Over the last 6 months I have talked a lot about the Comfort Zone and its (metaphorically speaking) unrelenting efforts to keep us safe from danger.  And as I’ve said before that danger can be real, or only the projection of our fears about the future.  In either case the Comfort Zone is only “following orders”.

In addition the Comfort Zone is linked very closely with your feelings – those sentinels and policeman of our brains, helping us keep away from danger by making us worried, scared, frightened, etc.  This is an important connection to make when we talk about fear and anxiety.  Most of the tools we have to seriously combat fear are thinking tools – i.e., they are involved in correcting beliefs/assumptions/rules that generate fear and worry in the first place.  And that is precisely what will uproot and shut down our fears – healthy, lucid thinking.  Yet the strongest barrier to effectively using those thinking tools is our feelings (and the resulting physical sensations that usually accompany them.)

IN fact, we usually come to depend mostly on how a danger or perceived risk FEELS, rather than on some lucid assessment of the actual danger involved.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t do some or all of that assessment.  But we rely heavily on how we FEEL, rather than mostly on objective evaluation. 

One of the ways to test this is to compare how different people evaluate the same topic/issue.  My Mom, for example, has always been deeply unnerved by snakes (or reptiles in any form.)  As an elementary school teacher she had to endure snakes as show and tell exhibits in Las Vegas, but even regular exposure to snakes (invariably harmless snakes) didn’t decrease her fear.  On the other hand I have always been fascinated by snakes.  The question then is – what makes my Mom afraid and me not afraid?  There are a variety of answers to HOW she formed her fear and how I didn’t, but that isn’t the same thing as asking why we’re afraid or not afraid NOW.  Because the truth is a snake has never, ever hurt my mother.  I’d be surprised if she had been in a context where she was seriously at risk for being hurt by a snake.  No, the bottom line is that she is afraid for the same reasons discussed in this blog from the beginning – her thinking about snakes frightens her, which in turn generates scary feelings, which in turn keep her away from snakes.  She has sat (comfortably far away from snakes) and admitted that she knows her fear isn’t based in anything that has any danger to it.   She has laughed (again, comfortably far away from snakes) about her fear.  But that hasn’t changed her thinking about snakes (snakes are scary, stay away from snakes) which in turn creates feelings like anxiety, worry, and fear.  By comparison I know that snakes can be dangerous (a small subset of the entire collection of snakes slithering their way through the world, that is), but it remains an academic knowledge that generates little if any feeling about the topic at all for me.  My thinking about snakes doesn’t generate the feelings of the flight or fight response, so hey, bring on the snakes – works for me.

Another example is one of the more common but unusual fears – the fear some people have of clowns.  (Don’t take my word for this – check it out for yourself – a remarkable number of people are afraid of clowns.)  Scary horror films aside, clowns are clearly NOT dangerous.  There has never actually been an “Insane Clown Posse”, and the number of Serial Killer Clowns stands at… zero.  Yet clowns can reduce otherwise completely rational adults to terror.  Why?  Same answer as my Mom and the non-dangerous snakes.  Whatever the reason, clowns have been linked for those people to thoughts that generate scary feelings – feelings that in turn work to drive us away from the thing that scares us.  Period. 

And this is the heart and soul of what stops the vast majority of people from moving past their fears – the feelings that the Comfort Zone uses to steer us clear of what frightens us.  This makes perfect sense.  The flight or fight response has been developing for, roughly, several hundred million years, WAY before conscious thought showed up.  Its ONLY function is to keep you from danger.  Conscious thought isn’t invited to the fear party in your brain – for most of the world’s history it was about getting away (or, if cornered, turning and fighting) with the ONE goal of getting to safety.  And that’s the illusion part I mentioned in my blog title for this post.  Just because you’ve avoided something that scares you doesn’t mean you’re necessarily safe!   It may FEEL safer – and that makes us happier than feeling afraid – but it doesn’t mean you’ve solved the problem that’s got you worried/frightened in the first place.  Need to pay a bill, for example, but you’re afraid of spending the money?  The unpaid bill and the spending of your limited resources both frighten you, so you decide to shove the bill in a drawer.  Sweet!  Now you’re not frightened, at least until next month’s bill arrives.  Doesn’t mean you’re any safer!  But you feel that way – and that’s what you’re really working to do – end the feelings.

So what do you do when you feel anxious/afraid/worried/etc.?  You do what I recommended in my last blog post.  You have to 1) Face your fear, 2) briefly endure the emotions and physical sensations that accompany that fear, and 3) unpack what you’re afraid of – figure out the thinking that is making you afraid in the first place.  One of the amazing gifts of being able to think is that our thinking can override our Comfort Zone responses.  We do have the power, the capacity to not just react to our fears, but think our way through our fears, and even re-program our thinking to reduce or eliminate a particular fear.  Cool, yes?  Because it is important to realize (as Albert Ellis started pointing out over a half-century ago) that they are, in fact, only feelings – just feelings.  They by themselves carry no more weight than your thoughts.  They just FEEL so freakin’ scary – and that is usually enough to shut us down.  Unless we challenge those thoughts, and those feelings…  and when we do that, we move back to a place where we can engage our problem-solving powers to really deal with the problem that was scaring us in the first place. 

Of course it may take more than one try to shake past a particular worry or fear!  Most of us have spent years, even decades building up our Comfort Zone defenses, and (as I’ve said earlier in this blog) it make take more than a day or two to significantly demolish or reposition those defenses.  And we need practice to develop our skill with this.  So why not start small?  Why not identify 1 minor concern or fear you carry around, and tackle that as a way to build some dexterity with this approach?  In my next blog entry I’m going to outline some examples of this, as well as continue talking about tools that can help us do the work better and with less stress.  Now, get out there and challenge your fears!  Nothing less than your freedom is waiting for you.