My grandfather gave me a toolbox years ago that says on the front “Scott DePaolo champ.” Inside are a few tools. The important thing about tools is learning how to use each one for its intended purpose. With a tape measure, for example, an inch is still part of a foot, and in life, it is necessary to break goals down small enough to be successful. A level establishes a horizontal line just like we strive for a straight line with our horses. A hammer uses a nail, but if we only know how to use a hammer, all we can fix is a nail. We must be familiar with the right tools to do the right jobs. Abraham Maslow said, “What one can be one must be.” But when fear holds us back, it is difficult to be what we must be. Maslow also said that we have a choice to go forward or back into safety. I’d like to share tools that are scientifically proven and cowboy endorsed to help us vaporize anxiety so that we can move forward.
In horsemanship, I’ve noticed that a lot of people step backwards into safety. “If something can go wrong, something will go wrong,” we say. We bypass anxieties. We ride our horses with strings attached. “I’m a real horseman, but I don’t go in the mountains because I’m not good enough,” or “I don’t perform for people because I’d hate to mess up,” or “I don’t load my horse on a trailer because you never know what could happen.” We wind our way through life far away from what causes anxiety since we know that it is bad and needs to be avoided. Yet what if our potential lies, not in safety, but on the other side of anxiety? That new job is over there, the perfect spouse is over there, that sporting event you’ve wanted to do your whole life is over there, a new horse is over there: everything is on the other side of anxiety. Still, we stay in our comfort zones. We watch TV to numb ourselves, we go to bed, get up the next day, and do it all over again. But that’s not what living life’s about. If you are a person who tends to deal with fear, learn this: fear is not a you thing; it’s a human thing. And we are just as panicked and flight-responsive as our horses are.
Our human race has been known to be watchful, wired to stay away from a saber-tooth tiger, to stay away from a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but I’ve never seen a saber-tooth tiger and I’ve never seen a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s not the big scary things we tend to worry about; it’s the small things that get us, little by little, day after day after day.
So how do we vaporize anxiety? Here are six tools. Not all of these tools will work for everybody, but it’s better to find two that work really well than remembering all six. These tools work in conjunction with learning how to use them. If we don’t spend time practicing when we’re not anxious, they’re not going to work when we need them.
1. Guard self-talk. Sixty percent of self-talk is negative. We can realize what we are doing that’s causing anxiety and change it by predetermining what to say with self-affirmation. “I” statements are most important for people who have poor self-talk. “I can,” “I will,” “I am.” Ask, “What would I say to a best friend going through my situation?” Write out affirmations that can be read every morning and moved into the day with.
2. Breathe. Shallow, short breaths cause a fearful, flighty mind set, and nervousness results in short breaths and panic response because our bodies are saying, “You’re suffocating.” Deep breathing releases negative endorphins. Take 15-second breaths to change the focus to breathing and counting. Start with breathing out through the mouth in short puffs or “woosh” sounds. Then, breathe in through the nose for four seconds, out through mouth for seven, and in through the nose for six. Focus on really getting rid of anxiety with every exhale.
3. Power posture. We can unconsciously rate people by their appearance, and we perceive that those who have poor posture commonly lack confidence and self-respect. Look at a chicken’s posture when she’s taking care of her young; she makes herself as big as possible. Horsemen feel unstoppable when riding horses in power posture. This stance opens up the lungs, increases testosterone, and decreases cortisol for both men and women. Hold a power posture for two minutes by pulling shoulders back, keeping head and chest up, and standing up straight. Think of superheroes, like Wonder Woman or Superman, ready to do something super. Raising your arms up in a “V” for “victory” can have the same effect.
4. Feel a hair. We are only able to think about one thing at a time. If we stop to feel the intimate detail of any object, it will move the focus off of the fear. When driving, passing a semi-truck on a dark, rainy night, people often clench jaw muscles together and dwell on the thought process. Try taking a hand off of the wheel to feel every detail of the seat belt. It takes practice, but once there’s a little success, the results are indescribable.
5. Say “I am excited.” There is very little difference between the endorphin release of fear and excitement. Our minds can change the meaning. If we think about becoming happy, we will smile. If we smile, we will be happy. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” When I’m going on stage to speak, is what I’m feeling panic or excitement? Endorphins give a feeling we may not be used to. Step into that excitement, for “stop” actually means “go.”
6. Just do. If we do the thing we fear, then fear will disappear. Thought precedes action, and action precedes feeling. Let’s not hold back because we’re not willing to fail or be embarrassed. Move on from there. Anxiety is common for almost anything we try to do the first two times. If we’re willing to fail to be great at something that we’re unsure of, we will grow in confidence.
Dr. Stan Beecham said, “Fear is keeping you from reaching your potential. Conquering fear should be your primary goal in life.” Bull riders have no self-reservation; they are the ones who would be eaten by the saber-tooth tiger. We don’t all need to be bull riders, but we’re certainly not doing what we could. Let’s pick up a tool that we can use tomorrow because the easiest way to change the world is to change ourselves.