Transformation can lead to the anxiety of change, even if the changes are inherently good.
“Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.
Nothing is that important.” ~ Natalie Goldberg
My client, Trey, and I took advantage of a bright, unseasonably cool, summer day recently and decided to have our coaching session on foot. We walked along the USFS trails in Blue Valley on the outskirts of Highlands, in woods made lush and verdant by 115″ of rain this year.
When I sensed Trey’s anxiety and discomfort while we were lacing up our hiking boots, I suggested we gradually ease into our session. He agreed. We walked side by side, silent, letting ourselves fall gently into the quiet and stillness of the forest. He lasted as long as could before breaking the silence.
“I gotta stop for a sec,” Trey said.
I turned toward him. Trey was leaning forward, hands on his knees. A posture someone would hold after sprinting or running a long distance. He turned his head and looked up at me.
“Shit! It’s like I can’t catch my breath.”
Trey was having a panic attack.
I put my hand between his shoulder blades and said, “Trey, you are okay. Listen to me now. Easy does it. We are going to take some slow, deep breaths together. In through our noses and out with a loud, whooshing noise through our mouths. Stand up and place your hand on your stomach and try to make your abdomen expand when you take in your breath. On the count of three….”
Within a few minutes, Trey had calmed down and returned to equilibrium. A bit of brightness replaced the blank look on his face, followed quickly by embarrassment.
“Jesus. Sorry. What the hell was that all about?” he asked.
“Garden variety anxiety, my friend,” I said. “Something I know quite well and absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. This is just your body telling you to stop and take care of what has been bothering you. Do you feel ready to go ahead and talk about it?”
Trey exhaled loudly, looking up at the treetops and then back at me. “Let’s do it.”
The Surprising Anxiety of Change
Trey had recently landed a new client, a dream client. The project involved a huge scope of work as well as an equally large amount of responsibility. All the tasks, though, were what I describe as “high and to the right” for Trey—tasks that fall into the upper right section of his Liberation Quadrant™ that he identified as things he excelled at doing and loved to do. Things he enjoyed doing so much, he’d do those tasks all day for free.
Trey had just signed the contract, and the project was due to begin in a week. Simultaneously, his enterprise and his personal life had entered a new phase. All the work he had done over the last six years was finally paying off. He had a stable, reliable income, a solid team, and healthy habits.
Yet, his anxiety soared.
While Trey was super excited about the gig, old patterns had begun coming home to roost: Imposter Syndrome, fear of failure, and fear of not being up to the task. His body and mind were accustomed to striving for work, doing smaller projects, not being quite so visible, and not having high stakes. Further, his ego identified with not having enough, not being respected or valued, and being broke.
So, when everything shifted, Trey was left feeling unmoored and panicked. He had left the shores of one way of being, but had not yet arrived at his new, upleveled port of call. He was emotionally on rough seas, unable to see land or anything that looked or felt familiar.
Further, after the success of landing the new client that would ensure his financial wellbeing, his body asked for the familiar chemistry of anxiety, as that is what his body knew from years of scrambling to try to stay afloat. When the body comes calling, the mind will often deliver if we let thoughts cross without our awareness.
Trey’s mind delivered. In spades.
Managing Anxiety in Transition
He concocted elaborate, doom and gloom scenarios in his imagination. Seeing very clearly his spectacular flame-outs and failures. Bringing images to mind of letting his client down and losing the contract.
Cue massive anxiety, stage left.
How, then, do we lean into meaningful transformation and growth without debilitating anxiety?
First, we can recognize the liminal space of change is ripe for push-back from the body and mind, and we can be proactive in preparing for it. Here is where really being a sound observer of our thoughts is absolutely crucial. When our limbic brain dishes out a scary thought, we can watch it with empathy and not let it take root.
Each time a bit of mind funk breaks away and tries to find a home inside my brain, I will surface the thought, put a big, bright light on it, and refuse to let it dart into a hidden corner. I look for ways to dissolve the thought by finding evidence to the contrary, proving to myself the thought is untrue. I then douse the fire in a pool of calming, better feeling thoughts, along with my go-to mantra: “All is well.”
It is a continual returning to the present moment, breathing in.
Interrupting the chain of thoughts that come and redirecting each to friendlier climes.
As entrepreneurs and creators, we can harness the brilliance of our imagination for the greater good and shepherd its power toward expanding our creative genius and output. We can chose to embrace its entirety, including its rough edges that threaten to cut into flesh and disrupt our stable footing.
We crave transformation. The places we want to travel, though, require we stand at the stern on rolling waves that make us queasy and unsure we know how to captain the vessel of us and our talent.
If we refuse to fight against ourselves as we cross into The Unknown, and instead, prepare for the storms well in advance, when the skies grow dark, we will be ready.