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I am using writing this blog post as an avoidance and calming technique. I am in a wee bit of a panic. You see, I have done something crazy. At 42 I have decided to go back to school FULL TIME. What am I thinking? Right at this moment I have no idea; which is mildly amusing since I am returning to school to study psychology.

I have been a part-time student at Wilfred Laurier University for over a year…and have  managed to eke out 5 classes. At that rate it was going to take me years and years to finish my degree and I really want to be done with this undergrad so I can get on with the master’s degree and this fall I am taking the plunge to just.get.it.done.

My children all left the house this morning EXCITED for school to being–even the teens! This was a lovely thing to witness. They are all looking forward to being in a new grade and are feeling confident and positive; even my one who had some very negative experiences with bullying last year strode onto the playground with happy anticipation. Me? I am having nightmares about forgetting my lines in a play and getting panic attacks at the pool worrying over which lane to swim in. What is up?

It would seem that I am having a perfectly normal and predictable experience. I, like most of human kind, do not adapt quickly to change and when the change involves a rather large dose of the unknown it is daunting. We human beings are creatures of habit–literally and figuratively. Our brains create protocols  so we don’t have to actively think about how to drive a car or any other task that we do on a routine basis. When we throw a completely  new thing our brain’s way it, well, it gets a little panicky until a new protocol is established to deal with it. So my brain is not sure how to handle 5, YES FIVE, classes this semester and all that goes along with being a full-time 42 yr old student because I have never been a full-time university student as a 42-year-old before. It probably had a protocol to handle this-ahem-twenty odd years ago, but that was in a different province at a different university studying different subjects and at a very different time in my life. Realizing that I simply must go and do before I can feel comfortable is somehow very comforting.

Do you ever worry about having to do something that you haven’t done before? I know, silly question, but have you ever wondered why you worry? We attribute the anxiety to the THING we must do, but actually it may not be the thing at all. What if all the time we spend worrying and over preparing for and imaging all the things that could go wrong is truly for naught? Could it be that the feelings of anxiety, discomfort and paralyzing fear are simply our brain’s inability to assign a protocol (or habit as I wrote about here) to a task that we have never done before? It changes the whole way we interpret the anxiety. Am I feeling this way because I am ill prepared and am going to do a bad job or simply because it is a new experience that my brain cannot yet catalogue and establish a response for? The more I consider this, the more I believe it is the latter.

When I first started speaking professionally, I would become completely undone before my talk: sweating, breathing fast, sick to my stomach and not able to eat for hours beforehand. I would question why on earth I agreed to do it. Then as hundreds of face looked expectantly at me I would simply have to begin and find my way through it. After a few such exhausting experiences, my anxiety prior to a talk lessened and continued to decrease until now I only have a few momentary jitters and I look forward to the time I get to speak. Is it because I got better at it? Yes, but the thing that improved the most was the detailed protocol that my brain established for public speaking. It recognized the fast heart rate and the stomach ache as normal precursors to the event and did not react with an increased flight or fight response and these feelings went away. My brain even developed protocols for what to do when the sound or the Powerpoint failed or it seemed like I wasn’t connecting with the audience. So now when I speak, I have multiple layers of protocol and very few things that my brain doesn’t know how to process. Now when unexpected events do happen there are so many protocols in place running automatically that my brain has lots of cells left to fire up the executive functioning part and figure out what the heck to do with the heckler (or the tornado warning as happened when I was the keynote at a conference in Iowa).

What if we started trusting that our brain will figure these things out if we simply give it enough exposure to an event? Why is it that we think we should be perfect the first time we do something or that “nerves” are bad? If we reframe our feelings about the unknown it may actually help us cope better. Yes, the job interview tomorrow makes you quake in your boots. Of course it does! Your brain doesn’t have a protocol for “job interview with company x”. That is okay. My wonderful friend, David, once told me: “feelings are for feeling”. I think what he meant was that it is okay to feel anyway you feel; feeling are real, but they don’t dictate your reality or how you will perform in any new experience. Of course be aware that if your brain has a readily accessible script for how to freak out in any new situation, then that may be the protocol that it attempts to access first, but you can establish a new script for such events! So enter the new experience giving yourself (and your brain) permission to not know how to do something that you have never done before–allow yourself to simply take in your surrounding without expectation of performance. I will tell you a little secret: this in itself will reduce your stress level and anxiety a great deal. All the brain function that is not spent on freaking out about why you feel so nervous or questioning why you don’t know the exactly the right thing to say will be spent on listening  and considering and thinking about the best way to respond to the situation and creating a positive protocol to deal with new and unknown things.

This doesn’t only apply to the big-ticket items. I made reference to how I got all nervous about picking a lane to swim in this morning. Why? Well, my beloved YMCA is cleaning the pool so I can’t swim there this week. This morning I went to the Waterloo Rec Centre to swim. My brain doesn’t have a protocol for how strict this pool is with their labeled lanes of “fast, medium and leisure” nor does it know whether or not the swimmers in these lanes are regulars with established etiquette for who swims there. Since  at 6:40 am I hadn’t developed this theory of brain function yet (oh how I love how the process of writing forces me to be concrete in my thinking) I did not recognize the fact that by walking onto an unfamiliar pool deck I had thrust my brain into a situation that it did not have any protocol or script for…my poor brain reacted by having my stand on the pool deck unsure of which lane to pick as it madly scanned its files for a protocol to deal with this unfamiliar situation. I felt like the kid during  gym class that stands there while every body else is called for the team. Ugh! At the YMCA I know which lane I am in and I recognize the swimmers so my brain doesn’t need to fret and automatically initiates the script that says, “go to lane x and start swimming”. I tell you when your brain doesn’t have that pre-established protocol it can be exhausting. I actually changed lanes 3 times before I settled down and did my workout. I think what saved me was after I swam a few laps in one lane my brain switched to the “swim work out one” protocol and knew what it was doing!

Be ready for the new thing that you will encounter this week. It is okay if you don’t know how to deal with it–simply experience it. By doing that, you will allow your brain to create a protocol for how to deal with “new experience a”. I am going to do this next Monday morning at 10:30 when I enter the first class of my new full-time university experience. I can tell you right now that I will most assuredly by the oldest student in the class, but other than that I have no idea how it will go–and I don’t have to know that right now. I will experience it on Monday and learn about it. Just writing these thoughts down has lessened my anxiety. I cannot expect my brain to have a protocol for something it has never experience and you cannot expect your brain to either. Cut the poor 100 billion neuron, 3 lbs of brain matter some slack–and the rest of you while you are at it! Albert Einstein said, “the only source of knowledge is experience” and I do believe he was bang on! Our brains need experience to create protocol or “how to scripts”and we can’t expect our brains, and thus ourselves, to know how to do this without going through that first experience. The first experience is actually they key to feeling competent. Simply allow yourself to go through it. I declare this “Give your brain a break week!”

What will be new for you this week? I challenge you to simply allow yourself to experience it without expectation!

What are you going to do to celebrate “Give Your Brain a Break Week?”