Please forgive my long silence here on this blog.  It has been a remarkable (and difficult) 3 weeks since my last post.  In that post I promised more examples about how thinking is what drives our feelings around fear, and more about how to deal with those feelings and unpack the thinking that causes it in the first place.  This is especially important to me at the moment because of the loss of a close friend of mine (which I only learned about last Friday, but happened in mid-July.)  He took his own life after months (and really years) of dealing with chronic anxiety and fear.

Let me tell you a little about my friend (I’ll call him “B” here for ease of reference.)  B was a smart, sensitive, people-oriented kind of guy.  He loved getting time with friends, going out to dinner, just shooting the breeze and hanging out with people he cared about.  He was a talented artist – had painted for years and years, even as he discounted his own creative gifts.  He was compassionate, hopeful and invariably making sure the person he was with was comfortable and happy.

At the same time B was afraid.  He was in his middle 50’s, doing work he didn’t mind (teaching at a vocational school) for an administrative team he hated and feared (believe me, those words are not too strong to describe his feelings.)   He was worried deeply about having enough money to retire, so he felt he couldn’t leave his job, or even change jobs – yet he wanted to flee his job.  He despised the house he owned, and wanted to move, but was afraid that he wouldn’t find anything he liked more.  He wanted desperately to leave the country he lived in and move to Spain – there to teach English as a second language, and paint, and live near the sea.   But he was afraid of traveling alone, afraid of running out of money, afraid that he’d blow it somehow, afraid he’d have to return to teaching at the school he worked at… afraid.  Very, very afraid.

There were two key issues that B was fighting.  1) He was literally living in the indefinite negative future (see my posts about this here on the blog from earlier in the year) and so was constantly generating fear about the maybe’s and what if’s that he was projecting onto that future, and 2) he was dealing with profound feelings of stress and anxiety that tended to overwhelm him and shut him down.  He talked often of how he just wished the feelings (and physical sensations they helped generate, in his case nausea, lack of sleep and restlessness) would just go away – then he could get on with his life.  He insisted that it was all but impossible to do any work towards shaking free of his fear until his feelings eased off.  At the same time he slowly retreated from his entire life – friends, work, going out to eat, everything – until, at the end, he was almost completely housebound. 

It is important to note here that B was treated again and again by medical and mental health care professionals.  He was given a variety of medications, given in-patient and out-patient care, given therapy, you name it.  This went on across years, and while some (but not all) of the medications did provide some temporary relief they didn’t (and couldn’t) change his thinking and the fear that thinking generated for him.   And while the therapy and reading he did gave him some new perspectives they still didn’t take him to a place where he faced into his fear, saw his feelings and physical responses as simply the result of his Flight or Fight response powering up, and then unpacked the assumptions/thinking he was focused on that generated the fear in the first place.  THIS IS CRUCIAL.

This is crucial because you have to do all three if you want to move past the fear and anxiety.  Simply facing your fear doesn’t promise freedom.  Sometimes, yes, just acknowledging that you’re afraid can help end small concerns, or things that haven’t blow up yet into major fears.  But more often all this does is remind of us how afraid we are, and Flight or Fight again powers up and we’re off and running.  And it usually isn’t enough to just unpack your thinking – yes, this or that fear isn’t real, yes, I’m living in the indefinite negative future – because if you keep it academic/abstract in your thinking you are still unlikely to do anything that will trigger the Flight or Fight response – and so nothing changes.

Let me be very clear – depression and chronic anxiety (including panic attacks) are brutal.  As someone who has dealt with all of them I can tell you it is literally hell.  I am not in any way diminishing what B was fighting.  I AM saying that his fear and the resulting feelings and physical sensations are simply extreme examples of what EVERYONE deals with when they are afraid.  And the answer to that is the same, regardless of the intensity.  B was afraid of the future.  He was afraid of the feelings and sensations that his fear generated in him.  And those fears shut him down and, finally, killed him.

It is very hard to write those words.  There is no way to express here how much I miss him, how sad and angry I am.  I am angry because his life being over is a vast waste.  I’m angry because he won’t produce any of the art he was capable of – won’t live in Spain – won’t walk sandy beaches and savor his life and his days.  I’m sad because I didn’t find the right words to say, didn’t find the key in these discussions that could have helped him finally face into his fears, his assumptions, and win free of them, win back his life, and take his life in the direction he wanted to go.  I miss my friend, miss him terribly.

But the point I’m looking to drive in this blog post, more than anything else, is that a crucial mistake B made (and which most of us continue to make) is that he was waiting for the feelings to ease off so he could get on with what he wanted to do.  And that is exactly backwards – the feelings will ease off ONCE we face into them, unpack what’s generating them in the first place.  Feels counter-intuitive – the Comfort Zone is screaming at us to STOP, not move, stay put.  But that’s exactly what we shouldn’t do.  And it is (I’m convinced) what finally killed B.

Thankfully most of the people I know, friends and clients and colleagues and such, will never reach this place.  But having said that I also know that most of them are limited/shut down in crucial ways for the same reasons – they are afraid of their projections of the future, and they are afraid of the warning signals of the Comfort Zone.  So they remain frozen, unable to move, wanting their freedom and afraid of taking it. 

Next up (and much sooner, I promise) more on the tools to shake free of fear and get on with our life…