In my last post I began a discussion of the 2nd crucial skill in unpacking and dealing effectively with anxiety – the active awareness of the physical and emotional responses of the Flight or Fight Response when we scare ourselves with our thinking (consciously or otherwise.)

I focused on physical responses to Flight or Fight in that post. Today I’m talking about the emotional stuff that Flight or Fight tosses in our direction when we get afraid. This is where the famous quote from F.D.R. (you remember ol’ Franklin Delano Roosevelt, yes?) comes in – we literally “have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

It’s the truth! Our emotions can completely run away with us, carrying sweet reason with it, and we’re left overwhelmed by our feelings. Overwhelmed is understating it – we can be terrified, shut down and paralyzed by our feelings.

Actually It Isn’t More Than A Feeling –

I mentioned last post (and several times before that in this blog) that my physical reactions scared the crap out of me – vertigo and hand/finger numbness. The other bogeyman in my anxiety reaction closet was a desperate and overwhelming feeling of sadness.

It felt like the world was honestly coming to an end – that there was no point to anything I was doing – and that things could only end in failure and disaster.

And it felt so REAL – so damn real (pardon my french.) I was certain that my feelings reflected what was actually true, or was actually going to be true further down the road of my life. As a result trying seemed stupid, a waste of time, pointless.

That doesn’t even touch the energy drain that I experienced every time this feeling took control of me (or, rather, I let it take control of me.) I didn’t debate it, I didn’t dispute it – it just was. That sense of massive sadness could derail me for days, even sometimes weeks.

What I REALLY wish I had known then was that I was simply in the grip of Flight or Fight. My feelings were the direct result of my thinking, and what I was thinking was making me very anxious. I was afraid of so many things in my life and thinking –

What if I never finish college? That will make me a failure, right?

What if I never find someone to care for me, and for me to care for? I’ll be alone for the rest of my life, sad and an obvious social reject, right?

What if I never find work that’s interesting or means anything to me? That means I’ll be bored for the rest of my life, right?

What if I never overcome my anxiety? What if I have to feel this way for the rest of my life?

That last one was a real zinger for me – could leave me flattened – literally – just lying in bed wondering why I was even ALIVE.

And it Wasn’t Just Me

One of the gifts that the program called CHAANGE (the anxiety treatment program I went though in the middle 1990’s that handed me some beginning tools to start this road out of anxiety) gave to me was an instant awareness that I wasn’t the only person fighting this fight.

I would be put in contact with a couple of people who were also fighting panic attacks and anxiety, and I would quickly learn that they, too, had emotions that overwhelmed them and reinforced their anxiety.

One guy I talked to found himself in the grip of towering rages. A woman I met through the program would experience severe guilt and embarrassment. Both reported what I had experienced, that life- and energy-sucking experience that turned the world gray and made everything seem pointless.

What I wish CHAANGE had said to me was this: these are only feelings Erik, and they spring directly from you activating Flight or Fight with your thinking. They needed to say a second thing to me as well: these are ONLY feelings.

They don’t carry any more meaning than the truth that you’re thinking scary thoughts, fearful and anxious thoughts. That is all they mean – period.

I don’t know that I would have heard it immediately. I was so SURE that these feelings HAD to mean something true and profound that I could have easily resisted understanding this at the start. But just having the idea would have had the potential to change things much earlier than they did…

Here, almost 17 years after starting my climb out of chronic anxiety and panic attacks, I still find myself marveling at my freedom when I think on this basic truth about emotions. Do I still get sad? You bet. It’s a completely natural emotion.

The freedom comes in knowing that my sadness didn’t just drop in from out of the blue, or that it is something I’m unable to manage or deal with, or worst of all, that it MEANS something terrible, destructive and certain.

No, my sadness comes from something I’ve THOUGHT. I’m not always conscious of the thought when it happens – very important to understand that – but with some practice I’ve become pretty stinkin’ good at quickly identifying what thought or thoughts have suddenly turned my mood.

The Power of Your Mind

What emotions leave you low, leave you cratered for hours or days? And what are the thoughts that are generating those feelings in the first place?

Remember, we’re NOT saying that your feelings don’t matter, that you’re attempting to be a drama queen or that you are making something out of nothing. NOT the case. Nope, those feelings are very real, and very powerful.

They have to be, if they’re going to be effective motivators when you’re faced with real, physical danger. They evolved to get you to DO something – either run, or freeze, or fight if you absolutely had to – but you need to be getting away from danger NOW. Nope, these feelings are strong, and they are real.

That doesn’t mean that they have anything real to react to – they are simply the servants of your thinking. If you are afraid of something then you are almost invariably going to activate Flight or Fight, and that will generate feelings, strong feelings.

Isn’t the human brain amazing? Here’s some great news: the same brain that can make us so afraid has the power to make us unafraid as well. You don’t have to stay the prisoner of your feelings!

What are YOU Feeling?

So what feelings rock your world? What emotions bring you to your knees, leave you feeling abused and beat up? Is it sadness? Basic anxiety? Anger? Guilt? Embarrassment? (More common than you might imagine, btw.) Despair?

Maybe it’s time to take an inventory. These feelings are powerful clues that one or more thought patterns you have is/are making you anxious. These, along with the physical responses of Flight or Fight, can point like an arrow straight back to the thinking that causes them in the first place.

And that’s the second step – to remember that whatever you’re feeling is being generated by your thinking. Not necessarily conscious or aware thinking – but thinking nonetheless.

This is a skill. It takes some practice for most of us to even consider facing down those feelings, let alone tracking backwards from them into the fears that generate those feelings in the first place.

That’s OK. That’s the practice that will really, actually give you the strength to do this work and get free of all that worry and anxiety and endless chewing over your fears…