There are a lot of people these days trying to find ways to cope with and/or get rid of anxiety in their lives. (And, of course, those two life-sucking outcomes of anxiety, panic attacks and chronic depression.) One of the things they are looking for is something that will get rid of anxiety NOW. Not later, not in a couple of months, but NOW.

And I for one can’t blame them. I have written before about the long years I had anxiety dogging my heels. The last 5 were the worst, when panic attacks and finally depression both became my constant companions. Those years started (winter of 1990) with the announcement of my family doctor that I was suffering from panic attacks (a term I had never heard before then) and that there was literally nothing he could do for me.

In other words, I was going to have to fight anxiety for the rest of my life. The prospect of that, as you can imagine, seemed pretty dark to me. I was already feeling pretty beat up, but to hear that my medical professional “knew” that I was dealing with a life-long chronic condition was terrible news to me.

We Just Want It to STOP

When I think back on those days I shake my head at remembering how little I actually understood about this thing called anxiety. It was largely a mystery to me, both in its origins and why I couldn’t shake it. Other people, facing very similar situations to mine, seemed fine with their lives, not anxious, not feeling trapped and scared.

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It was like having my face pressed against the bakery window. I could smell the bread and the pastries, I could see other people buying them with big smiles on their faces, but I was shut out, unable to reach the counter and baffled at how to even try. I assumed there was something fundamentally wrong with me, physically or psychologically, and that my doctor was right – I was simply doomed to be anxious.

But I dreamed of something, someday, that would end my anxiety, some cure or pill or treatment that would cut me loose from the debilitating fear and worry that now lived with me. And I know from writing this blog and the coaching I’m doing that a LOT of you had or have the same dream! 🙂

I was sick of being afraid. I would have been willing to undergo surgery to end that terrible fear. In fact I probably would have done almost anything to have that END. There was only one condition to my work: that the promised cure would make the fear end NOW.

I know that many (if not most) of you have felt or feel the same way. You’re sick of being anxious and you just want your life back. You just want the fear to stop.

I’ve Got Good News and I’ve Got Frustrating News…

The good news is that you can end the reign of anxiety in your life. Some of you are already seeing progress, the easing of the tyranny of anxiety in your lives. The frustrating news is that it doesn’t come in a pill, and it doesn’t happen instantly.

Believe me, I get how that can sound. Any time can seem like too much time when we’re fighting anxiety! It is in the very nature of what causes anxiety that makes the notion of the answer to anxiety taking time deeply frustrating.

When we’re in crisis mode – when we are treating the issues/challenges/problems in our lives AS crises – then we want answers NOW. Flight or Fight is all about getting away from danger NOW – not later, not next week, but right this second. And while we may know intellectually that we’re not in physical danger we are still responding to the urgency of Flight or Fight’s pressure in our bodies and thinking –

We are still looking for the answer to our anxiety dilemma NOW.

I am here to report that there is no instant cure. I am reluctant to say those words because I know that I would have heard them as the cue to experience more hopelessness, back in my anxiety-fighting days. But please, hear me out. The good news is really, really good news…

My Mom and the New Bike

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When I was around 11 years old my parents bought me a bike for my birthday. I had stalled on learning to ride a bike, largely from a lack of self-confidence. You could get hurt riding those things!  But all my friends were already Lords of the Open Road, enjoying a mobility and a freedom that I envied, and so I finally broke down and asked for a bike.

It was a beauty, let me tell you. My older brother’s girlfriend at the time had a Dad who custom made bikes, and my parents had him make one for me. It was a sweet ride – electric blue seat, sissy bar in the back, cool grips and it was fast. (Hey, this was the early 70’s, OK?) Just one problem – I couldn’t ride it.

So my Mom started taking me out front of the house after dinner that summer and began teaching me. I was pretty sure at the start that I’d never learn. My friends John and Robin made it look easy, but all I seemed to be able to do was fall over.

I wish I had pictures from that summer of bike-ride-learning! There’s Mom, running behind me, holding on to the back of the bike, and me teetering along, often with my buddy Robin riding along beside us, shouting encouragement and then shaking his head when I went down one more time.

It just seemed so damn hard! Think about it: you have to peddle forward, keeping your balance, watching for what’s in front of you and around you, and steer the thing too! Sounds pretty easy from this side of the story, but I kept trying for weeks and couldn’t seem to make it work. I began to think there was something wrong with me – surely it hadn’t taken my friends this long?

Sure, there were moments when it seemed to be working. I’d sorta get it, then I’d grab the handlebars too hard, or get distracted and fall over. Those glimpses almost made it worse – almost there, then boom, I’m on the ground again.

And I spent more than a few days and nights telling my friends that I’d never figure it out, that I must be dumb or missing some essential ability. I’d NEVER learn to ride a bike. It would be awful, terrible, I would be marked a loser, people would laugh at me… sound familiar?

Then came an amazing night in August when my Mom and Robin and I were out there, running down Algiers Road, and suddenly I heard Robin shout “hey, you’re doing it!” I looked behind me and there was my Mom, yards behind me, waving me on and yelling “keep going!”

And kept going is what I did. I had gotten agile enough to manage the small handful of skills I had to manage to ride a bike, and I did a LOT of riding that night, and the rest of that summer…

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A Small Set of Skills

We who battle anxiety have a simple mission in front of us: we have to develop some agility at the handful of skills that make chronic anxiety a thing of the past.

I discuss those skills here (3/2/12 to 6/8/12 blog posts). The point of this particular post is to drive the point home that it will take some time, some practice, some falling down (metaphorically – this work shouldn’t cause bodily injury!) before you start to get agile, figure out how to get that bike moving steadily and well.

We have to figure out just where we’re turning problems/issues/challenges into crises. That takes some practice and work. It usually isn’t immediately clear where we’re scaring ourselves in our thinking. And for most of us it is more than just one problem or worry that we have – we often have multiple thoughts trying to freak us out.

We have to develop some comfort “discounting” those Flight or Fight responses we’re triggering when we have those scary thoughts. That doesn’t come overnight. We’ve spent years or decades learning to be afraid of our shallow breathing, our upset stomachs, our racing hearts, not to mention the emotions that come boiling up when we’re fearful – anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, anger, nervousness.

We have to learn to translate those crises in our thinking BACK into problems – to reframe them correctly as issues to work on, decisions to make, thinking to do, but not life-or-death, this-will-kill-me-if-I-don’t-escape-this-NOW crises.

That takes practice my brothers and sisters! 🙂 We have become so used to seeing this or that problem as a disaster looming in our future that it takes real work to get it wrenched back into what it really is – a problem.

And through this all we have to learn, maybe for the first time (or maybe just for the first time in a long time) to start taking care of ourselves. We need to start managing sleep in a healthy way, get our bodies in some kind of regular movement (fear makes it SO easy to just sit and stare at the walls), learn to start drawing healthy boundaries for ourselves and our lives… this takes practice too, more so since so much of that we’ve learned to dismiss as secondary or unimportant in the rush and crush of our lives.

This is a Bike You Can Learn to Ride

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None of this is complicated. None of it requires your Mom to run along behind you. But the combination of skills takes time and practice and steady work. You won’t do it perfectly at the start. You’ll have very frustrating days and nights.

You’ll get tired, and mad, and impatient. You’ll tell yourself that you’ll never figure it out, that this won’t work for YOU, that there’s something wrong with you, or that there MUST be a quick fix someplace else…

And you’d be like the rest of us when you do that. It’s normal. It’s OK. Just keep working. Because you’ll also start to see movement. You’ll have moments of balance, then minutes, then maybe an hour, and you’ll realize you’re starting to ride this bike.

One last thing: you’re not alone. There’s a lot of us out here, and we’re all learning to ride that bike. And if you need a cheerleader or a coach to help you over a bump, give me a call or send me an email. That’s why I’m doing this blog – I want us all up on that bike!

So – got your kneepads and helmet? Air in the tires? Then let’s get going, OK? 🙂