Beginnings are exciting, but they also bring a lot of nervous energy. This is part two in a series on new beginnings. Part one looked at the experience of liberation in new beginnings. Part two looks at how to handle nerves. Part three is about joining change at the ground floor. Part four will talk about putting your best foot forward and setting the tone for an awesome future.
Last week our family had our first experience of four wheel driving on sand dunes. We were introduced to the technical term “whoopdeedoos”. This itself made us smile because in the testosterone charged world of monster trucks, high speed and big risks, it seems ironic to use a term that is better suited to a kid’s carnival ride. In any case, a whoopdeedoo is a series of bumps in the sand, where the person in the back seat with no seat belt on can easily fly out of the car, as I nearly discovered. Whoopdeedoo may seem out of place for a monster truck, but it is the perfect term to describe the mixed emotions of beginnings. It’s what butterflies must feel like all the time.
On the first day of school, the first day at a new job, on the starter blocks before a race, in front of an audience, pitching to investors, proposing to your lover etc, your stomach is likely doing the whoopdeedoos, and your heart is likely beating right out of your chest like a cartoon caricature. What do you do with the nervous energy? Do you ignore it, try to override it or channel it to good use. Comedian Ben Stiller said,
I have a lot of nervous energy. Work is my best way of channeling that into something productive unless I want to wind up assaulting the postman.
It partly depends on what sort of beginning it is and how you feel about it. There are three general reactions to new beginnings.
- Bring it on beginnings- The dream job, the new relationship, or the retirement you’ve worked so hard for, can be exhilarating. You barely stop to think about nerves because you have been imagining this new beginning for years. These sought after beginnings do bring their own challenges. Most importantly, they test your expectations. There may not be much nervous energy, but these long anticipated beginnings require a healthy dose of emotional intelligence to avoid a massive letdown.
- If I have to beginnings- Kids going off to college, beginning a diet or a quit smoking plan. You see these new beginnings coming. You have planned them and know they are for a higher purpose, but they are hard and you aren’t looking forward to them. They are likely to take you out of your comfort zone. It’s often perseverance that gets you through these changes until you can reframe the situation to see it from a new perspective, as a beginning full of new possibilities. As author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote,
Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.
- Where did this come from beginnings- A sudden death or loss or a disaster. You didn’t see these changes coming at all, or else someone may have forced your hand quite suddenly. You often enter these new beginnings timidly and low on confidence. However these are the new beginnings where you discover the depth of your resilience and flexibility.
Each situation brings it own unique whoopdeedoos. You can’t avoid the bumps. The only way to handle whoopdeedoos is to roll with the experience- enjoy the exhilaration and feel the anxiety. Buckle up, take it slow and get set for the ride of your life. It might not be all beer and skittles, but this is the path you are on and you can be sure you will grow and learn through it all.
A few years back, The Onion did a satire about a fictitious new energy drink called Pace.
The drink simulates the experience of nervous energy. It “provides consumers with the same anxiety, restlessness, and self-doubt associated with waiting for a phone call from a much-desired female acquaintance. “Pace! gives you that unique, up-all-night feeling of dissecting every little thing she said last time you saw her,” company spokesperson Geraldine Ponzari said at a press conference Monday. “With just the right blend of guarana, ginseng, and caffeine, Pace! will have your heart racing and your hands grabbing for your pockets every time you hear something that even remotely sounds like a ringing cell phone.”
Even though it’s a joke, it does raise an important issue. We tend to be so out of touch with our bodies and feelings. We mindlessly drink energy drinks and caffeine and wonder why we can’t relax. Then we really confuse our nervous systems by self medicating and hiding the anxiety. It’s appropriate for some people to medicate their anxiety. But most of us could do with less medication and more emotional mastery. At most, I would add some rescue remedy, Vitamin B or chamomile tea, but I am ultra resistant to putting drugs in my body to calm nerves.
We easily forget that nervous energy is a gift of its own, if you use it to open yourself to new beginnings rather than contract and retreat to comfort. The electric eel offers an interesting analogy. The nervous system of an eel is highly charged to the point of creating electric shocks without electrocuting itself. That’s what we need to aim for; create positive charges in new situations without electrocuting yourself with fear. Use the nervous energy to get you super psyched to reach all your goals. Channel it into urgency and motivation and NOT fear.
Here are some practical, and natural, ways to handle nervous energy-
- Breathe as deeply as possible. Deep breaths calm some of the whoopdeedoos, and disperse the feeling around your body where you can then turn it into productive energy.
- Visualize the outcome you are looking for. One of the traps of nervous energy is that you lose your concentration. Visualization, along with deep breathing, gives you incredible focus for the task at hand.
- Say or do something goofy- it takes a lot of the tension out of the situation. If you are in a group, others are likely feeling just the same way. If you are in front of a group, it breaks the ice and connects you with your audience.
- Place a lot of attention on your environment; the details, colors, furniture etc. This removes the intense focus on how you feel and takes some of the tension out of the nerves.
- Eat warm oatmeal. Well this helps me and I’ve heard others say the same thing. Putting something warm and sustaining in your body seems to smooth out the whoopdeedoos a little.
- Create a regular practice of meditation. Any good meditation practice will teach you to be aware of the sensations in your mind and body, so that when you are in a real time stressful situation, you will quickly (even automatically) tap into your innate ability to ground yourself and skillfully handle your nerves.
The bottom line is that you may have nervous energy around beginnings, but the nervous energy doesn’t have you. It doesn’t own you. You have the inner mastery to channel it for your own purposes. If you’re game, use the experience of beginnings to do more than overcome anxiety. Use it to bring you closer to the essence of who you are beyond all the fleeting sensations like anxiety.
There is a Zen story about a man who is enjoying himself in a boat. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first he prepares himself to greet the people in the boat, but then realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, “Oi, watch out! Turn aside!” But the boat just comes right at him faster and faster. Eventually he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and just as the boat smashes into him, he sees that it’s an empty boat.
If you really explore nervous energy, you may find energy moving around your body but there is no lasting substance to it. It comes, and it goes. It’s when you form conclusions about being “an anxious person” or “a worry wart” or worse self defeating messages like “ I can’t do this” or “I’m not good enough” that nervous energy knocks you for six. Let it be what it is, a passing energy through your nervous system. But at your essence, you remain calm and balanced. Every beginning is another amazing opportunity to manifest the essence of who you are beyond all the changing feelings and fears. Use the feelings to your advantage and create something incredible.
When it comes to nerves and beginnings, remember the advice of the English footballer, Steve Bull. This is true emotional mastery. It is not denial but skillful management of emotions.
Nerves and butterflies are fine – they’re a physical sign that you’re mentally ready and eager. You have to get the butterflies to fly in formation, that’s the trick.