Rewind five years to 2009. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a severe issue with anxiety.
A part of the problem was, I was completely unaware of anxiety as an ongoing condition. The main component, however, was I felt like there was something I needed to do to feel worthy. Not only that, I didn’t know what that thing was. The journey I was about to embark on was to teach me some major life lessons, that I’d like to share with you today. And these have drastically improved the way I see the world.
So what does anxiety look like? It begins with negative thinking patterns, such as catastrophizing. It’s viewing situations as far worse than they actually are, or anticipating things to go wrong. Black and white thinking: thinking either I’m amazing or I’m rubbish, and nothing in between. Perfectionism: the need to do everything in the correct way. Anxiety rejects the rational thinking that combines both positive and negative aspects of the situation.
In its extreme form, it can result in avoidance and withdrawal. This instigates a cycle of guilt and shame that further reinforces the anxiety. On a biological level, a threat is recognized and the emotional center of the brain called the amygdala instigates the fight or flight response. This is absolutely necessary if you’re running away from a bear, for instance. But the problem is when the threat is imagined.
Full of adrenaline, you may feel short of breath, tight-chested and raised heart rate. One-third of people will suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. However, could it be that it has gone even beyond that? In a world that’s getting faster and faster, we’re overworked, we’re overspending, and so on. Could it be that more and more of us are existing in a mild but perpetual state of angst? From media reports, as well as from those I know personally, I know this is becoming an epidemic, especially among my generation, known as the Millennials. We’re the most educated generation there has ever been.
However, we’re the most materialistic, in debt, obese. Celebrity and media culture have convinced us we can have everything instantly. Many say they feel frustrated not being able to find employment that motivates them, if employed at all. So how do we tackle anxiety? Is what’s needed nothing more than acquiring some rational perspectives? Back to 2009 I was at university, and anxiety was beginning to take a strong hold.
A further year passed, and I was beginning to become significantly withdrawn. From the lad who would be the life and soul of the party, I’d got to the stage where I didn’t even want to come out of my room. There was an instance when a flatmate invited me out for the evening, and, as usual, I declined. He shouted at me, “Would you just come out for once?!” It was those words that hit me. I had to make a change.
That night, turning on the TV, I saw a comedian named Russell Kane. I watched as he confidently commanded the stage, and I wondered what it would be like to feel that sense of freedom. Sometime later, I was given a book called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” The title itself says enough. However, this was a big turning point.
I discovered that confidence isn’t something you’re born with. It’s something that comes to you after you’ve made the jump. Something united in me, I was excited. So I did what any self-respecting agoraphobic would do, and I put myself on stage at stand-up comedy night. Two days later, I canceled.
My mind went frantic with imagined consequence, fear of situations that had never and would never come into fruition. Weeks would pass where I kept telling myself, “I’ll book it after that exam is finished,” or, “Once Christmas is done, then I’ll book it.” Eight grueling months later, I’d had enough; I resolved that feeling anxious was just as bad as making a complete fool of myself I had nothing to lose.
I’d submit to imperfection and I would face failure. That night, I waited patiently for my turn. As the act before me made his exit, terror struck. The fear I felt as I was introduced to the stage was so extreme, I genuinely felt as though I was going to die. I felt as though I had a belt around my neck and chest.
Baffled by my own name as the MC called it, shell-shocked by the honor and applause, I made my way through the dense crowd. A sea of faces flickered with candlelight, and hundreds of eyes followed me to the stage. My cheeks spasmed, I forgot lines, I mumbled words, the audience looked at me like I was a madman I ran out of material, I ran offstage, and to my amazement, the sky didn’t fall in. It had gone terribly, but the only thing I felt was relief.
I didn’t have to be perfect. The acclaimed teacher of comedy improvisation by the name of Del Close famously said, “Follow the fear.” It seems counter-intuitive, but if you accept the anxiety and act with it, the anxiety will go down. I found that putting myself in feared situations has helped me recognize destructive thinking patterns that could seem so automatic that they seem normal. In my first ten gigs as a stand-up, I’d do well, and then halfway through it, I would eject, I’d screw up and I’d run offstage.