah sometimes it doesn’t work well and you get covered in sewage but afterwards you can clean yourself up and the toilet now works.
I can’t say that fear from my experience ever completely disappears but overcoming a specific fear the first time is always the hardest. Once you have overcome it once then making a commitment to overcome it again becomes easier and so does the doing.
One last note—anxiety illnesses are completely treatable so if you suffer from anxiety there is absolutely no reason not to seek help from mental health professionals.
Photo credit: (altered) Flickr/turatti