Welcome, three examples, and introduction
Welcome! "You Got This" Is a well-designed action plan that will empower you to calm fear, anxiety, worry, and stress.
Chronic fear, anxiety, worry, and stress can negatively affect our performance at work, our relationships, our happiness, and our well-being. They have been shown to cause numerous health problems including: anxiety disorders and panic attacks, depression, headaches, high blood pressure, heart disease, cardio-vascular problems, increased rapid heart-beat and heart palpitations, memory and concentration problems, problems with digestion, irritable bowel problems, upset stomach, ulcers, and acid reflux, trouble sleeping, weight gain, weakening of the immune system (making you more likely to have colds or other infections), and increase in blood sugar levels.
But there are ways to calm fear, anxiety, worry, and stress and I’ll show you how. In this book we’re going to discuss ways to decrease our stressors and increase our coping skills. I’ll share tools to help you calm down and get back to the top of your game by broadening your vision and tapping into your own creative problem solving skills.
But that’s not all. Skills are acquired by learning and practicing, so I’ll guide you through a complete action plan of simple, consistent exercises that will alleviate fear and increase a sense of peace and control in your life.
Everyone has experienced fear, anxiety, worry and/or stress during their life. The following personal stories illustrate a few of the many types of events that may trigger these emotions.
My husband Lewis is a professional pilot. Flying is his passion. It is his identity. His father was a private pilot and flew a small private plane for business trips so Lewis had the opportunity to begin experiencing flying from his infancy. He remembers first taking a turn at the controls at age five with his father as pilot in command in the left seat. He filled reams of paper with his childish sketches of airplanes. He built and flew model airplanes. He talked of planes and he dreamed of planes. As soon as he was old enough, he got a job to begin earning and saving for flight training. By age seventeen, the minimum legal age for obtaining a private pilot’s license, he could proudly identify himself as a “pilot.”
As an eighteen-year-old, with a year of flight experience under his belt and bursting with confidence, Lewis invited his friend Ron for an airplane ride. Although he had reasonable skill for such a young aviator, he was still a teenager, complete with teenage wisdom and teenage pride. Lewis wanted to be as impressive as possible, making a show about every slight technicality he could find with his hands unnecessarily flitting about the instrument panel in what he believed was an impressive display of aeronautical prowess. Eventually he glanced over at Ron fully expecting him to be in a rapturous state of awe, but his friend seemed equally unimpressed with the rented Cessna 172 and with Lewis’ piloting skills. Rather than admiring Lewis at the controls, he seemed preoccupied with the view out the window. Disappointed, Lewis looked away secretly wishing for some aerobatic skills. Surely Ron would be impressed if he could show him that view from upside down.
Then, like thrusting a knife into Lewis’ wounded pride, Ron commented that an airplane ride was not the sky-in-your-face wrestling match with death that Lewis had made it out to be. It was more like riding around in a car with a great view.
Lewis defended his beloved plane by pointing out that a car couldn’t go this fast, referring to the airspeed indicator’s blistering 105 knots, while secretly wishing they were flying in an F-16. As they were flying along the Wasatch Mountain Range, Lewis asked Ron if he would like to go up the canyon and inspect the snow conditions at Snowbird ski resort. Ron nodded. Surely this ought to be impressive, Lewis thought. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Lewis began to hear the admonitions of his father about the inherent danger of flying around these mountains, but he couldn’t think of anything in particular, and he reasoned that he could always turn around. Besides they were almost at 6500 feet high, what could go wrong?
Snowbird ski resort was near the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The canyon terminates in a beautiful glacier-formed basin with a floor of 9000 feet ringed on three sides with towering rocky cliffs. It didn’t take long before Lewis realized his mistake. The mountain was rising more steeply than the plane could climb and the canyon walls were too narrow for him to turn around. By choosing to turn up the canyon, he had put their lives in danger and he didn’t see any way out. To make matters worse, they now penetrated the scattered veil of clouds. Lewis felt like a blindfolded prisoner facing the firing squad. He couldn’t calm his rapid breathing and felt little beads of sweat begin to break out on his forehead.
He focused as best as he could on simply flying the plane. He kept the wings level and maintained his heading. He understood the technical balance of the plane’s limitations, by flying slower he could optimize the plane’s rate of climb, but if he slowed too much the plane would stall meaning the wings would lose their power of lift and the plane would plummet to the ground. His choices were limited to crashing forward, sideways, or straight down. He wondered how it would be. Would he have time to react, or would their bubble suddenly burst with an explosion of rock and charred aluminum? Would they make it to the end of the canyon, or scrape and tumble along the sides? He considered telling Ron, but thought maybe the morticians would prefer him looking peaceful. His lips began to quiver, and inside he began to pray.
Ron, on the other hand, was completely oblivious to their dire circumstances. He had no actual flight experience, but he had seen plenty of movies, and assumed that at any chosen moment, Lewis could simply turn the plane straight up and it would blast skyward with the power of a rocket, loop around and then take them back to the airport. Therefore, with eyes watching through the window, he commented on the intermittent views through the clouds. “Wow, it’s really neat in these clouds!” And then, “Oh look, I can see the cliffs out this side of the plane!” Lewis’s head jerked that way in time to see the cliffs passing eerily off the right wing tip and banked slightly left until the cliffs faded away in a cloudy gloom.
“We’re dead,” Lewis thought as he watched the altimeter just passing 8000 feet, breaks in the clouds were less frequent and he had no idea exactly where they were. The cliffs to either side were invisible, and the boxed end of the canyon waited somewhere ahead.
Lewis continued to fly the plane, trying to hold that razor thin balance of flying as slowly and climbing as steeply as he could without stalling the plane. When he heard the stall horn blare the warning of an impending stall, he had no choice but to slightly lower the nose of the plane. He knew it would be any minute now.
Then Ron commented that he saw skiers below. Lewis looked out and noticed the wires of the Snowbird aerial tram go by. They were close. They had reached the ski resort which signified that they were near the end of the canyon. That meant that cliffs were now in front of them as well as to the sides and they could no longer go forward. “This is it,” Lewis thought. He was in agony waiting to be hit, flinching at the thoughts of crashing into the cold granite rock. He banked hard left into the clouds. It very well might mean dying now, but he decided he’d rather risk hitting the side of the canyon trying to escape than continuing forward into what he knew was certain death. No more waiting. It’s over. He could feel the unseen canyon walls rushing the airplane as he blindly turned toward the invisible granite cliff. He made no attempt to maintain altitude. “Just make it quick,” he thought.
To his utter surprise and relief, there was no crashing impact. The airplane simply turned around and descended out of the cloud layer. He did not understand until years later that by slowing the plane to 59 knots in a dismal effort to climb, it also meant that the plane could turn much tighter than it could if it was going faster. And by waiting until he reached the basin, the canyon walls were just wide enough for a miraculous escape. Lewis could have cried. Ron on the other hand, completely oblivious to their phenomenal good luck, continued to comment on the beautiful view.
The mouth of the canyon, now ahead of them, gleamed with sunlight splashing behind the breaks in the overcast sky. They poured out of the canyon and headed across the valley to the Municipal Airport. Lewis didn’t want to fly anymore. He wanted to be on the ground. He wanted to stop shaking.
They landed and taxied to their parking spot. Since Lewis hadn’t told Ron about their brush with death and his own stupidity that had placed them in this situation, he thought he could simply pretend that this was all in a day’s work. No biggie, it was just a normal flight, but as he stepped outside the plane, his knees buckled and he collapsed like a soggy towel on the left main gear.
Ron, completely surprised, said, “Are you okay?”
Dreaded phone calls
When I was in my early 20’s I was serving as the secretary in a women’s organization for my church. Part of my duties included calling people and making appointments so that the presidency, including myself, could visit with them to get to know and befriend them and to ascertain needs and see how we could help and support. I didn’t know most of the people on this long list of names and the idea of calling these strangers filled me with anxiety. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how they would feel about my request to be visited by strangers. I was terrified of rejection. Everything about those phone calls filled me with dread, worry, and anxiety.
We did our weekly visits each Tuesday, and although the visits were scary for me, at least I had someone with me so I wasn’t alone. If I didn’t know what to say, certainly my companion would know the right words, but I carried the weight of responsibility for those phone calls by myself.
Each Tuesday night when we completed our visits, I came home with my heart and mind filled with dread that I had to make more phone calls to set up appointments for the following week. I worried about it on Wednesday. I worried about it on Thursday. I worried about it on Friday. I worried about it on Saturday and by then it was getting worse because of course I hadn’t actually called anybody and the deadline was approaching.
I worried about it on Sunday and finally pulled out my list of names. Fear and anxiety filled my heart as I called the first person. More often than not, no one answered or if someone was home she rejected my request whether for scheduling conflicts or simply not being interested. Then I had to go through the process all over again, until I either succeeded in getting two appointments or I gave up in frustration and failure. If that was the case, then I tried again on Monday. On Tuesday, we did our visits. Sometimes we had a nice visit, sometimes we had an awkward visit, and sometimes they stood us up and weren’t home, but either way when the evening was over the process started all over again.
My husband was training and preparing for his dream job as a professional pilot. The process is lengthy, intensive, and expensive. We had only been married a few years and I had recently quit my job so I could be home to care for our new baby. That change in employment status cut our income by about two thirds. Lewis was working as a flight instructor and the pay was dismal. Depending on his student workload he brought home anywhere from $400-$800 each month. This was in the early 1990’s so you’d have to account for inflation, but it was a pitifully small amount. We barely had enough to pay our rent, and on the good months we could also pay our utilities and gas for the car. There was no money for food or diapers and there was no money for the additional training, flight time, and ratings that Lewis needed in order to meet the minimum requirements to be hired by the airlines. We were stuck in a place where merely surviving was a challenge and progress seemed impossible.
My parents had given us some basic food staples as their gift to us the previous Christmas. Because of their generosity we had some wheat, rolled oats, sugar, salt, and oil in our pantry. When we ran out of food in the fridge, I looked over these items and wondered what to do with them. I didn’t have a clue what to do with the wheat. I didn’t have a wheat grinder or grain mill to make it into flour.
I looked at the rolled oats. I knew how to make oatmeal, but I had grown up eating oatmeal, or “mush” as we called it, every day of my life, and I hated it every day of my life. My mother made either oatmeal or cracked wheat mush each morning and dished it into bowls. Each day I would rush to the table first so I could choose the smallest bowl. I vowed that when I was an adult and living on my own, I would never eat mush again. So even though our options were severely limited, I just couldn’t bring myself to make oatmeal mush. I had recently learned how to make granola. So with the rolled oats, sugar, salt, oil, and a few additional ingredients that I borrowed from my mother, I made granola. Each day for months we had granola for breakfast, we had granola for lunch, and we had granola for dinner. It was all we had to eat. Today we call that time the “granola days.”
I took a small job cleaning for an elderly couple a few hours a week so I could earn enough money for diapers and milk. It was one of the few options where I could take my infant son with me.
I was stressed, discouraged, and worried about having enough money to pay the bills. If we ever had an extra nickel, it had to be saved to pay for Lewis’ training so he could eventually get a better paying job.
One day I learned some news from one of my neighbors that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She was a young expectant mother. At age fourteen she had moved in with her boyfriend, and now at age seventeen she was expecting their second child. She was complaining about her financial woes. They were receiving assistance from the government, help with housing, WIC, and so on. She said it was so hard to make ends meet when they only received $700 cash each month plus food. As she continued to expound on her distress, I realized that between the cash, food, and other benefits they were bringing in two to three times the resources that we were living off of.
Discouragement and depression overwhelmed me. My husband and I were both college graduates and yet we were significantly worse off financially than a teenage mother on welfare. We weren’t receiving any government assistance. We weren’t receiving any assistance from our church or our families either. Neither set of our parents were wealthy and we didn’t want to bother them with our problems anyway. We actually hadn’t told anyone about our extreme poverty. We were too embarrassed and ashamed. Besides that, we wanted to be able to do it by ourselves. The whole situation was demoralizing and humiliating. We were barely hanging on, and then our landlady informed us that she was raising the rent...
Fear comes in different intensities
Fear, anxiety, worry, and panic are emotions that most people are familiar with to some degree or another. While slightly different, each of these emotions are related and connected by the presence of fear.
Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. Panic is an intense feeling of overpowering, extreme anxiety or terror while anxiety is an unpleasant, but vague sense of apprehension.
Worry has a couple of definitions that may seem unrelated at first, but they are all connected. First of all, worry means a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems. It implies concern mixed with fear. Worry can also mean to tear at, gnaw on, pull at, or fiddle with continually. A dog can worry a bone by continually gnawing at it. You can worry the knot at the end of a rope by continually fiddling with it and perhaps fraying it. It has to do with the idea of touching or disturbing something repeatedly. Worry is not a fleeting emotion, it tends to be nagging, persistent, and incessant. Some synonyms for worry include: to annoy, plague, pester, or torment.
Any of these forms of fear can cause stress. Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
Difference causes of fear
Fear arises with the threat of harm, either physical, emotional, or psychological, and it can come from either real or imagined circumstances. These unpleasant emotions can arise from an imminent physical threat, like Lewis’ experience flying up the canyon or they may arise from a perceived emotional and mental threat like my assignment to call strangers on the phone. Work and financial concerns are some of the most common stressors that cause worry and anxiety.
Everyday life gives many opportunities to experience fear, anxiety, worry, stress, or even panic. The purpose of this book is to share coping skills to effectively deal with these challenges. As we learn to calm and manage those feelings and emotions, it increases our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing and improves our quality of life.
Neither good, nor bad, it just is
Emotions by themselves are neither good nor bad, instead they are either helpful or hurtful depending on intensity, duration, and circumstances. Fear, anxiety and worry are psychological and physiological responses to danger and can be a central part of our harm avoidance system. In other words, they are intended to keep us safe. However, if they get out of hand, they may interfere with our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. They can harm our health, performance, relationships, and happiness.
All emotions can have a positive aspect. Fear, anxiety, worry, and stress can activate the sympathetic nervous system often called the “fight or flight” response. Activating the fight or flight system can help increase the physiological response known as arousal (not to be confused with sexual arousal). Arousal is the physiological and psychological state of being awoken or of sense organs stimulated to a point of perception. In other words, it means we’re awake and alert. It increases heart rate and blood pressure and causes a condition of sensory alertness, mobility, and readiness to respond. This higher state of arousal means we’re ready to fight or run away as necessary and it helps keep us safe.
In addition to protecting our wellbeing, a slight increase of arousal caused by fear, anxiety, worry, or stress can actually improve our performance. Increased arousal caused by feelings of stress when you’re taking an important exam can help you focus on the test and remember the information that you studied. Likewise, when an athlete is poised to make an important move, like a basketball player shooting a free throw, an increased level of arousal can help him make the shot. Our bodies and minds perform better with a little bit of excitement or stress. However, this is true only up to an optimal point of arousal. If we feel too much stress or anxiety then the level of performance drops, sometimes dramatically. Too much test anxiety can impair your ability to concentrate and makes it more difficult to remember the correct answers, and if a basketball player gets too stressed out, he may choke and miss the shot.
In psychology, this relationship between arousal levels and performance is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. The Law was first described in 1908 by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. Through a series of experiments, they discovered that mild electrical shocks could be used to motivate rats to complete a maze, but when the shocks became too strong, the rats would scurry around in random directions trying to escape.
Their experiments suggest that there is a relationship between performance and arousal. Increased arousal can help improve performance, but only up to a certain point. At the point when arousal becomes excessive, performance diminishes.
Lessons from Yerkes-Dodson curve
Fear, anxiety, worry, and stress are often considered “negative” emotions, but they are actually a part of a beautifully orchestrated design to benefit us by increasing our performance and keeping us safe. They are not our enemy and we don’t need to eliminate them entirely or pretend that we don’t have these emotions. Remember that according to the Yerkes-Dodson curve, a little bit of arousal caused by fear, anxiety, worry, or stress can actually improve our performance efficiency. If we have low arousal, we don’t care and we don’t perform very well, but with a moderate level of stress we actually increase our level of performance. We are energized to face whatever challenge is ahead.
However, high levels of stress and anxiety decrease performance because we become overwhelmed. The arousal caused by stress and anxiety no longer gives a little boost to help overcome challenges, instead they actually compound the problem by making it worse. Most people are aware of the negative consequences of stress and anxiety and its toll on society and on individuals. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. That means that more than one out of every six people suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. Treating anxiety can be expensive, the average annual medical cost for individuals diagnosed with any anxiety disorder was estimated at $6,475 in 2005.
Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression or vice versa. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Some experts believe that depression is caused by a feeling that you are unable to solve your problems. Therefore, learning how to cope with fear, anxiety, worry, and stress in a healthy manner is an excellent way to prevent depression from creeping in. We want to be able to calm and manage these emotions so that they can benefit us rather than harming us.
The autonomic nervous system
Understanding a little about the autonomic nervous system helps in understanding how the results of our emotions can be either helpful or hurtful. Our bodies have an autonomic nervous system which regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, etc. The autonomic nervous system has separate branches, one is called the sympathetic nervous system and is often called the “fight or flight” system. Another branch is called the parasympathetic nervous system, which is often called the “rest and digest” system.
Turning systems “on and off”
In many cases, both of these systems have opposite actions where one system activates a physiological response and the other inhibits it. In other words, our bodies are designed to naturally take care of things like our digestion and immune system to keep us nourished and healthy, but during times of an emergency, the body puts those things on hold in order to direct energy into more important things like the ability to run away from danger right now.
Our bodies produce a stress hormone called cortisol, which is like a built-in alarm. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. It accelerates heartbeat, increases blood sugar, and alters other body systems to prepare your body to respond to the danger. When your body is on high alert, cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.
After the danger has passed, then your cortisol level should calm down and your heart, blood pressure, and other body systems will get back to normal. This is a wonderful, natural, and automatic process designed to help keep us safe, and enable us to quickly respond to danger.
Chronic worry, anxiety, and stress
However, this “fight or flight” system is only intended to be in use for short periods of time, and if we keep our bodies constantly in the “fight or flight” response with worry and stress, it can negatively affect virtually every organ system in the body. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) prolonged stress has been shown to cause numerous health problems including: anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration problems, problems with digestion, trouble sleeping, weight gain, weakening of the immune system, high blood pressure, upset stomach, ulcers, acid reflux, increased rapid heart beat and heart palpitations, panic attacks, cardio-vascular problems, increase in blood sugar levels, irritable bowel problems, backaches, tension headaches or migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, respiratory problems, and skin conditions.
This short list includes many of the physical problems that can arise from chronic fear, anxiety, worry, and stress, but there are also many social, mental, and emotional problems as well. Chronic fear, anxiety, worry, and/or stress can negatively affect our performance at work. It can negatively affect our relationships. It can negatively affect our happiness and well-being. When we’re on the wrong side of that Yerkes-Dodson curve, our performance in every area diminishes.
Stressors and coping skills
A stressor is an activity, event, or other stimulus that causes stress. Stressors are those things that cause fear, anxiety, worry, stress, or panic in our lives. Coping refers to our response to those stressors. It relates to how we deal with and attempt to overcome problems and difficulties.
If we graph our stressors and our coping skills, we get a pretty good idea of our state of being. If our stressors are low and our coping skills are high, then we are at peace. If our stressors are high and coping skills are also high, it might be challenging, but are typically able to overcome any obstacles. However, if we find that the stressors are high, and our coping skills are low, then our feelings of stress are high and we feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.
Expertise and somatic quieting
Our coping skills can typically be broken down into two areas of focus. The first is our expertise, in other words it is our level of skill, ability, confidence, and resources to do whatever task is before us. For example, a five-year-old may be overwhelmed by the task of adding six plus seven, but to a ten-year-old, that task is extremely simple. Likewise, for a fifteen or sixteen-year-old, the multidimensional skills necessary to drive a car may seem overwhelming, but an adult may find that same task relaxing, since it requires very little effort. This is true every time we learn a new skill. As our expertise level increases, the task becomes easier and we’re able to cope with the demands.
The relaxation response
Another aspect of coping skills is called somatic quieting. Somatic quieting turns on the relaxation response in the body. The relaxation response is essentially the opposite reaction to the stress response. It is a process of turning the “rest and digest” system back on. This releases chemicals and brain signals to make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.
The term “relaxation response” was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, an American medical doctor, cardiologist, author, and a founder of mind/body medicine. His book, The Relaxation Response, describes the scientific benefits of relaxation and shows how it can be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress related disorders. The relaxation response counteracts the physiological effects of stress and the fight or flight response. His research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s helped demystify meditation and brought it to the mainstream by demonstrating how meditation promotes better health, lower stress levels, increased wellbeing, and reduced blood pressure levels.
More benefits of the relaxation response
When our bodies and minds are in a constant state of fight or flight, it narrows our focus and gives us a sort of “tunnel vision.” If we can get out of that fight or flight mentality and turn on the relaxation response even for a few moments each day, it gives our body and our mind a break. It broadens our focus and we are able to find new and creative ways to solve our problems. You are stronger than you think and smarter than you think. The answers to your problems are most likely already inside of you, you just need a way to tap into that greatness and set it free. Therefore, these two separate aspects of coping skills, expertise and somatic quieting, are interrelated. Calming down and turning on the relaxation response helps us get back to the top of our game by broadening our vision and tapping into our own creative problem solving skills.