OK, let’s get down to it, shall we? The first skill that we need to get anxiety and fear out of the driver’s seat of our life is getting clear on when we convert problems to crises.

I have articulated elsewhere in this blog (SEE THE BLOG POST 11/26/11) about the distinction between problem and crisis when it comes to anxiety. For the in-depth discussion of this idea let me strongly encourage you to, if you haven’t already, go back and read that post. It will give you a solid framework for today’s discussion.

The brief summary of that idea is simply this (for those of you who have been over this ground with me before, please feel free to skip ahead!): we have this amazing mechanism called Flight or Fight that is our primary means of dealing with real, physical danger.

That mechanism developed to deal with real-world dangers – things that could hurt or kill us RIGHT NOW. Repeating: Flight or Fight is our defense against tangible, physical danger. We are hard-wired for it, and if we see something dangerous we are ALREADY reacting to it, usually before we know it.

Cool, eh? A lot of danger doesn’t give us a lot of warning, so we evolved a right-now, make-it-happen response mechanism – and thank goodness. It helps us effectively deal with danger NOW.

The Problem ISN’T Flight or Fight…

The challenge for us humans is that we don’t just react to real dangers in our immediate environment. Nope, we have the capacity to IMAGINE danger – to project into the future situations that could become dangerous – or at least that FEEL dang dangerous to us.

In other words we can take a situation that isn’t a crisis and convert it in our thinking into a crisis. And guess what? The moment we do that we activate Flight or Fight. We have all the reactions of Flight or Fight as if we were really facing down a pack of hungry gray wolves – only we’re not. We’re imagining a scary outcome to some future situation.

When we do that we experience all that Flight or Fight has to offer us in the way of motivation to GET US RUNNING FROM THAT DANGER. We gear up in our bodies – heartbeat up, sweating increases to dump extra heat, stomach shuts down for the duration of the crisis, we become very narrowly focused in our attention, and a dozen things besides physically, all to get us ready to RUN (or fight if we can’t run.)

We also experience all the emotions of Flight or Fight – fear, terror, anxiety, worry, you name it. Because those emotions can help to GET US MOVING – when we actually have something to run from!

Real danger – that’s a crisis. Danger we project into a possible future – that’s not a crisis, not yet anyway. That’s a problem. And the two are VERY, very different.

What ARE We Running From?

The key point here is that we have to be able to clarify WHEN we do problem thinking and when we do crisis thinking. Everything that anxiety generates in us, all the energy drain and fear and worry and loss of life and time comes down to this one issue.

Let me say that again: everything we experience when we get anxious comes down to a two-step sequence – first we conjecture/picture something bad happening to us, then we experience the responses of Flight or Fight.

At the heart of this Fear Mastery model is a very simple premise: we have two choices when we are presented with thinking that unnerves, worries or even frightens us. Which choice we make literally either makes us anxious or puts us in position to stay calm and be a lucid problem-solver.

We have to learn to identify when we take an issue and convert it into a crisis rather than respond to it as a problem. Just this single skill, by itself, can do enormous good in our battle with fear and anxiety.

The specific skill we must develop to stop this problem-turned-crisis thinking at the source is to identify when we make those conversions in our thinking. Too many of us, through no real fault of our own, have been treating problems as crises and have been all but completely unaware that we’re doing it. We are reacting as opposed to thinking – something that is very easy to do.

Conscious Vs. Unconscious

There are a couple of challenges to getting a hold of this when it comes to fear work. One challenge is that most of us don’t really get how much thinking we’re doing when we’re not aware of it. You might call it unconscious thinking.

A better term would be out-of-our-awareness thinking – not so much unconscious (you’re awake right now, right?) but whether or not you’re focusing your attention on that particular thinking.

Just because YOU are not aware of thinking you’re doing doesn’t mean you’re not thinking. It is crucial to understand this as you take on (or even think about taking on) your anxiety. You have thinking processes that run ALL the time – one quick example is the thinking that governs your automatic functions, like heartbeat and breathing.

That’s an even better example when you think about all the things that happen in your body when you get anxious, but which you didn’t consciously direct to have happen – they just happened, right? All those funky Flight or Fight Responses could only start from signals from your brain – i.e., thinking.

What Software Are You Running In Your Head?

That’s no trivial question! A second thing to grasp about this thinking and consciousness thing is that the vast majority of us did NOT deliberately sit down and plan out what kind of thoughts we’d cultivate in our brains.

Nope, we just think – in much the same way I used to eat potato chips when I was watching TV… (thank goodness I started thinking about THAT…)

We are the home of a host of assumptions, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, rules, processes and routines that run their merry way in our minds all the time – all without us giving them more than a cursory glance, if we notice them at all. That has huge implications for fear and anxiety.

For example: I don’t like lentils in my food. (Bear with me – I promise it gets better.) My Mom used to make this lentil soup that was, for me, a great deal like eating brown paste. Now my Mom was a brilliant cook, but I just didn’t like her lentil soup! So by the time I reached adulthood even the mention of lentils was enough to turn my stomach.

All my Indian-food-eating friends told me I was missing out by not trying other ways to eat lentils, but I didn’t have the time of day for them about the stuff. My reaction was automatic and immediate – no lentils for me, thank you.

Then one afternoon a buddy and I were doing lunch at a little place near the house and they had a soup that had leeks in it. I LOVE leeks. What I didn’t know (and wasn’t on the menu) was that it also had lentils in it. I slurped up that soup like there was no tomorrow, and only when I finished did my friend, with a smirk on his face, tell me that I had just eaten lentils.

The Lentil Reaction

Two things happened: 1) I found myself starting to get an upset stomach, and 2) I found myself (thanks to this work on fear) asking myself “wait a minute – that soup tasted great. The lentils are not suddenly attacking my intestinal walls or anything – I was just fine a minute ago. Maybe lentils aren’t so bad?”

And within a minute my stomach had eased off, and I found myself shaking my head at both myself and the power of thoughts in general. I’m still sure I don’t like my Mom’s lentil soup. I’m not at all sure now that lentils in and of themselves are bad – in fact I’m sure they can be pretty tasty under the right conditions.

What’s that say about both the unconsciousness and the strength of our thinking when it comes to fear and anxiety? We have two issues around thinking when we go to tackle our fears – the fact that we don’t have much practice thinking about our thinking (as opposed to just running on automatic) and being clear just how much that thinking can govern our bodies and our emotions.

Thinking vs. Reacting – Problem vs. Crisis

OK, so I promised at the end of last year that I’d keep these posts shorter, so I’m gonna wrap this one here. Look at my next post for more examples of this converting of problem to crisis, and what we can start doing to CUT THAT OUT. And please, if you have your own examples, I’d LOVE to put them in the blog (or you can put your examples in the comment section.

Isn’t it time to, literally, stop the insanity? To stop making problems (which can be very real, be cause for concern, be things we need to address) into crises (holy crap, I’m going to DIE right now if I don’t fix this!)?