Aren’t You Sick of Anxiety Messing You Up?

Two simple practices you can begin immediately that could change your life.

I sure was sick of anxiety messing me up. It is one thing to have butterflies before a test, performance or presentation. Anxiety attacks that kept me from falling asleep or popped me awake or interrupted my concentration and performance was debilitating. It prevented me from being well rested and being at my highest potential.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Quick question: How is your sleep?”

(No need to answer me yet, but, it never really occurred to me how important this question would become in my life.)

My brief story.

When I was a senior in college, more than thirty years ago, I was so anxious that my body shook. I woke up with my heart pounding in my neck, my ears echoing. I was freaking out and had no idea what was going on or how to get a grip.

I could not fall back asleep and I felt exhausted.

After visiting the counseling center that night, I heard “anxiety attack” for the first time. But it would not be my last anxiety or panic attack.

Without sleep, I would be toast.

If I could not figure out how fall asleep and to stay asleep, I would not do well on exams. At the time, I was in college so “exams” were my primary goal. I had no idea that this could be a much bigger problem down the road.

My first job required me to make presentations and answer questions and answers about stocks that we picked to promote to investors.

I was a great public speaker and felt quite comfortable speaking extemporaneously (as if on cue) in front of almost any crowd, until I wasn’t.

I had echoing in my ears. This echoing in my ears and the warmth that would rise up from my neck, were the early signs that I was having a panic attack. Later a friend told me that my neck and ears actually would get red.

Forget about being embarrassed for a moment. This was becoming a performance issue. If I could not give clear, dynamic presentations, I would fail at my job.

When I get into law school a few years later, in the late 80s, I began to develop what I now consider two simple practices, that have changed my life. And, best of all, they work.

They may work for you if you learn them.

Disclaimer: This is not a quick fix. You will need to develop these skills and practice them daily until you make them your own.

1) Belly Breathing Practice.

I know that it sounds funny when you say it out loud but Belly breathing is scientific. There is a nerve, called the Vagus Nerve, that runs from behind your neck, down your chest behind your heart, to your stomach and intestines. By breathing a certain way into this nerve, which comes from expanding and contracting your belly, one is IMMEDIATELY calmed.

I am trying to demo my approach here —

I did not invent the method and it is best taught one-on-one but hopefully you can glean the principle from my video.

The other night, I awoke with my mind racing. I could not tell you why my mind was racing or my heart pounding a bit but I can tell you what I did lying there on my left side — and I started immediately.

Step one: the inhale

I imagined that I was pushing my belly button out to touch the wall with my belly button. I did this on the inhale, breathing in with my nose, and pushed my belly button — and my belly out — until I could not inhale any further.

First key point: I breathed in and I breathed in thru my nose.

Step Two: the exhale

When I could not breathe in any more, I let it all out from my mouth, like I was blowing up a balloon, like I was literally pushing the air from my mouth. At the same time, I again visualized my belly button and thought about seeing if I could touch my spin with my belly button. (I know, weird but, try it).

The Second key point: I pushed the exhale out my mouth as if I was blowing up a balloon.

Then, I inhaled again. At first my inhale was kind of fast and so was my exhale. By the third inhale, I intentionally slowed down my inhale so that while I pulled air in through my nose, I pushed my belly button out more slowly. I did this intentionally.

And sure enough, I felt my shoulders relax with every exhale. And I intentionally slowed my exhale from my mouth.

Third key point: Slow down your inhale and exhale.

By the fourth or fifth exhale, my mind was no longer spinning.

→ It worked.

2) Visualizing Calm.

On the eve of my first set of law school exams, in the Fall of 1990, although my breathing practice worked quite well, I found a tool that really took me to my goals. This one is even nuttier than the first but it works even if you don’t like nutty ideas.

Have you noticed an Olympic swimmer before their swim?

Or, have you seen Usain Bolt before he runs in the Olympics — as the fastest person in the World?

Did you, by chance, notice that these athletes — before their race — go thru a physical dance with their arms and legs, while standing in place of course, and their eyes closed?

Gymnasts do it too. They literally move thru their routine right there on the mat, right before their performance, as if they are moving thru it in their ‘mind’s eye.’

TRUTH: That is exactly what they are doing. They are visualizing their performance and it helps them win, and win, and win.

And, when I saw these athletes do it way back in the late 80s, I kind of wondered what they were doing and then I figured it out for myself.

I saw myself at the end of the exam, presentation or even performance.

I saw myself at the 3/4 point, the mid-way point, the half-way point and at the beginning. And each time I saw myself, I was killing it.

What did I see you wonder?

Well, let me tell you the story of Steve, one of my coaching students.

Steve (not his real name) had taken the bar exam three times before we met. In high school, he was a tall, lean pitcher who “nailed it” so many times that he became a strike out king. Somehow, he had lost his ability to “nail it” when it came time to take the bar exam.

By helping Steve visualize his more peak performing self, and in detail, see that version of himself, he developed an image, in his mind, that he could go to when he took the Bar.

And you know what? The fourth time is the charm. Steve passed!

So here is my challenge to you:

Begin a breathing practice and learn how to belly breath. It will feel strange at first but little by little you will feel your belly button going out as you inhale and your anxieties calm.

And, learn visualization. I will be writing more about each of these practices in the future but I am grateful for these two practices.

A word on sleep: My ability to sleep for at least 7 hours a night, and to stay asleep through the night is the best way to measure whether or not my anxieties get the best of me. Without sleep, one cannot perform at their best.

So, now I ask again, how is your sleep?

What works best for you? How do you calm yourself when you awake suddenly or can’t sleep or you have a major exam, performance or presentation? Tell me in the comments section. I would love to learn with you about how to live calmer, happier lives.

Here is to finding all of those things.