How to Calm Down and Handle Fear-Fueled Adrenaline Rushes Rationally
A survival guide to public speaking, decision panic, infuriating people, and other horrors
“With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
I used to absolutely dread speaking in public. And by public, I mean in front of two or more people. I’d be shaking, sweating, and blushing — and my heart would be having a pounding fit, trying to leap out of my chest.
I still get a bit wobbly and butterfly-ish (especially for TED), but I can do it, which is just as well because speaking is what pays my bills.
Like so many things, I learned how to do it on the ocean.
“What?!” you might be thinking if you’ve read my bio. “But you were a solo ocean rower — there wasn’t anybody there!”
This is true, but I was faced with other seriously nerve-wracking situations that made me learn — and fast — how to get a grip when adrenaline (also called epinephrine) threatened to fry my brain. It wasn’t so much the storms, waves, or capsizes that’d bring me out in a cold sweat — it was the slow-burning crises, like a broken watermaker or an electrical system on the fritz. I’m not very competent at fixing things, so when I was 1,000 miles from the nearest repair guy, with a knackered device on which my life depended, it was, to put it mildly, a stressful situation.
The trouble is panic doesn’t help — quite the opposite. Adrenaline is great at inducing the fight-or-flight response — when our ancestors sensed danger, it probably involved something with big teeth, when confrontation or getting away fast were the most appropriate responses. If you’re about to speak at your best friend’s wedding, this isn’t so much the case.
Adrenaline is released when the amygdala senses danger. It sends a mayday message to the brain’s command sensor, the hypothalamus, which in turn says “hey!” to the adrenal glands that sit atop your kidneys, which respond by pumping out adrenaline into your bloodstream. Your body then activates additional glucose, ready for you to give Usain Bolt a run for his money. Your breath and your heartbeat get faster, and blood gets directed to your major muscle groups.
The problem is … while your blood is being redirected to your muscles, it’s saying “see ya later!” to your brain which, for most 21st-century stresses, is where you need it.
On my boat, an adrenaline response was fine (well, kind of) in the situations that called for raw physicality, like deploying the sea anchor in a storm or paddling frantically out of the way of an oncoming tanker, but not good for fixing stuff. So I had to learn to calm myself and focus on the task at hand.
We all have situations where we have to get past the amygdala ambush — and out to the calmness on the other side:
1. When you need to get creative
Psychologists tell us a mind under pressure struggles to get creative. This is why so many artists and writers have a routine they go through before they get to work, in which they zone out from whatever has happened in their day so far and tune into the muse. They get quiet and focused and open up to creativity. They connect with their calmness. This is equally true when creative problem-solving is called for.
2. When you’re feeling angry or frustrated with someone
This is definitely a good time for calm strength rather than powerful strength. It can be very tempting to try and overpower or out-ego someone, but that’s rarely a winning strategy in the long run. It’s better, by far, to keep your cool and build a bridge rather than burning one. Buy yourself a moment of time, and connect with your calmness.
3. When you’re fighting a craving
If you’re aiming to quit smoking, overeating, overdrinking, or other addictive behaviours, the moment when the craving hits can be overwhelming. You can’t think of anything else — you just want your fix, and a kind of panic takes hold.
If you can connect with your calmness on a daily basis, however, you’ll find your cravings will be fewer and further apart. And if you can connect with your calmness in the moment of your craving, you can buy yourself enough time for the craving to pass. Most addictions aren’t so much an addiction to the substance or the behaviour — they are an addiction to the momentary comfort the substance or behaviour gives us. So cut out the middle man — cut straight to the calmness without needing to indulge the addiction.
4. When you’re nervous, like when you’re about to make a speech or give a presentation
Big-day butterflies are perfectly normal — it’s just a matter of how we handle them. Take a moment to yourself before you go onstage to quietly connect with your calmness. Remind yourself a little frisson of nerves is good for your mental agility and hence your performance, and use your calmness to control the amount of nervousness you allow yourself to feel. It’s all about balance.
5. When you’re trying to learn something new—quickly
If you think last-minute cramming works for you, think again. It might get you through an exam, but if you really want to retain that information on a long-term basis, the last thing you want is to be in a panic when you’re studying. All that stress-induced adrenaline interferes with your brain’s ability to process and retain information.
Think about it — our stress response was designed to help us fight or flee, and not many of our caveman ancestors would be sitting down to study particle physics when there’s a woolly mammoth bearing down on them. Stress and learning don’t go well together. So allow yourself plenty of study time to work calmly and methodically through your materials, using your creativity to make connections between new information and existing knowledge.
6. When you have a big decision to make
We almost always have to make decisions based on the information we have available at the time, which is hardly ever sufficient or entirely accurate. Unsurprisingly, this can create feelings of stress, which then start to feed off themselves in an escalating spiral. When we feel panic starting to get the better of us, it’s important to remind ourselves that any decision is usually better than no decision at all. Then, we need to put ourselves into a frame of mind where we can make the best decision possible given the information we have at the time.
Calming Yourself as Mindfulness
With practice, you can notice these states and work through them to a state of calm in which you can focus on the real issue at hand.
You’ve probably recognized by now that we’re talking about mindfulness, alternatively known as attentional control, because we’re putting our attention where it needs to be (producing the optimum result from the task at hand) rather than on distractions (unhelpful feelings of panic, craving, wounded ego, impending catastrophe, or embarrassment).
For a relatively small investment of time and effort, you get a really great payback in terms of resilience, more happiness, more energy, and less stress — and all of those things are good for your self-confidence. People who use mindfulness techniques are likely to feel that their lives are more meaningful, that they have more control over their lives, and they’re more likely to see challenges as opportunities rather than threats.
Psychologists call this last attribute approach mode, rather than its opposite, avoidance mode. When we’re in approach mode, we can cope with change and uncertainty, avoid rigid or scattered thinking, and become more comfortable with not knowing. It improves our ability to respond rather than react and to think more clearly and strategically. It also improves emotional intelligence, confidence, and the ability to trust our own decisions — as well as enhancing our cognitive functions so we notice and process more data.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Give me some of that!
There are two different meditations I’d like to suggest: one for use once or twice daily as a regular meditation — this is your preventative — and one for a quick fix when you need to connect with your calmness fast.
I find it works best if you combine the two — the quick fix will work better if you’ve already established the habit of calmness with the regular meditation so you can access that feeling more quickly and effectively.
And then I offer a third, for real emergencies.
First, a quick exercise to prime yourself for noticing the situations where you can apply these meditations.
Exercise: Where Do You Want Greater Calm?
Although you can’t predict every situation that might result in an unhelpful adrenaline rush, chances are you have some common scenarios where this is likely to occur. Keep it simple: Where in your life would you like to have access to a greater sense of calm?
Here are some suggestions to get the ideas flowing.
- Situations where I want to be creative
- Circumstances where I want to overcome feelings of anger and frustration
- Cravings I want to overcome
- Things that make me feel nervous
- Times when I want to study and learn
- Times when I need to make important decisions
Write down your own list with some details about what happens and what you’d like to change. Are there any warning signs that usually signal a situation is developing into one of these scenarios? Are there others you can plan for in advance?
The Preventative: Regular Meditation
This need only take a few minutes, although you can extend it for as long as you like and have time for. My philosophy is a little meditation is better than no meditation, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t spare a big chunk of time.
You can use any number of meditation apps, but I’ll share what I use here. You might want to record these instructions on your smartphone so you can keep your eyes closed while you’re actually doing it.
- Sit comfortably, either cross-legged or in a chair with both feet flat on the floor.
- Close your eyes and picture yourself standing on a beautiful white sandy beach, looking out across a turquoise sea. There’s just the lightest breeze, and the waves are lapping lazily at the sand.
- Just in front of you is a little old-fashioned rowboat, made out of wood, with oars already in the oarlocks. You get into the boat and gently paddle away from the beach. As you paddle, be aware of your breathing in time with the oars. You’re not rowing hard, so you’re breathing gently, in and out, in and out, in and out. Focus on your breath for a few moments, feeling it become smooth and flowing.
- As you row away from shore, you feel all your worries dropping away from you. A rower faces backwards, so as you paddle, you can see the beach receding into the distance and you know you’re leaving all your worries there, leaving them behind you on the shore. You’re out rowing your boat, and nobody and nothing can touch you out here. You’re alone, but you feel very safe, knowing that your boat and the ocean are holding you gently and safely.
- When you’re a comfortable distance from shore, stop rowing and pull the oars into the boat so you can rest. You lie down on a cushion in the bottom of the boat and picture yourself closing your eyes. Feel the boat rocking gently. You feel the soft sunshine on your face. You hear the water lapping gently against the hull. Keep on with your rowing breath, in and out, in and out, in and out.
- Feel yourself becoming aware of the ocean beneath the hull of your boat. Let your mind drift down into its cool, dark blue depths. Drift all the way down to the ocean floor, where the ocean meets the solid Earth. Feel your connection to the Earth, which grounds you and connects you to all living beings that ever have lived or ever will live. Feel your boundaries extending out across time and space. Relax into that feeling of connectedness. Know that the Universe has got your back. Breathe. Slowly, slowly, allow yourself to drift gently back up to the surface of the ocean. Continue to lie comfortably in the boat, feeling the warm sunshine once more.
- When you feel ready to go back ashore, picture yourself opening your eyes and sitting up slowly. Get back on the rowing seat and push the oars back out into the oarlocks. Turn the boat around, and gently paddle back to shore, breathing your rowing breath, in and out, in and out, in and out. You’re rowing slowly back to reality.
- By the time you feel the boat ride up onto the sandy beach, you’re ready to come back into the real world, feeling calm and strong and ready to face anything. You step out of the boat and onto the sand. Take a final deep breath and open your eyes.
“Remain calm, serene, always in command of yourself. You will then find out how easy it is to get along.”
— Paramahansa Yogananda
The Quick Fix: Quick Mindfulness Moment
This one takes a bit of preparation when you’re calm, but it’s time well spent because it gives you a tool you can use any time you need it.
We are going to use a technique from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). NLP is based on the theory that there’s a connection between our internal view of the world and behavioural patterns learned through experience, and we can tweak those connections to achieve certain goals. NLP overall has been discredited as pseudoscience. Nonetheless, I’ve found this particular technique helpful, and as you’ll see, it can’t do any harm.
Our goal here is to produce a feeling of confidence and power whenever we need it — for example, when we’re sailing into some kind of a storm.
This process is called, appropriately enough, anchoring. What you’re doing is priming your subconscious to associate positive feelings with a particular gesture. It might all sound a bit woo-woo, but please bear with me and give it a try. After all, wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to produce feelings of self-confidence whenever you needed them?
- Think of a time when you felt incredibly powerful and confident. Maybe you had just achieved something significant. Maybe you were feeling incredibly happy and positive. Maybe someone had just given you an award or paid you a huge compliment. Whatever the cause, tap into the feeling. Really feel it in your mind and in the cells of your body.
- Produce a complete image of that occasion. Use all your senses to make the picture really vivid. What did the scene look like? What were the sounds? What were your physical sensations? How did you feel? Bring it to life in your mind’s eye.
- Just as your emotions in the scene reach a crescendo, anchor this mini-meditation into a gesture, like touching the fingers of your right hand in turn to the thumb of your right hand, with the words: Ocean (index finger), Blue (middle finger), Calm (ring finger), Blue (little finger).
- Practice this every day for at least a week.
So now you have a little mantra with a physical gesture to create a more powerful association with the feeling of calm strength you’re evoking. You can even add a mental image of the most beautiful, serene blue you’ve ever seen. With enough time, just the gesture and the vision of blue become enough to evoke the feeling of deep calm.
“You are the sky. Everything else — it’s just the weather.”
— Pema Chödrön
In Case of Emergency
If you only have a moment in which to compose yourself, there’s a super simple thing you can do — just breathe. Deliberately and slowly.
And that’s it.
Adrenaline will be trying to make you breathe faster and more shallowly. When you breathe slowly, you’re signaling to your body it doesn’t need to panic. The adrenaline squad can stand down.
You’re also getting oxygen to your brain, and it’s going to need it.
If you have time, also put your attention on the soles of your feet. Sense the connection between your feet and the ground. Feel how it supports you. (This one doesn’t work so well on a boat bobbing on a two mile–deep ocean but works very well on dry land.) Feel all the stress draining out of your body through your feet and into the ground.
This one works really well not only in emergencies but also in situations you’ve planned for but suddenly find yourself in a panic.
My experience of that is for public speaking. When the attention of everybody is suddenly focused on you, all that energy flying in your direction can make your body and voice do weird things. By channeling that energy down into the ground, it’s like you’re earthing an electric current and discharging all that surplus electricity.
The Value of Facing the Fear
And, finally, the last thing I’d like to mention is what doesn’t kill us really does make us stronger. When we do something scary — and survive — it’s seriously great. For at least a few moments, we feel like we can take on the world and do anything.
So don’t run away from what scares you — run towards it. Embrace the opportunity to feel the fear, and do it anyway.
It’ll be worth it. I promise you.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
— Helen Keller