In the discussion of the last few weeks on this blog my goal is to continue constructing the small list of skills that fear-busting requires. The first is knowing that our fear is IN OUR HEAD – that we have, usually without intending to, converted a problem into a crisis. Period. That doesn’t make us crazy, weak or silly – this is something most of us human beings can do.

The second skill is learning to “discount” the feelings and physical sensations that Flight or Fight generates us in response to our fear, and which we learn to be afraid of.

A HUGE number of us get very twisted up/freaked out by those feelings and sensations, and it is a distinct skill, this deliberately NOT investing those Flight or Fight reactions with their own burden of fear, worry and even terror.

We FEEL it in our bodies and emotions – really, our bodies and feelings react to our fear – but the fear starts in our thinking. Getting ahold of just these two very basic principles is gigantic, highly useful to anyone who is dealing with anxiety and fear.

Let me make that stronger: I have the strong suspicion that without these two skills most of us are at risk for floundering for years, decades, our whole lives, lost both in our fearful thinking and fear of the reactions in our bodies and emotions that our thinking generates. YIKES…

Of Moths and Men (Or, In This Case, Women)

Armed with these two necessary tools we can do the next thing – convert that crisis in our thinking back into a problem. Quick review here – a crisis is a real, physical, life-threatening problem, something we have to respond to immediately or risk injury and/or death.

But a problem isn’t anything like a crisis – however we feel about it, however we think about it. And the funny part (if there’s humor in this at all!) is that EVERY ONE OF US KNOWS THE DIFFERENCE.

Try this one: I have a very old and close friend who is uber-smart. I’m saying that this woman has serious intelligence – rational, cool-thinking, logical, practical. In the midst of the storm she is the rock, the one other people turn to when things are going to hell, and she is the calm voice, bringing order from chaos.

That is, she’s like that until she sees a moth. Really, a moth. Now I’m no big fan of insects (definitely not crazy about spiders, although they don’t scare me anymore) but you have probably never seen a person go crazy like my friend does when she sees a moth.

Let me say now for the record that moths can’t hurt you. The worst thing they can do is land on you and flap their wings gently. There are no poisonous moths, and they don’t transmit deadly diseases. I’m pretty sure that we are WAY more dangerous to them than they are to us!

Doesn’t matter to my friend. Normally the very soul of logic and sweet reason, she is instead reduced to screaming and shouting when she sees a moth in the house – or on the front-porch screen – or really anyplace.

Why tell you this story? Because she has taken a problem (and in her case, a pretty minor problem) – in this case, of her discomfort with moths – and converted it into a crisis. All that intelligence vanishes in the face of her fear/terror…

Drumroll Please…

This may seem like a silly or trivial example of converting a problem into a crisis. Except that it is a perfect example of ANY time we convert a problem into a crisis. Whatever her reasons for being afraid she is taking something that cannot possibly hurt her THIS moment and treating it like life and death.

As a result she is in the grip of Flight or Fight, causing both a serious decay in her critical thinking skills and all the classic physical and emotional responses of Flight or Fight.

Now I have heard her say that she knows in her head (when there are no moths around, and it is purely hypothetical) that her fear doesn’t make much sense. She KNOWS that doesn’t need to react the way she does.

She has skill #1 down cold – she has identified that she has converted a problem into a crisis. What she hasn’t done yet is moved to either #2 or #3 – she still lets her feelings and physical reactions (in this case, racing heart/sweating all over, plus sheer panic) carry WAY too much significance – and she has yet to seriously convert this crisis back into a problem.

Why Would She Do That?

Part of the challenge, as I’ve discussed in the last couple of blog posts, is that it FEELS so real – that terror and fear and worry. It FEELS like we should be afraid. So we do the afraid thing. We wouldn’t feel this way if it wasn’t scary, right?

WRONG! And thank God for that! This is a great example of how these skills are a set – that we need the collection to make it work well. It often isn’t enough to mentally know that something shouldn’t be considered a crisis – we have to actively practice “discounting” our feelings and physical responses as well.

It is important to remember that those feelings we experience when we’re afraid evolved to GET US MOVING in the face of real danger (and moving could also mean freezing in place so we don’t get seen, or even fighting our way clear – WHATEVER it takes to get away from life-threatening danger.) They work GREAT when you’re suddenly in a bar fight or dealing with a charging elephant.

But they don’t work so well when it comes to paying your taxes (tell me THAT doesn’t scare a bunch of people!) or are dealing with “irrational” fears like my friends’ fear of moths. They really do turn molehills into mountains, and problems into crises. Not so useful.

The same thing applies when we fall into the habit of being anxious or afraid of the physical responses of the Flight or Fight Response. All those wacky physical responses are completely normal as Flight or Fight comes online to help us deal with this terrible danger. Except there IS no danger. There IS a problem. There is NOT a crisis.

Treating a Problem LIKE a Problem Takes Practice…

This is a great place to talk about one of the great stumbling blocks in fear and anxiety work. By the time most of us reach the place where we seek help of any kind we’re already sick and tired of anxiety in the first place. WE JUST WANT IT TO STOP.

And it can stop. The hard news for many of us is that it probably won’t stop on a dime. The GREAT, excellent news is that it can stop for good, if we’re willing to be even a little patient in the work to master these skills.

It takes a little practice to figure out where we’re converting problems to crises, to identify how we’re scaring ourselves with our feelings and physical responses (as well as finding the courage to face those fears), and to begin to see our fears as problems rather than crises.

I’ve done it. Lots of other people have done it. Too many of us didn’t have the information we needed, and it took way longer than it needed to – but it has been done. And you can do it too.

Next up – examples of what this process looks like. In the meantime please, be kind to yourself – be patient with yourself and your feelings of frustration. This is a fight you can win…