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Practice Means Play: 3 Simple Steps for Turning Stress Into Excitement

Posted by Anna | Aug 09, 2020

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Alan Watts says:

“This is the real secret of life -- to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”

Easier said than done, right? 😅

Sometimes we’re just not in the moment.

Sometimes we’re stressed. The prospect of practice is overwhelming. The outcome matters. And we’re not sure we can accomplish what we set out to do. 🤯

That’s how I feel plenty of times, when I sit down to make a drawing. I feel like: 

  • I have no ideas
  • I can’t draw a straight line
  • I’m too slow
  • The clock’s ticking
  • And I’ll never make the deadline!

But now, whenever I feel that way, I have something I do that helps.

It’s a cool trick I learned from Steven Kotler (author and flow researcher).

And (for me, at least) it helps the brain switch modes from jangling, bag-of-nerves basket-case to playful, attentive practitioner.

Here’s how:

Step 1: Bring your attention into the body

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(Meditators among you will nod: body awareness is always a good place to start!)

What sensations do you feel?

Probably, it’s butterflies in the tummy. Racing heart. Knot in the stomach.

These are symptoms of norepinephrine and cortisol (sometimes called adrenaline).

These are chemicals that get your body charged up for fight or flight.

The interesting thing is: These same hormones, and these same feelings - the knot, the butterflies, the racing heart - they’re present whether you’re scared or excited.

So far as your body’s concerned, scared and excited are the same thing!

Hold onto that insight! We’ll come back to it later. 😉

Step 2: Remember why you’re doing this in the first place.

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“You made a decision. You came here for a reason. To practice is a privilege. This is how you grow. The unknown outcome is the magic of living a creative life. You said you’d do this. So what, if it might not work? It also might work! That’s the excitement. Let’s find out! And whatever happens, you’re here now, and this is the thing you’ve set out to do.”

That’s an example of the sort of self-talk I use in a moment like this.

Whatever your version looks like, it’s about recommitting. Remember your motivation. Remember the positive framing that made you set out, in the first place, to do this. Or just remember:

This is a strong decision that’s behind me. There’s no question of second guessing. It’s a choice I’ve already made.

BTW, Steven Kotler’s version (when he’s nervous about giving a talk) is:

“I’m welcome. I’m wanted. And I’m here to help.”

Step 3. (This is the fun bit). Get excited.

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The beautiful thing about fear and excitement being the same on a biological level, is this:

It means you can switch. It means: Your mental framing is the only difference between angst and exhilaration.

Now, this isn’t the same for any two emotions!

To give an example: Kotler says, for an anxious person to ‘calm down’ is a massive feat.

With anxiety: The whole body’s activated in a high energy state. Adrenalin pumps blood to the limbs, so you’re ready to act. 

(It’s why you get those butterflies in your thorax. They’re the ‘pins and needles’ sensation of blood rushing away from your middle).

With anxiety: The body’s literally powering down non-essential systems (like reproduction and digestion), so your limbs have all the juice, ready to pounce.

In contrast, a calm state favours hormones like oxytocin, which slows the heart-rate. It makes you sleepy and tactile. And it wakes up the reproductive system (something the body totally gives up on during fight or flight).

So, it’s certainly not the case that any two emotions can be instantly swapped out, with little effort, and just a dash of mental reframing. No.

Rather, it’s that stress and excitement are a special case. On a chemical, emotional, biological level, they’re the same.

And this is our opportunity!

So, how do we switch?

Well, once you’ve established the positive, engagement framing in your mind (Step 2), all you have to do is say to yourself:

“I’m excited. I’m excited. I’m excited.”

Basic, right? But I swear to you: It works.

Those three lines are the bridge. They connect the butterflies in your tummy with the positive framing you’ve set-up in your mind.

Suddenly, all those positive, rational reasons you laid down (in Step 2) get a newfound undercurrent of excitement: It brings them to life. That tickle of butterflies is a sign you’re charged up to perform at your best. 

You realise adrenaline's giving you that oomph you need to practice. It’s a gift from your body. It offers the energy you need to focus and act.

And that’s all it takes to make the switch.

If you’re skeptical (I was too!), I challenge you to try it.

Conclusion

The big insight here is that stress hormones encourage fight or flight. But you get to choose which.

It’s like your body is charging up a giant electro-magnet of potential energy. And your brain gets to decide which channel the electricity is fired down.

Anxiety is about flight: resistance, avoidance, fret. It wants to rewrite the future, and weasel out of decisions you’ve already made. It looks for exit strategies or distraction.

Whereas: Excitement is about fight: engagement, enrolment, play. It wants to take on the present. And seize opportunities for action, in the here and now.

Use these 3 steps to switch from angst to thrill:

  1. Feel the feelings in your body.
  2. Frame the positive in your mind.
  3. Build a bridge between the two with: “I’m excited. I’m excited. I’m excited.”

And it doesn’t take a heap of time. Steven Kotler describes standing in the wings before a talk. All he does is bring attention to the butterflies in his tummy, and says:

“I’m welcome. I’m wanted. I’m here to help. And I’m excited.”

That’s it.

Like I said: Try it! 😊


So, did you try it? Will you try it? Won't you try it?

I’d love to know. Tell me about your experiments (or your doubts) in the comments below! Or else, what other tactics help you reclaim the fun in practice?