Anxiety sucks. Skilled, well trained, passionate about music, she could not play her loved cello in public. A salesman needing to commute anywhere anytime could not drive over a bridge. She ran like the wind, a runner by nature but she could not run in front of a crowd. An expert in her field, she knew her material thoroughly, but place her in front of a live microphone and her lips quivered, her saliva disappeared and her brain shut down.
Their common enemy? Anxiety. Fear and anxiety grip most of us at least some of the time. Anxiety can be aroused with, or without a real or imagined threat, with or without an identifiable trigger. Public speaking or flying are the most commonly identified triggers. Anxiety can push us to perform at our best. The adrenalin rush can sharpen our performance, focus us, however too much and it degrades performance.
Anxiety attacks physically, palms sweat, hearts pound, chests pain, nausea, shortness of breath, headaches, we tremble, as the blood races to the extremities to strengthen the fight or flight response faces turn pale. It leaves an emotional and cognitive imprint. We feel fear. We can’t concentrate or think. We become irritable, we pace, bite our nails, throw up or are suddenly overcome with fatigue.
Anxiety changes the brain and body chemistry. It is well named ‘an attack’. As the body temperature drops under stress, raising it, especially in the hands, lessens that anxiety.
Test taking anxiety, performance anxiety, stage fright, anticipatory anxiety, social phobia whatever you call it, which ever forms stalks you, is debilitating. There are many interventions available including meditation, mindfulness, paradoxical intention, positive psychology, medication and biofeedback. No one intervention works with everyone.
Musicians, speakers, actors and athletes find performance anxiety impedes their abilities. One student’s test taking anxiety was so severe he failed his degree program. He knew the material. But when he was timed, in a class room, seated before a blank piece of paper, under the scrutiny of an examiner his fund of knowledge left him. Frightened flyers, anxiety ridden speakers who froze before a microphone or a crowd find their fear set off by unique triggers. A salesman could not drive a route if he encountered anything unexpected like road works. Sweat soaked his shirt; his hands shook, he had to turn back. Fear prevents others from taking elevators or escalators.
Whatever the source of the anxiety, in my practice I found that one approach relieved more symptoms than any other. Anxiety locks our shoulders. A hot knife blade slices our upper spine and our hands become cold. Fear feelings drown our ability to reason our way out of the dilemma. That is the bad news. The good news is that it is physiologically impossible to have warm hands and be anxious. However if you focus on the locked shoulder muscles with say Jacobson’s deep muscle relaxation techniques while in a highly anxious state those muscles will lock up further. We have to circumnavigate them. Ordinarily I do not believe in short cuts, but this case is an exception. Here is a short cut that works.
In a resting state your hands temperature will usually be in the 80’s. A finger temperature of 80 F is cool, 75 F is cold, and 70 F is exceptionally cold, 90 F is warm. The goal, for the purposes of “think your hands warm” exercise is 96F sustained for 10 minutes. If your hand temperature is in the 80’s you will see a rapid increase in temperature. If your hands are warmer the temperature will rise more slowly, this does not mean you are failing, it is just the way it is.
If you ‘thought warm’ your hands the neck and shoulder muscles unlock and relax, the blood flows to the hands and brain and you can think. With your thoughts back in gear and the fear contained rational thought leads you out of the dilemma to perform your task.
It is not difficult to do. Put aside at least 15 minutes for your “think your hands warm” sessions. Sit quietly, breathe deeply, make sure you are relaxed and comfortable. Aid your relaxation by being in a resting position either laying down or half laying down. Rest your hands on your diaphragm. Breathe deeply until you move your hands up and down with the breathing alone, not your muscles. Imagine your hands being hot, imagine the sun upon your hands, imagine the warm blood flowing down your arms to your hands, think “warm hands” repeatedly. Put them together at first if this helps with initial warming. Focusing your attention upon their warming can raise their temperature a few degrees. And a few degrees are significant. Your fingers plump up and become mottled as if you just taken a brisk walk or a run.
A biofeedback specialist can train you to do this, or, you can train yourself. It does take time and persistence but mastery occurs surprisingly quickly even for children. An inexpensive thermometer will help you gauge your progress.
Behind closed doors the musician, eyes closed, lost in music, played like a gifted professional. Add a crowd and her cello slipped from her sweating hands. Resistant to warming her hands she argued that the sweat meant they were already hot. They were not, they were cold and clammy. Once she was persuaded to ‘think her hands warm’, and she became proficient at it she controlled her fear. She joined the symphony with dry hands
The more you practice it when you do not need it, the more readily available it will be when you do. Like the driver who became anxious at the sight of road works, as soon as you identify the trigger, see your version of the “Men at work” signs begin thought warming your hands. Ignore the counter thoughts of “I have to turn around, I can’t do this”, shut the mind off, focus on your hands. The anxiety will subside. The first time the driver attended session, with his shirt fresh and dry, having driven through a work zone he celebrated the joy of success.
That joy can be yours. Happy hand warming.
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