When your phone rings and it’s work, your first thought is “what did I do wrong?” Within a split second, your mind races from “I screwed up” to “I’ll be fired” to “I will be homeless” to “I’m going to die.”
We treat even the tiniest of stressors as potential death threats because we always have. It’s the survival instinct that got us here. But today our instant-anxiety-button is ruining our lives. We simulate the worst future we can imagine to then decide whether we take flight or fight.
But there’s something else here. Right when your brain starts processing that it’s your boss’s number on the screen, you freeze. Ex-FBI agent and body language expert Joe Navarro explains:
“One purpose of the freeze response is to avoid detection by dangerous predators or in dangerous situations. A second purpose is to give the threatened individual the opportunity to assess the situation and determine the best course of action to take.”
Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal calls this second purpose the pause-and-plan response. It’s a better gut reaction for our modern world. And the best way to trigger it is to do what you always do: breathe.
When the caller ID shows up, our breath is flat. Shallow. Hectic. But it only takes one gulp of air to break the pattern. The big takeaway here is this:
You can leverage your anxiety into making better decisions. All you have to do is pause.
Catch your own freeze response, then shift your attention inward. It’s a skill you can practice. A skill that, according to Seth Godin, comes down to this:
“All anxiety is is experiencing failure in advance.”
Because once you’ve failed, you’ve got nothing left to lose. That’s what the extra breath is for. To let anxiety wash over you, then wash away. That’s real survival. And it’s why every choice you make feels better after a single, deep breath.