I have been writing for a number of months now about the core of the dysfunctional fear and anxiety that too many of us fight. That core is simply this – us treating a problem or problems as a crisis. It really is that simple. Simple doesn’t always translate to easy – and in fact in this context it can feel very challenging to sort out and stop – but it is simple. Today’s post is about the basic steps to do what I call Triad – the converting of a problem-treated-as-crisis BACK to a problem.

I like the word “mechanics” in the title of this post because this is really a basic, straight-forward process. There isn’t anything complex about HOW to face our fears from a how-to perspective. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have significant challenges in doing the work! As anyone who has wrestled with fear and anxiety can tell you the emotional, physical and mental turmoil this work can generate in us can be overwhelming.

But that’s precisely why it is so important to understand clearly the basic process in doing the work. Having a clear grasp on HOW can make it much more effective when you do the work and face that storm of feelings and physical sensations and thoughts that will try to drive you back from your work, from getting this thing sorted out and de-fanged.

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog some of this might sound a little repetitive. That’s OK. It bears repeating. It is easy to lose this map, and easier still to not really grasp it and its full implications. But understanding this, combined with applying it in regular work to address specific anxieties/fears, is what sets us free from the debilitating, life-sucking impact of fear and anxiety in our lives.

A Good Tool Gone Bad

It all starts with this simple understanding: we have 1 (one) naturally evolved response to danger, real or perceived. REALLY important to understand that it doesn’t matter whether the danger is actual (tiger, pack of hungry wolves, drunk driver veering in front of us, earthquake) or something you THINK is dangerous (creditor calling because you’re late, Mother-in-Law coming for Thanksgiving, feeling trapped in work you hate, your conviction that nobody will ever marry you) – we have one response mechanism in our bodies. That response is Flight or Fight.

If the danger is real – physical, present-moment danger, the kind that can actually kill or seriously injure you – then Flight or Fight is the perfect mechanism to have in place. You’re going to be in motion before you’re aware of it, either a) running from the danger or b) turning to fight it/cope with it UNTIL you can flee. Those are the options that nature has learned give us the best chances of not getting hurt or killed.

The problem is we’re not living with tigers or constantly challenged by drunk drivers. Most of us are living pretty safe lives when it comes to the physical danger thing. No, most of us are dealing with the challenges created by our thinking and beliefs. And these “dangers” are NOT what Flight or Fight evolved for, and so it isn’t equipped to deal with them in effective ways. And this is precisely where we go off track and get ourselves lost in fear, anxiety and depression.

The Problem That Morphs Into a Crisis

Another way of putting this is that Flight or Fight evolved to deal with crises – dangerous situations that had to be managed NOW, or leave us open to injury or even death. It is crucial to be clear on this – actual danger was threatening, right NOW, and had to managed NOW. That is the definition of a crisis.

But the vast majority of the issues that generate anxiety and fear for us are not crises – they are problems. A problem is something you usually CAN’T solve in the way you solve a crisis. For example, let’s say you woke up one night to hear the sounds of a Tyrannosaurus Rex crashing through your backyard. (I grant you, not bloody likely, but the way genetic engineering is going…) RUN. End of story. Unless you have a bazooka and know how to use it, and even then, RUN!

Ok, it’s a silly example. The point is THAT is a crisis. A problem is vastly different. A problem is discovering you could lose your job in two months. Why isn’t that a crisis? IT CAN’T KILL YOU RIGHT NOW. Again, end of story. It isn’t a crisis. It may feel like a crisis. You may experience all the sensations and thoughts and feelings of a crisis. But that doesn’t make it a crisis!

You’re experiencing all those Flight or Fight Responses to the potential layoff because you have started treating it in your mind, thinking of it, as a crisis. At the moment there is no Tyrannosaurus in your backyard. Even as you’re re-reading the email that warns you about the potential layoff nothing at the moment is wrong. You’re safe and cozy in your cubicle or home office or the coffeeshop you’re in. There is nothing to run from, and no danger that can injure or kill you, there in that moment.

It is vital that we learn this distinction. All of the fear, anxiety, worry and panic that we generate and suffer through starts here. Grasp this and you’re honestly half-way to your freedom.

But it Feels Like a Crisis!

Let me remind you again that simple isn’t necessarily easy. Just because you’re not actually facing a crisis doesn’t mean that you didn’t learn to treat situations like a potential lay-off AS a crisis. This is where our learned Comfort Zone boundaries cause us to treat a problem like a crisis – the web of beliefs that we apply to our experience.

If you have learned that a job equals safety, and security, and freedom from danger/anxiety, then getting news of a potential layoff can easily send you into panic mode. It has happened a LOT since this last recession began with people you know, or even yourself, yes?

Why does this happen? Because we begin to predict disaster in our future. I call this the start of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, a feature of the Flight or Fight Response gone awry, our Worry Engine. We start (because of our beliefs/assumptions/thinking) to generate hypothetical futures, in an effort to find a way out of the crisis we’ve created. Makes perfect sense if we’re trying to get away from Dire Wolves, the way our ancestors had to sometimes. Looking for escape routes is a great feature of the Flight or Fight Response.

But it doesn’t take you anyplace useful if you’re facing a layoff two months from now, not usually. Nope, what you have on your hands is a problem, not a crisis. Could it turn into a crisis? Not for a very long time. Eventually, sure, it could wind up a crisis. Anything could. But treating it like a crisis NOW, that’s not serving you at all!

No, you need to convert this crisis back into what it really is – a problem.

OK, So It Isn’t a Crisis – What Do I DO?

Well, you’ve done a lot already. You’re at least somewhat clear that, however it feels right now, you’re dealing with a problem, not a crisis. You’re aware of the responses in your body, feelings and thinking coming from your Flight or Fight Response, and you’re reminding yourself that those responses don’t carry any more significance than that – there isn’t a disaster looming yet, even though it feels like that.

What remains now is to start treating it like a problem. What do problems need? They need thinking. They need a clear understanding of what the problem is – in this example, the potential need for a new job. They require a little brainstorming and information gathering. How will I find a new job? Will I need to update my resume? What’s the market like right now? Who are my best contacts? What are my resources until I find the new job, assuming I do get laid off?

They require some work and patience. They probably won’t get solved immediately. They probably require a learning curve and a little (or a lot) of patience. You need to work at them and then take breaks – you can’t just power through them.

So, triad looks like this: facing into a fear (problem-become-crisis in our thinking), enduring the storm of responses the Flight or Fight Response will throw at us, and unpacking the problem – i.e., getting clear on what you need to do to solve the problem, and then working towards that solution.

But I Want to Stop Feeling This Way NOW!

The biggest challenge facing those of us who fight anxiety, worry and fear is that it isn’t easy or comfortable to sit with our fears and unpack them. We want to be worry/fear free right now. We don’t want to wait. It (frankly) SUCKS to wait. No argument. But the payoffs for doing the work are so big I can’t overstate them.

It is really the acquiring of a new set of skills. That’s the best frame I can think of to describe this process. You didn’t learn to walk in a day. You didn’t finish school in a day. You didn’t just master any skill in a day. No, it took time, and work, and patience, and setbacks, and frustration. But you did it. Now it may even seem easy to you. But you had to learn it first.

Same thing with breaking the habit of turning problems into crises, with breaking the habit of letting Flight or Fight run our lives. We can turn ANYTHING into a crisis. We can become afraid of the physical symptoms of Flight or Fight and make those into something to worry about. We can stress over communication, relationships, retirement, aging, children, pets, work, career, religious faith, our sex lives, parents, you name it! The same issue lies at the heart of all of this.

Embrace the Work, Find Your Way Out

It takes time and practice. It is work, and tiring, and sometimes (at the beginning, often) frustrating. The progress seems to start slow. And the Comfort Zone/Flight or Fight Response isn’t going without a fight. No, we learned in our past (consciously or otherwise) to be afraid of this issue, whatever it is, and it will take time to unlearn it.

And sometimes we don’t like the solutions! Sometimes we want things to be a different way than the solutions that present themselves. Sometimes we feel the solutions are wrong, or someone will be angry at us for the solutions we need to pursue, or that we’ll be failing if we implement the solutions that make sense. Yup, we can really box ourselves into a corner with our fear…

There are tools to help us while we’re doing this work. There are medications to take the edge off the worst of the anxiety and fear and depression that can come from the years and decades of living in crisis. There are meditation and relaxation exercises. There is physical exercise and the practice of distracting ourselves from obsessing over our fears. All of these can be useful and give us breathing room.

But they can’t solve the problem. The problem lies in our thinking, and that’s where the solution will be found too. You can do this work. Anyone can do this work. It is often hard, and tedious, and exhausting. And it is also the road to our freedom.

Next up – even more examples of doing triad and getting free of fear.