Stress, anxiety and finding calm in the fight

I was always a worrier - I sweat worry. I got into big balls of worry. I worried so much I would shake. Most of the time I would think I was mentally pretty cool, but I looked worried! Constantly being told “Mike just relax” over and over in my life with the inevitable,“But I am relaxed!!!” response. Well, obviously I wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

Martial arts came along and made it a lot, lot, lot better. I still have the worry lines, and I still sometimes take too much of the world on my shoulders, but I'm getting there. The key is that I found a physical action I could use as an outlet. For me, movement itself creates positive change, almost independently of anything else. Its action leading me to a more aligned point where I can ultimately be “a better me”. Put another way, I feel better! It can mean the difference between a good decision and a bad one, the right direction or a missed opportunity.

Breaking Under Pressure

In so many parts of our jobs as lawyers and professionals, we can find ourselves under enormous stress. Let’s be honest, if stress burned calories, I’d be a supermodel!

I remember the first time I appeared in front of the Supreme Court, way back in a law school moot, and I almost flipped out I was so stressed. Dripping wet, a slight shake in my voice (and ferociously shaking hands) I managed to work my way through to, and subsequently lose, the final. I was pretty terrible - I think I may have argued with the Chief Justice - and, basically, I let anxiety get the better of me.

The same thing happened the first time I had a big advice to put together with little help. It happened again as a consultant, the first time I called someone, and it kept happening every night when I was up waiting for that email from a client confirming an offer (or a rejection!).

For professionals, it seems many of us suffer from the affliction of being perfectionists on top of everything else, which leads to placing even more pressure on ourselves. Am I good enough? Is my work the right quality? Am I safe in my role? Can anyone tell I have no idea what’s going on?!

Just thinking about those variables can be crushing. It’s the roller coaster of emotion that, for some of us, comes with the territory of being a professional or running a small business. I love the term that is used in the recruitment industry, that it is like “champagne or razor blades”. That perfectly encapsulates my experience.

Fighting – My Crucible of Calm

Clearly, I had a problem, and I was so fortunate to have it exposed to me in terms I could understand through training martial arts. More importantly and powerfully, through the “fight” I’ve become better at dealing with it, and learning how to apply more of a sense of calm to my work life. I’m a long way from getting there, but I’ve equally come a long way from where I was.

For those of you who are like me, anxiety is going to happen. It really boils down to how you manage it. I'm not talking about stress or medical conditions, just the reality that pressure happens to all of us.

If you have a job that pays well it means you either have to take on responsibility others won’t, or you have skills that are in short supply. If you are a professional it can feel, especially for the first few years, like every new task is a new way to trip up. It could be the deal deadline, the expectations of an overbearing and insensitive boss, the client who has no idea how long things take, your own expectations of success, or simply the need to get the promotion to pay off your credit card or your child care bills. Many of us have long lists!

Subconscious stress

Sometimes our reaction to stress is so ingrained, it takes on a subconscious form. For me, I sweat, I get the shakes, and I look SUPER STRESSED, even if I’m telling myself to chill. Even if, relatively speaking, I feel ok.

In a fight, you might have someone putting you under extreme pressure physically, and you have to try and relax and deal with it. They may be on top of you, grinding their weight into you, making it very difficult to get a breath in. They may be playing a more up-tempo game and you feel under pressure from their constant attacks. As a beginner, you learn that the more you can stay calm, the more you can avoid doing something stupid because in the fight it is the reaction to the pressure that usually leads to the submission. It’s putting your arm in the wrong place because you can’t stand another moment of the pressure.

It’s exactly the same at work.

Revealing your true fears

My Sensei always taught about the role that fight pressure plays in revealing our great fears, and ultimately the chance that this revelation gave us to deal with what we really feared. This is the crucible of calm. Where the metal melts and we break everything down to its core (and real) components. The struggle for many people is simply starting the fight and allowing yourself, one way or the other, to enter the crucible and be willing to expose to yourself exactly what your real fears are. Getting punched in the face will do that for you. So will entering into different levels of consciousness. Some people find that in meditation, others in the flow while running, whatever it is for you, it’s probably going to take making some change or having some experience outside of the norm.

Finding it requires action first, it's taking a step, and then another, rather than being captive by it.

It’s going to happen anyway

For me, the deep dark truth is that no matter how much I worry, no matter how much I get worked up about the result, it’s going to happen one way or the other. Especially with situations around other people’s reactions or expectations. That’s very hard to admit, especially when you pride yourself on making a difference. The reality is that for all of us, in practice and in the business world, there are plenty of variables that we simply can’t control.

Remarkably, so many of the things we worry about never come true. Most of them, in fact. It’s remarkable to me because I only just learned this. James Altucher recently wrote this excellent post on exactly that and his response of slowing down in the face of worry, which I think it excellent.

So what do we do about the pressure?

I try and stay mindful, acknowledge it for what it is (even if it is a razor blade), try and breathe deeply, and keep things under control the best I can. I've found delaying my response to bad situations is a great way to get through the initial “fight or flight” choice.

Learning to stay calm in Jiu-Jitsu has taught me that, no matter the pressure, I can choose to keep it together. And, much like how a calmer game can improve your grappling, at work I can react better, I can plan better, and I can be better.

It might be time to step outside your comfort zone a bit, go try something that helps you understand your stress reaction better and learn how to deal with it. Start a martial art, or running, or swimming or even just do a 20-minute meditation every day for a week and see if you experience clarity through the process. Working out your stress triggers and how to manage them will be a journey unique to you, and it’s one only you can start for yourself.