Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Techniques for Dealing with Fear

I got some very good private and public responses to What is your Strategy for Dealing with Fear? So here are some specific techniques.

ONE — Catch it Early

Most people can only feel fear and anxiety in the body when it overwhelms them. By then it’s too late. But you can learn to be more sensitive. And if you catch it early enough you can do something about it.

Here’s an exercise from Systema that you can do. Pick a nice, reasonably empty room. Face a wall, maybe ten steps away. Close your eyes and walk towards the wall. The minute you a) stop breathing or b) change your stride or c) feel a fearful change in your body open your eyes. Note how far you are from the wall. Repeat and see if you can get very, very close to the wall.

If you want to be really push yourself, do this drill with sprinting instead of walking.
Also, if you think you have good balance, stand on one foot and close your eyes.

TWO — Work the Edge

This is one is from a golf teacher, so I’ll describe it in terms of golf, but you can do it with all kinds of equipment.

Get a bucket of golf balls and a trash can. Stand next to the empty trash can and drop a ball in. When you get five in a row, take a step away. When you get five in a row in, step away. The thing to play with here is that there will be a dividing point where the simple task becomes dramatically harder. One step farther away isn’t physically that much harder, but mentally, something will happen. Work that edge, a step forward, a step backwards. Notice when your breathing stops. Try it while holding your breath.

THREE — Turn it to Energy

What people often mistake for fear turns into fuel if you let it. All great performers know this. They’re all scared, but when they hit the stage, all that juice goes into the performance.

I don’t know a good drill to explain this. This comes from the doing. There’s a thought line in the movie Man on Fire about racing. When you are on the starter’s block, you are prison. The gunshot is what releases you.

And if you think you have it bad remember: At 75, Henry Fonda still threw up before each stage performance. But when his feet hit the stage he was fine. And, he kept performing.

FOUR — Combative Breathing

I keep alluding to breathing in these drills, because it’s the most important thing when you are dealing with fear. When you stop breathing, your autonomic nervous system thinks you are dying. But what’s the first thing we do when something scary happens. Quick, sharp inhale and then hold.

Breathing is the only consciously controllable link between your voluntary and autonomic nervous systems. Once your nervous system starts to freak out (a sympathetic nervous system) breathing is the only way you can influence it.

Most of learning how to deal with difficult situations (Fighting, dealing with a difficult client, parenting, being married 🙂 is learning how not to add fear and tension to yourself. Or rather, learning how to get rid of it under pressure. Because when the situation is serious, freaking out only degrades your performance.

So, breathing isn’t just a nice thing to do on a Yoga mat. It’s a tool. A weapon, even.

Go for a walk. After about 1/4 mile, exhale and hold your breath. Count the number of steps you take before you have to breath. Push yourself a little. Then, walk and breathe until you have completely recovered. If you’ve done it right, you should feel calmer.

The test is to do another cycle. If you are calmer and your nervous system is in a more relaxed state, you will be able to take more steps before you have to breathe again.

This drill is difficult. You won’t be good at it at first. I’ve done it for years and I still don’t feel good at it. But if nothing else, this will show you precisely what changes in your body when you freak out. So when the fear comes when you are not doing the drill, you can spot it sooner.

Hope some or all of that helps. If you try any of it, I’d love to know about your experience.

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