Change Your Feelings About the Emotions that Scare You!

The tank is on empty. I’ve been running for only about an hour and a half now and I’ve still got over four hours left in this race.  My anxiety is on high alert.  I’ve been training in 60 degree temperatures, but, lucky for me (that’s sarcasm by the way) the weather on this glorious morning is already in the 80’s … and I’m only an hour and a half in.  I’ve already changed my shirt, re-filled my water bladder, and I KNOW it is a bad sign to be feeling that all-too-familiar sluggishness that usually comes during the late stages of an endurance race.  No gas and I’m breaking into walks … walks that I didn’t decide on.  Needless to say, that anxiety I’m feeling?  Well, it’s giving me anxiety and that’s not gonna work.

Everything that I know about endurance sports is that they are about planning, making smart decisions, and building a great mental game to deal with the adversity of uncomfortable emotions.  This is one of the major reasons I love them so much, and probably one of the most important things I feel I get out of them, because the way you feel about your emotions determines the actions that you take.   

But, at the moment I’m in it and anxiousness is telling me that, with this much left to go on the race, it’s time to slow down and change my plan.  My relationship with this anxiety for many years has been an adversarial one.  I should ‘get over it’.  I need to ‘overcome’ my anxiety. Controlling it was another option I’ve tried.  After much trial and error, and many bouts with it, I’ve come to this conclusion: 

I need to change my relationship with my anxiety.

Alan Watkins, a leading physician and neuroscientist in the study of emotions, puts it best; he said most of his colleagues don’t even know that there is a difference between feelings and emotions.  I have to say, I didn’t know this truth for most of my life.  The main difference is this:  on a physiological level emotions are simply energy in motion in your body.  They can develop for all sorts of reasons, or just simply because of regular or irregular bodily functions.  There are techniques (ex. breathing regulation) and other tools you can practice to help that energy in motion flow in your body, so that you feel more comfortable.  But, one of the major ways we can change our physiology and energy in motion so we can have the information they provide at our brain’s proverbial fingertips at all times:

You can change how you feel about them. 

If anxiety is your thing, meaning it’s a thing that seems to come up for you a lot in your life, then how you feel about it is going to determine how long it lasts in your system, and the intensity and duration that you’re going to feel when it’s there.  That’s the great thing about feelings.  You get to choose them.  While an emotion is the physiological energy in motion that’s coursing through your body because of a catalyst like a  cheeseburger you ate at midnight last night, or a blaring horn from a guy who thinks you cut them off, the feeling is your take on it. Your perspective on that energy in motion.

For me, on race day, one of the things that I pull on is the fact that a little bit of anxiousness has always led me to sharpen my focus.  It always brings my attention to the full picture of the situation I am in. Think about it. If I didn’t know that I was overheating, or that I was having trouble early on in the race how could I adjust my efforts and still complete something that was important to me?  

Like most of us, I really don’t like to feel uncomfortable emotions.  But without checking in from time to time on what they’re actually telling me, and, instead, just trying to get rid of them because they don’t feel good, I begin to develop an emotional prejudice against them. The truth is I most likely would run myself into the ground without that little bit of anxiousness, because I wouldn’t even know that I was having a problem.

Your emotion might be fear, shame, or self doubt that you are having an almost ‘adversarial relationship’ with.  Whatever emotions scare you, here are a few things that you can do to change your relationship, and therefore your feelings about those emotions, so they can become a blessing rather than a curse.

Is this emotion useful? 

OK, granted I know this isn’t an easy question to ask yourself when you’re actually in the midst of fear, anxiety, or uncertainty, but just knowing that it’s useful in the task you find yourself in sometimes is enough to bring that emotion into perspective.  Once that happens, you can then bring your mind back to the task at hand, because it’ll be less overwhelmed by the emotion. Charge yourself to not just try and rid yourself of that scary emotion, but rather to figure out if it is useful to the situation that you’re in. 

How is this emotion useful?

Much of the time an uncomfortable emotion like anxiety isn’t just showing up in your body because it has nothing else to do. Challenge yourself to take a moment and examine the possible benefits they may be providing you in the moment at your in. For me that anxiety I was feeling was letting me know that I needed to slow up, take in more fluids, and make a game plan for the next 4 hours.

If appropriate, take action based on what that emotion is telling you. 

It’s true that sometimes we are rolling mental film in our brains, running thoughts in our heads that keeps anxiety or fear alive long past their use.  If this is the case, then we need to roll different mental film that can change the way we feel.  Sometimes feeling the pain of an emotion we don’t particularly like, has us bee-line to this option before we consider the actions that our emotion might be suggesting.  Consider taking the action that your fear or anxiety might be suggesting.  First, it might be exceptionally helpful for whatever situation you’re in, and secondly, most of the time (again, unless we’re running that mental film) it would allow the emotion to dissipate naturally on its own.

I decided that the anxiety was helpful, providing valuable information for me.  I choose to take action based on what my anxiety was telling me.  I embraced the walk and made it a decision not to run until my anxiety lessened.  I ate some food.  I remembered that this race was about time, not a distance.  I took the pressure off by reminding myself that I could always walk if I had to for the next four hours (although I knew in the depths of my mind that  probably wouldn’t happen).  I took action on what my anxiety was telling me, and watched it dissipate over the next half an hour, got my legs back (somewhat :), and got a slow run going again.  

This week, challenge yourself to acknowledge an uncomfortable emotion that comes up for you around something you need to accomplish.  Allow it in like an old friend.  What’s it trying to tell you?  Is it good information?  How do you feel about the emotion once you’ve considered what it is telling you?  Is there an action you can take that will help you achieve the activity you need to get done based on what that emotion is telling you?  After you take that action, consider if you feel differently about that emotion now.  I’d love to hear how this challenge goes for you!  Enter your experience in the comments below!

If you would like help lessening your fear and anxiety, reaching your goals, breaking habits, or creating new ones, I’d love to work with you.  Just click the button or the link below for a free consultation and let’s talk. 

By Endurance through Optimism, We Conquer

I’m reading the book Endurance right now.  I do have a fascination with endurance sports – marathons, ultra-running, Iron Man…  But this book is actually about the incredible adventure and trial of an explorer named Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew as they crossed Antarctica.  They were stranded on the unforgiving ice and winds for 20 months in 1915, then somehow drummed up the will to row a 22-foot boat over 800 miles across wild and storm-struck seas.  He had tried this incredible journey twice before and the book I’m reading now is about his third attempt.  His ship was called the Endurance.  And rightly so.

I haven’t finished this book, so I don’t claim to know if they live or die. What I do know and what I am humbled by is the love and respect Shackleton earned from his crew.  From what I can make of it so far, this was due to several admirable virtues of the man.  He always put his crew before himself.  He had an incredible amount of emotional intelligence, a really good sense, energetically, of where his crew was at, who to put together in the tents when they were on the ice, and things like that.  But the one virtue that seemed to stand out for me most was his optimism.  He would never allow his crew to see him down, and the one ‘character flaw,’ as he put it, that he could not tolerate from a crewman was pessimism.  Shackleton felt that it was a weak mind that couldn’t figure out how they were going to view what their future was going to hold and how they were going to meet each situation. “Difficulties are just things to over-come,” He would say.

I found this very interesting because so many people right off the bat think that endurance has to do with being able to hold firm, keep a stiff upper lip, deal with hardships and find ways to just keep going. How long you hold your difficult emotions.  How long you tolerate bad circumstances, whether they are internal or external.  Your ability to ‘hold the line.’

In reality, you have this guy, Shackleton, and every time he came encountered a circumstance that was dire, he chose a line of thinking and feeling and speaking about that circumstance that would best support what he wanted out of the situation.  Shackleton realized the situation, even though it was external (his ship getting trapped in the ice!), did not exist outside of him, but instead existed in the way he thought about it.

I couldn’t help but think about the endurance races I’ve done. How I’ve had people ask me “What do you think about when you are on mile two or three of a race and you know you have another 55 or 60 miles to go?”  “Don’t you just get down on yourself knowing you have so far to still go?”  My method is similar to Shackleton’s approach:  optimism.

I never look at a race in the entirety of the 62 miles. I look at each mile in and of itself.  I look at whether I am catching a pace (how fast I am going) that is better (faster) than the pace I want it to be for each mile.  For example, if I want to be running a 14-minute per mile pace for my race and I run a mile at 12 minutes and 30 seconds, I realize I am a minute and a half ‘to the good,’ meaning ahead of my pace.  This inspires me.  I feel accomplished for that mile.

I then move into the next mile with the reward system in place, meaning I just try to get under my goal pace for that mile. So, by the time I get to mile 30 or 35 and I realize I have all this time ‘banked’ (every minute I was faster than my goal pace has now added up to being an hour or more!) for whatever my goal time is for the race.  I start to relax and feel more confident and capable.  I know that with this banked time I don’t have to worry as much about if things don’t go right later on in the race.  I have a reserve of all these minutes toward helping reach my goal.

So, how I choose to look at the early miles of a race helps me feel like I have enough room to meet whatever might come up in the later miles. I am not left feeling anxious and burning energy on my emotions.  I cover my races looking at things with optimism, finding ways to elicit positive, helpful emotions, one mile at a time, literally using my 5 senses to visualize the result I want to have happen.  By doing so I conserve energy and it also gives me the greatest chance for the best possible outcome.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I know what some great man like Shackleton is doing in his situation, and, as I said, I haven’t finished the book yet. But I can tell you this – when the boat gets stuck, when the men are on the ice, when he is deciding a timeline for covering over 800 miles, every single choice he makes he chooses to look at it in the positive light.  In the light that would best serve him.  He’s not using his energy to hold his negative emotions back.  He’s using his energy to transform a difficult external situation into something that is optimistic, hopeful and manageable inside of himself.

So, what about when things don’t go well. For Shackleton, it really comes down to life or death.  But for my races it can be that my blood sugar gets depleted, I run out of energy and turn in on myself mentally and physically.  The miles not only look longer, they ARE longer (in my mind), and I may start to get desperate for the challenge to be over, and fearful of how far I have left to go, or even if I can finish at all.  These emotions are normal and natural, and they will come up.  It isn’t that you are trying to stop yourself from having difficult emotions.  They will come.  It’s about how you meet your difficult emotions and thoughts.  How you use your energy to best serve yourself so that your difficult situation becomes more manageable and you get the most of what you need out of it.

Have you faced a situation that has challenged you? Maybe it is one that you have chosen, like me – a race, a physical feat of some sort, or a mental challenge like learning a new skill.  Or, maybe it is one that has imposed itself upon you like an accidental injury, unexpected job loss, or a severe weather event that caused some damage to your home or community.  How did you endure your situation?  Please share below how your frame of mind served you.

Growing Planes

Waking up today with a pounding headache, dehydrated, slumped over the side of my bed feeling about 10 years older than I actually am. The cause?  Simple.  An incredibly successful cross-country meet… Let me explain.

Yesterday I had put on the ‘Family and Friends Versus Runners’ meet that I’ve done for the past 7 years with my Middle School cross country team. The purpose of this meet is to help kids and their parents, and loved ones build closer, more resilient relationships with each other through a shared hard effort!  As with most of us though, it’s not the only thing I have going on in my life that is stretching me a bit.

I’ve recently written a book called Changing Your Weather, a mental-emotional resilience book for children and young adults, I’ve done over a dozen workshops in schools for kids, had an adult talk at a wellness expo, and now I’m getting ready to do parent and child workshops, and waiting to hear back about a possibility of speaking to cadets!  I have had some hiccups and glitches along the way (who doesn’t).  But for the most part, I’ve been succeeding at a slow and steady pace for over a year now.  So… although I am familiar with the format of my ‘Family and Friends Versus Runners’ meet, and am not as anxiousness as I was in past years, the other competing ‘mental emotional stretching’ has this meet feeling a bit bigger than it actually is.

Well the meet for the parents and runners went incredibly well, without me doing nearly as much self-monitoring. I was able to trust myself, be myself, and know that I could handle any bumps that came up from time to time.  This is a relatively new kind of self-confidence for me.  It’s one where not only do I know that I can succeed, but I can do it without the training wheels of ‘over-vigilance’ and fear to keep me sharp.

I left the meet feeling confident, proud, and successful. So, how did I celebrate?

Spare ribs, fried rice, egg rolls, jelly beans, Ben & Jerry’s (this is in no particular order). To top it off, I drank no water and stayed up waaaaay too late.  So, now I have a pounding headache, I’m dehydrated, and I’m feeling years older than I actually am. I check in with my ‘positive internal coach’ to examine my mind through the fog…

Me: Seriously, what was that all about?

Coach, very matter of fact: Self-sabotage.

Me: Why?! My victories were well earned, my efforts sincere.  It took much less out of me.  I am getting blogs and vlogs done faster, moving forward with workshops, speaking engagements, social media, etc. I am in a much better place with ALL OF THIS than I was a year ago.  So, what’s up? Why would I choose to intentionally bring myself down?

Coach: You’re not comfortable with your new plane.

Me, dissembling: I don’t have a plane.

Coach, completely sincere: Plane shifts, remember?

I do. My head hurts and it’s a bit fuzzy at the moment, but I remember.  A ‘plane’ is where we as individuals are mentally and physically comfortable.  When we push our growing edge—that point where we stretch outside our normal comfort zone in order to succeed—and it goes really well, causing us to gain confidence, our comfort zone expands, and we see ourselves in a new light.  A plane shift is when our old, “Oh, I hope this goes ok… I really want to do well…”  becomes, “I’ve got this!  I’m ready!”  In Gary Mack’s book on sports psychology called Mind Gym, he writes that we can sometimes become so uncomfortable when we begin to stretch past our own mental image of ourselves that we self-sabotage, so we can go back to a much safer, and more familiar (comfortable) belief system about ourselves.

Me: So, what’s the first step?

Coach: Stop digging the hole.

Me: What?

Coach: Observe your actions without judging yourself.

He’s right (usually is… Don’t tell him I said that 😊) I’ve taken the first step by asking “Why did you eat so much candy last night?” The key is, I have to ask the question without self-persecution (“Why did you eat so much candy last night?  Oh, that’s right, you have no will-power.  Why don’t you just give up already!”).  If I do this, my mind will be free from big, harmful emotions and free to examine everything that was going on for me: from my win with the Family and Friends Versus Runners Meet, to the realization that I accomplished that ‘win’ without experiencing as much anxiety and therefore energy output as I have in the past.  Also, there is the fact that, because of this, I had energy to put into other things I needed to do, but instead chose to put it into ‘old’ habits of self-medicating to bring me back to ‘center.’  Finally, there is the fact that I no longer needed to use these old habits, because I was able to manage my energy output and can re-center myself with my mental-emotional tools.

Coach: Now comes the choice.

Me: What choice?

Coach: Whether or not you are going to accept the new ‘plane’ you’ve grown into or choose to go in the other direction. Either way change is inevitable.

There is no greater truth. Change is our always happening, and it is just as easy to ride the elevator of change up as it is to ride it down. With work, I can have a choice as to which elevator button I choose (which plane I choose to try and reside on).  But there’s another hard truth to face.

I cannot be on two planes at once.

If I want to shift up onto that new plane I’ve earned, I can’t think or behave the same way as I did on the plane that I was just on. I need to realize that, in order to stay in this new plane (not just keep dropping by for a visit)— I have to live up to the new plane.  I have to embody the qualities that allowed me onto that plane in the first place.

That means, to make lasting positive change in my ability to handle groups of people and help them gain mental-emotional skills through an activity I have planned, I need to celebrate my victories with the same activities and life-style choices that it took to get me there. In the case of my Family versus Runners Meet today, that means: I have to get good rest the night before, read over my plan to be sure I have taken care of all the details and variables I can ahead of time, and then, eat smart throughout the day in order to have my energy high for the effort I need to put out during the event.  AND, if I want to keep feeling that confidence the next day, I have to behave in that same way: get good sleep, eat right, write and review my plan, and on and on… I have to work the formula that enables me to remain confident in the competence that I know I have.

So, what are my first steps toward keeping the plane shift I’ve earned? Pouring a tall glass of water for myself, and put the rest of the candy in the trash—I don’t need that where I am going!

What is your formula for maintaining your confidence? I’d love to hear about it.