There are lots of ways that we freak ourselves out, or let ourselves get freaked out by either situations we’re facing or the people around us.
It’s rarely our fault or intention. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “You know what? I think I’ll just totally freak myself out about this situation, and make it so that I’m unable to function. That sounds like fun.”
But the truth is that we do, often, find ourselves intimidated, overwhelmed, stressed, or exhausted by situations that we might otherwise have the knowledge and skills to handle…if only that knowledge and those skills weren’t being shrouded by a fog of panic and anxiety at the moment.
First thing’s first: if you are feeling freaked out, you don’t need to apologize for or hide your feelings.
A lot of people, when they start to feel freaked out, immediately move to hide their freak-out from the people around them. These attempts, in turn, usually add yet another layer of stress and anxiety to the situation— and often don’t even work.
(Have you ever been around someone who is clearly freaking out, but working hard to keep the people around them from knowing they’re freaking out? It makes for an awkward situation.)
If you’re feeling freaked out, just acknowledge it.
Acknowledge it to yourself, and maybe even acknowledge it to the people around you, depending on the situation. Very rarely does any good come from trying to conceal a freak out once it’s underway.
There’s no shame in getting freaked out. Everybody gets freaked out. To be freaked out is to be human.
Then, once you’ve come face to face with the fact that you’re freaking out…it becomes possible to figure out whether you’re needlessly getting freaked out.
That is to say, whether your feelings of being freaked out at that moment may be the result of other peoples’ expectations; suddenly encountering a situation that is unfamiliar or unexpected; or having a situation you thought would go one way suddenly go another way, leaving you in the position of having to adapt in quick, uncomfortable ways.
The fact of the matter is, we are often more skilled, more poised, more experienced, and more capable in situations than we give ourselves credit for.
Often times, we forget how skilled, poised, experienced, and capable we can be, because our frontal lobe (the part of our brain that is really good at decision making, critical thinking, and problem solving) is being momentarily short circuited by our limbic system (that part of our brain that responds to crises with options of fight, flight, or freeze— the part of our brain that is lit up like a Christmas tree whenever we’re freaked out, in other words).
If you’re reading these words, trust me: you have intellect, experience, and toughness that I do not have, and that few other people have.
It’s not a contest, but it is a fact: there are times and places when you know exactly what you’re doing, and you do well it well.
Unfortunately, when our limbic system gets activated in moments of panic, it becomes tough to call to mind those times and places when we feel perfectly at ease, perfectly competent, perfectly able and adequate…which leaves us feeling awkward, incompetent, and inadequate.
Sometimes we get freaked out because other people have gone out of their way to get us freaked out.
It can be an interpersonal strategy on the part of insecure people to try to arouse feelings of confusion, inadequacy, and insecurity in other people, so they might achieve an effortless leg up in social situations. It’s to their advantage that we don’t experience ourselves as confident and competent…because if we did, we’d be giving them “competition.”
When we’re getting freaked out, we’re usually thinking in black and white terms.
If something doesn’t go perfectly, we immediately rush to the conclusion it was a complete failure. If an interaction doesn’t go entirely smoothly, we rush to the conclusion it has gone so painfully awry that everyone now hates us.
The limbic system isn’t good at nuance (and for good reason: when we were cave-people trying to avoid getting eaten by sabertooth tigers, probably the last thing we needed was to contemplate the nuances of whether we should RUN LIKE HELL or not).
The good news is: we don’t have to freak ourselves out.
We can learn to recognize when we’re getting freaked out, and to use the skills and tools we already have to help us calm down.
Right now, ask yourself: how would I know when I’m starting to freak out?
What happens in my body? What happens in my mind? What thoughts go through my head?
It may sound like an absurdly obvious question, but a lot of us don’t stop to ask it very often. If we needed a reliable set of warning signs for when we’re on the slippery slope to getting freaked out…what would those signs be?
Then, we can do simple, step by step things to arrest our slide down that slope.
We can breathe, slow and easy— five counts in, hold for three, five counts out.
Fun fact: the neuropsychological research suggests that it’s really, really hard for the limbic system to dominate our functioning when we’re breathing slow and easy (why do you think this is the first lesson every novice meditator learns?).
In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking at the issue of how to avoid freaking ourselves out in far more depth, including specific tips and tricks to remember who we are in those scary moments when we’re drawn into thinking we’re someone far less capable and smart.
But in the meantime, repeat as necessary: you don’t have to let yourself get freaked out.
You are enough. You have skills. You’ve handled things far tougher than the situation in front of you right now.
Now…breathe for me.
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