This post is a follow-up to my last post on practicing a little thing called The Compound Effect. Today’s discussion is one of the specific reasons we need to see our work sorting out anxiety as a marathon rather than as a sprint…

So there you are, working hard on your Fear Mastery skills, and you’ve experienced some solid success in challenging one of your fears. Let’s say that you have been anxious about driving over a bridge or on the highway (a pretty common fear, let me tell you.) You’ve spent years being scared to do this, but you decided a few weeks ago that enough was enough.

You’ve done all the right things. You’ve identified the problem (driving on busy highways and/or over bridges) as something you historically turned into a crisis (this is really dangerous, it will kill you, you’ll fall off the bridge, etc.) You did both some time writing in a journal about this particular fear, and you’ve done some talking with your significant other or best friend as well.

You’ve also figured out that those scary feelings and physical responses you have when you are either actually driving these places or even just thinking about it are really nothing more than the Flight or Fight Response, trying hard to help you get away from your scary thinking.

You’re pretty proud of yourself! You’re learning to be less fearful thinking about it, you’re less startled and scared when Flight or Fight does power up with you, and you’ve even taken the amazing step of driving, briefly, on the highway (chanting the whole time “this isn’t a crisis, this isn’t a crisis…)

Back in the Day 6

You lived to tell the tale, and now you’re feeling pretty good about this work. And why shouldn’t you? You’ve faced down one of your big fears and you’re starting to feel a little breathing room there in the cramped confines of your Comfort Zone.

Then Your Anxiety Gets Uppity With You…

Maybe it’s the evening of your infamous drive/bridge transit. Maybe you’re just sitting home minding your own business, quietly reveling in your victory. Suddenly your heart leaps in your chest, you get short of breath, your stomach clenches, you feel terrible and frightened, and all you can think of is HOW SCARY IT IS TO DRIVE ON A HIGHWAY OR OVER A BRIDGE. It’s like you never did any work in the first place!

What the hell is going on? You were doing so well! Why are you so scared now? Well, that’s easy. You did a brave and strong thing, taking on your Comfort Zone. It was an excellent start. But you’re not done just yet.

Our Comfort Zones need a little persuading. In fact some of our Comfort Zone boundaries need a SERIOUS amount of persuading. That, combined with our REAL desire to get the crap of anxiety out of our lives, can make us freak out/get worried that we’re failing somehow when the Comfort Zone throws our fears back in our face.

Aftershock 1

You might almost say that your Comfort Zone has had a kind of spasm, a reactive twitch or surge in the aftermath of your brave effort. Yes, you pushed out past your fearful boundaries. Yes, it went well. Yes you demonstrated that you actually can do that scary thing and not have it kill you. That doesn’t mean that you’re over your fears with that single stroke –

Sometimes this is referred to as an “aftershock.” It’s a great metaphor, this reference to what happens after a major earthquake. The Earth will rattle for hours or days afterwards, and it makes sense that it would – there has been a major adjustment to the lay of the land. Same thing with this brave pushing on your Comfort Zone – things are, metaphorically at least, readjusting in your thinking.

We need to entertain the notion that one effort is probably not going to be enough to convince your Comfort Zone. Or, more accurately, it probably won’t be enough to convince your years or decades of fearful thinking to just stop from this one pushback. No, you’re going to have to keep pushing to really reprogram your thinking/convince yourself that your fears have been just that – fears.

Years of Personal Fear Nurturing Don’t Just Go Away!

First let’s be clear: you’re not doomed to be forever afraid of highways or bridges or whatever is scaring you right now. It can FEEL that way, but that doesn’t make it so. Remember, our feelings are the brain’s ancient way of telling you to GET THE HELL AWAY from whatever is scaring you. Not so useful when you’re working to overcome a fear of highways or bridges…

Anticipatory Anxiety 3

Secondly, practice resisting the temptation of having a 2-hour FearFest party in your brain, i.e., dwelling on JUST how scary that whole bridge/highway thing COULD be for you. You know what I’m talking about, right? The “aftershock” begins, you’re sitting in your chair in your living room, and now you’re pouring over the sheer terror, the madness, the fear… etc.

Not so useful. In fact “aftershocks” can be a great time to practice that whole unpacking thing – i.e., driving on a highway isn’t a crisis, it is at most a problem, and one that millions of people do every day without a hitch. It is also a great time to practice unplugging your fears of your Flight or Fight reactions – i.e., yes, my heart is racing here in my chair, but it is JUST reacting to my fearful thinking, nothing more. No special message, I’m not in danger, etc.

You’ve watered and cared for your fears for a long, long time. Just because you’re now spraying weed-killer on those fears and shutting down the water supply doesn’t mean they’ll just meekly curl up and die…

Aftershocks Stop Over Time

There is some good news in this discussion of aftershocks and Comfort Zone pushback. It doesn’t go on forever. In fact you’d be surprised how quickly, with continued work and patient effort, your thinking will begin to reframe what is scary and what is merely a problem.

Some more good news: aftershocks mean you’re DOING THE WORK. All of us who fight or have fought anxiety have lost a lot of lifespan avoiding the fight with our fears. Aftershocks and the accompanying discomfort are good indications of the serious work you’re doing.

Expect your Comfort Zone to push back. It is only doing its job, trying to get you away from danger – real or only perceived. You’ve trained your brain with a long history of being afraid of certain situations, problems or challenges. It will take some time to retrain that brain of yours. Stand your ground. Stay with the work.

Because as you do the work you’ll gain momentum. You will find the work less scary, less exhausting. Your range of motion, physically and emotionally, will increase. The aftershocks and discomfort will begin to decrease around the fears you’re working on, and your self-confidence will increase.

One effort on pushing back your fears is pretty unlikely to banish those fears. But the steady work, even with the pushback you’ll get from your Comfort Zone thinking, will be way, way worth the energy cost and the discomfort…

Tough Girl 1