While the news media is only partly to blame, making a killing of FUDGE (fear, uncertainty, doubt, greed, and envy), they are not the sole culprits. We live in a world where fear, stress, and anxiety are normalised. Each one of us chooses, on some level, to play this game. Or at least, we pretend that we have no other choices.
But, how do we make good decisions from a state of fear, stress and anxiety? In many ways, we’re hampered by tunnel vision, unable to see options broader than the scope of escaping the immediate threats that we perceive. We move towards safety rather than seeing the broader opportunities available to us.
And so, we continue on this hamster wheel, continually fueled by our fears and making decisions in less than optimal mental, physical and emotional states.
I want to take a moment to explore the effects of fear, stress and anxiety on us, physically, mentally and emotionally. Then, we can explore the optimal states for decision-making. Finally, I will look at options for bringing in a state (albeit temporarily) in which you are calm and alert, allowing better decision-making.
The effects of stress, fear & anxiety
Fear, stress and anxiety are not the same. But I’m not going to delve deeply into the differences between them or the specifics of their physiological, emotional or mental effects. Instead, I will talk about generalisations. This has its drawbacks, but there are many overlaps in what happens to us in each of these states.
At a fundamental level, fear is the response to a present danger.
Unfortunately, our minds are now quite adept at creating mental fears, presently with us, although blown out of proportion. Anxiety is fear for the future: the unknown and uncertain. And stress is our response to fear and anxiety: physically, mentally and emotionally.
Both fear and anxiety can send you into one of the following response patterns:
Long term, if you fail to return to a state of calm, you end up in a state of chronic stress, which most of us have become accustomed to on some level. This is what I want to address and look within and consider the possibility of change.
There are short-term fixes to stress, fear and anxiety. But if you are living with chronic stress, then perhaps it’s time to make some lifestyle changes. Allow things to slow down and ease off. I’ll come back to this later.
Your inner life: embodied stress
When you are under stress (responding to fear or anxiety), your body will strive to keep you alert, moving, motivated and ready to avoid impending danger. This constant stress changes your physiological responses, shutting down some functions that it considered non-essential for survival while heightening others.
So, for example, your digestion in an emergency is non-essential. So, if you eat on the run or when you are stressed, you get indigestion or reflux.
At the same time, your body responds to stress by maximising and filtering your senses towards danger. So, your peripheral vision opens, which is why when you’re stressed, you struggle to find the car keys that were “right under your nose”.
You become better able to spot hostility and aggression. Yet, when someone is simply calm and passive, you mistake this expressionlessness for hostility rather than as a friendly face. In a state of heightened senses, you can recognise the welcoming face and see anything else as a threat.
Similarly, your ears become attuned to higher and lower frequencies, filtering out the normal range of human voices. So, you will notice and tune into high pitched voices (stressed) while ignoring those that are calm and in a normal range.
The ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) responses
The ANS is part of the nervous system that controls many of the body’s unconscious functions, such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and the like. It steps up and controls your fight, flight or freeze response by controlling your heart rate, breathing, vision, hearing, taste, smell, etc. The brain’s RSA centre filters, choosing which information or data to pass on.
When you are fearful and anxious and go into fight or flight mode, your energy and blood are directed to your limbs, making sense for running or fighting. Of course, that’s not very helpful in your office fight, where you need your wits about you, rather than the use of fists.
Unfortunately, after a particularly stressful day, you might also find yourself feeling weary and tired, as well as aches and pains in your muscles, even though you didn’t use them for fight or flight.
Similarly, in preparation for a fight and injury, your blood thickens, making clotting easier. This is one way that stress causes heart and stroke problems.
Anxiety can also lead to insomnia, as you are kept alert throughout the night to ward off predators. This is not a particularly helpful response with inner-city living when your stress is work-related and what you need is a good night’s sleep and a clear head in the morning.
Other long-term effects caused by the ANS’s response to stress might include:
- impact on your immune system
- high blood pressure
- digestive issues.
Your emotional response to stress
Everyone responds differently to stress.
If my daughter tries to joke with me, and I am easily irritated, I quickly start to look at the cause of my stress. I notice that I promptly lose my playfulness and curiosity while my sense of humour turns darker. The cause of my anxiety is rarely my daughter. But my lack of playfulness with her is a clear indicator that something is amiss.
Common emotional responses to stress include:
- intense emotions
- reacting impulsively
- irritability, hostility & aggression
- sadness or depression
- inner turmoil
- feelings of dread
- defensive or suspicious of others
These emotional responses make it difficult to connect and communicate with others.
Stress impacts relationships in the immediate way that we interact and the long-term impact on trust. When we establish stress response patterns of behaviour, trust erodes.
Your mental response to stress
Rumination is a typical stress response: replaying a situation or problem in our minds, but with a single or limited perspective and options. It feels like going around in circles, a loop on replay.
Unfortunately, with ongoing stress, there is an impact on our ability to think clearly. The stress hormones affect our nervous system and immune system; they also impact the brain in various ways.
Firstly, stress hormones will impact your hippocampus, where you store your long-term memories. This makes it difficult to learn anything new. Ever tried to study and cram at the very last minute? You can remember what you crammed the next day for the exam (when you need it), but a week later, it’s all forgotten.
The second part of your brain impacted by stress is the frontal lobe, the section of your brain responsible for paying attention and focusing. It’s the part of your brain that allows you to stay in the present moment, but it does more than just that.
The frontal lobe also helps filter out irrelevant or unimportant information. It is also responsible for your ability to judge rightly and problem-solving.
So, when you are stressed out or living in fear, the part of your brain that you most need is disconnected:
- it fails to filter out important/unimportant information, so you feel confused and overwhelmed;
- it fails to concentrate and keep you focused;
- and it switches off judgement and problem-solving abilities.
Is it any wonder, then, that when you’re stressed, decision-making is so tricky?
The essential elements of good decision-making
When making decisions, I consider some essential factors you want to view and be fully in touch with. It doesn’t matter when these are personal or business decisions.
Your ability to take these factors into account and connect with them rely on being in a state of calm and alertness. It’s not about being in a relaxed state where you are disconnected, but rather in a calm state where you are fully connected and present.
- Make time now to identify the values of what is essential and priorities at this moment in time. It’s not just what matters right now, but the ability to differentiate the urgent from the important and ensure that you have considered all priorities of what is truly important.
- You can connect with your feelings and desires and notice the emotions and desires of others.
- You account for your relationships and the impact of the decision. The effect on yourself and other stakeholders in the outcome is well considered. For example, if you decide to take on new responsibilities, how will that affect your relationship with your children? What importance do you need to give to that impact? Are you able to calmly assess the effect on all relationships that matter, not just those immediately impacted?
- Mentally, can you look at various options and choices from multiple perspectives and angles? When you are in a state of calm, you don’t suffer from tunnel vision but instead can engage curiosity to get a balanced or integrated view.
- Another benefit of being calm is becoming aware of your own biases or limited views. If someone calls you out or challenges your perspective, you won’t respond defensively but rather can entertain the possibility of another viewpoint. This creates opportunities to think outside the box.
- Thinking of this sort also allows you to plan for the future, foreseeing potential obstacles and challenges, without falling into the trap of catastrophising or awfulising and becoming frozen as a result.
- What impact will decision-making have on who you are? At a gut level, you’ll become aware of your gut feelings or any gut instinct that might kick in, rather than ignoring it. But, at the same time, you’ll also be more aware of that deep feeling in your gut regarding your identity.
- In a calm state, we can evaluate risk quickly, looking at safety and security concerns objectively and subjectively, without blowing them out of proportion.
- You can be courageous in choosing to move forward without being foolhardy.
Imagine a lion
Visualise or imagine a lion or cheetah sitting in the savannah, looking at the potential food supply and feast before them. If you notice the eyes, they are present and alert, catching all the details of the scene before them. But at the same time, when you look at the body, it is relaxed at this moment, rather than tense.
The beast of prey is merely present and surveying the scene without wasting energy by holding tension in their muscles. There is a sense of calm and tranquillity.
At the same time, this state of being is not fatigue or a state of rest. They haven’t just eaten, nor are they sleepy and planning to rest.
If you looked at their eyes, you could see a sparkle: they are fully awake and aware.
We want to embody this state for decision-making: calm yet alert, one in which we can see clearly, wherever we choose to focus our attention. We listen actively. And we don’t want to waste our energy unnecessarily on tension.
In this state, we can think, plan and ideate.
So, how do we change from stress to calm?
Consider for a moment the NLP model of the cybernetic loop. This model shows how thinking impacts our body (physiology) and emotions. Simultaneously, our thinking is affected by our emotions and body and environment. So, if we want to change the loop we are in of stress, we have to choose a point of interruption.
You have three options here for interrupting:
- There’s the thinking, which is internal,
- the emotions, which is also internal, and
- physiological element, external, or at least impacted by our body and what we do what movement we choose.
You can interrupt the cybernetic loop of fear, anxiety and stress in any one of those three areas.
The challenge for us – anytime we’re in fear, anxiety or stress – is to stop the loop that we’re in and slowly change to a new path, one in which we refine and rediscover our way back to being calm and alert so that we can make better decisions.
It all starts with self-awareness.
The first step to change is noticing the state you’re in. When you learn to identify that inner part of yourself, it says,
“Have you noticed that you’re stressed? How long have you been feeling anxious? Have you noticed, you’re in fear?”
The moment we notice the fear, the anxiety, the stress – it’s a call to stop.
You know the phrase, just breathe.
But breathing works, and it does work because it impacts our physiological state.
Remember the cybernetic loop? By simply changing the rate and length of your breath, you can interrupt the loop.
When we’re stressed, and in fight or flight, our breath is hurried. Because our breath is rushed, it sends a message to our heart, and our heart beats faster, and our blood thickens, the hormones are released.
You slow that breath down, sending a message to slow the heartbeat and change the release of hormones. And within a few minutes, you have sent a new message to your body:
Step one: identifying your state
There’s a fundamental importance to understanding how you respond to stress in life.
As I mentioned, you might choose fight, flight or freeze.
Fight and flight are both high alert states that need relaxation. However, not all of us stay in fight and flight. I typically rebound out of that straight into a frozen state. This is a state of shutdown, often with a detachment and dissociation from the situation.
So, I might be physically present, but I’m not embodied in my presence. I’ve lost touch with my emotions and with some thinking states.
Unlike someone in fight or flight, I don’t need to slow down my breathing! I need to speed it up – create safe energy and movement to get moving and reconnect with the environment and my body.
Self-awareness is essential. What are your typical patterns of responding to stress, fear and anxiety?
When you know this, you have an insight into how you will use your breath effectively:
- You might use a long exhale to relax your body out of fight and flight; or
- You might use a long inhale and short exhale to energise your body into movement.
In both cases, you finish the breathwork with long, even breaths (say to the count of 5-in and 5-out). In this way, you finish in a balanced state of being relaxed and present.
Using your posture
Another way I’ve discovered to change my state of being and respond quickly is using my posture.
Notice how you sit when you are completely relaxed. Notice how you sit when you are nervous or anxious. What about when you are sad and depressed? And notice how you sit when you are paying attention but still relaxed.
Do you see the difference in postures?
Someone sad or depressed might well be hunched forward, with their head down. It starts to look like a fetal position, although not quite so extreme. Then, stretch up and out, much like someone would do when waking up in the morning.
Arms outstretched, reaching up and out. Notice how your chest opens up and your head tilts back slightly. Take in a deep, big breath.
If, on the other hand, you’re feeling highly strung, use your posture by rolling your shoulders forward, relaxing your jaw and allowing your head to fall a little forward gently.
Now, sit up straight and be present, in this moment.
Can you notice the difference in your body as you play with something as simple as your posture?
Other options for changing your state
Another way you might change your physiological state (environment) is to exercise: take a walk.
If you need to bring your energy levels down, consider doing some high-intensity exercise and burn all that extra energy if you need to.
You can also do something like meditation or a body scan where you sit down, start at your toes or the top of your head, and work your way through every muscle, every limb.
Typically a body scan starts at the top of your head or your toes. Ensure that you’re fully present in your body, bringing all of your awareness to the muscles, skin, and organs you are scanning. If you notice tight muscles, tighten them a little more and then relax. Notice the change?
A daily practice of self-awareness
I believe you build self-awareness with practice. So, no matter whether I am working with a client in everyday coaching or the Ditch the Diet program, I ask them to use their meals and snacks as a moment of checking in.
Most of us eat three to five times a day when we include morning and afternoon tea.
What state are you in at breakfast? How about when you have your coffee mid-morning? Do you sit down to eat lunch, or are you eating on the run?
So, try this for a week:
Each time you eat – whether a meal or a snack – take thirty seconds to breathe. Just breathe in, easily and effortlessly, before you start to eat. And check in with yourself:
How relaxed or stressed am I right now?
If you want to extend this further, when you’ve finished, pause for a further thirty seconds and just breathe and check in before you get back to doing whatever it was you were doing before eating or taking your break. What’s your current state?
Hopefully, over time, you will begin to build for yourself an anchor of relaxing each time you eat.
Interrupting your emotional state:
In the same way that you can change the loop you are in by changing your physiological or environmental state, you can also interrupt the loop by interrupting your emotions. There are so many ways to do this, but I want just to mention a couple.
As I said, if you want to make better decisions, you need to get out of stress, fear and anxiety and into a state of emotional calm rather than turmoil.
Some people find it helpful to give themselves a time out – stepping back and choosing to practise compassion and acceptance.
Can you take a moment to recognise that no one is perfect?
You can’t hold it together perfectly 100% of the time!
The good news is this: you have an excellent track record. You’ve survived 100% of your bad days so far.
So, if you’re having a bad day, take a moment and check your surroundings.
Are you physically safe right now? Is there anything or anyone in your physical vicinity that makes you fearful or creates anxiety? Could you physically distance yourself for the next two minutes to develop total safety?
Notice the difference in your emotions when you create a moment, a minute, or a day of safety. You will no doubt have to deal with the bigger problem – but to see the options clearly; you need a few minutes of feeling safe and calm to think clearly and see all the possibilities.
Support and connection
Another way we can change our emotional state is by connecting to other people. Having support and connection are basic human needs. You will find many of my blog posts dedicated to your inner circle and your support network.
We thrive when we connect with others. It’s not just having people around us – which might be just as lonely as being alone. It’s the human connection that matters.
Build your tribe. Build it. It doesn’t happen accidentally.
Laughter – my favourite interrupt
I love laughter therapy.
Laughter is a great way to change states. It can be obnoxious or silly; it doesn’t matter what it is. What is your sense of humour?
What makes you laugh until you cry?
You need more of that in your life!
Interrupting the loop of thoughts
There are also ways to interrupt those nonstop thoughts.
Brain dump before bed to avoid stressful sleep
One of my favourites is a brain dump. I find this particularly useful at night when I’m feeling overwhelmed and overloaded. To avoid insomnia and lying in bed with my head swimming in thoughts, I will get out of bed and take out my notebook and write until my brain says, “and that’s all!”.
Sometimes it takes an hour or ninety minutes. It beats lying in bed tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep.
More importantly, I get a much better night’s sleep.
Another practice that I find very helpful before I get started is morning pages: writing down in a state of free flow of consciousness what’s on my mind.
This practice helps me be completely present with my day. I typically don’t even read my morning pages (perhaps once every 2-3 months) to notice patterns of what keeps cropping up.
The purpose of the morning pages is similar to the brain dump. But it’s usually more constructive and less worry based.
This is walking in which you practice paying attention to your surroundings. Practice being immersed in the walk itself rather than being lost in your thoughts as you walk. What do you see? Who do you notice?
Notice the sidewalk or paving stones, the paint on the street signs, and every detail of the street or park you are walking through. When was the last time your neighbour mowed their lawn? Who painted their mailbox?
5-4-3-2-1 for stress and anxiety
This is a common practice for anxiety to interrupt your thoughts and bring you into the present moment.
- Five things you can see.
- Four things you can touch
- Three things you can heart
- Two things you can smell.
- One thing you can taste.
Suppose you’re feeling anxious: just get in your body. What can I see, touch, hear, smell and taste.
What are you committed to?
Finally, your mental state and thoughts playing into your stress, fear and anxiety can be interrupted by thinking about your goals and what you are committed to.
Commitment is something you have right now. You can only be committed to something in this moment – it’s not the future.
Perhaps you are committed to building your future. Consider a project you are working on now: most likely, you will complete it later. But your commitment refers to what you are doing towards that today. It is limited to the here and now.
Perhaps today, you are committed to planning it. That’s the stage you are at and where your focus needs to be.
You might be past the planning stage and are organising the resources required. What are you committed to doing today?
Do you want to commit to spending today in fear, anxiety and stress? Or would you prefer to move your thoughts and attention to something of greater importance and impact?
Fear, anxiety and stress will rob you of this present moment without giving you anything in return.
This triad will seriously affect your ability to make good decisions: how will you spend this present moment?
Ongoing stress and your lifestyle
I mentioned that for many of us, stress is our lifestyle. That’s great in small doses when it keeps us alert, but we manage to return to a state of calm alertness consistently.
The problem arises when we are under chronic stress, and it interferes with our body’s ability to moderate our nervous system.
There’s physical clutter. But sometimes, the chaos is projects, activities and commitments we’ve made. Sometimes this state of fear, anxiety and stress is a reminder to declutter and simplify our lives.
What do you need to let go and remove from your life to break the loop of constant stress?
It’s only when you break that loop that you can make better decisions because you will have clarity of vision from a state of calm.
What changes do you need to make?