In my coaching work I am asked one question pretty frequently: how long will it take me to overcome my anxiety? It is often one of the first questions I hear, and behind the words I hear a desperation/franticness that I remember only too well from my days “down the rabbit hole” with anxiety.

I would like to say “fast!” I would like to say that anxiety can be beaten in four easy steps, or it always takes two weeks, or even that one solid month of daily work is guaranteed to break the hold of anxiety in our lives. (I would also probably be on Oprah or Ellen if I could make that claim… that would be fun…)

But I can’t make that claim. Nobody can. Sadly lots of people have, and I’m guessing they’ll continue to do so. Today’s post is about getting a clearer view of the work to overcome anxiety. What I’m hoping you’ll take away from this writing is both a more honest, realistic assessment of what’s required AND a renewal of your hope and energy that this is work you can, really, do.

Because the bottom line is that this work isn’t something only the few, the proud, the amazing are capable of doing. True, at the start it can feel overwhelming and exhausting. It doesn’t move as fast for most of us as we would like, that’s for sure.

It is easy to get frustrated and want to throw in the towel. But it is work that, I believe, any one of us can do with a good understanding of what anxiety really is, as well as some practical tools to change the root problems that cause anxiety in the first place.

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Anxiety SUCKS –

This is where the whole desire to get free of anxiety gets born. If you’re one of the millions and millions of people on the planet that fight chronic anxiety (conservative estimates say 1 in 10 people, but I have to say that my experience tells me it’s more like 2 in 10, or even higher) then you’ve already given away too much time and energy (and even money for visits to see multiple doctors) to want to screw around with anxiety any longer than you have to…

You’re sick of feeling this way and you’d do just about anything to get free of it. You’re sick of the constant thrum of fear along your nerves and in your brain. You’re tired of being eternally vigilant for the first signs of a panic attack or Flight or Fight sensations or just the endless dread that can hang over us. You’re willing to do almost anything…

And many of us do try anything, and everything. No fault to us – we just want OUT of the grip of anxiety. We see an endless parade of doctors who either give us a variety of diagnoses or tell us “it’s just anxiety” – like we don’t already know that.

In their defense they are doing the best they can – but their focus is largely on the physical, and so when we reach the realm of anxiety (which starts in our thinking) most physicians are moving on less-than-solid ground.

Or we trudge through a collection of therapists of one kind or another. And while therapy can be an invaluable, even essential tool in overcoming anxiety (my next post will be about exactly that) too many therapists don’t really understand anxiety – what causes it or what’s effective in dealing with it. That seems to be changing, thank God, but the therapy community still has a ways to go…

Or we are (and this happens a LOT) given medication, and the assumption is that the medication will by itself deal with anxiety. Some of us get enormous relief from anxiety. Some more of us get relief for a while, months or years, before the medication mysteriously stops being effective.

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Some of us get some relief, but also pay a terrible price in side effects. And some of us only get the side effects. Ugh. Not so helpful.

And of course some of us just start doing whatever we can find at hand to ease the scourge of chronic anxiety/worry/fear. Usually this takes the form of some kind of self-medication – drugs, alcohol, food, TV, whatever seems to help. We’re not setting out to hurt ourselves! We’re trying very, very hard to dispel those anxious feelings and thoughts.

Most of this inadequate help or misguided self-medicating stems from a lack of good information/understanding about where anxiety comes from in the first place. Just grasping that is an essential first step in the climb out of endless anxiety. It won’t give us instant relief. But it will start a much more solid, much stronger foundation to create real change and lasting freedom from anxiety.

Everybody Say it With Me – Anxiety is a Thinking Disease

(I just used the word disease because I liked how it sounded there – but be clear – this isn’t a disease. It sure FEELS like one – but it is very much a thinking problem.) I hammer this point all the time here in the blog, but it is the true start of any real, lasting breaking of anxiety. We have to understand that our long struggle with anxiety started, well before we were ever conscious of it, in our thinking.

WHY? Why us? It isn’t like we went looking to become anxious! I can’t answer that question. But I can say that we LEARNED anxiety from the people around us. More specifically we learned to treat some kinds of problems as crises. It’s an easy mistake to make – more so when evolution itself says hey, either you’re in crisis or you’re not, right?

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That’s all that happens (for the most part) in the natural world. Either you’re minding your own business chomping grass or you’re running for your life from some hungry predator. Humans, however, have problems, issues, challenges, etc. When we start treating those as crises we start down the road to chronic anxiety.

What makes it so severe for us is that Flight or Fight, doing what it is supposed to do, fires up when we start treating problems like crises. That makes us feel even more anxious (even though it is only responding to the crisis YOU’VE told it you’re experiencing!), we flounder around in our fear, then begin backing away from it (because it isn’t a crisis – it’s a problem, of one flavor or another, so we can’t usually solve it treating it as a crisis), and so we proceed further down the rabbit hole…

I review all this because if we’re going to understand, really understand that answer to the question “how long will it take to overcome my anxiety?” we have to understand the breadth and depth of the effort we’ve spent developing anxiety in the first place.

That is going to vary from person to person. One person may have developed a serious anxiety issue in the last year. If they identify that issue and begin to change how they respond to that/think about that, well, it might literally be a matter of a week or two. (I have examples like this from my coaching work just in the last 3 years or so.)

Another person has been doing problem-as-crisis thinking on a couple of issues for several years, and they’ve begun to really flinch back from those fearful thoughts and Flight or Fight responses. Worse, they’re beginning to see anxiety in other issues in their lives – it is spreading in their thinking.

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If they catch things at this point it might be 60 or 90 days from a standing start, assuming they push somewhat, to get most of that anxiety managed and shut down. (On the other hand if that person stalls, avoids, puts off the work, like most of us do, it will take longer.)

If, however, you are like how I was, coming off 20 years of a struggle with chronic anxiety, well, it’s going to take you a little longer. That does NOT mean it will take you another 20 years to get free. It does mean that you’re going to have some serious work in front of you. For me (one example only) it was the better part of 7 months of work. That’s a more complex story – I’ll return to that in a minute.

To make matters worse you’ve almost certainly learned to be VERY afraid of your Flight or Fight responses. And you’re damn tired. And you’ve been fighting this fight for a LONG time. You’re too likely at this point to be feeling despair, chronic depression and a sense of hopelessness. Energy levels are depleted, you’re constantly on alert for any signs of Flight or Fight firing up and you JUST WANT IT TO STOP.

All that makes the work harder to get started and harder to keep facing into, at least at the beginning. And if you’re like a lot of anxiety fighters you’ve already seen doctors, taken meds that didn’t work or only worked partially, and you’ve even spent money on anti-anxiety programs that didn’t seem to do anything useful. We can get REALLY unwilling to try again…

Like I said, breadth and depth. No two of us are facing precisely the same set of experiences, histories or understandings when it comes to anxiety. Which means we have to “gear up” mentally – get a good handle on anxiety’s origins and what we can do about that, which is a LOT – and then we have to wade into the fight.

To Make Matters More Challenging We Tend to Stall…

This is one of the most frustrating parts of the work, in my humble opinion. If you’re reading this blog I’m guessing you’re dealing with some set of problems that you’ve converted to crises in your thinking, and you’re very, very ready to break free of that crap. By the same token it feels completely daunting to wade into that work –

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Because who WANTS to go provoking their own anxiety responses??? I sure didn’t. I just wanted it to STOP. So even after I got a good handle on what work lay in front of me I didn’t exactly tear into it. I nibbled around the edges, danced close to but not into the fire – because it scared me.

A metaphor I use a lot is a junk-filled, dark, sharp-edges everywhere basement desperately in need of cleaning. It looks daunting from the doorway, and we’d rather do anything except start that cleaning process. We know we’re going to cut ourselves, bang our shins, get a bunch of dust in our nose, get sweaty and exhausted and it won’t be any fun.

Now add scary monsters constantly jumping out of the corners shouting “BOO!” at us and the metaphor is complete. 🙂 Right? This is the Basement of Doom! Except of course it isn’t. It is just our brain with a bad habit of reacting to problems as crises.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck to wade into that basement and start cleaning the crap out. And who wouldn’t get tired of monsters jumping out and shouting boo? But that’s part of the cleaning process, in this metaphor – learning to see that they are not really monsters, just Flight or Fight trying to get us to back away from our fears.

So we stall. And that slows the work down and makes us frustrated. Just about everyone is going to do it. But that doesn’t mean anything except that it will take most of us a little longer than we’d like to get this work done.

We Have to Shake Loose of “Microwave Thinking”

The last point I want to make in this post is how much we who live in the modern, technological, high-speed times we live in can lose sight of what skill-building really means. We have to some extent become a very, very impatient culture. We expect (and often get) what we want RIGHT NOW.

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And why shouldn’t we be impatient? Don’t like the TV channel? That’s OK – you’ve got 500 alternatives (if you buy the premium cable package.) Don’t want to cook? That’s OK – just pop it in the microwave. Having trouble sleeping? Don’t worry about it – we’ll give you a pill. Or two. Need some information RIGHT NOW? Thank goodness – we have the Internet and about a billion websites you can scan through…

I’m not immune to the culture of impatience. I’m one of those guys who’s yelling at the microwave because it isn’t making my dinner instantly. 🙂 I live in the Silicon Valley, one of the most hurried, impatient, frantic places I’ve ever known.

It seems some days that everyone here is desperately trying to be anyplace but where they ARE at the moment – always in a hurry, always racing down the highway. It is hard to not be affected by how instant/fast/immediate things seem in our world these days.

There’s nothing wrong with that by itself. Boiling water on the stove doesn’t make much sense if you can just put it in the microwave. But some things CAN’T be hurried. Some things require a more organic, across-time kind of development.

That’s the case with any set of skills we have to acquire. There’s no way to download language skills to your brain – you have to practice them across time. You can’t just start banging pots around in the kitchen – good cooking requires some skill-building.

And you sure as hell can’t break the power of anxiety by wishing and getting impatient. Overcoming anxiety is a skill-building process. There is a learning curve involved. It will take time. You don’t have to like it – I sure didn’t. But the faster we can embrace that thinking, relax into the work and the learning, the faster we’ll get through to the place where we do have the skills we need to break the power of anxiety in our lives.

I’ll say it again: skill-building takes time. And learning to change thinking from crisis back to problem, as well as relearning how we see the reactions of our Flight or Fight Reflex, will take time. Learning curves take time. But remember also that you’re building skills to last the rest of your life – and permanently break the power of anxiety to rule your world.

How Will I Know I’m Getting Better/If This is Working?

How do you know when you’re able to ride a bike? I’ve used that metaphor before in this blog – that overcoming anxiety is mastering a set of skills not unlike learning to ride a bike. You know when you’re able to ride a bike when, well, you’re able to ride it, right?

We’ll know we’re getting better when we find ourselves starting to reflexively ask the question “is this really a crisis, or a problem?” We’ll know we’re getting better when we find ourselves experiencing Flight or Fight symptoms and don’t automatically freak out.

We’ll know we’re getting better when we don’t automatically flinch back from situations where we MIGHT feel anxious, or have felt anxious in the past, but instead try them out, being willing to crest through some anxious thinking and responding and get to the other side.

I know you want to be there NOW. If I could I would make that happen for you. But I can’t. I had to do it for myself, and so do you. You don’t have to do it alone – not at all.

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There’s a lot of good information in the world these days (and I hope you’re finding some of that here in this blog.) There are people who are fighting this fight, just like you, and you can find them on the web and even in your town. There are therapists and doctors who DO understand anxiety and want to help you.

So take a deep breath. Take a couple. Embrace the notion that you’re learning a new set of thinking skills with this work, and that, while it won’t banish your anxiety instantly, this work will arm to break the power of anxiety in your life.