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Monday, October 7, 2013

Stress, anxiety, fear. A letter from abroad

A couple of days ago I received an email regarding the Ten Point guide I wrote that appeared in newspapers and was discussed on radio and TV in various parts of the world, to which I responded thus:

On Fri, Oct 4, 2013 at 8:09 PM, Denis Wright ... wrote:

Dear Carlos,

You have asked [an excellent question].... Do I have your permission to place the parts of your letter below on the blog? If so, may I use your name or do you prefer to remain anonymous?

Mr Gomez readily agreed to be named. This is the question he asked:
How do you deal with your fear and anxiety under normal circumstances?  
For example in a job interview when you are under the pressure that if you want the job and you fear not to get it, then you become anxious, nervous and then you will have a bad performance during the interview.  
I think your advice deals with the “what”, so I was wondering if you would like to write something about the “how” to deal with fear and anxiety, let’s say under the normal circumstances of life....

I should say at the outset that I am no more qualified to answer such a question than any other person, except that I may have a little more life experience than most. Lack of formal qualifications is not going to stop me having a lash at it.

   Anxiety is a form of fear, usually regarded as lower level, but which can be crippling at times. Fear is an emotion that has been necessary for human survival from the beginning – for the survival of any sentient creature in fact. If you have no fear of anything, then you probably won’t last too long. 

   It triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. Adrenalin is there to supplement it, for a good reason. But anxiety in our normal lives needs some thinking about, because it can be destructive if handled badly.

   So in any decision I make, the first question is, am I going to flee or fight? I don’t take that too literally most of the time, unless I’m being chased by a pack of wild dogs. So far so good on that one. It hasn’t been tested. I was charged by an argumentative bull once, and I chose flight. Fortunately I was close enough to the fence for that to be the best option.

   That job interview – I can decide either to do it, or not. In other words, fight and have a go at it, or flee and back out. I'm probably not going to do the latter. I can expect to be a bit stressed. I need the adrenalin to be at my best. 

   The next thing is to find out as much as I can about what I want to accomplish in order to help allay as many anxieties as possible about it. Take the mystery out of something, replace it with understanding, and I find a lot of the fear vanishes. It gives me confidence about handling it. Knowledge definitely is power.

   If finding out more about it makes me more rather than less anxious, I may have to reconsider the whole thing... look for someone to share ideas about it... listen to advice while keeping responsibility for whatever action I choose. Not everyone has a partner, but if you do, I suggest listening very carefully to their point of view, because every window on a decision opens a different way to view it. Your partner is inevitably affected by your actions and has a right to top consideration in your decisions.

   We create anxiety for ourselves by thinking we have to win every battle. We don't need to. There are times to compromise, and to be generous, even though we might have preferred some other result. What is the priority? What's the ultimate goal? What can we live with and accommodate what others want, and in consequence relieve our stress, without sacrificing something too important to give up?

   Get priorities right. I see people fighting all the time about things I regard as petty. The way to lessen stress and anxiety is to ask ourselves, what is the worst that can happen if we lose this particular battle? What if we swallow our pride and accept what seems to be a lesser option? Most importantly, why burn ourselves up with resentment over things that don’t really add value to our lives?
   The difficult area, if you are living the sort of life I imagine, is in personal relationships. In these we really have to establish our priorities. Relationships are subtle and infinitely variable. We don't go through life without taking a course of action we later believe wasn’t the best. 

   The worst thing we can do is dwell on it. Or maybe there's one worse – that is, not to contemplate it, and so go on repeating it. In that case, it's a wasted opportunity. 

   We should be generous, and I'm not talking about money (but don’t be mean with money – there are no top-dollar front row seats in any afterlife you might contemplate). If we're generous of spirit, we find our stress levels drop.

   You mentioned my 10 Points that seem to have made an impact I couldn't have imagined in various parts of the globe. I didn't write them just for people facing deathly crises in their lives, but as a touchstone for creating a less stressful life for all of us and those around us. All of that list applies to everyone, and many of the ten have been with me through life as I picked up wisdom from all kinds of sources. Some I know I could have benefited from much more had they passed beyond a superficial understanding earlier in my life. But who knows?

   If you are stressed or anxious, try to isolate exactly what the stressful element is. That's where you have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Then you can deal with it directly. 

   Of course, there are too many personality types and too many things that people get agitated about for me to start analysing each circumstance. One size doesn't fit all.

   But... if you want the advice my guru gave to me when I went for an interview for the only job I faced a panel, it was this: listen to the question you're being asked and answer it directly. Take time to do think about it first, if necessary. Don't be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Most important of all, just be yourself. 

   Be yourself. He stressed that last one. It must have worked. Well, something did.


  1. Lovely piece Denis, thank you. Presently trying to get my stressed-out son to take the time to read it. To really read, and think about, your words.


    1. Thanks, my friend. I'm not setting myself up as a guru, but I've been given lots of advice over my lifetime by people who really are wise, and that's what I tried to extract here. Best wishes for your son’s exams. As I type, our son is sitting his university chemistry exam.

  2. Denis, you never cease to amaze me. What a wonderful compendium on 'how to handle stress and anxiety'. As you say, these are natural survival components of our genetic make-up; we have to recognise them and learn how to handle them. In later years I have found that your advice 'to be myself' in any situation is the best approach, along with exhaustive preparation and understanding of the issues involved. The advice on pride, too, is really relevant - pride stands in our way so often. I may be a quitter, but if the game doesn't seem to be worth the candle, I just walk away from it.

    1. Thanks, Bob. We need just enough pride to respect ourselves. Too much gets in the way of contentment. And that’s what life is about.

  3. You never cease to amaze me, either, Den.

    No matter how much we might wish it, you can't *make* a young person read something, even if you printed it out on parchment in gold-embossed letters, rolled it up and tied it with a satin ribbon. That is what I wish for every young person as they walked out the door. To read this and take it into their bones as they embark upon an independent life.

    I have a fantasy that such wisdom as is distilled here could be somehow painlessly injected into everybody. Every body.

    Thanks Den.
    We love you to bits and pieces.


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