Alright, time for a pop quiz:

1) What is the first skill needed to be an effective un-packer of anxiety?
2) What is the second skill?

Heck, you know this! If you’ve been reading this blog you know:

1) The first skill is identifying where in our thinking we are converting problems to crises, and
2) The second skill is learning to “discount” the physical and emotional reactions generated by Flight or Fight when you start worrying/being anxious over those crises you’re creating in your thinking

Today I’m all about examples – examples of people I’ve met, known, and worked with who fight the same challenges you and I fight or have fought around anxiety, fear, panic and depression, and specifically the emotions that fear and anxiety generate in our bodies and brains.

When Feelings Go Bad/The Conviction About Feelings

I mentioned in my last post my own battle with sadness – overwhelming, life-draining sorrow about my fears. I shake my head when I look back now, remembering how I could give away the entire day, very easily, to sitting in front of a TV or staring at the ceiling in my bedroom, consumed by that sad feeling.

Of COURSE I was sad – I was grieving all the imagined outcomes of my fearful thinking. Even when I wasn’t directly conscious of my fears I was still living, physically and emotionally, in the terrible outcomes of my mental fears.

For example, as I mentioned last post, I was terribly worried that I would wind up alone. I’m sure most of you have never carried that fear… but it really rocked my world.

I could only see lonely nights in front of that stupid TV, or sitting at my dinner table alone, or always being the single guy at my friend’s parties and beach trips and… I’m pretty sure you get the picture.

To someone who had love to give and wanted someone to give it to it was a pretty dark future. Just one small problem with this massive focus on the potentially dark future – I actually had no certain knowledge about ANYTHING in my future. I FELT like this could happen, or even that it was all but a certainty – but I still didn’t know.

Earth To Erik – Come In Erik –

I’m probably hardest on myself about this loss of life and time and energy when I think on the clues I had that my thinking was sideways about my assumptions around feelings.

I could be in the grip of that dark sadness, for instance, and get a phone call out of the blue from an old friend, asking me out to dinner. While I might not feel like going in that moment, when I said yes, I would (weirdly enough) begin to feel better as I got up to get ready to meet them.

Hmmm… what did THAT mean? 🙂 I know now that what had happened was my thinking was pulled, however briefly, from my obsessing about my dark and lonely future (in my thinking), and when it was pulled I was suddenly feeling differently.

It worked in reverse, of course, too! I could be in a good space, happy and content, and suddenly I was confronted in my mind with some vision of my certain isolated future. Next thing I knew the day had gone grey, and everything felt pointless. Note the use of the word “felt”…

As I said, I had some clues. I just didn’t know how to put them together.

The Tragedy of Barry

I got lucky, in some respects. I got just enough tools and help to dig a way to the beginnings of a healthier life. Too many of us don’t. One story in particular still leaves me deeply sad – not the sadness of paralysis, but the sadness that brings a grim determination to make something happen.

I’ve written much earlier in this blog about my friend Barry. Barry was a gas – there is no other way to put it. He literally had never met a stranger, and could talk to anyone.

He loved to laugh, loved to dance (and was out at the clubs regularly, even as a man in his late 50’s.) He had had some hard breaks as a younger man, including a pretty savage divorce and some very angry children, not to mention a job he hated.

But he loved to paint, and he loved to teach English to kids who didn’t speak the language. Barry was British, and as an EU citizen could live and work pretty much anywhere he chose in Europe. His dream was to move to coastal Spain or France, spend his days on the shore painting, and his evenings teaching kids to do that English-speaking thing.

Not a bad dream, yes?

Except that Barry had the same fears I did about his future – that he would wind up alone, spending his days without anyone to call lover/friend/partner/spouse. It made him feel terrible (no surprise), and he began to let those feelings predict his future. He fell deep and hard into that problem-turned-crisis thinking result I call the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, and it began to shut down his life.

When we talked his language centered more and more around how bad he felt. He also insisted that because he felt so bad, so sad, angry and afraid, that he couldn’t really do anything about it – that he needed to feel better before he took action to change things. Besides, it didn’t feel like there was any point to it anyway, so why try?

The awful ending of this story is that Barry took his own life in July of 2010.

And It REALLY Pisses Me Off!

Barry took his own life because it FELT like there was no point to continuing. That’s usually the story with suicide. Depression is the result of being certain there is no escape and no hope.

Except that we usually base that on our FEELINGS. And – say it with me – however real our feelings feel, they are only the weather-vanes of our thinking. They only indicate what’s on our mind.

They are not prophetic truths from the future, and they are often at odds with what is really true about our lives, our capacities, our strengths or our potential futures.

I probably can’t say that last sentence too often. Our feelings, however real they may feel, don’t have certain knowledge of the future. Heck, our thinking certainly doesn’t – so how could our feelings? No, we are not clairvoyant, whatever we’d like to tell ourselves when we’re angry, sad, blue, depressed or frightened.

It wasn’t fair to Barry, this assumption that feelings meant reality. And it wasn’t fair that he ended a life that should still be going on, someplace on a beach in France or Spain, painting and teaching ESL. And, I suspect, finding love –

It’s Time To Stop The Insanity

Our fearful, anxious feelings evolved for one reason – to get us DOING something in the face of real, physical, life-or-death danger. That might be freezing in place, or running like hell, or even fighting if we absolutely have to do so.

So let’s do something. Let’s agree that we’re going to start questioning our feelings, really questioning them, instead of assuming that we have certain knowledge or that our feelings are somehow invariably reflections of reality.

And while we’re doing THAT let’s go back a step and question what the heck thinking we’re doing, consciously or otherwise, that is generating those feelings in the first place. And in doing both of those things we are practicing the first two skills that we need to be free of the tyranny of anxiety, fear, worry and depression.

Next up – the effects of long-term fear of physical sensations and emotions, and what we can do about it.