anxiety control

July 29, 2021, Israel

 Many years ago, Moshe, student I.D. Baruch College. 

Many years later, Moshe teaching at Baruch College, 2006, NYC

Anxiety, a problem in martial arts, in life, in self-defense. Let's face it, when we face difficult situations, i.e. anxiety provoking situations, we tend to get nervous. Whether it is an exam, a job interview, a date, an encounter with the police, most people tend to become anxious, and they are not at their best. What often happens next is even worse; the anxiety causes more anxiety. It is a chain reaction, we become nervous and anxious, and this makes us even more anxious. 

I saw this first hand with a friend. He was facing a serious audit, he became so nervous that he ended up destroying most of his records. He had no logical reason for this and all he could hope for was that ...somehow this would be overlooked. We tend to react to bad situations by becoming overwhelmed. Very few people are cool under the gun, very few can truly face the pressure. When panic sets all, all is lost, an anxiety attack takes place, the ship is sunk.

In self-defense this is a very important issue of course, not only in the actual physical encounter but also, and perhaps even more so, in all the leads up to this situation. We need to remain calm, and this is often a true challenge.

So I was asked how I learned to deal with this. And it is time to go down memory lane...

It is the early to mid 1980's. I live in Brooklyn, work on Wall Street, train in Oyama Kyokushin Karate and am a student at Baruch College in New York City. I am pursuing a graduate degree in Finance and Economics as I believe this will be the key to a successful future back home in Israel. I am in the USA to obtain this graduate degree. 

I can picture everything, the classroom, my home in Brooklyn, the street, the subway, the dojo, the friends...I am there. Now it is Professor Vora's class. He begins with the usual "scary" introduction; this course will not be easy. The lecture will not cover the material in the book, you are intelligent enough to read the book and understand it on your own. The homework will not be based only on the book or on the lecture, but on a deeper understand of both. And the exams, they will be something different, you will have to understand the lectures, the books, and go deeper.

Yeah sure, I am heard it all before. Scare tactics to make sure we take the course seriously. And then the exam came. Prof. Vora was not there, it was a TA, teachers' assistant. We could ask no questions. 

I look at the exam and followed my usual, successful, practice of scanning through all the questions, getting the basic idea and feeling confident. All is good, nothing new here, I know and identify all the concepts. I choose a question to start with and I get to work. But something happens -

As I read the  question more carefully I realize there is a snag, something is wrong. The question has some minor differences that make it impossible to understand. As the professor warned; it is something entirely new. I have never seen this before. Same concepts but totally different. OK, try another question, same result.

I am frozen. I cannot answer a single question. None of them make any sense to me. I am baffled. 

I look around the room, just a glance so it does not look like I am cheating, everyone is busy writing. An hour passes, half way through the exam, I look at my paper, blank, totally blank. I am an outstanding student, but here I have nothing. Not to brag, but in Econometrics, which is "Statistics and Mathematics as applied to Finance and Economics" I received a perfect score on the midterm and was exempted from the final, the only student in the school to achieve this. I am used to success, but here, a blank page. An hour has passed...

Anxiety is taking over, and the anxiety is making me anxious, I cannot function, I cannot think, everyone else continues to fill pages.

I realize I must change tactics, and quickly. STOP.

I stop, I put down my pen, I take a mental break and ask myself - What is the worst possible outcome? What is the worst that can happen? I am trying to stop the anxiety, I am trying to gain control over the situation, not find answers to the test questions.

You see at this point forcing myself to think and find solutions to the exam questions is the wrong approach, I am feeling anxious and this will never work. Stop trying, relax, control the anxiety before it controls you. Stop trying so hard, and stop worrying.

What is the worst that can happen?

I imagine the shame of walking up to the teacher and presenting an empty exam paper.

I imagine failing the exam.

I imagine failing the course.

I imagine being dropped from the graduate degree program. I imagine being fired from my job on Wall Street. I imagine telling my parents and hearing their disappointment. 

And now I imagine it is five years later. I am now a truck driver, still living in that same house in Brooklyn. I see the house, I see the closet like it is in front of my eyes write now. I have spent much time in that room, some good memories. And now I am cleaning up on a Sunday afternoon and I find the old exam paper, the black paper with all those challenging questions. For the "fun of it" I decided to take the exam, in the comfort and privacy of my own home.

All this I remember imagining during my half time break at Professor Vora's exam. And something magical happened. I became totally relaxed, the pressure was gone, no more anxiety. I was calm.

With nothing at stake, and nothing to worry about, after all the exam was due five years earlier (in my imagined scenario), so ...take your time, I began to write.

Ideas came to me, creative thoughts on how to solve these impossible questions. I filled several pages with writings and calculations. I felt pretty good.

It was a few days until we received the results, but I was calm.

I can picture the class, I remember exactly where I was sitting. Prof Vora is not there, our TA is there, the first student is called up. He is one of the best, he is very confident. He receives his exam, folded in two for privacy. As he walks back to his seat and opens it up and says, "Oh, I did not realize the score was out of 50 points" (as compared to the usual 100).

The TA says, "No, it is not, it is out of 100 points". So we all know that a star has fallen and has failed this exam with a score of less than 50. 

I received a 30. but I was calm, after all, no one is going to shoot me! What is the worst than can happen? It is OK.

I don't recall feeling bad or nervous. I do recall that at one point after the exam, and before receiving the results, I spoke with my friend at work, Mike Ryan. I asked him if he ever felt unworthy of the course, not good enough, not able to complete his MBA. His answer encouraged me, "after every exam!". So, there was hope for me.

Later on it was announced that the class average was quite low, less than 30, so the professor was forced to grade on a curve. I received a B, which is about 80, a respectable score, certainly for such a difficult course. 

I no longer remember the details of the course, or the material covered, but I do remember how I overcame crippling anxiety. This would serve me well, in life, in martial arts, and as a teacher. To gain control over a situation, over ourselves, sometimes we have to let good for a is not so bad.

So today while telling this story to my class I went back in time for a little while, back to Brooklyn, a young man, full head of hair, the future ahead of him, the unknown journey. It felt good. Embrace the past, and the future. Enjoy the journey.

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