How many of you remember when you were in grade school and they had a fire drill? Do you remember that first rush of adrenaline that coursed through your body, that first rush along your nerves of “holy crap, that’s the fire alarm – I wonder if we really have a fire?” Remember the cascade of physical and emotional responses in your body and feelings?

If you were anything like me you were probably half-way out of your chair before you knew it. Yes, intellectually you knew that it probably wasn’t really a fire – I know for me it never was – but that really didn’t make any difference. That alarm signaled danger to you, and it meant get moving and get out of that building.

That alarm wasn’t about sitting around wondering if there was an actual fire. Even the way the alarm sounded made it urgent, a crisis – clanging, loud, insistent. That alarm told us that we needed to get our butts in gear and GET MOVING. And that makes sense, right? Responding to a false alarm was smarter, a better survival technique, then assuming that it was false and, well, getting caught in a fire…

That’s REALLY good logic when it comes to the dangers of the physical world. When real, physical danger threatens we do NOT need to sit around pondering anything – not most of the time. We need to get moving! We can do some re-evaluating once we’ve got some distance between us and the danger.

As I’ve said before that is something you see even in the big land predators like lions and tigers. Scare them (very loud noise, unexpected, for instance, will do the trick) and they are falling over themselves to get away. Only when they’ve already begun running do you see them THEN maybe slow down and look back to see what the heck made that awful noise.

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That’s Flight or Fight. That’s the exact thing we need to do when we’re in danger, real, physical danger. Any other response, in the natural world, leaves a creature (or person) too exposed to the risk of injury or death – and (this just in) that’s not a great survival tactic…

But that’s also the source of a terrible amount of anxiety. In the fight/process of overcoming the power of anxiety in our lives we have to start learning to not run when we hear the alarm of Flight or Fight.

Learning to Fear the Alarm

When I was teaching college and helping students overcome their fear of public speaking I would describe a place I like to hike. They are some cliffs overlooking the Monterey Bay, and there are signs that say “stay back from cliff 50 yards.”

That’s good counsel, because baby, it’s a long fall and a big splash if you decide to get too close to that cliff edge. 🙂 The cliffs are crumbly, they are unstable and yet people persist in getting too close to the edge. So yes, stay back – no question about it.

But here’s where my story to my students becomes relevant, because while the CLIFF EDGE is dangerous, the signs are not. The signs are well in front of the cliff, and the signs themselves obviously present no danger to anyone. Yet people can get very, very agitated when people get too close to the SIGNS… “hey! Get back from there! It says the cliffs are dangerous! Get away from that sign!” I hear it all the time.

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Caution is a virtue when it comes to cliffs. But even caution can become excessive. And that’s exactly what happens when we start being afraid of the warning signs instead of the actual problem/issue (or even crisis) itself. I’ve watched people at the Santa Cruz cliffs stay back 30 or 40 feet from THE SIGNS because of their fear of the cliff edge.

But the signs can’t and won’t hurt us. They are there to alert us. But in the warning we learn to fear the alarm just as much as the thing it is trying to keep us safe from… and that’s where anxiety can get seriously amplified. Not to mention out of control in our lives…

It gets crazier. For fear of the cliff people will refuse to even walk the cliff trail – a completely safe activity. “I’m not going out there – those cliffs are dangerous!” Sure. The CLIFFS are dangerous. But the road along the cliff is beautiful, with spectacular views of the ocean and sky, and some of the cleanest air and most glorious solitude a person could ask for on a summer or fall day.

But, some folks say, it’s just too risky. What they’re really saying is that they have become afraid of the warning signals – that they are now afraid of the signs as well as the cliff, and the best answer is to just stay away from ANYTHING that makes them anxious.

Bad idea. That’s like being afraid of the fire alarm at school. The alarm can’t and won’t hurt us. It is there to warn us if something goes wrong, or even just help us remember what to do in case there’s a fire. But being afraid of the alarm only makes us anxious.

And that anxiety begins to haunt us. We start to restrict our lives, shut down our range of motion, all in a desperate effort to get away from the potential of experiencing the alarm…

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Alarms are Not Dangerous

Flight or Fight is an alarm system. When we become afraid of Flight or Fight – the physical or emotional responses of Flight or Fight – then we become afraid of an alarm. That in turn sets us up for anticipatory anxiety, that great torment of the anxiety fighter.

Anticipatory anxiety is that nervous watching over your shoulder thing, the constant edge of waiting for some sign that our Flight or Fight response system is going to scare us again. It is a terrible energy drain. It is a kind of constant self-torture. We don’t MEAN to do that, of course – but we’ve become so afraid of the alarm system that we have developed some terrible habits of avoidance.

To make matters worse most of us haven’t sorted out that fact – that we’re scaring ourselves over the alarm. And to add insult to injury the root thinking that scared us in the first place – the problem-converted-to-crisis thinking that started Flight or Fight up in the first place – is buried underneath our fears of the alarms of Flight or Fight.

So where do we wind up? We start avoiding the bridge because Flight or Fight fires up just thinking about driving towards the bridge. We stay off the highway because Flight or Fight makes us dizzy or nauseous or have a racing heart when we think of just the damn on-ramp. We stay away from the family gathering because we remember the last time we saw those crazy people and how much anxiety coursed through our body at the dinner table.

Worse STILL we can make ourselves anxious just thinking about our Flight or Fight responses – that’s how much we’ve learned to be afraid of the alarm system. So we’re just sitting at home, minding our own business, and suddenly we have a racing heart or numb fingers or overwhelming sadness, and it’s all because some small hint of Flight or Fight zipped through our bodies.

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Maybe it was just a normal body thing that felt like the start of Flight or Fight. Maybe you had a stray thought that made you anxious, something you were not conscious of in that moment. Doesn’t matter. We become so worried about hearing the fire alarm, and so freaked out when we do hear that alarm, that all we want to do is GET AWAY from it.

When this continues unabated guess where we wind up? One result is agoraphobia, that end-stage condition of chronic anxiety. Another result is chronic depression, in large part because we’re so sick and tired of being afraid (and also convinced that we’ll never be free of fear again).

Neither is necessary. We’re letting an alarm system run our lives. Yes, we have terribly anxious thinking, no question. Yes, it won’t be an instant cure. Yes, it will be uncomfortable. But we’re by no means doomed to be anxious for the rest of our lives. And we sure as hell don’t have to be afraid of an alarm!

It’s Time to Stop Running from the Alarm

Flight or Fight can’t hurt us – in the same way those cliff edge signs in Santa Cruz can’t hurt us. We can (and too many of us do) learn to be afraid of the signs and the alarm system. But what we learn we can unlearn and learn differently.

FIRST: we have to see Flight or Fight for what it is. It is a hard-wired defense system every living creature comes equipped with, and it isn’t something we can just turn on and off. That sounds BAD if we’re fighting chronic anxiety. But the problem isn’t the alarm – the problem is that we’re constantly pulling the alarm!

So we have to stop pulling the alarm – how do we do that?

SECOND: Two kinds of thinking pull it, but they are essentially the same thing: either you’re freaking out over what Flight or Fight means (what it implies for your life and the future, it is terrible, it will never stop, my life is hell with these sensations, etc.), or you’re freaking out over the scary stories you’re telling yourself about some problem/issue/challenge that you’ve morphed into a crisis.

Either way it is your thinking that is pulling the alarm. Don’t blame the alarm for going off when you’re doing the pulling! So you have to sort out that thinking. I know, I’ve said it a 1000 times in this blog. But it is so easy to get sidetracked by the damn alarm, isn’t it?

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I hear it all the time. “Erik, if I could just stop feeling so bad, or stop my heart from racing, or stop this terrible depression, then I could make some progress.”

Not true. Not true because it doesn’t work that way. If you pull the alarm it is going to go off. Stop pulling the alarm, no alarm.

Which leads me to –

THIRD: This is a process that takes TIME. The thinking that makes us anxious in the first place doesn’t just change presto – it takes time, work, introspection, thinking and effort. Yes, the damn alarm is scary and loud and we just want it OFF. I get it – been there, did that.

We are fighting strong, deeply grooved habits of thinking. Habits take time and effort to change. It’s a whole new skill set for most of us, this learning to examine, question, challenge and change our thinking. Anxiety doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t get fixed overnight.

The fixing, however, takes a heck of a lot less time than the time it took to get anxious in the first place. The key is getting started and staying with it…

Can Somebody PLEASE shut off That Alarm?

The answer is yes – you can. You’re also going to keep pulling the alarm for a while (assuming you’re in this work or just getting started.) So get some earplugs, and more importantly, start the practice of reminding yourself that the alarm, by itself, isn’t dangerous, can’t hurt you and doesn’t have to scare you the way it’s been scaring you.

That’s the bottom-line for this blog post: it’s time to start challenging the meaning of the alarm system that is Flight or Fight. It won’t happen overnight – but it is one huge piece of breaking the power of anxiety in our lives.

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