So I rambled on in my last post about confronting the fear of our natural alarm/defense system, Flight or Fight, instead of persisting in the (almost always) unintentional habit of letting that alarm system feed our anxiety. In our fight to get free of the burden of chronic anxiety, whatever forms it takes in our lives, we have to be clear on the real problem – anxious thinking – and practice NOT making the alarm system that’s reacting to that thinking the focus of our energies.

This post I want to push this discussion a little further by talking about where we tend to “flinch back” in our lives from the walls of our Comfort Zone – from the places we’ve learned to run away/hide from the reactions of Flight or Fight.

Let me just say for the record that EVERYONE, regardless of whether or not they deal with chronic anxiety, winds up with these places/Comfort Zone walls. It’s impossible to be human and not have Comfort Zone boundaries of one kind or another.

It might be the guy who is a great athlete, comfortable in his personal relationships, a confident business person – but shaken to the core when he’s invited to get up and speak to an audience. Or it might be the terrified panic attacker sufferer who can barely leave the house but is a true Master of the Kitchen – no recipe, no foodstuff daunts him or her when they are in front of that store. Everybody has areas that they have little or no fear about, and areas that scare them/make them flinch back.

EVERYONE has boundaries that their experience, coupled with Flight or Fight, has solidified into those walls. To be alive and be human is to have safety boundaries. The only real question is this: are those boundaries something we’ve CHOSEN, or something we’ve allowed to happen, deliberately or not?

To break the hold of anxiety our mission becomes one of deciding where to not flinch back anymore.

Flinch 1

Not All Comfort Zones are Created Equal

Let’s be clear first that I’m not saying that Comfort Zone boundaries are bad things by themselves. Like so much related to anxiety there’s nothing inherently good or bad about the restrictions we are tempted to place on ourselves around things that make us anxious/worried/afraid.

Nope, it’s just what we do as creatures that live in the world, dealing (as we did for so long in the natural world) with the very real dangers that threatened life and limb. For some things it makes a heck of a lot of sense to just stay away from them, period.

Like, for instance, hot stoves without proper caution. Or crossing the street without looking both ways. Or walking back to your car late at night and not being aware of your environment. Or eating food from dicey-smelling leftover containers. (Really a bad idea – take it from me…) All these things are great for Comfort Zone restrictions.

So when your brain says “hey, you know what? Let’s go to McDonald’s – I don’t like how this Tupperware has turned green in the fridge” (responding to Comfort Zone experience prodding) then hurray Comfort Zone, hurray brain! Good work, and that’s the system doing just what it is supposed to do.

But some Comfort Zone boundaries don’t help us at all. Some of them (as I’m sure you already understand) can REALLY cramp our style and shut down our life.

Perhaps the biggest problem with that shutting down is that we’re too often not even conscious of just how fast or how easily we flinch back from those boundaries. Again, this work becomes about becoming deliberately aware of where we have drawn walls around our lives, as well as conscious about WHY we’ve done that, and then challenging those beliefs/assumptions.

In other words we have to take charge of the usually unconscious creating of Comfort Zone walls in our lives. WE have to start deciding where we like having our natural alarm system go off to warn us away from danger/risk, and where we DON’T want the alarm system to respond. Finally, we need to learn to live with the alarm while we push a Comfort Zone wall back in our lives, to give us more space to live and grow and respond more comfortably to the world.

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Comfort Zone Walls –

One example from my own life is how freakin’ freaked out I was about getting dizzy/experiencing vertigo. (Can’t overstate this for myself.) I first acquired my fear of being dizzy way back in Junior High, and I had only a vague awareness of just how much I had learned to RUN AWAY from even the vaguest hint that I might feel unsteady on my feet.

I can make that stronger – I HATED that sensation. I had developed the notion, somewhere along the way, that one day being dizzy would start and never, ever stop – and that scared me more than I had words for, back then. That fear would in turn generate this vast, overwhelming sense of sadness for the life I would never have because of that endless vertigo spell.

So anything at all that hinted at the potential for feeling dizzy became something I learned quickly to automatically avoid. Too-soft beds and chairs, where I felt like I was sinking into the mattress or cushions, became too scary to sit in. Plugged ears from allergies risked balance problems, and so allergy attacks and stuffed sinuses because frightening – which meant that exposure to anything that might make me congested became something to avoid.

This avoidance pattern ramped up when I had panic attacks come to stay in the winter of 1990. I bought a brand-new, firm mattress bed that winter, in a desperate effort to eliminate any chance of feeling dizzy in bed, only to have a massive panic attack one night in bed, which drove me to the couch for months and months. I learned to hate that bed because I had decided that it put me at risk for feeling dizzy.

I could go on with more examples of how just this one Flight or Fight sensation came to have a tyranny over my life, but the point is I just kept flinching back, retreating further and further from anything that might smack of being dizzy. I took my thinking for granted, which means I took my flinching back for granted. All I wanted was to NOT feel anxious and experience those “terrible” sensations.

But what I needed to do was turn around and a) challenge my thinking about what being dizzy MEANT, and then start discounting the importance/implications of experiencing dizzy in any given moment. It meant pushing back against my Comfort Zone walls.
Flinch 3

I’ve Said it Before and I’ll Say it Again…

In case it isn’t clear from my many blog posts on this topic that REALLY SCARED ME. It scared me because a) I had really convinced myself, all unawares, that one day dizzy would come and never, ever leave – so I had no choice but to run away, and b) the sensations were, as a result, much too terrible to endure.

You know exactly what I’m talking about, yes? It wasn’t like I was conscious or very rational about any of this – those assumptions were givens, bedrock truths in my thinking. But as I begin to understand that maybe my assumptions were wrong it was still damn scary to even think about doing a 180 and actually inviting the experience of dizzy into my day. I had spent 20+ years training myself and my body that dizzy was just too awful to risk, EVER.

Yet, amazingly enough, it was the morning that I finally got mad enough at my fear (and sick enough of the limitations it was placing on my life) that I lay down on a bed and deliberately courted vertigo again and again that I finally really, solidly stood and pressed against that metaphorical wall of my fear. And, incredibly, I lived to tell the tale. 🙂 It was a game changer…

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t “just” stop being afraid of vertigo. Just that fateful October day and my first effort generated attempts at panic attacks for the entire rest of the day. But that was more of the same – that panic attacks were just Flight or Fight responses, and that I didn’t have to automatically default to being afraid of them either.

Not comfortable. Not exactly a recreational activity! But absolutely necessary if I was to fight free of my automatic flinching away from scary Flight or Fight sensations and emotions.

Anticipatory Anxiety 1

Feel the Fear and DO IT ANYWAY

Sure – easy to say, scarier to do. But that’s exactly the road out. It’s a simple sequence – forgive me for repeating it yet again here at the blog:

1) Get clear in your mind that you are dealing with problems – not crises. If this was a crisis you’d be half-way to the horizon by now. F or F doesn’t screw around in the presence of real danger! Nope, you’re, unintentionally of course, converting one or more problems into crises – and Flight or Fight is trying to warn you away/get you away from that scare problem-as-crisis.

2) And speaking of Flight or Fight, all you’re experiencing in your body and emotions IS Flight or Fight. Those crappy physical sensations (like my vertigo, or another person’s racing heart or labored breathing or sweaty hands or whatever) and those surging emotions (sadness, despair, gloom, rage, guilt, etc.) are just Flight or Fight trying to do its job. It’s misfiring in this situation – but it isn’t to blame. WE are to blame – in the sense that it is our thinking that’s starting Flight or Fight up in the first place.

Which means we can start challenging the real significance of those responses! Yes we’re scared by them. Yes we have developed a powerful habit of “flinching back” from them. Doesn’t mean we have to keep flinching back. We can stand our ground – shakily at first, maybe only for minute at a time at first – but if we do that work in combination with #3 we can break that habit –

3) We have to reframe that problem-as-crisis back to problem status. We have to identify the thinking we’re scaring ourselves with (#1) and then diminish that self-scaring by seeing the issue for what it is. We’ve almost certainly convinced ourselves that it REALLY IS a crisis – the overdue bill, the scary phone call, the confrontation with the teenager, the unfinished homework, the changing of living location or job, etc.

4) This work takes TIME. Which means not flinching back again and again and again. And we will be better at this some days more than others. So one day we’re heroic and the next day we suck! OK, so what? This is not a clean linear progression, and it definitely isn’t “lose 50 pounds in 30 minutes.” 🙂 It is work across time, requiring regular practice.

Which mean we have to take care of ourselves. We have to take breaks. We have to seek out encouragement where we can get it. We can’t do this work 24/7. We need downtime and feel sorry for ourselves time and eat a cookie time and get a massage time. We may have to be mad and cry and break some dishes.

We will definitely have to create an ongoing dialogue with ourselves, to track what we’re learning/unpacking in our thinking, to chart our victories and learn from our defeats, and to remind us of the basics when we get off-beacon.

Unconscious 3

Don’t Flinch Back

If you’ve been reading this blog at all you’ve heard this routine before, several times. I repeat myself here today because this is how we practice not flinching back. This doesn’t mean you have to do anything perfectly, or that you won’t fail sometimes – maybe a lot at the beginning.

But the way out of the Comfort Zone prison we create for ourselves is through the walls – the Comfort Zone walls. Those walls will fight us – that’s their mission. They’re trying to keep us safe. But we don’t need this version of safety – sitting in the dark, afraid of our bodies and our feelings. We need to break out of those walls. We can do this work. We just have to practice not flinching back…