I have been working with a very old and close friend about his making a change in the kind of work he does. (I’ve been doing a lot of that recently – more about that in upcoming blog posts.)

He has been thinking about the Fear Mastery idea of problem vs. crisis, and he made an interesting statement to me last week. He said that when he’s crisis mode he only sees one answer, but when he’s in problem mode he sees multiple solutions.

I think that’s exactly right. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today – how we need to understand that we literally don’t think as well when we’re in crisis mode as we do when we’re not. I can make that stronger: in some respects we really have to learn to question our thinking when we’re in crisis mode.

The Risks of Tunnel Vision

I have written about some of this in earlier blog posts. When we activate Flight or Fight one of the many things that happens in our bodies is that our brain prepares for crisis. This means several aspects of our thinking change or refocus when we’re getting ready to run or fight.

One thing that changes is our range of view – our capacity to look at the big picture. When we’re NOT in crisis mode we have a wider scope in our thinking. When we’re under attack (literally or just in our thinking) our view narrows down.

Certainty 1

Which is brilliant if we’re really facing a crisis. Our attention HAS to get laser-focused, because we have a real, physical challenge that has to get resolved RIGHT NOW. In the natural world that laser focus might mean the difference in seconds between survival and being dinner, or at the very least being seriously injured.

But that’s the rub: when we’re anxious we’re NOT facing a split-second, life-or-death situation. We are actually facing a problem or issue or concern that needs problem-solving, not crisis management. It FEELS like a crisis – but those feelings are fooling us into the wrong kind of thinking for our situation.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Let’s say you come home from work and you and your significant other (spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, life partner, you name it) have a disagreement. Well, really it’s more of a fight. 🙂 You both get mad, there’s a little (or a lot) of shouting, and now everything feels messed up.

Maybe you storm out of the house/condo/apartment/tepee. Maybe you get in the car and you start driving around. You’re angry, you’re hurt, and you’re saying to yourself “either they apologize or I’m leaving!” Because it FEELS like you’re in a crisis – this fight is terrible, it might be the end of your relationship, how will you ever sort this out, etc…

Except that of course it is pretty unlikely this one fight is the end of your relationship, yes? Sure, those fights happen. And they probably needed to happen (with maybe a little more training in how to do conflict well, for most of us.)

But, as you begin to calm down, as you begin to move out of crisis thinking (sooner or later most of us do) then you begin to see things a little more clearly. This probably isn’t one of those end-of-the-relationship fights.

Which is another way of saying you’re seeing the larger perspective on this current relationship challenge… as opposed to framing it as a make-or-break crisis.

The Dangers of Being Sure

But sometimes we don’t stop there, right? Sometimes we stay mad, angry, afraid. And so we begin to spin out scenarios for the next time we talk to our S.O.

We do those hypothetical conversations in our head where we say this and that, and then everything blows up, and then pretty soon you (or they) are moving out of the house/condo/apartment/tepee, and then you’re getting a divorce, or living alone in a shack, and you’ll never be in love again, and…

Certainty 2

Then we get home from our drive, and our S.O. says “hey, you know, I was out of line, I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Or you walk in and they look sad and you realize you really over-reacted. Or maybe both. And now, again, you’ve shifted from crisis to problem thinking, and all the drama and upset has suddenly become kinda silly, kinda narrow-minded…

Suddenly you’re not thinking you need to move out, or tell him or her that unless this or that happens this relationship is OVER, or most of that angry/frightened thinking you were doing 10 minutes earlier.

Yes? You’ve been here and done that, haven’t you? Or maybe you nursed that anger and that limited view for a couple of days, or a week, and then you kissed and made up. Or just maybe you kept treating it as a crisis, and so the two of you ended up going separate ways – only to, further down the road, realize that you really didn’t see things clearly at the time.

When we are afraid our view narrows –really narrows. We can be SURE that we see the future, SURE that we know something terrible is going to happen, SURE that we’ve looked at all the possibilities and this outcome is the ONLY likely one, etc.

We do it all the time! You do it, your friends do it, I’ve done it (and still do it sometimes, yes, even Erik the Fear Guy), all because we’ve for some period of time become the prisoner of our own Flight or Fight thinking.

Here’s something to consider as you think you’re sure about ANYTHING when you’re anxious (and not actually facing a Bengal Tiger.) When we’re in problem thinking mode we tend to be a LOT less certain about things we’re thinking. We tend to gather information, do research, think things through a little (or much) better, etc.

But when we’re afraid, anxious, terrified, lost in what MIGHT happen (according to our fear) then we can very easily fall into certainty that our terrible future scenarios are actually dark prophecies – and that we’re doomed to see them come true.

And It Isn’t Limited to Love!

We can do this I’m-sure-this-is-the-only-answer thing with anything in our lives. We hear that there might be layoffs at our company and we assume it will be us. Then we start worrying every day, every hour about what we’ll do if we’re laid off.

We start getting edgy and defensive when work stuff comes up at home, we start looking for proof that the boss is out to get us, we dream of winning the lottery so we can escape this nightmare of losing our job, and when we get home we bury ourselves in the TV or some other way to not think about the certain loss of our job. We’re SURE that we’re going to get laid off…

Certainty 3

Well, maybe you WILL lose your job. But at this point in the story you sure as heck don’t KNOW it yet. And what has your worry done for you so far? We are all very much like deer in the underbrush at this point – what we SHOULD do is start making plans and figuring out what comes next, but instead we stand trembling, hoping against hope that nothing bad happens. We are treating a problem like a crisis, and it is sucking the life out of us!

Here’s another something else to consider in this tendency. We’re TERRIBLE data-gatherers when we’re afraid, at least as far as most decisions are concerned. We might be hell on wheels at figuring out the best escape route if we’re caught in an earthquake – that’s the kind of thinking Flight or Fight is brilliant at doing.

But when it comes to considering alternative perspectives, calmly researching what our options are, sitting down and considering what we want from the whole thing, getting other people’s opinions, etc., well, we’re not at our best when we’re in crisis mode.

So How Do We Get Past That Feeling of Certain Doom?

1) The first thing we need to do is QUESTION that certainty, as opposed to letting it pound through our brains unchallenged. Sure, it FEELS real, and certain, and true. But decisions made under anxious, stressful conditions are way too often less than smart decisions.

In other words we should WAIT until we’re not quite so driven by our Flight or Fight reactions before we make any serious decisions. I really, really wish someone, anyone in my past had understood this basic truth and helped me understand it as well.

We just don’t manage problems nearly as well when we’re doing anxious thinking. Anxiety evolved for crisis, not for problems. If all you took away from this blog post was the idea that you should question the decisions or assumptions you’re making when you’re ramped up with fear/worry/anxiety then you’ve done yourself an enormous service in your work to overcome anxiety.

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Repeating: if it isn’t NOT a crisis (however it feels) then it is a problem, right? And if it is a problem then it can wait an hour, or two, or maybe even twenty-four, yes? Let me make a confession here: I’ve made some incredibly dumb moves acting out of crisis thinking, instead of waiting even 30 minutes to see how I think when I start to calm down (or when I create some calm thinking space even in the midst of my anxiety.

If the house isn’t on fire, or you are not being considered as a main course for dinner by some large hunting cat, maybe you really can just wait a little while before you start making decisions. That will not come easily. Flight or Fight is all about getting you to safety NOW – which is why it becomes so important to develop the skill I push in this blog of learning to separate the life-and-death stuff from just the stuff we MAKE into life-and-death stuff.

2) Take your crisis to your trusted friends and see what they think. When someone comes to us and it isn’t a crisis for US we can be pretty dang smart. 🙂 Tap the brilliance of your friends and allies when you’re in crisis mode.

Specifically, give them your crisis and see what they say. Then LISTEN to what they say. It doesn’t mean you have to take their counsel – it simply means that they are you NOT battling Flight or Fight for the moment, so they can be in problem-solving mode for you. If nothing else they will be seeing a larger picture than you (unless of course you fire up their anxiety – listen for that as well.)

And, of course, we all find it valuable to have someone really listen to us when we’re ramped up. If nothing else we can get our fear/worry out of our head and out where we have a chance to look at it slightly less frantically…

3) Try writing out your anxious thinking. I recommend this in general when we’re tackling the work of unpacking our fear, and this can be a good in-the-moment way to slow down the rush of anxiety and get a little perspective.

Just sit at your laptop or at your kitchen table and let the worry pour out on paper. See what you say when you write it out. Maybe pour it out and then step away for an hour or three (see recommendation #1 above.) Come back and look at it again. How does it look now?

Another variation on this is to come back and then, even through your anxiety, attempt to treat it AS a problem – purely as a mental exercise. What IF this was not a crisis? How would YOU frame your needs then?

4) Sometimes, as you probably already get, the very best thing you can do is go DO something else, deliberately. Clean a room, go for a run or a swim or a hike, make a meal, work on the cure for cancer, whatever will pull your focus for a little while.

Our brains work in various ways, and one of the ways our brains work best is when they have time to run a problem in the background of our thinking when we’re doing something else. It can be very useful to put your mind on a different situation, challenge or piece of work (or even just go recreate) and see what that busy brain you have does with a little time.

Challenge Certainty!

This might be a great motto for all of us who wrestle with or have wrestled with anxiety. Fear can make us so sure that there’s only one answer, only one outcome, only one dark scenario that can result from this or that worry.

And the brutal truth is most of the time that certainty is wrong. We’re not so good at remembering that when we’re anxious, but it’s still true.

We’re all much more capable, smarter, stronger, resourceful and resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Where can you question your fear’s certainty today?