Fear sucks. It has a terrible way of taking over our lives, despite our best efforts. We try taking medications, doing meditations, exercising, seeking out yet another possible physical cause, diverting our thinking, working with therapists, eating smarter, taking various homeopathic treatments, doing yoga – and it still seems to take over more and more of our attention, thinking and energy.

Some of us are new to this anxiety work – we didn’t really realize we were dealing with anxiety as an issue in our lives until recently. Some of us have been at war with our fears for years, even decades, and feel like we SHOULD be further along, be less fearful now, as some indication of all the work we’ve done.

Still others among us have fought fear on and off – perhaps finding relief with medications for a while, or mysteriously (and wonderfully, we think) the anxiety has eased off – only to have it come back full force again.

Wherever we are in the struggle it is nothing short of debilitating to think that we are doomed to fight anxiety for the rest of our lives – that there will NEVER be any relief from this awful loss of freedom and real living.

But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We are NOT doomed to fight anxiety. Anxiety is an acquired condition – something we learned along the path of figuring out how to deal with the world we lived in. We almost certainly learned it early. We also learned without realizing we HAD learned – which makes the work a little more challenging.

Here’s a hopeful truth: anything we learn we can learn differently. We can change how we think – which is the heart of dealing with anxiety.

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There is, However, One Fence We Have to Get Over –

And that’s the fence that seriously amplifies our reluctance to tackle our fearful thinking – the metaphoric walls of what Peter McWilliams calls the Comfort Zone. Those walls are the creation of years of flinching back from the reactions of Flight or Fight to our anxious thoughts.

One of the things that we learned early is that when anxiety/fear/worry reared its ugly head we also experienced some very uncomfortable sensations and emotions. Those sensations and emotions were strong, and seemed to signal that we were in serious trouble – even danger. Not knowing any better we sought a way to make those sensations and feelings go away.

The moment we found a way to do that a Comfort Zone wall was born for us. Unaware of the lesson we were teaching ourselves we quickly began getting away from those feelings and sensations whenever they occurred. In practice that meant two basic things: 1) avoiding the anxious thinking that caused Flight or Fight to fire up in the first place and 2) avoiding situations or contexts where we had experienced Flight or Fight.

And this is how chronic anxiety creeps into our lives, day by day, month by month, year by year, until we find ourselves, gradually or suddenly, realizing that we have been flinching back from our life experiences for a long time – and that we’re in trouble. We start to realize that the behavior that had kept us from feeling uncomfortable is now starting to strangle our lives.

Just in case it isn’t clear so far, the Comfort Zone isn’t a real, physical world thing – it is a learned response to the reactions of Flight or Fight. Having said that it has VERY real power in our lives!

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Part of that power is the sheer habit of moving away from things that make us uncomfortable. (More about that later.) Part of that power is the strength of Flight or Fight – the urgency and the “realness” of how Flight or Fight feels when it is activated.

And part of that power is our ignorance of the entire mechanism of Flight or Fight. We didn’t know what was going on when we first began retreating – we just retreated.

Flight or Fight scared us (just like our anxious, largely or totally unconscious anxious thinking scared us) so we backed off. That retreating, coupled with our desperation to get away from the fear and worry in our thinking, pushed all of our reaction out of conscious awareness as well.

So let’s riff for a moment on all the ways that Flight or Fight activates in our bodies and brains, with the goal of seeing ALL of Flight or Fight’s variety as simply one thing: an alarm system that is activating in response to scared thinking, and nothing more.

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All the Flavors of Flight or Fight

This is probably review for a number of you, but it’s worth discussing again, both for those of you who are new to this work and for those of us who are very, very tempted to find something scary or “true” in a new or unfamiliar Flight or Fight sensation. First are the physical reactions:

Increased heartbeat/slowed heartbeat
Heart skipping a beat, repeatedly skipping beats
Heart beating more intensely
Blood pressure goes up/goes way up/blood pressure drops
Shallow breathing/rapid breathing
Tightness in chest/chest feels squeezed
Hard to take a deep breath/feel unable to do so
Dizziness/vertigo
Ringing in ears
Nausea/upset stomach/butterflies in stomach/vomiting
Dry or “cotton” mouth/difficulty swallowing
Sweating/cold sweat
Feeling “shocky”/feeling chilled/very cold
Tingling in fingers or toes
Numbness, partial or whole body
Blushing/flush response/face feeling warm
Muscle tightness/muscle soreness
Fainting/feeling about to faint
Hyper-sensitive to light, sounds, noise
Edgy/hyper/ants in pants/feeling the need to flee

Next up are the various emotional responses to anxiety, which of course includes:

Anxiety
Worry
Anger/rage
Sadness
Despair/sense of doom/depression
Guilt
Crying
Nervous laughter
Embarrassment
Defensiveness

And, finally, we have a host of mental reactions to anxiety:

Disorientation/confusion
Feeling detached from our bodies/dissociation
Stuttering
Difficulty remembering
Difficulty organizing conversation
Difficulty focusing in general
Hyper-awareness/constant vigilance for danger
Obsessive thinking and behavior

Holy crap – that’s a lot of stuff that happens when we activate Flight or Fight. In addition it’s important to know that we’re usually not conscious of ALL of these happening when we’re anxious, even though some or all may in fact BE happening.

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The real question is which ones have we focused on, which ones scare us, which ones hold us back or frighten us away from challenging our anxious thinking and changing our behavior? One of the 4 basic steps of this Fear Mastery approach is getting clear on both which Flight or Fight reactions really trouble or scare us, then deliberately beginning to retrain ourselves on just how meaningless and NNO dangerous they really are.

I wrote a post in January of this year HERE about how Flight or Fight (when we’re dealing with problems, not real danger) is very much like a malfunctioning fire alarm. When someone pulls a fire alarm and there is no fire, well, then we’re not in danger. But we learn early and hard that when we hear a fire alarm is MUST mean danger, so we have a hard time just dismissing the alarm and going about our business.

Ramp that up two or three orders of magnitude and it is the exact same thing when it comes to Flight or Fight reacting to our thinking…

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Putting it Together

So I’ve said in this post so far that we, if we want to break anxiety’s hold in our lives, have to confront the thinking that is the source of our anxiety in the first place.

That means confronting the Comfort Zone walls we’ve created to keep us away from the scary thinking that frightens us in the first place, and THAT includes confronting the foundation of those walls, the Flight or Fight reactions that fire up in response to that thinking (and which has come to be scary to us as well.)

That means this work comes down to getting OK, to some extent, with being uncomfortable – even very uncomfortable – as we do this work. We have a couple of layers of discomfort to face down and move through: 1) the Comfort Zone boundaries we’ve been busy creating, and 2) confronting the original thinking that made us anxious in the first place.

Wait a second – didn’t I just say the same thing twice? Yes – but I did so because it is really two layers of fear that we must be clear are driving our anxiety. It isn’t enough to JUST confront our Comfort Zone walls.

We can do that all day long – but if we are not also addressing the anxious thinking that created and sustains those walls, well, it’s like walking into an electric fence again and again – you might be trying very bravely to face your fears, but you won’t change much about the “zaps” you’re getting as you do so…

And, of course, if you confront that thinking but don’t unlearn your fears of your Comfort Zone boundaries, well, it’s going to be hard, even damn hard, to stand and deal with that thinking (unpack it, get it converted back from the crisis we’ve made it to the problem, or less than a problem even, that it actually is) long enough to be effective.

In my next post I’m going to give very specific examples of how this work looks. In the meantime , if you haven’t already, work to get very clear on where Flight or Fight rules your life (what specific sensations and feelings make you flinch back) and, if you haven’t already, start your own list of potential fearful thoughts that keep you anxious. (Those will but are NOT limited to fearful thoughts about Flight or Fight never stopping, always making your life miserable, etc. They are contributors, no doubt – but they didn’t start this spiral.)

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