A little over a month ago I wrote a blog titled “Getting Strong[er]“ about my commitment to run the Bolder Boulder 10K race in May without stopping to walk. To do this, I cast aside my longtime cross-training routine and hired running coach Matt Hensley. I could probably run a 10K without a coach, given that I actually ran it last year without one and without training, but at my daughter’s suggestion, I thought having a coach would help meet my goals in a safe way. My daughter has been running with Matt’s club for about six months.

I have never liked running, yet now that I am one month into the training, I am pretty darn proud of myself. I haven’t missed a workout…and haven’t had to stop and walk in the middle of a workout—though I’ve thought about it.

Yet, in spite of my commitment to the five-days-per-week running schedule and the fact that with every run, I go a little faster or a little further, I have this incessant chatter in my head…

Can I make it for the time/distance required? What if I get too tired and need to walk?

Wow, my legs are tight, and my knee is starting to bother me. Should I stop? Is it a big problem? Will I have to take a break from training?

What if the treadmill is too fast and I fall and hit my head and die like Dave Goldberg, the husband of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, did? Plus, I’m alone in the house, so no one will find me.

What if…what if…what if…

In spite of the fact that I have made it through every run and pushed myself a little harder each time either with pace or incline, I still have all this fearful chatter in my head before every run. WTF?!??!

Am I the only crazy one whose mind swirls with all of these fears and what-ifs? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, “No,” of course. To save you all, I thought I’d expose myself to help others work through their own chatter.

Buddhism calls this the monkey mind…and fear is a major component of it. Specifically…

Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention. Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.”

The question is…Can you tame it? Yes, but not easily. It’s part of life’s journey.

Dealing with the never-ending to-do lists that often fill the monkey mind is easy. Just write them down, and your mind won’t swirl. The fear-based ones and all of the “catastrophizing what-ifs” are harder. I’m sure that there have been many scholarly papers written about the pervasiveness of our primal fears and why they exist. But why doesn’t really matter when all you want to know is what can you do to shut it up.

Clearly, I haven’t succeeded yet, but here’s how I am working toward managing these irrational fears…

  • Stopping to ask myself, Is this a reasonable fear? What is the likelihood that your fear will come true…and is worrying going to make a difference? This helps me, in particular, when I’m flying. Every statistic says that flying is the safest mode of transportation per passenger mile. Yet fear of flying is very common.
  • Showing myself I’m not dead yet. When you’re exercising, how often do you experience shortness of breath or get some funny twinge in your chest or shoulder? It happens to me quite often as my body adjusts to the movement. I move through it, inspired by an interview some years ago on the radio with an expert about panic attacks. His strategy: If you are unsure if it’s a panic attack or a heart attack, do 10 jumping jacks (or keep exercising for a few minutes). If it is a panic attack, you will be fine. If it is a heart attack, you will have increasing difficulty performing the task and need to call 911 ASAP.
  • Reminding myself that I’ve succeeded at every step. Why keep worrying when you know that you have succeeded in the past? You have successfully completed that long car ride…finished the run or bike ride…given the presentation. I remind myself that I’ve already done it. Stop worrying about the what if this time I can’t do it.
  • Visualizing my glory moments. There are times in my past when completing a challenge felt amazing—sprinting to the finish of a race…completing a really interesting podcast with a superpowerful guest…reaching the top of a hike or the bottom of a ski run. Remembering those adrenaline-infused moments of glory helps shift my energy from fear to strength.
  • Playing the game of fives. I didn’t make this one up, and frankly I just recently read about it, but I’m going to try it. When your monkey mind starts going down the path of crazy, bring it back to the present by noticing five things. Just look around and notice their appearance…their beauty…their importance in your life—anything to take your focus from mind chatter to being in a mindful moment. This may be difficult when I’m on the treadmill since my view never changes, but it seems like a great way to come back to the present on a run or bike ride, when there is an infinite number of things to notice at every step.

We hold ourselves back with the never-ending playlist of irrational fears and what ifs. They give us every reason in the world to say no and quit. But what if the what ifs were why nots? How much better that would feel.