As I have written this blog over the last 8 months it has become blindingly clear that (as I keep saying here) our feelings are a primary issue in our running away from the things that scare us or make us anxious.  There’s no question we develop elaborate and articulate explanations about why we won’t face this or that fear, but in my experience (with myself, with my clients and in my research) the bottom line is that we FEEL afraid, or nervous, or scared, or whatever word that most accurately describes our feelings.  And it is those feelings that stop us, most of the time.

Which, ironically, is a great demonstration of just how effective and useful the Flight or Fight Mechanism is – for every creature on the planet but most modern humans, that is.  Running from (or, if you have to, fighting) immediate threats to safety and life are a good idea.  But to be a human these days rarely means that we are faced by a pack of hungry wolves, or find ourselves coping with a charging water buffalo.  We just don’t experience the same likelihood of immediate physical danger that our ancestors did, or any creature living in the wild.  We live in nice warm houses with alarm systems now, not in caves.  We go to the store and get our food by shopping, rather than running it down with spears or digging it out of the ground with sticks.  And we keep the wolves and buffalos in cages at the zoo, thank you very much – not out running around where they might hurt us. 

Sure, we still experience danger.  People drive drunk, people experience road rage, people take a swing at other people now and again.  And Flight or Fight is still with us, still ready to power up and help us navigate through those immediate physical dangers in the best way possible.  But the vast majority of our “dangers” these days involve the ones we create about our futures.  And for those dangers the Flight or Fight Response is little or no help at all.  Yet we still RESPOND with the same feelings that we would feel if we were facing hungry wolves or that crazy buffalo.  And those feelings developed as a way to get us in motion – either running or fighting.  They work really well under the conditions of immediate danger.  They don’t work so well when the danger is abstract, estimated in a future that isn’t here yet.  They in fact get in the way of us doing what we need to do. 

The answer?  We have to think about our feelings.  We have to become conscious of the fact that we are letting our feelings decide our behavior.  Yes, it is our thinking that is causing the problem (all those what if’s, etc. about the future) but it is our feelings that stop us from taking action.  In a very real sense the Flight or Fight Response is malfunctioning in situations where we are turning problems into crises. But because we literally evolved to respond/react to our feelings, NOT think them through, most of us do just that – react to our feelings and step away from addressing the problem as a problem, not a crisis. 

Like any habit we fall into this takes a little time and effort.  We have become so trained at simply responding to our feelings that it takes some work, some practice to change that habit.  We need to get some experience at feeling our feelings, but then not reacting to our feelings.  Feelings are great indicators, great signals that something is going on.  But what’s going on is in our heads – that’s the crucial distinction.  Unless we are actually facing an angry water buffalo we are not served by reacting to our fearful feelings by refusing to think about what’s scaring us.  And as a guy who spent decades being ruled by his feelings of fear and anxiety, I know that this sounds completely crazy, every scary to think about.  I also know that it was precisely what opened the door to getting free from my fears.  It wasn’t (and isn’t) the only piece, but it is one of the most important pieces in mastering fear.