I have a married couple in my life that are sweet, good friends to me.  They have both asked for coaching around dealing with anxiety in the last year.  One of them has seen some good progress in this work.  He’s developed the capacity to look at what is making him worried and fearful, deal with the alerts coming out of his Flight or Fight Response, and then do what he thinks is needed to unplug that concern.  He did some great work with this around both work problems (erratic boss, erratic work conditions) and a potential diagnosis of cancer.  As it turns out it was a false alarm, but he stood calm in the storm, and to a large degree did so with the tools of Fear Mastery.

While I’m very proud of my friend, and pleased with his success, I’m not writing this blog post to pat myself on the back for anything.  He did the work – I just provided the tools.  I’m writing this post because it is his significant other that I want to discuss.  She is every bit as smart as he is, and just as kind and gentle as he is.  (They’re a great couple of people, simply put.)  But they have a crucial difference, something she learned in her life that he didn’t, a particular kind of anxiety that may just be the most insidious anxiety possible.  She learned that she could only be safe IF she found something to worry about.

This particular anxiety has been surfacing a lot in the work I’m doing these days.  I’m calling it for the moment the habit of worry.  It is a very corrosive, draining fear.  I’m beginning to believe it is different from other specific fears/anxieties in that, in a very real sense, it is not seen AS a fear or anxiety.  If I’m afraid of cats, for instance, then once I confront my fear of cats, well, that fear is dealt with and done.  If I’m afraid of stuttering during a presentation, but unpack my fear and practice moving through it, then I can deal with it and not be afraid of it any more.

But fearing the lack of worrying, well, that has a different quality to it.  Because it isn’t about dealing with any SPECIFIC fear, per se.  It is about being afraid of not being afraid!  My friend and I have talked about this during our coaching work.  She has said yes, she sees that.  And she has worked hard to address some of her specific fears.  She has anxiety around the health and safety of her young son, she has worries about her husband and his stress at work, she has fears about the future for her family – she has a number of things she worries about.

The one fear that we haven’t been able to tackle with any success is her worry habit.  She has a deep, abiding fear that eternal vigilance is the only way to avoid disaster, avoid something terrible happening in her life.  And so when she confronts her worry habit her Comfort Zone REALLY fires up, working to make her run from the horrible things that she envisions when she thinks about letting go of worry.

I wonder how many people wrestle with this fear.  And what a fear to have to fight!  I also have to wonder if most people who fight any degree of chronic anxiety don’t, to some degree, wind up fighting this fear as well (although I don’t know that, and it will take some more time and study before I can know that.)  But I DO know that the answer is the same for this fear as it is for all the others.  It has to be addressed, unpacked, thought through before we have a prayer of being free of it.  Just like facing the fear of making a mistake in public speaking, fear of not worrying is just that – a fear, in our heads, and it is only as frightening as we make it.

It is a kind of magical thinking, and not the Harry Potter/happy kind of magic.  It is a conviction that we can ward off danger by the act of worrying about it.  And nothing could be further from the truth!  My friend moves from worry to worry in her mind, in her day, and gives away enormous amounts of energy in the process.  She addresses one fear, but then has to find something else to worry about, because, in her thinking, if she doesn’t, she’s inviting disaster.  Something bad will happen, and it wouldn’t have happened if she had just thought to worry about it.  She believes that eternal vigilance IS the price for her freedom…

But it is just the reverse.  Her freedom can only come when she decides that her WORRY isn’t helping anything, or anyone.  Her active thinking, her planning, her work, her problem-solving – these can all do useful things for her.  Her WORRY isn’t taking her anyplace.  Just like with every other fear in the world (that isn’t an actual tiger kind of fear) she has to face her thinking, ride out the storm of her Flight or Fight Response trying to get her to run (with all the attendant feelings and physical warning signals she’s come to be afraid of as well!) and then actually nail this simple truth: her worry isn’t helping.

This is hard.  It may be one of the hardest pieces of work in Fear Mastery I know.  But it is completely possible to do – I know from my own experience.  I reached this place too in my life – this ugly habit of having to find something to worry about.  It requires thinking through what you can actually DO about your particular concerns, not reflexively worrying, and not holding on to the Comfort Zone belief that WORRY will keep you safe.  It won’t.  It can’t.  Healthy concern, lucid thinking and whatever action steps you can take that make sense about a particular issue, that will help you.  Not worry.