OK, so I’ve talked now about two essential skills to be a Fear Master (kind of like a Jedi Master, only real.) One skill is the capacity to sort out when we’ve turned a problem into a crisis – when we’ve taken an issue that can’t immediately hurt or injure us and transformed it into a life-or-death monster that scares the crap out of us.

The other skill is the conscious “discounting” of Flight or Fight Response physical reactions and feelings, i.e., understanding that there is nothing wrong with us when have those sensations and feelings. We are simply experiencing Flight or Fight, it is completely normal, and however we feel physically or emotionally we are not having a heart attack, losing our mind or sliding into eternal darkness.

The only word I can think of to accurately describe these abilities is (for those of us who are or have wrestled with chronic or acute anxiety, panic attacks and/or depression) is the word vital. If we want to get free of anxiety and get our lives back we need these skills.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes (or, Better, Don’t!)

Some of us, however (actually entirely too many of us) have been fighting this whole fear/anxiety/worry thing for a LONG time – years, even decades. We have had a kind of vampire at our throats, sucking the literal life out of us.

We acquired that vampire because we have lived with our fear for so long, lived with the constant pulse of anxiety and worry and stress, that we are conditioned to flinch away from both our Comfort Zone (which is only trying to keep us safe!) and the feelings and physical sensations that scare us. We hate it, we hate how our lives have been shut down and limited, but we don’t know what else to do.

That leaves us, if we’ve been at this long enough, feeling hopeless.

Dog In A Cage

I have mentioned before in this blog a series of experiments conducted at the University of Pittsburgh back in the 1960’s. Martin Seligman, a research psychologist and the author of books like “Authentic Happiness”, describes the following experiment( which is VERY relevant to this work at overcoming anxiety and fear):

A dog is put into a wire cage. The bottom of the cage is electrified – i.e., the person running the experiment can run an electric shock through the cage bottom. The dog is secured in the cage, then is shocked again and again.

(I know this sounds like the worst sort of sadistic torture, and I’m not crazy about the whole thing in the first place, but believe me, not only did it teach us something hugely important, but the dogs were not hurt long-term.)

Then the cage door was opened and the dog was shocked again. In addition there was food or a treat outside the cage, and the assumption was made that the dog, both seeing his/her freedom and smelling the food/treat, would take the first opportunity to leave the cage.

To the researcher’s surprise (and our great gain in understanding) the dog DIDN’T leave the cage!

Why? The door was open, it really could leave, so what was the problem? The problem, as it turned out, was that the dog had TRIED to escape, a lot, earlier in the experiment. Of course it did – it was getting shocked! But after trying a number of times and failing it gave up – just laid down and suffered through more shocks.

We’re Not Dogs, But…

There is a happy ending to this story. The dogs were taught they could leave the cage, and leave they did. Another good piece of news is that we learned something about living creatures in general, including human beings. We learned that we could literally learn to give up – what is now called learned helplessness.

We can take enough injury/setbacks/anxiety to teach us that there is no point in trying. So we stop trying. As bad as things are we assume they can’t get better. We’ve tried before, tried and tried, but nothing worked. So we learn to expect that nothing WILL work – that there isn’t any point – that we should just give up.

But we don’t have to stay there. I can try to break a padlock all I want – but unless I have a big steel hammer I’m unlikely to succeed. Or there is one other option – I could find the key.

Anxiety is a great deal like that padlock. We can want to open the lock – we can shout and batter and bruise ourselves trying to open it – but in the end it really is about finding a useful key.

Or, in this case, a small handful of skills, two of which you already know.

Hope – It Is a Really Good Thing

So this blog post is really about feelings, again – in this case, questioning that feeling of hopelessness that comes to those of us who fight anxiety, depression, panic attacks and fear. Just because we feel that way doesn’t mean we’re right. Just because we haven’t succeeded so far doesn’t mean we can’t succeed in the future – and more so if we have effective tools to help us succeed.

Bottom-line: question what your feelings tell you. Question your reactions to your body. Fear and anxiety can make you crazy, worried, even feeling helpless – but question it. See what thinking lies behind it. And know that it is possible to shake free of fear and worry – possible to unplug the thinking that generates those feelings in the first place.

Next up – skill #3 in our short series on the essentials of Fear Mastery.