2 Questions to Ask Yourself the Next Time You’re Stressed

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This article first appeared on Happify

You have a job interview coming up. Or perhaps a presentation you’ve been preparing for. Maybe you need to have a difficult conversation with someone. Whatever it is, you’re terribly stressed about it.

In the emotional chaos in your mind, you can barely focus on what you need to do in order to prepare. In your better moments you wonder how you’ll cope with potential disaster. In your not-so-good moments, you want to cancel, call in sick, or put it off indefinitely.

Avoidance is the perfect strategy in moments when we face threats to our survival. The faster and further we run away, the greater the chances we won’t be eaten alive. But when the threat is more imaginary than real—a heightened fear of failure and its devastating aftermath—we need to question our perceptions and interpretations. Otherwise, we’ll continue to run away from the very experiences that lead to our growth and resilience.

If you find yourself giving in to the urge to avoid potential failure, whether it’s by doubting your abilities, sabotaging your own success, procrastinating on tasks that need to get done, or outright giving up and calling it quits, here are two questions that may change the way you show up in the world:

Question #1: What Am I Fearing?

It’s almost magical how writing down your fears makes them vanish right before your eyes. This is because you think you fear a very real and highly probable danger. But as you write down your fear, you begin to realize that your mind’s been playing tricks on you. The outcome is often quite unlikely, and certainly not as deadly. And even if it can potentially happen, it’s rarely the type that requires escape. In the minimal likelihood that it’s both certain and dangerous, you definitely need to change course. But to have that as your sole modus operandi is a sad way to live life, given that you blind yourself to the far greater likelihood of success.

So while you’re at it, it may also help you to think of how you’ll feel and what you’ll do when you achieve your goals. Won’t it be better to use the “what if” mindset to your advantage?

Question #2: What Will I Do to Succeed?

Can is a powerful verb. No wonder Henry Ford famously said, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”. This is because can is a measure of competence, and when you doubt your abilities, “What can I do to succeed?” will bring up nothing but frustration and hopelessness. Will, on the other hand, is about action. It assumes that you have what it takes, and primes you to be creative in coming up with options, while empowering you with the autonomy to choose between them. Reminding yourself of incidents in the past when you overcame challenges, reflecting on the strengths and strategies that helped you do so, and getting creative with different pathways to choose from moves you from a mindset of “I can’t” to “I can!”

Needless to say, advice is easy to give, difficult to follow. It’s because the one offering advice (me) is rarely caught in the emotional mumbo-jumbo of a panic-stricken brain. But what can help YOU is to write out your fears so you can untangle the ever-growing mental knot and lay it out in coherent form.

What are you fearing? If it’s an upcoming presentation, what’s the worst that could happen? If the answer is getting fired, never finding a job again and ending up on the streets, how likely is that to happen? If it feels unlikely, transfer your energy to excitement about your success. If it feels likely though, ask yourself what you will do to prevent it. Who can you approach? What strategies can you use? What personal strengths can you call upon?

One final word as you begin to act upon these pathways. Acting “as if” is a great way to overcome the internal roadblocks to success. You believe your preparation is not going well? Continue preparing “as if” it’s going brilliantly, and you hush the inner voice that’s eager to remind you of your flaws and failures.

Faking it until you become it has real scientific basis, because it bypasses the emotional brain. When you fake it, you convince your emotional brain that all is safe, even if the potential danger is still present. And given that the danger is rarely real, it’s not a bad thing after all!

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