When You Feel Nervous or Anxious

At a novelty store in Chinatown, San Francisco, I bought a Chinese finger cuff when I was a kid. It is a tube made of woven straw. You put a finger in one end, another finger in the other end and push until it is snug. When you try to pull your fingers out, you discover the straw is woven in a way that causes the cuff to tighten around your fingers when you try to pull them apart. And the harder you pull, the tighter it grips your fingers.

There are many psychological factors that act like finger cuffs. For example, when I started doing public speeches, I got feelings of anxiety and dread whenever I thought about an upcoming speech. I tried lots of strategies to make these adrenaline jolts stop coming, but they kept happening. It was frustrating. I knew it was unhealthy and it made me feel like a fraud (I had written a book that told of mental strategies to change feelings, yet I was having this problem). These thoughts of fraud and fears of so much anxiety being bad for my health created a second layer of anxiety. I became anxious about the anxiety. I was upset that they wouldn't go away. All these second-layer effects just produced more anxiety. They made occasional anxious feelings into almost continuous anxiety, disrupting my sleep and making me miserable.

Because stress hormones arouse the nervous system, they can act like finger cuffs. If you feel anxious and try to get rid of it, you can make it worse. Being angry at your anxiety, being upset about it or frustrated by it, wanting to get away from it, being worried about what the anxiety is doing to your health — all of these emotions about your anxiety simply add even more stress hormones to your system.

I tried many things to deal with it. Three things worked well. First, I stopped referring to the jolts as "anxiety" or "dread." I used more neutral terms like adrenaline jolts or adrenaline rushes. This was, I believe, an important first step because it helped lead to the next two tools.

The second tool was: I accepted the fact that anyone in their right mind is going to have rushes of adrenaline when they think about giving a speech. In other words, it wasn't a sign something was wrong.

And third, I reasoned that as long as I had these rushes, maybe I could put them to good use. This was the beginning of a breakthrough.

I tried several things. Originally, I decided that each adrenaline jolt would be my cue to go over the speech outline in my head. That worked pretty well. I stopped dreading the rushes and stopped trying to avoid having them. An adrenaline rush became a welcome opportunity to make sure I knew exactly what I was going to say. This directly countered my main fear — that I would lose my train of thought in front of the group.

Over time, I tried several things, all of them sharing the same basic theme: using the rush rather than rejecting it.

The one that worked best will reveal probably the most important principle in dealing with anxiety. Every time I got an adrenaline jolt, I said to myself, "I will make them get how important this is." That's what I wanted to go through my head as I stood in front of an audience. I practiced that thought over and over whenever I experienced an adrenaline rush. And while I practiced saying this to myself, I imagined saying it to myself while looking at the audience, so the audience became associated with that thought — the audience became a trigger for that thought.

I came up with this after doing a few speeches. I noticed the audience listened with the attitude, "this is interesting." But I wanted them to sit up and pay attention to what I was saying — as if it could help them or someone they loved, as if it would make a difference, as if it were important! I wanted to have a real impact on them. I wanted their lives to be forever better. I didn't want them to listen to me as a mere form of entertainment. This was something I really wanted. It was a sincere, heartfelt desire. And that was the key.

So every time I got a jolt, I would say to myself, "I will make them get how important this is!" And thanks to the jolt, I said it with extra intensity.

The reason this worked so well is that anxiety, worry, insecurity — these are "pulling away" emotions. Anxiety includes the impulse to run away, hide, withdraw, pull back, etc.

My heartfelt desire to make them feel my topic was important directly countered my anxiety because desire displaces fear. Remember that and you may not need to remember anything else. Desire can overrun and override fear. Desire is a "reaching toward" emotion. Desire is moving toward, seeking, taking possession of, aggression.

Desire moves toward. Anxiety moves away.

You will find that the best antidote for anxiety is a strong desire. The more intense the anxiety, the stronger your desire must be to successfully counter it. Can desire be increased deliberately? Can you intensify your own desire? This is a crucial question.

I have discovered that, in fact, you can increase your own level of motivation and it is not difficult. All you have to do is think about your goal and imagine what it would be like to achieve it. Remind yourself why you want it so bad and what it would mean to you.

It's the same old stuff you find in motivational books — visualize your goal and talk to yourself confidently about it.

And while you can't make yourself desire something you really don't care about, you can intensify your sincere desires. You can go from mild desire to intense desire with it. You can fan the flames and make your desire burn hot by thinking about why you want it.

Make a list of all the reasons you really want your goal. Keep coming up with new reasons. Ponder them often. Talk to yourself enthusiastically about them. Imagine your goal vividly. Encourage your desire to become intense.

The other side of maintaining motivation is to handle setbacks well. Keep your mind from making cognitive errors like all-or-nothing thinking or overgeneralizations — errors that could take the wind out of your sails and kill your desire. (Read more about that here.)

For example, Feebus is prone to worry. He has a new job as a manager of a store. The employees he is managing have all been there awhile, and he has to learn much of his job from them. It is causing him anxiety because he is their junior and senior at the same time. He is supposed to be their boss, directing their activities, telling them what to do, but he has to find out from them what to tell them. It feels awkward.

Whenever he thinks about his job, he gets a rush of adrenaline. Remember the three tools? The first thing he did was stop calling it "worry" and started calling it "getting a rush."

Second, accept the rushes as normal. Feebus may get a bigger rush than most people, but anyone with even the smallest amount of social awareness would feel some awkwardness in that kind of situation. He accepts it as a normal reaction. This reduces some of his distress by removing the secondary effect (getting upset about the anxiety).

And third, use the rushes. Feebus thinks about what he really wants. That's easy. He wants to feel a justified respect from his employees. That means he needs to be competent at his job — the sooner the better. His focus now is getting as good at his job as quickly as he can.

Every time he gets the jolt, he asks himself, "What else can I do to increase my competence?" He comes up with all kinds of things: He starts showing up for work earlier than his employees, giving himself time to get one step ahead. He makes notes on his breaks and after work of things he is learning and reviews these at home. At night he reads books about his job. He asks managers in other departments for advice, and he picks the brains of his employees continually.

His competence rises quickly and he earns the respect of his employees. And the more competent he gets, the less often he gets adrenaline rushes.


It is a good idea to take actions in your life that will lead to a lower level of stress hormones in general — change the way you think about things, meditate, stretch, whatever. But at the time you feel anxious, find a way to welcome the feeling. Never try to resist or get rid of the feelings of anxiety or insecurity or worry when you're feeling them. Use the feeling for a positive purpose. Use it as an opportunity to practice one of the methods on this web site. Or use it to remind you of something.

This principle converts anxiety into determination. It doesn't try to get rid of the stress hormones; it uses the hormones as fuel for determination rather than fuel for fear. It works well. I've used it hundreds of times.

I originally got the idea when I read about an experiment by researcher Stanley Schachter. He had a group of students in one room who were acting happy. In another room, the students acted anxious.

Then he took a volunteer who didn't know what was going on and gave him a shot of adrenaline and put him into one of the rooms.

The unsuspecting student was then asked later what effect the "drug" had on him. They didn't tell him it was adrenaline.

As you might guess, when he was jacked up on adrenaline and put into the happy room, he later reported the "drug" made him feel excited and elated.

If he was put in with the anxious group, he reported that the "drug" made him feel nervous and insecure.

This was repeated with many different volunteers. It was a consistent result and I'm sure it doesn't surprise you. Adrenaline doesn't necessarily have a positive or negative affect. It depends on "where your head is at." A roller coaster can be terrifying or quite a rush, and both are caused by adrenaline. The only difference is whether the experience is being welcomed or resisted.

By finding a way to use your adrenaline rushes to boost your determination, you begin to welcome the rushes and the adrenaline stops feeling bad and starts to feel good.

I'm talking about determination here, and I'd like to clarify the distinction between hope and determination, and I can illustrate it with the true story of the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes mountains. The plane was the Fairchild and when it went down the pilots radioed their position, but told the wrong position. They were mistaken about where they were (that's why they crashed — they thought they were over the high mountains and they weren't, so the started their descent…right into a mountain).

Thirty-two people survived the crash. They were all wearing light, warm-weather clothes. At night the temperature dropped far below freezing. Their plane was open at one end (the tail section had come off in the crash. They assumed, of course, that the pilots transmitted their position, so they expected to be rescued. They held out hope, day after day, listening to a little transistor radio for some sign. They heard a search was on.

Then one day, they heard the search had been called off. Many people were crushed by the news, some weeping in despair. All hope was lost. But one man wasn't crushed. All along, most of the others were fixated on getting rescued, but Nando was determined to get back to civilization by his own efforts.

They didn't know where they were, how far away from civilization they were, or in what direction civilization lay. They knew Chile was west, but the way was blocked by enormous mountains. They were at an elevation that was permanently snowbound and they were ill-clothed for an expedition in these conditions. The air was thin and it exhausted them to hike.

But Nando and his friend Canessa decided to try it. Nando was determined to get back alive. He didn't hope he might; he was determined he would. He loved his father and knew how much his father was suffering. Nando's mother and sister were killed by the plane crash and Nando knew his father needed him. He couldn't let himself die on the mountain and leave his father alone. This thought drove him on, spurred his determination, made him impatient. He walked, not so much to save himself as to save his dad.

The hike over endless mountains in thin air, freezing in inadequate clothing, was pushing these young men to their limits. At one point, Canessa said, "I can't go on."

Nando replied, "You must go on."

They reached civilization seventy days after the Fairchild crashed. Rescue helicopters, led by Nando, found the others and brought them home. During the ordeal, they all lost a lot of weight. Nando lost fifty pounds, and he was a slim athlete to start with. One had lost eighty pounds.

Later in his life, Nando said, "When I was at the top of an 18,000-foot peak with Roberto Canessa, looking at the vast scenery of snowy peaks surrounding us, we knew we were going to die. There was absolutely no way out. We then decided how we would die: We would walk towards the sun and the west."

Determination is different from hope. It isn't as pretty. It isn't as pleasant. But it is more effective. Do not try to turn your fear into hope. Hope is weak. Turn your fear into determination.

When you get a jolt of adrenaline, stop calling it feeling nervous or anxious or worried or afraid. Call it a shot of adrenaline, accept it as a normal response to the circumstances — perhaps a stronger response than some people would have, but only in degree — and then go about changing your mind-set from withdrawing to reaching toward. This is not hard to do. It is not complicated. Whatever thought went through your mind that gave you the adrenaline rush, think up a goal for it. Think of a goal you really want. Make up your mind you are determined to achieve it. Use the adrenaline rushes to remind you to reaffirm your determination to reach that goal.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought, Direct Your Mind, and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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