Anxiety Equals Adrenaline

Once again I’m mining the ideas of a podcast for my own posts, and today the nugget of wisdom, this one about anxiety, is from “Happier in Hollywood,” hosted by Liz Craft (who’s also on the “Happier” podcast) and her writing partner Sarah Fain. They are often prone to anxiety as they navigate the roller coaster of being TV writers living in LA. No one has a permanent job within a TV series, because no series is permanent. Let’s see—how long did “Monk” last? Seven years? Something like that. Most are much, much shorter. So you’re constantly having to prove yourself.

It doesn’t mean anything that you had a hit last time you were on a show—except that now expectations are even higher. Anxiety levels can get so high that people have full-blown panic attacks and wind up in the hospital.

So, in a previous episode, Liz and Sarah had discussed the use of beta-blockers to deal with anxiety, with Liz saying that she always takes one before doing a pitch meeting. (A pitch is high stress event, as it’s an attempt to sell network executives on the idea of a show. If you don’t get past the pitch, you don’t get a chance to write for it.) They got some pushback on this idea in last week’s episode but also had a fascinating conversation with a very successful TV writer who still gets nervous conniptions (that’s the technical term) whenever he starts a new show. It’s just part of the job. This guy has been seeing therapists for years about his anxiety and seems to have gotten only one really helpful idea from any of them, but it’s a real gem, so much so that I’m setting it off by itself:

The fear you feel is the juice.

His therapist went on to explain that anxiety and fear come from adrenaline, just as excitement and involvement do. They all have the same source; it’s how you interpret the effects that makes the difference. So, his therapist says, suppose you’re at a loud rock concert and you’re in the front row, screaming your lungs out. (His illustration, not mine.) That emotional high is being caused by the very same adrenaline that was giving you fits when you were prepping a presentation to the boss last week. Your heart is pounding and your hands are probably shaking, but you don’t notice those symptoms in the same way. They are adding to your enjoyment of the concert. You wouldn’t want to be sitting there calmly. But when you’re facing a different situation, one in which you’re going to be evaluated, suddenly the pounding/shaking/sweating is seen as a problem in itself. In reality, though, you probably wouldn’t do such a good job if you weren’t pumped up. You just have to realize that a certain amount of nervousness is helpful as long as it doesn’t incapacitate you.

Somehow this simple idea, one that I certainly should have understood long before now, seemed new. What I’m feeling when a big (to me, anyway) event is looming is simply the effect of a hormone that causes the “fight or flight” reaction. So last Saturday when, in spite of everything going along just fine with the Chorale picnic preparations, I had to sit down and take some deep breaths because I was feeling overwhelmed, that was just adrenaline. I will try to tell myself this truth from now on.

It occurs to me, by the way, that a good test for anyone trying to figure out whether or not a certain activity or career is good for him/her is to observe when or if the nervousness ends. For me, as soon as the people come in the door I’m pretty much okay. In fact, there have been many times when I just wanted the event to start—not to be over, but to begin. On the other hand, I never conquered my nervousness about playing the piano in front of people, and eventually I realized that I didn’t have to put myself through the agony. It wasn’t as if I were making a career out of playing the piano! I don’t know how the professionals who are nervous during a performance carry on, but for me the decision was pretty simple to just quit doing something that was driving me crazy.

And as I’m writing this post I’m reminded of my dear friend from many years ago, Mecca, who had a lovely voice and could sing solos but who finally decided that she wasn’t going to do it any more because she couldn’t get past the nervousness she experienced every time she got up to perform. She’d end up gasping for breath, and, as she told me, she prayed and fasted about it but the problem didn’t go away. So she just quit. It wasn’t her profession or anything. But the interesting thing was that she sang as her own wedding, in a duet with the groom. I asked her about this inconsistency, and she said, “Oh, but that’s okay because I’m singing with Frank.”

And another dear friend, Nancy, she of the five musically-talented daughters, said once that each girl reacted differently to pre-performance jitters. Once they got up on stage, though, they were fine. Each girl handled her adrenaline rush in a different way, but each one’s experience was caused by the same mechanism.

So, once again, self-knowledge is key. For me, handling pre-party stress has two parts. One is the simple recognition of what’s going on: Oh yes, that’s just adrenaline. The other is a shift of focus from myself to the job at hand: Fine, I’m nervous, but that nervousness can energize me as I get on with the job at hand. What’s important is the job, not my emotional response to it.

How do you handle your jitters?

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