Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway??

As a person who has long struggled with anxiety, I have a lot of fears:

  • falling down concrete stairs
  • going into my basement alone
  • bats
  • inversion poses in yoga or being upside down in general
  • things jumping out at me unexpectedly, in real space as well as in movies and TV

These things are easy enough to avoid, or to talk myself through. But in my continuing quest to be more mindful, I've started to notice the feeling of fear in unexpected situations. I feel that tickle in my chest, a heart rate slightly elevated. Sometimes, it's a metallic taste in my mouth that makes me clench my jaw (I recently learned that this is adrenaline!) Most often, it feels like a hard, heavy weight in my stomach that makes me shift in my seat, and makes me less likely to eat or drink because it suppresses my appetite. 

Of course I feel that way when I see a dark shadow in the basement, but why do I feel like that before I go to check my social media library? Why do I feel that way when I'm sitting down to check my inbox after a few days away? Why on earth do I feel that way before meditating or going for a run? Could I be afraid? 

Tuning in to how I feel in my body has given me some fascinating data about the reasons I procrastinate or avoid certain tasks. After years of beating myself up about not wanting to go workout first thing in the morning, or feeling guilty about avoiding an email, I've shifted the conversation in my head from:

Why aren't you doing this thing? You're so [insert pejorative statement here.] Do better. 


What are you feeling? What might be making you feel that way? 

So often, what I'm feeling is fear. And getting to the bottom of what I'm afraid of has brought me clarity. 

I'm afraid of being vulnerable (What if this doesn't work? What if this fails? What if they say no? What if they say yes? What if it does work?). I'm afraid of connecting with people who knew me during my PhD process (What if they think my business is stupid? What if they ask me about my research? What if they tell everyone about me?) I'm afraid of my body and the ways it could fail me at any given time (What if my endometriosis is getting worse? What if I can't run because my knees are bad? What if I'm getting osteoporosis or diabetes or heart disease? What if I never reach my "ideal body weight"? What if I do?) 

Lots of professionalization and self help books will encourage you to "Feel the fear and do it anyway!" Go ride roller coasters! Ask for a raise! Take the chance on a new relationship! Connect! Dream big dreams and push past the fear that holds you back from getting there! But I think that if you never deal with your fear, you'll always have to white knuckle your way into moving forward. You'll always need to push, it will always feel hard, and scary. 

So instead, feel the fear and explore it. Think about what is making your fear sensor activate, and stay with the sensation as long as you can stand it. If you can acknowledge that there's an emotional component to the task you're avoiding, the procrastination you find yourself in, you have a better chance at understanding why you're doing the things you doing. 

And with all things in the mindfulness realm, the goal is never to stop feeling fear, or to never feel fear again. Rather, the goal is to identify it and say, "Hi Fear! I know you!" and decide if the reaction is appropriate. Are you on a roller coaster? Go ahead and feel that fear, you're traveling impossibly fast in a small car with minimal restraints. Fear is appropriate. But are you feeling fearful about emailing your advisor, when they have only been supportive in the past? Maybe fear isn't the most appropriate response, and you can use that record of support to encourage yourself to send the email. Or maybe you're feeling fearful about emailing your advisor and you look back at past interactions and they have responded harshly, or in a way that was unsupportive, when you were vulnerable last. Fear is appropriate! But, use that data. Who can you enlist to your team to provide support around that issue? Do you need to make a change? 

I'm committing this year to try and untangle my fear from my procrastination, and become more mindful about why I work in the way that I do. More mindfulness, less pressure and empty platitudes. Wishing you only the best in 2018, and the skills to handle the rest.