I have been focusing pretty intensely in this blog on the tools/techniques that will effectively begin to pull a person’s focus from reactive thinking and into healthy, proactive movement away from fear.  Today’s post is no exception, but moves in a slight different direction.  I want to talk today about making lucid decisions about the information we’re taking in from the world around us, and assessing that information as more or less useful to you as you move towards the mastery of your fears and anxieties.

In my checkered academic past I spent some serious time studying something called Radical Behaviorism.  Before you assume that means I was learning to build pipe bombs or anything let me clarify what that means.  I was at the University of Nevada, Reno, studying psychology under a guy named Willard Day.  Dr. Day was in turn a student of B.F. Skinner.  Skinner (for those of you who don’t know) was a fervent believer in the power of a person’s environment to influence, even control their behavior.  The bottom line is that Dr. Day was a brilliant, gifted thinker, and he gave me a remarkable gem of knowledge with this simple notion: the environment you live in, including the information you take in and process, has a remarkable degree of influence over how you think and feel.

That may seem blindingly obvious to you, and you’re wondering to yourself “this guy had to go to college to figure this out?”  Well, it is obvious.  Except that most of us are carrying around the notion that somehow we’re this bubble of autonomy, independent thinkers and actors on the stage of our lives, impervious (for the most part) to the thoughts and feelings swirling around us in our daily lives.  We watch the news about the up-and-down economy, we read the paper to find the latest murders and rapes where we live, we watch hours of television about dysfunctional families and endless personal drama on reality shows, we listen to our friends bitch and complain and shout their fears, we hear our parents worry about retirement and pensions and health, we rent DVD’s about serial killers and scary hotels, and then we wonder why we wrestle with hopelessness and anxiety.

So call me crazy, but I’m convinced that if you’re going to take the work of mastering fear and anxiety seriously you need to take (with equal seriousness) stock of what you’re pouring into your skull from the world around you.  I can already hear some people yelling something along the lines of “so what you’re saying is bury your head in the sand?  Act as if the world was this great happy place, and live in a fantasy?”  I’m not encouraging anyone to live in a fantasy.  I am encouraging all of us (whether we’re deep in the grip of anxiety or not) to consider thoughtfully if 30 minutes of Fox News is useful to you RIGHT NOW.  Maybe it’s time to consider what I’ve heard called a “news vacation.” 

Because, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, what Fox News (and CNN, and every other news channel except maybe ESPN) is doing is steadily feeding us a diet of reasons to be afraid of the Indefinite Negative Future.  What if this happens?  What if that happens?  Won’t it be horrible if this happens?  Suppose that happens?  Won’t that be awful and terrible and scary?  And, if you have been reading this blog, you’ll know that the Indefinite Negative Future is just that – in the future.  It hasn’t happened yet.  And every moment any of us spend living in the future is a moment we’re not here in the present, problem-solving, making decisions, working to create the future we’d like to have – nope, we’re giving away energy to fear and anxiety, afraid of what might be.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the future.  Just the reverse.  We should be.  We should be concerned enough about the future to DO something about it.  And that has to start with climbing off the wheel of Chronic Anxiety and treating problems as if they were problems, not life-and-death crises.  In case it isn’t clear by now it is our fears of the future that wind up shutting down a huge amount of our useful thinking and problem-solving skills, and leave us worrying and anxious and essentially running away from what frightens us.

There’s a great deal of power, peace and strength that comes from moving out of the future and into the present.  Sure, I’m free to sit and watch the news and get angry about a huge range of topics.  Yes, we’re in the middle of a recession (or at the end of one, or the beginning of the next one, or coming into a depression – depends on what news channel you’re watching.)  Lots of people have suffered and are suffering.  Yes, people are losing jobs and finding it hard to make ends meet.  Here’s a question – what is your fear and worry DOING for you, or for anyone else?  How does your 2-hour diatribe at the dinner table about how stupid the government is, or how bad things could really get, doing for anyone, including you?

It is insidiously tempting to sit and worry.  Worrying FEELS like we’re doing something.  And the news (TV, talk radio, weekly news magazines, CNN.com, etc.) is a great source of things to worry about.  It seems some days that the sole focus of the news is to get us to worrying about the BIG issues.  But in fact we’re not doing a damn thing (pardon my French.)  We’re just worrying – burning energy and time and little else.  Doing, on the other hand, gets things done.  And what can YOU do about the recession?  Well, in the first place, you should be taking care of yourself in this recession.  You need to think through what you’ll do to keep money coming in, securing a job, or going back to school, or taking some money from your retirement account to tide you over while you change careers, or whatever makes sense to you.  (No bank robbing though – it may relieve some short-term anxiety, but guns and jails are really scary too.)   Then you can focus on helping the people around you.  Then you can think lucidly about who to vote for, and where you might do some good volunteering, or whatever you think are effective next steps.  But worrying doesn’t do any of this.  It just sits and frets over what might happen… endlessly.

Will the world burn to the ground if you don’t watch the news this morning?  This evening?  What horrible thing will happen if you skip the news for a week?  What would your thinking and feelings be like if you did that?  What if you gave that energy away to a 30-minute walk?  Or read something inspiring and motivating?  What if you called a friend and talked through your next steps to get you out of that recession stuff, instead of burning 30 minutes bitching about how awful things are?  How would that change your thinking?  How much more effective, how much more energetic, how much calmer would you be if you gave this a try?

Don’t take my word for any of this.  Take a test drive for yourself.  Consider what news, what TV, what internet sources are firing up the Worry Engine in you, and consider taking a break from those for a while.  They’ll be there if you feel the need to check in with them.  They are not going anywhere!  You take a vacation from work, don’t you?  And you sometimes take an evening for yourself, away from your family or Significant Other, don’t you?  Why not try a news vacation?

I took this for a test drive back in the winter of 2008-2009.  The stock market had just tanked, the news experts were sounding warnings of imminent disaster and economic collapse, and I had lost close to $40,000 of business in the consulting work I do in weeks.  I became pretty worried (as you might imagine.)   I had taxes to pay, bills to clean up, work to find and no clear way of doing it.  I spent some serious time being seriously worried – frightened is a better way to describe it.  Close to 2 months in fact.  And what did that do for me.  NOTHING.  Not a dang thing.  I burned the months of December and January of that winter, made a hash of the Christmas Holiday, was mad, sad and grumpy, and it didn’t do a thing for me.  And I realized that part of the problem was my watching CNN, and reading The Economist, and watching the daily fluctuations of the Dow Jones.  So I took a break, just stepped away from the habit of soaking up the daily news, for 30 days.  And it was nothing short of remarkable how much it impacted my thinking and feelings.  (Yes, I know – I’m the guy who studied this stuff in college.  Sometimes you have to take the class over again, right?)  I haven’t given up on the news or anything.  I still check in once or twice a week, sometimes less, to make sure I haven’t missed something really important.  So far I haven’t.  And my thinking is much more focused on what I can DO, the practical things that I can apply myself to, and much less focused on all the things I can’t control, but could give away lots more lifespan worrying about.

Is it time for a news holiday for you?  Take the week off!  You’ve earned it!  The world really will keep spinning around the sun without you to worry about it for a little while.  And it can be a very, very effective way of moving out of the future (that place full of hypothetical fears and disasters) and into the present (that place of effective work, clear thinking and useful problem-solving.)