I began talking in my last post about how feelings around fear and anxiety can be pretty unnerving, even terrifying as we experience them.  I also discussed how much those feelings can drive our behavior, even if we’re not aware of it.  Finally, I reviewed the thinking of Albert Ellis, and how he contends that feelings spring from our thinking, conscious or otherwise.

I repeat all of this because these three understandings are crucial to being able to shake free of the tyranny of our feelings.  And isn’t it a kind of tyranny, having your life shut down or restricted because of scary feelings?   It often comes down to exactly that – there is something that frightens us, and we retreat from it because of how that feels.  People can become scared of just about anything –

Clowns.  Classic example.  People who are otherwise completely rational will freeze up, start stuttering, break into tears, leave the room or start shouting incoherently when they are confronted by clowns.  Or how about reptiles?  Sure, there are dangerous reptiles – and most of us never get within 100 miles of them.  Normally lucid folks will go into a panic when a 4-inch Bluebelly shows up on their patio. 

The list is literally endless.  Public speaking, crowds, roller-coasters, planes, rabbits, cats, dogs, night-time, eating in public, dancing, making simple mistakes, asking someone out, you name it, multiple people are afraid of it.  Logic doesn’t have anything to do with why, any more than the actual risk involved in these things.  Sure, you could die in a plane crash – but you’re more likely to get killed in a car crash.  So why are you not terrified of driving to the store?

The Thoughts that Lurk Behind the Feelings

We’re afraid of WHATEVER we’re afraid of because of what we think about it.  Let me repeat that the thoughts that are scaring us don’t have to be conscious.  Not at all.  We are generally unaware of an enormous amount of what is running through our minds at any given moment.  Just try doing 20 minutes of meditation and see just how much chatter (what people who do things like meditation often call “monkey-mind”) runs through your skull.

So we can have feelings lurch out of the blue at us and be caught completely flat-footed.  It has happened to you, hasn’t it?  You were standing there at the taco stand, feeling fine on a weekend day, off work and minding your own business, when suddenly you were sad.  Or maybe you got angry.  Or maybe you felt overwhelmed.  And for the life of you (in that moment) you didn’t know why.  But the why is simple – you had a thought.  Or a series of thoughts.  They zipped through your brain in a matter of moments, and you had feelings in response to those thoughts.

What did you think?  Maybe you remembered that Monday your boss is back from vacation.  Or perhaps you flashed on the taxes you have yet to do.  It might be that you smelled his cologne, that knuckle-head that broke your heart, and you’re back in that ugly break-up.  If it triggers a sense of fear or anxiety then you’re bumping into your Comfort Zone, and that in turn has fired up your Flight or Fight Response to some extent.  And now you’re having feelings that are trying to get you AWAY from this scary thing…

Worse, you are suddenly reacting to those feelings.  You had plans to eat three tacos and gulp a cold beer, but now the day has turned gray, so you head home, sad or mad or overwhelmed.  Or you snap at your wife, who only asked if you wanted hot sauce, because of the rush of feelings in your body.  Or you leave your friends because you “just want to be alone.”  Sure you do – you don’t feel real good right now.  And all of it started with some thinking…

“Fly, You Fools!”  (Lord of the Rings Quote)

You want to be alone, or you snap, or you go home, because the Flight or Fight Response has fired up.  You want to, literally, run away.  That’s what Flight or Fight knows to do when you’re afraid – run first.  We only fight when we HAVE to.  As said a number of times in this blog that just makes good survival sense, from an evolutionary perspective.  As my Dad is fond of saying, “if you won’t leave me alone, I’ll go away and find someone who will.”  That’s the creedo of Flight or Fight.

So we’re in motion, or reacting, and we’re too often only aware of the feelings that are driving our reaction.  Note the word reaction – that’s the key here.   We’re reacting because we FEEL bad, or sad, or overwhelmed. 

But running isn’t solving anything.  It can’t, not in this situation.  When we react to our feelings and step away from what is making us uncomfortable the last thing we’re doing is dealing with our fears/anxieties.  The hard but honest truth is that at some point we MUST turn and face into the thinking that is scaring us, making us afraid – we have to, because it is the only way we’re going to master those fears and get that portion of our life back.

Oh, I Don’t Think So…

Easy to say.  Sometimes, oftentimes, very, very hard to do.  By the time we’ve reached the place where we are reflexively running from our scary feelings (or physical sensations, or both) then we’re usually pretty hammered/freaked out by those feelings and physical sensations.

And of course that isn’t all that is happening.  If we’re worried or anxious or afraid of something that aspect of the Flight or Fight Response I call the Worry Engine starts spinning ugly potential outcomes in our thinking, scaring us even more.  It doesn’t take much of that to have us running for cover!

But that’s exactly what we need to do – stop and challenge that thinking.  The thinking is the source of the problem in the first place.  It is generating the Flight or Fight Response, which is in turn punching out that adrenaline and cortisol, which is the source of those physical sensations and unnerving feelings.  The source of the problem is your thinking, and that’s where you’ll unplug the responses of fear and anxiety. 

This is rarely easy when you first start this work.  The first few times are exhausting and feel like you’re rolling a rock uphill.  You have to contend with the feelings and the physical responses and stand your ground, and all of those things are working to get you to STOP thinking about this and just run away.  You have to focus on what you’re afraid of and unpack it, figure out what you’re telling yourself that is so scary, and turn that back into a problem, instead of treating it like a crisis.  This is what I call the triad of fear mastery – facing into the fear, bracing through the storm of the Flight or Fight Response, and unpacking what is scaring us in the first place.

You Gotta Start Small

The best way (in my experience) to begin this work is to deliberately select a fear or worry that isn’t your  biggest fear or worry, but which you’d still like to knock down.  Any good fighter knows to pick the time and place of the fight, and the same applies to this work.  Make some time – 30 minutes, maybe more, to deal with this practice of triad.  Have some paper and pens ready, or maybe your laptop, so you can do some writing around this.  Some folks like talking to a recorder.  You do what works for you.  The point is you’ll want to have a dialogue with yourself, some way, so you can sort out both your thinking and deal with the responses of your Flight or Fight Response.

Get yourself comfortable, start the egg timer and tackle that fear.  Expect to get squirrely physically and mentally and emotionally.  You’re working to override, literally, the mechanism that evolved to keep you from being eaten by tigers, and it won’t go quietly.  You’ve been telling yourself for a LONG time (most of our fears have been simmering on the back of the stove for a while) that this issue or problem is way too scary to face down, so it usually takes some wrestling to face into this work.  Your Comfort Zone is just obeying your orders! 

You may find you get a little traction on things fairly quickly.  You may find that you can do 10 minutes of this and you need to go iron the cat or wash the sidewalk.  That’s OK.  Be pleased with yourself that you did 10 minutes.  Expect that you’ll have what I’ve called “aftershocks” – emotional and physical reactions from facing Flight or Fight.  That’s OK.  It is just more of the same – your Comfort Zone trying to herd you back to where you’re taught yourself is safety.  Take a break, an hour, a day, and do it again.  Like any skill it takes a little practice, and time, and willingness to do a small learning curve.

What is Safety, and What is Freedom?

And that’s the whole point of this discussion, isn’t it?  We’ve talked ourselves into avoiding or running from a problem, treating it like a crisis, and scaring ourselves away from it.  We FEEL better, or safer, not dealing with this issue, but in fact we’re not safer.  The problem is still there, and until we address it, most of the time, it isn’t going away.  If anything it can only fester, get worse, while we’re fooling ourselves that everything is OK…

No, we don’t have to keep running.  The work is hard.  You won’t unpack and address your fears in a single setting.  And you don’t have to.  Because your feelings can’t hurt you.  And your physical sensations, however scary or worrisome, can’t hurt you.  Flight or Fight can’t hurt you, unless you let it herd you away from dealing with the thing that scares you.

More on practicing the triad of fear mastery next time, when I’ll give you several specific examples of doing triad.   You don’t have to be the prisoner of your fears. However scary this feels, you are stronger, smarter and tougher than your Comfort Zone.  It’s OK if you don’t feel that way right now – it’s still true.