Have you ever been so paralyzed by fear that you can’t even catch your breath? You feel like somebody let out all the air in your body? It happened to me this morning. I’m not sure either of these events should have thrown me into such fear, but they did.
First, I found out that my monthly payment to Mailchimp for my email platform had been rejected – and I pay for it straight from my business account. This was a huge problem because today is email day for me – the day I send out this very blog post in an email to my list. No Mailchimp, no email.
I knew for a fact that there should be plenty of money in my account to pay for it. So I instantly fell into panic mode – What happened to my money? Have I been hacked? What else was hacked? etc, ad nauseum. I mentally gave myself a firm shake then pulled up my bank account and everything was as it should be. I ended up using a different form of payment for the account and all was well.
Next, I opened another email and found out that my membership level for my coworking space is going to double. Which, for the record, I can handle financially. But this news, on top of the Mailchimp scare, sent me into a paralyzing panic and literally took my breath away.
I kept thinking, “It’s okay. I’m doing this. Every time something like this happens, it works out.” It didn’t work.
I switched to, “I can do this. No, that’s not right. I am doing this” –to put myself into the present moment and stay away from projecting into the future. But I couldn’t get there.
Dishwashers and chants
So, I grabbed my phone and pulled up my favorite Hindu meditation and started chanting it. PS: I’m doing all this in my nightgown while swigging down tea and wondering if I’m like the frog who didn’t know it was being cooked* and simultaneously unloading the 3rd load of dishes from Mom’s birthday party last night.
But I had to stop unloading the dishwasher – because I could not unload and chant at the same time. Which is weird, because I can drive and chant at the same time – but no multi-tasking this morning – yet.
I stood by my open dishwasher in my old, faded, Lands’ End t-shirt nightgown, my old, down-at-the-heels but I’ll-never-get-rid-of-them furry slippers, and my ancient black sweater, took off my glasses, closed my eyes, and chanted. Then I took a deep breath, and kept chanting. Luckily for me, the meditation is 3 rounds of the same chant.
Half-way through the 2nd round of chanting something shifted and there was a surge of tears. I buried my head in my hands and the tears passed. I felt better, so, I opened my eyes and continued chanting while unloading the dishwasher. I felt better, but the fear was still there, lodged in a tight, hard knot – like a dried up ball of 30-day old play-doh – right under my breast bone.
Where I write about it
So I did what any self-respecting blogger would do, I came upstairs and started writing about it – while the knot was still there.
Here’s the thing. I know from long, hard, nightmare-inducing experience that staying up in my head, having an inner dialogue with my own screwy self is not productive. Luckily for me, one of my super powers is developing strategies for situations just like this. So I got to work. Here’s the strategy.
5 Steps to Subdue Paralyzing Fear
Step 1: Breathe.
When we’re scared, we naturally hold our breath or breathe shallowly. It’s part of our fight-or-flight lizard brain reaction to fear. So, when we recognize that we’re scared and we’re all up in our heads in our defeatist thoughts, we automatically forget to breathe.
So, just breathe. In and out. Eyes closed, then eyes opened, breathe – just keep on breathing so you can…
Step 2: Create a gratitude list.
Minimum 5 items. Write it down on a some kind of paper –that 5 month old receipt in your pocketbook will work in a pinch. Seriously, you have to write it down for this to work. Writing things down moves us out of our focus on the scary future and into the present moment. Thinking about the things you’re grateful for will help you calm down a little, and it will help you breathe.
Here’s how my list usually goes:
- I’m thankful I’m alive (really, I mean it, I’m thankful –goes through my mind on repeat every. single. time. That I write this one down.).
- I’m thankful for Ken (my son).
- I’m thankful for my house.
I write the first 3 by rote – sometimes they’re enough to pull me out of paralysis. If they’re not, and I’m in my death spiral of pessimism, I call on my Al-Anon experience and get granular (really small things). Sometimes I have to go past 5….
- I’m thankful for the grass.
- I’m thankful for air.
- I’m thankful for my car.
- I’m thankful for my Book Club – and I write down all 12 names. And this is where I pull out of the spiral.
Because I remember that I have friends who’ve had my back over and over again, I’m golden and I’m ready for Step 3.
Step 3: Create a list of what’s working right now
Minimum 3 items – this can be really hard – because, you know, that stupid voice in your head! Again, write it down. I look around me and think about what I’m doing right. Could be I managed to get up this morning; could be that I brushed my teeth; could be that I remembered that reading is working; could be that I wrote my gratitude list. Once I figure out one thing that’s working, I can think of more.
Today’s list looked like this:
- I remembered to meditate when I started panicking.
- I remembered to recite my gratitude list (ok, I cheated, I didn’t write it down – do what I say, not what I do).
- I can write about this in my blog!
- I aggressively marketed Bootcamp and created 2 types of Bootcamp.
- I filled 2 Bootcamps.
- I have a tight network of collaborators and supporters – that I created.
- I’m paying my bills.
- I’m regularly attracting new clients.
See where this is going? I’m doing a lot of things right – and not by accident either!! Now I’m ready for Step 4.
Step 4: Make one more list…
Hey! Stop groaning – this works! Write down 3 teeny-tiny, ant-sized steps you can take to move forward.
Here’s this morning’s:
- Go write about it in the blog, right now!
- Rouse Ken from a sound sleep to tell him I’m freaking out.
- Go over my numbers for the year (okay, this one is huge, but I’m up for it).
Yours might look like this:
- Make a to-do list for tomorrow (or today if your freak out happened earlier in the day).
- Call _______ (insert name of best friend or trusted advisor here) for support.
- Do the first thing on my to-do list. By the way, this is magical. Because after you do the first thing on your to-do list, you’re more likely to do the second thing, and, suddenly, you’re off to the races!
Step 5: Reach out
I did it in Step 4 when I woke Ken up to freak out in his presence. Here’s why reaching out is so important. When you reach out to someone and open yourself to their support two things happen. First, you get even further out of your own head. And, second, they’ll support you. They’ll not only support you, they’ll remind you that you’ve (a) been through worse – with hysterical historic references, (b) got what it takes to get through this – with specific instances where you’ve done just that, and (c) fix you breakfast, or buy you a cup of coffee, or just stay on the phone while you melt down.
Here’s why it works. You know those scientists they’re always talking about? The ones who study human nature? Well, they finally proved – because it’s not real if a scientist hasn’t proved it – that relationships and attachment are vital to thriving in all stages of our lives. Right, like that’s rocket science.
We all know that there’s nothing better than talking to someone who knows us, respects us, and likes us. These people have a way of reflecting our best selves back to us. And, if we’re lucky, they’ll kick us in the pants lovingly, and then tell us to get going. This is why I pull out of the death spiral when I write down the names of every woman in my Book Club (step 2).
I know I’m lucky
I count myself as very lucky in this regard. I have a whole host of friends, family members, and supporters who will kick me in the pants, trip me up, and generally do whatever it takes to get my attention (it takes a lot to get my attention). Then they’ll look me in the eyes and tell me, “You’ve got this. You’re already doing this. I’m right here when you freak out.” And I believe them.
Are you wondering how I’m feeling now? I’m feeling good. I did every single one of the steps listed above. I even did some of them 3 times. I kept breathing – all day long. I kept going over what’s working right now and what it took to make it work.
I took three steps to move forward. You’re reading the first step, I talked to Ken, and I’m going over my business finances. And I reached out – to Ken, to Victoria, to my cousin, Cathy – and, in the process found out that I’m not alone in being paralyzed by fear.
It works if you work it.
So now it’s your turn. When you find yourself stopped dead in your tracks by a fear so fierce that you can’t breathe, do just that. Take a deep breath, then another, then one more. Write down what you’re grateful for, and write down what’s working for you. Then make a list of 3 teeny, tiny steps you can take to move forward. And, finally – or in the middle of the steps, if you need to – reach out for support. And, by the way, I’m write right here for you: email@example.com.
To borrow a phrase from several 12-Step programs: it works if you work it.
*There’s a fable about the frog that was boiled alive. The frog found itself in a pan of water – no big deal, frogs love water. But the person who put the frog in the water was slowly raising the heat under the pan. Since the water got hotter gradually, the frog didn’t notice the heat. And then it was too late, the water boiled and the frog died. It’s a metaphor about not being aware of dangers that creep up on you – like running out of money or missing a downward trend in your business. I don’t want to be the frog!