The Anxiety of the Climb and Thrill of the Accomplishment

climb It was the morning of the mountain bike ride I’d been wanting to do for years and I was sick to my stomach with fear. Picture a perfect September day with three girlfriends. Seven Summits Trail, an IMBA rated epic, 23 miles of single track through BC, Canada wilderness up to and along a ridge in the Kootenays.

Many things could go wrong. And those were the only things I could think about as I woke up and got ready for what I was certain would be a Suffer-fest.

On the other hand, until that morning, all I could think about was all that could go right: what an incredible ride we were in for; the views, the beautiful trail, a fun group of women, and a pretty great accomplishment.

One of my girlfriends is opening a restaurant this week. She emailed me the morning of her soft opening: She felt like throwing up. Another client opened a restaurant in Berkeley this Summer. Sometimes during our weekly calls I find myself playing therapist more than marketing advisor.

Clearly, I’m not alone in this.

We sign up for this stuff. We choose to do the activities that make us want to hurl off the side of the bed we refuse to get out of because we can’t face the very thing we signed up for. I get the same way when I happily accept a speaking engagement only to wake up nauseous when the day arrives, or sign on a new client and then actually have to do the work for the strategy presentation to the executive team so they don't realize you're a fraud.

It sounds good weeks before but the moment arrives, all the positive sentiment is replaced with: “Why the hell do I do this to myself?” Continually. It’s like going out and getting really drunk and promising the next morning I’ll never drink again. Until tonight, of course.

Over the years I’ve gotten much better at dealing with my whatever-you-call-it: Imposter Syndrome, Performance Anxiety, General Fear of Making an Ass of Myself. A lot of practice and 18 months of therapy might have helped.

Anxiety is normal.

Studies show that the right amount of anxiety actually improves performance. (Too much anxiety keeps us from getting out of bed, and we all have those days, no doubt.) In fact, one of the first things my psychologist said to me was “it’s fairly common for high achieving women (I’d say “people”) to experience anxiety. I like knowing I’m not alone in this - that I’m not some anomalous Freakshow being a nervous wreck over whatever it is I’m about to take on.

Identify and take the first baby steps.

On those days when getting out of bed is the challenge, I set my sights on the coffee machine. All you have to do is get there. Then make the coffee. Before you know it, you’re in your day.

It’s no different than getting on the stage, making that phone call, insert your own dreaded thing here. Just plan those first few minutes. I take 30 minutes of quiet and calm before my talk. I visualize how relaxed I am, and I usually have a story or some sort of ice breaker. Once you get past that, you’re in.

Understand it’s part of the process.

Stuff starts slipping through the cracks if you aren’t anxious. The right amount of nerves puts me in my game and forces me to focus. I find it helps when I simply recognize that ugly feeling. Oh, hi anxiety, it’s you. Here we go. Let’s get through this so you go away soon and I can put a straw in a bottle of red wine.

Can you accept the alternative?

The alternative is to stay at home on the couch and watch TV. And as enticing as that sounds when I’m in the heat of it, it’s not an alternative I’m willing to accept. Instead, I remind myself shit doesn’t happen inside the comfort zone and like I felt at the ridge top on that ride in BC looking out at peaks to infinity: “Man, I am living right now.”

It used to be much worse for me. Those “not wanting to get out of bed days” were too frequent. I was lucky enough to be able to get professional help and this may or may not be an option for many. Finding someone who is the right fit is not easy, and being able to afford it is a big deal too. It’s too bad. It’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made in myself.

The first month or so, I had to get over worrying my problems and issues were trivial. It felt stupid I was having anxiety over it - imagine the stories of abuse and depression my therapist hears day in and day out and listen to my silly insecurities.

I learned if small things are debilitating or are holding us back from our true potential, then it’s no small thing.

What I don’t understand is why getting your “head checked” isn’t more socially accepted. When I go to get my hair done, go to the dentist, or the eye doctor, I wait in a public waiting room. Everyone comes and goes out the front door. At my psychologist’s office, I enter in the front room and quietly slip out the back door.

In other words, it’s OK to have gray hair, a cavity, or cataracts, but anxiety or depression, as common as they are, are hush hush; spoken in whispered tones. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s just another thing to kick out the door.

The feeling doesn't go away. We just learn how to manage it. I keep my eye on the outcome and how I'm going to feel regardless of how I feel at the beginning. Remember, the beer at the finish line tastes much better and your next goal just gets that much bigger.

(I don't drink beer, actually. But "wine" didn't work well in that sentence.)