I’ve written before about Matt Furey, a former collegiate wrestling champion and the gold-medal winner of the 1997 world title in kung fu. I met Matt in 2002, when I joined a marketing mastermind group of 20 business owners. The group met three times a year in Phoenix for two days each time.
At the meetings, each of the members of the group had a chance to stand up in front of the group and showcase the marketing we were doing and to bring up any issues we were concerned about in our businesses. The group leader and members provided useful feedback, and all of us benefited from the wide range of knowledge and skills that the members possessed.
On one occasion, Matt told a story about his friend, Dr. Tom Hanson, who had a transformative experience while he was climbing a mountain in Colorado. After Hanson climbed halfway up the mountain, he became fearful and his mind locked up on him. All of a sudden, it felt as though the side of the mountain had turned into an ice rink on its side.
Hanson yelled up to the coach who was leading him and the other climbers, “I can’t do it.” The coach looked down at him and said, “Look at your feet.” Hanson looked down at his feet and the coach yelled, “Which foot is higher than the other foot, your left or your right?” Hanson replied that his left foot was higher. The coach then yelled, “Okay, then move the right foot so it’s higher than the left foot.”
After Hanson did what the coach told him to do, the coach shouted, “Now which foot is higher than the other foot?” Hanson replied that the right foot was higher. “Okay, then move the left foot until it’s higher than the right foot,” the coach shouted. Eventually, by continuing to follow the process that the coach had introduced to him, Hanson successfully climbed the mountain.
The reason that Matt told the story was to emphasize the point that when we humans are overcome by fear or anxiety, we lose the ability to think and behave rationally. As a champion athlete, Matt had developed a process to deal with the fear and anxiety that he experienced when he was competing with other athletes.
He told us that the first thing he always did was to completely relax his body. He said that when the mind locks up from fear and anxiety, the body becomes tense and rigid. He said that before you can relieve the mind of the fear and anxiety, you must first relax the body.
Matt told us that the quickest way to relax our bodies is to close our eyes, breathe deeply, and imagine every part of our body being relaxed. He recommended that we take at least 10 deep, slow breaths, while feeling the lower, middle, and upper back expand with the air we are breathing. He then said that we should slowly exhale after each breath, and that by following this process, our bodies would become relaxed, which in turn would have a calming effect on our minds.
I thought about the lesson I learned from Matt when a lawyer friend of mine told me that he had sought counseling because of some anxiety-related problems he was experiencing. He said that after several unsuccessful sessions with his initial counselor, he sought the assistance of another counselor who, within a short period of time, helped him develop the skills that were necessary to manage and overcome his anxiety.
When I asked my friend if he would be willing to share with me what he had learned, he said that his counselor taught him three “tools” to help him manage his stress and anxiety. Here’s what he told me:
1. The first tool is to be mindful. Basically, this means to understand why you are thinking the things you think. As simple as this sounds, most people never do this. They go through life bouncing around like a pinball. Their thoughts drive their emotions, and their emotions drive their actions.
a. From a practical standpoint, this means to sit down, breathe very deeply, and question your thoughts. “I feel bad right now. Why? Because I’m stressed about work. Why? Because I can’t keep up with the workload.” BAM! Now you know why you feel bad.
b. Whatever the reason, you must then ask: What does the conclusion mean? Is this meaning true or is it a “cognitive distortion?” Cognitive distortions are the lies our brains create about ourselves. Typically, these are lies like “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t deserve to be here.”
2. The second tool is to rebut “cognitive distortions” with real evidence to the contrary.
a. For example, “I feel like I’m not good enough to be in this fancy law school.” Rebuttal: “No, a group of people decided that I had the qualifications, I got great grades in undergrad, and I am a likable guy!” Conclusion: The feeling was a lie.
b. This is helpful for dealing with procrastination, avoidance behavior, addiction, and general anxiety.
3. The third tool is to understand one’s power and capacity to overcome problems.
a. When confronted with a problem that is stressing me, I ask myself: Do I have power over this?
b. If yes, then I ask the follow-up question: Is this something I need to think about now? If I don’t have to think about it now, then I set a time when I can think about the issue, and then I follow through on what needs to be done at that moment.
Dr. Hanson’s coach helped him become mindful of his situation and then provided him with a process to follow to deal with the problem at hand. My friend’s counselor did the same thing — helped him to become mindful of his situation and then provided him with a process to deal with the problem at hand.
Don’t underestimate the power of these techniques. And don’t forget to also pray for our Lord’s assistance and guidance when you use these techniques to overcome your fear and anxiety.