(Video post at the end of the written post.)

I’ve been looking back over my oldest blog posts, and it seems like a good time to take a fresh stab at discussing the basics of the Fear Mastery framework and toolbox in depth. My goal is to make it clearer, more accessible and less academic-sounding than those early blog posts, as well as do some accompanying video blog posts.

With that goal in mind I’m starting with the basic premise of Fear Mastery: EVERY one of our fears, without exception, stems from one of two sources. It either starts with a real, physical danger we are suddenly confronted with, or it starts with something in our thinking that frightens us. End of story. Either we are reacting to a situation that can kill or injure us, or we are reacting to our thinking.

Let me say that again: fear has two and only two origins. Either we are dealing with something that can hurt us RIGHT NOW, or we are dealing with something we’re thinking about, some problem or issue that we’re facing, and we’re afraid of that problem or issue.

Crisis Vs. Problem

In other words you are either facing a crisis (real, immediate, physical danger) or you’re facing a problem (something that your brain finds scary or worrisome, but which isn’t immediate or physical, and can’t hurt or kill you here in the present moment.) Crisis vs. problem. These are the two sources of fear for us human beings.

That sounds deceptively simple. In truth it IS simple, and one of the great weapons we have to deal with fear and anxiety. Simple, however, doesn’t mean easy.

WHY isn’t it easy? It isn’t easy because the survival mechanism called Flight or Fight is a deep and ancient part of our physical, emotional and mental nature. It is powerful, and it evolved to GET US MOVING when threatened with danger (real, or perceived.)

When we are afraid Flight or Fight has one mission – to get us away from whatever scary thing is making us afraid.

Think about it: when you’re faced with a real danger – the brakes failing on your car, a menacing-looking person approaching you on a dark street, an angry barking dog off its leash, anything that could hurt you or even kill you – you don’t have TIME to sit and rationally think through what should happen next. You need to be in motion NOW – and Flight or Fight’s preferred direction of motion is AWAY from the danger.

None of that changes when we frighten ourselves in our thinking. We can be equally afraid of a roaring lion or the IRS wanting their back taxes from us. If we are afraid of it – i.e., if our brains go “holy crap that’s scary!” then Flight or Fight has only one mission – to get us AWAY from that scary thing.

Your Thinking CAN Scare You!

Let me say for the record at this point that I am NOT saying you are “making up your fears” or somehow failing for being afraid of your thinking. Everybody, and I mean everybody, has things they think of that frighten them.

No, the message here is that we can be JUST as afraid of a problem or issue that we’ve turned into a crisis as we can of an actual crisis (i.e., physical danger.)

A large part of the reason that our thinking can be just as scary as an actual physical danger is that Flight or Fight has a host of things it does in response to danger, real or perceived.

I will talk more about that in my next post, but for now be clear that a pair of powerful chemicals in your body, adrenaline and cortisol, get released the moment you are frightened, and they in turn make all kinds of things happen in our body and emotions and thinking.

In other words you are not just reacting to the scary thought, but you are also reacting to the intense responses of Flight or Fight. You gear up physically and emotionally to either RUN (preferred course) or FIGHT (if you have to because at the moment you can’t run, until you can get away or until the danger is over.)

I can’t overstate this part of the discussion. We are literally hard-wired to react with Flight or Fight if we perceive danger – and I mean hard-wired!

You know this yourself from your own experience. You can be frightened and be in motion before you’re even aware that you’re reacting, yes? We have all felt the surge of anxiety and energy and the physical rush of our bodies reacting to a scary thing.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that even our fears about the future, or fears of failing, or fears of getting in trouble, or whatever is scaring us in a particular moment in our thinking (be that conscious or unconscious), can be as unnerving, even panic-inducing, as such thoughts can be.

A Good Mechanism Gone Bad

We have a magnificent mechanism that every living creature on Earth evolved to deal with real, physical danger – the Flight or Fight Response. This mechanism fires up the SECOND you sense you’re in danger.

A finely-developed set of brain processes starts up, which in turn activates a host of responses in your body, and as a result you are doing one of two things – you are either running like hell from that danger, or you are turning to fight that danger UNTIL you can run, or until you’re out danger.

And that’s a GREAT thing! We literally don’t need to worry per se about that kind of danger. 500 million years of evolution have taken care of that for us. In a very sense you can relax about those dangers – you can only do so much to anticipate those dangers and prepare for them.

Otherwise, sit back and enjoy that episode of Seinfeld – you’ll react the way you need to when you’re faced with that danger, to the best of your ability.

No, it is the OTHER source of fear that gets us in trouble that takes us down the life-draining road of anxiety, chronic anxiety, panic attacks and depression. And THAT is what Fear Mastery is all about.

Because if you’re not facing down an angry dog or a blown tire on the freeway, but you are facing down something you have developed a fear about in your thinking, then you have turned a problem into a crisis.

And this is where that amazing mechanism for dealing with physical, immediate danger, so well-suited to handling that kind of danger, can take us REALLY sideways when dealing with problems. It is a great mechanism that is NOT helping us – a mechanism that is in fact making things much worse.

Why DO We Turn Problems Into Crises?

Well, it isn’t so much that we set out to create crisis out of problem. It is that we REACT to a problem that we’re afraid of – we respond to it as a crisis – and that in turn creates a feedback loop. We scare ourselves, our Flight or Fight Response fires up, and immediately we are trying to get away from the thing that scares us… and so the cycle begins.

As an example let’s take one of the classic fears, the fear of snakes. Lots of people like snakes – but some of us are terrified of them. We have all kinds of excuses for not liking snakes, but the bottom-line is that we avoid them because they make us anything from profoundly uncomfortable to panicky about being near them.

We could try to figure out WHY someone has become afraid of snakes, but that’s unnecessary. All we have to know is a person is now frightened of them. The more interesting question is why is another person NOT afraid of snakes… and of course the answer in both cases is what each person is thinking about snakes.

Snakes are by and large harmless creatures that are probably more afraid of you then you are of them. Most snakes like to stay hidden, especially from creatures as large as ourselves. Most snakes are NOT poisonous, and most snakes won’t bite.

But none of that makes any difference if we are afraid of them. It doesn’t matter because of what we are thinking about the snake. We are afraid that something bad WILL happen if we get too close to a snake.

And of course that bad potential thing that might happen scares us – maybe scares us badly. The thought frighten us, and in turn Flight or Fight fires up to some degree, and we are, usually unconsciously, already in motion away from (as much as possible) even the THOUGHT that we might get near a snake.

Another person doesn’t have the same scary thinking about snakes. They are NOT projecting disaster about meeting a snake or being near a snake. So they don’t turn the issue (or what we might call the problem) of meeting a snake into a crisis in their thinking.

Which means they don’t activate Flight or Fight, and they arn’t caught in the feedback loop of their fearful thinking and Flight or Fight responses to that thinking.

We Can Make ANYTHING scary (In Our Thinking)

It doesn’t have to be snakes. Regardless of how that fear started, as long as we are frightened of it, we can turn a problem or issue into a crisis IN OUR THINKING.

Let’s do another example. Let’s say you’re afraid of personal conflict (like lots and lots of people are.) Just the thought of getting in a fight with someone (verbal, not physical – that’s a whole different ballgame) makes you restless, edgy, anxious, worried. You find yourself moving away from even the thought of fighting with someone because it makes you so uncomfortable.

Yet you know people who seem to have no trouble at all mixing it up (verbally, not physically!) with the people they care about, and they seem none the worse for wear. You kind of envy them, really – you wish you could be as straightforward and direct as they are, and stand your ground the way they do.

In a very real sense you are assuming that any conflict will be a crisis – something scary, something that could really hurt you – so you avoid it, like any sensible creature would avoid danger. Here’s the thing – a verbal argument can’t hurt you. It can make you upset, it can make you angry and hurt and sad… or it can be very productive, clear the air, open up communication and improve honesty between two people.

NONE of those things are a physical danger than can injure or kill you. A verbal conflict, or the risk of having one, is a problem, not a crisis.

You Can’t Treat a Problem Like a Crisis

Well, OK, you can. And most of us do, way, way too often. What I really mean to say is that it is rarely useful or productive to treat a problem like a crisis.

The problem with treating a problem like a crisis is that problems need a very different approach. As I’ve already said in this post we are hard-wired for crises, thank you very much.

Problems need THINKING. When we are faced with a problem we need to spend a little time thinking through the nature of the problem, the elements of the problem, and sort out some possible solutions.

We probably need to do a little study or research to get good information (read, get on the Net, talk to people) and we probably need to give it a little time.

As I said, this is vastly different from run-for-the-hills-there’s-a-hungry-tiger-loose responding! But most of us are doing an enormous amount of responding to problems as if they were crises…

The Trouble With Crisis Thinking

When we do make the mistake of treating a problem like a crisis we start a crazed and energy-draining process I call the Chronic Anxiety Cycle. In short we continue to keep treating this problem as a crisis, trying hard to solve it the way we would solve any life-threatening danger.

The only problem is we usually CAN’T solve it that way. There is NOTHING to run from, and nothing to fight -because the crisis is in our thinking, not in the physical world. Ugh! Talk about crazy-making!

More on this in my next two posts. In the meantime here are the takeaways from this blog post:

1) We all have a brilliant, hard-wired system for dealing with real, immediate, physical danger – Flight or Fight.

2) If we are faced with real, immediate, physical danger Flight or Fight is usually our best bet for dealing with that danger.

3) We get into trouble with fear and anxiety when we use that same response to deal with a problem, because most problems require a different approach than Flight or Fight, crisis-based thinking.

Crisis vs. Problem. This is the heart of our battle with anxiety, fear and depression. This in combination with our learned-over-time fearful responses to our Flight or Fight responses – the physical, mental and emotional signals we get as Flight or Fight tries to get us to run away from the scary thing in our heads – is what drags us down into acute and chronic anxiety both, and their close cousins panic attacks and depression.

We don’t have to go there, and if we’re there, we definitely don’t have to stay there! More on that in my next post…