Tag Archives: anxiety

When Anxiety Is a Good Thing

by Kassandra Lamb

Say what? Anxiety is a good thing?!? It can be, up to a point.

This past weekend, I did my first public reading from one of my books. (Yes, I’ve been at this writing/publishing gig for 7+ years, but until recently my marketing has mainly been online.)

In the days leading up to the reading, I was terrified.

I’ve done plenty of presenting in my time, at professional conferences when I was a psychotherapist and in front of a college classroom for 17 years. I enjoy presenting/teaching, and normally I’m only mildly to moderately anxious beforehand.

And that is when anxiety is a good thing. On a practical level, it motivates me to be well prepared, to put in the work to make sure I’m ready. Because I know from experience that confidence is key to keeping the anxiety under control.

And emotionally, at the time of the presentation mild to moderate anxiety makes my brain sharper, and it stimulates me, animates my personality. When that happens, I am an enthusiastic speaker and the audience responds well. I can even get up the nerve to try to be funny, and sometimes I’m actually successful. 😀

Quite a bit of research has been done on the “optimal level of arousal” that will enhance one’s ability to accomplish tasks. I have mastered that optimal level when it comes to presenting.

But somehow “performing” my own creative work… it falls into a different category.

Anxiety is defined as distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune; a state of apprehension and psychic tension. If that “apprehension” is too intense, it can keep us awake at night, make us stutter, blush, freeze up or otherwise embarrass ourselves in certain situations.

For me, “performing” is such a situation. And anticipating performing tends to move me from helpful arousal to unhelpful distress to disabling ruminating and worry pretty darn fast.

Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.*

(*This quote has been attributed to Erma Bombeck and at least a dozen other people. But whoever said it first, they nailed it!)

The first time I “performed,” it was in a second-grade play. I was George Washington’s wife. I don’t remember much past walking through the classroom door in my Martha Washington costume. But I do remember laughter.

It wasn’t supposed to be a funny skit.

In high school, I tried out for several plays with the drama department. I never got a part. The stumbling and blushing might have had something to do with that.

Ever since, I’ve frozen up whenever I was required to “perform.” And yet I can “present.” The latter is more about sharing my expertise. I have much more confidence in that expertise than I do in my performing ability.

So here I was last week, facing this reading.

While I was being introduced… I only look mildly terrified!

I’ve been to some where the author just “read.” And that’s okay. I’d originally intended to do that. But as I went through my first practice round, my words sounded so flat. I decided I didn’t want to just read. I wanted to show emotions through inflection, produce the required deeper timbre for male voices, use accents when called for, etc.

In other words, perform. Aaack!!

The day before the reading, I was way past my optimal level of arousal. I needed to do a little emergency therapy on myself.

I asked myself what helped me control the anxiety when I was presenting, and realized there were four things I now automatically do before a presentation:

1. Acknowledge the anxiety.

I don’t try to stuff it down or ignore it. That doesn’t make it go away. If anything, it gives it more energy. For “presenting” nerves, a short pep talk is usually sufficient, along the lines of—Of course you’re nervous. That’s a good thing. It will keep you on your toes.

For “performing” nerves, I needed to go a little farther. I told a few people close to me how scared I was. It wasn’t to get their reassurance (although they were, of course, reassuring); it was to acknowledge the anxiety and bleed off some of its charge.

2. Draw confidence from past successes.

To Kill A Labrador cover
The book I read from.

I remind myself that I have done many presentations before, and I have always done a decent to downright great job.

Also, I remind myself that the anxiety always goes down once I get started. That’s a biggie!

This time, I had to add to this pep talk that presenting was not as different from performing as I have made it out to be. And the book I was reading from has lots of good reviews. The words were proven to be good, and my ability to “present” them has been proven to be good. So I would be fine. (In psychology lingo, that’s called a reframe. 🙂 )

3. Practice but not over practice.

I’ve learned that two to three complete run-throughs, out loud, is about right for a presentation. Enough practice to smooth out the rough spots and give me confidence. Not so much that the presentation becomes stale.

The second time through my reading practice, the inflections were mostly in the wrong places, my male voice sounded like I had a bad cold, and my Southern accent…well, let’s just say I don’t do accents well.

By the third time, I had the inflections in the right places, my male voice was pretty good, and my accents didn’t totally suck. I did one more run-through, for good measure, and felt a good bit more confident when all of the above still happened.

4. Remind myself that I do not have to be perfect.

And in this case, remind the audience as well. I added these words to my introductory remarks: Now before I start, I’d like to put this caveat out there—I don’t do accents well.

Ahhh, the pressure was off. Now if my accents were sucky, well, I’d said up front that I wasn’t perfect.

And the reality is that most people in an audience aren’t expecting perfection. Indeed, they may find it endearing when we make the occasional mistake. It’s makes us more human and relatable. In this case, my audience knew that I’m a writer, not an actor. They weren’t expecting perfection and I shouldn’t either.

So the moment arrives…

Definitely when anxiety is a good thing...when it lets up! Me, after the reading.
I look happy here because I’m almost to the end of the reading. Yay!

I’ve been introduced, and I give my little opening spiel (no problem, this is presenting after all). I’m borderline, maybe just past my optimal level of anxiety. Okay, definitely past optimal, but still manageable.

I start to read. And thank you Lord, my anxiety level goes down. (Did I mention praying? That always helps too.)

It was still higher than usual, but definitely quite manageable.

So I make it to the question-and-answer period and I’m downright exhilarated. It’s over! I can do Q&A standing on my head (which would make it more interesting, for sure).

And now that I have a successful reading under my belt, I can look back on that the next time and use it to bolster my confidence, to get my nervousness down to the level where anxiety is a good thing!

How about you? Have you discovered your “optimal level of arousal” for most things? What situations tend to push your anxiety over the top?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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Weathering the Storm–Without Worrying

by Kassandra Lamb

Originally the title of this post was to contain the words “Worry Warts.” But after coping with Hurricane Matthew this past weekend, the “Weathering the Storm” concept seemed more appropriate.

I’m not a huge worrier by nature. Indeed, I tend to be a bit of a Polyanna who assumes that everything will work out okay. And it usually does.

window boards

Window boards out, ready to go. (They had been buried behind a whole bunch of crap in the garage).

I am, however, a fairly careful person. I’m good at anticipating problems and taking preventative measures, such as preparing our property for the big storm. We spent a good chunk of the day on Thursday on those preparations. We pulled out the boards for the windows to have them handy, just in case the storm veered inland toward us in central Florida.

Then we piled all the lawn and porch furniture on one side of the garage, with the grill facing out so we could cook on it if (more likely when) the power went out. We parked the newer of our cars on the other side of the garage.

The older car was at the far end of the driveway, out from under the big trees. If one of those trees fell across the driveway, one vehicle at least could get out to go get groceries after the storm passed (and to go to the hardware store to rent a chain saw).

Can you tell we’ve done this before? 🙂

porch furniture

Half my screened porch furniture, consolidated into one pile.

Hubs had already bought extra bottled water, batteries, etc. I stockpiled extra ice in the freezer and got the coolers out so they’d be handy when the power went out.

Then we went to bed knowing we were as prepared as we could be. On Friday—the day Matthew crawled up the east coast of Florida—I read, watched some TV, got caught up on some bookkeeping.

It was a fairly relaxing day. Even hubs wasn’t as uptight as he would have been in the past.

He comes from a long line of worriers, but I think maybe my calm has rubbed off some. I’m pretty good at accepting what “the fates” dish out, once I’ve prepared for the things I can control.

But there are situations where I become the worry wart. These are usually times when others’ actions that I can’t control may cause me or mine harm.

So even though I was weathering the storm just fine—as the wind howled around my house and the rain poured down—I got a bit worked up when I realized I’d totally missed a deadline for an estimated tax payment. What would the IRS do to me? THAT had my gut twisted in a knot.

This didn't scare me nearly as much as the IRS did! (public domain, Wikimedia Common)

This didn’t scare me nearly as much as the IRS did! (public domain, Wikimedia Common)

What finally calmed me down was formulating a plan to call a tax accountant on Monday and ask about the late payment—would it be better to just not send it in, or would the IRS not care all that much that it was late? Once I had a plan of action, I was okay.

As a psychologist, I know that being prone to anxiety is at least partially genetic. My husband obsesses a bit over what might happen, but not nearly as much as his dear mother used to obsess about things. She was a basketcase every time we left her house in Philadelphia to drive home to Baltimore. We’d walk in the front door of our house and the answering machine would be flashing. And there would be his mother’s voice, “Call me right away when you get home. I’m SO worried.”

There’s also a psychological theory that worrying is self-reinforcing. According to this theory, if the parts of your brain that produce word thoughts (the worrying ruminations) are activated, it’s harder for other parts of the brain, that produce mental images, to be activated. So it’s harder to “imagine” (i.e. produce images of) the horrible things that might happen.

So in an odd way, the obsessive thoughts keep the scary images at bay, and thus this ruminating is reinforced and becomes the default way that the person’s psyche copes with potentially scary situations.

I’m not totally sure I buy that theory (and it is just a theory, with only some scientific evidence supporting it). But the worry-wart ruminating does interfere with rational thinking and problem-solving.

I saw this in my mother-in-law, who was a bright woman. We would point out to her again and again that it took three hours for us to get home from Philadelphia. But nonetheless she would start worrying about the fact that we hadn’t called practically as soon as we left her front porch. She KNEW we couldn’t possibly be home yet, but that didn’t stop the obsessing and anxiety. Nothing would stop that until she heard her son’s voice on the phone saying, “We’re home now, Mom. You can stop worrying.”

My husband’s genetic dose of anxiety is lower than hers, thank God! He says he’s gotten better at handling his ruminating over the years because he now actively thinks about how he can (a) do something about the problem (like stock up on batteries and such), (b) distract himself from the worrying, and/or (c) pray!

I have another theory, that’s related to how we process information in general. Some of us are more visual, while others are more auditory, and still others lead with their sense of touch and movement (kinesthetic).

My husband is primarily auditory, so it makes sense that he “hears” those ruminating thoughts in his mind nonstop.

I’m primarily kinesthetic, with visual a close second and auditory a distant third. So I see the mental image of what I’m worrying about—Friday it was the letter from the IRS informing me that I had to pay some whopping penalty for submitting my estimated taxes late.

But then I immediately jump to how I can solve the problem. I see myself “moving” to make things right again.

At one point, I did get into worrying about the storm’s effects. What if the wind blew shingles off the roof, or worse ripped the whole back porch roof off, leaving a big hole where it had been attached to the house? I then saw myself getting out the ladder and a tarp. I’m not at all sure we would have had the guts to get up on the roof in a hurricane (probably not), but the image helped reassure me that we would cope with whatever happened, when it happened.

AA medallion

A 12-step anniversary medallion with the Serenity Prayer on it (photo by Jerry “Woody” from Edmonton, Canada, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

In other words, I applied the Serenity Prayer… I couldn’t control what happened, only how I responded to it.

Bottom line with worrying—we each need to figure out what works for us to stop the ruminating. For some, it will be preparation. For others, it will be distraction, or visualizing how we will cope if/when the worst occurs. Worrying is not a very constructive emotion, unless it leads to, rather than blocks, problem-solving. But stopping our worrying is sometimes easier said than done.

What type of worrier are you, and how do you deal with it?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )