How To Use Anxiety To Grow


When John a few hours earlier had asked me to join him and a few of his friends to play football I had pictured something else. One of the goals was built on a small hill of sand, I tried to figure out whether or not it would be an advantage. While I was pondering that tactical question 20 players were running laps and doing sprints in the sand. There was a coach and he had a mean look on his face and a whistle around his neck. It was 35 degrees and I was sweating bullets.

I hadn’t played football in 8 years and could not remember the last time I ran more than 10 meters. I was, to say the least, quite uncomfortable.

“I’m actually feeling a bit nervous” I complained.
“Ah, don’t worry. We are the best team on Zanzibar.” John comforted me.

I was expected to join the practice. The tempo and skill was well above any level I’ve ever been close to.

John had told the coach that “A Swedish football player” was joining them.

Naturally, they had to cut someone to make room for me.

The last hour of practice was game-time. I had managed to postpone my participation up to this point.

Unfortunately, this was no longer possible.

I walked stiffed-legged on to the field and approached John and my other team mates. Everyone looked at me. Nobody smiled, except John.

“You’re left wing” I was told.

While trying to think of excuses to avoid this potential catastrophe I identified a new problem.

Everyone had different coloured shirts.

Some guys had blue Chelsea shirts, others red shirts from Liverpool and some of them had Zanzibar-shirts.

All the players in the opposing team also had different shirts.

Before the coach started the game I ran over to John and, already out of breath, asked him how I was supposed to tell the difference between the teams?

John helped me out one last time: “Just look at the faces man!”

Then the whistle blew and the game was on.

* * *

Walking back from the game I started to think about a question. Why are we scared of things that are not dangerous?
You have a monkey brain. That is the short answer.

Our brain is designed to survive. Not to be happy and enjoy giving presentations (or being the worst player in a team). We are hard wired to notice problems. Real ones and potential ones.

While handy when living on the Savannah, our brain creates problem for us in our urban everyday life. It makes us sweat and feel bad before presentations, it makes us postpone making that sales call and it makes us avoid the conversation that should have been had with your partner weeks ago. In all of these scenarios our brains job is to imagine what can go wrong and make you obsess over it.

While well intended, it’s not very helpful. In fact, it’s very unhelpful. The good news is that we train ourselves to handle our anxious brains. How to deal with anxiety?

“The coward and the hero feel the same thing, it’s how they act that is the difference” – Cus D’Amato

There are three steps to dealing with the anxiety.

1. Notice the anxiety

The first thing when we feel anxious is to notice the feeling, to step out of the feeling and observe it. We need to watch the feeling, and ourselves in order to address it. You can’t throw the Frisbee if you are the Frisbee, as a wise man once told me.

2. Become grateful

The second step is to decrease the immediate anxiety. You can’t be grateful and worried at the same time. This is done by making a list. Write down five things that you are grateful for, persons in your life, items you own or the weather. I does not matter what it is. Then close your eyes and visualize the five things on your list. Now your mind-set has started to shift from anxious to grateful.

3. See the opportunities

When you are in a grateful state of mind, think about what opportunities the challenge brings. Last week I had to make a presentation in Spanish. My Spanish is not that good and I was nervous. I felt bad for days. I made a list of opportunities:

I get to practice public speaking
I get to practice Spanish
I get to practice not caring about what other people think

After doing these 3 steps I find that anxiety is decreased every time. Why do things that are uncomfortable? Why not strive for a life without anxiety?

The alternative to the approach of dealing with anxiety is to avoid things that are uncomfortable. To not make the sales call, keep postponing the big talk and bailing on the presentation. This is a bad idea.

There are three good reasons to why we should keep putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations.

Greater comfort-zone.  Every time you go through an uncomfortable situation you will have one more experience under the belt. Since I made the presentation in barley understandable Spanish I’m not as nervous about presentations in my mother tongue. Another way to look at it is as an investment. You invest in increasing your comfort zone. The dividends are less anxiety down the road.

Meet interesting people. The best way to meet interesting people is to become interesting. An interesting person is someone who has done interesting things. There are no interesting things in the comfort zone. The interesting stuff is outside. Go get it.

Collect good stories. There are no good stories in the comfort zone either. I really wanted to bail out of that football practice in Paje, Zanzibar.
But I’m glad I didn’t. That practice was one of the most memorable experiences of my whole year.

Summary and Next Steps

All of us have a monkey brain. Your brains’ job is to figure out what can go wrong and make you obsess about it.

You can handle the anxiety in three steps.
1. Notice the anxiety. Observe it.
2. Make a list five things that you are grateful for
3. Make a list of things you will improve if you follow through.

Why not avoid uncomfortable situations?
1. You will increase your comfort-zone
2. You will become interesting
3. You will collect great stories

Use the anxiety as a compass. Go where you feel uncomfortable. Your goal should not be to avoid anxiety. Your goal should be to become great at dealing with these negative feelings. Your goal should be to seek out things that make you uncomfortable. Your goal should be to never stop growing.

What can you do today?

Think about something that you are worrying about today. Then do these three things:
1. Notice the feeling of discomfort.
2. Make a list of things in your life that make you feel grateful.
3. Make a list of skills you get to practice if you follow through on the task.
Then go do it.

And don’t forget, if you feel confused  — just look at the faces, man.