(This post is meant to be read in combination with the last post, HERE.)

So there you are, wrestling with Flight or Fight sensations and feelings scaring the living crap out of you. Or maybe just making you profoundly uncomfortable. Or maybe you’re flinching away from things and just starting to realize that you’re letting your life be limited by your largely-unconscious reactions to Flight or Fight’s warning signals.

If you’ve been reading this blog or doing other study in your efforts to break the hold of anxiety in your life then you’ve heard the notion that Flight or Fight cannot, CANNOT hurt you, no matter how much it has come to scare you, no matter how urgent or “real” or frightening it feels. You know that, but when it comes time to actually face down some of your scary thinking, or confront a situation that you’ve been scared away from by Flight or Fight, you find yourself VERY reluctant to endure those reactions again…

I get it. It isn’t like eating cake or having a birthday party, that’s for sure. But it is absolutely essential in getting free of the tyranny of anxiety. And by NOT confronting those frightening warning signals (up to and including panic attacks – just one more manifestation of Flight or Fight) we only feed and strengthen the habit of flinching back, limiting our life and feeding our fears.

Push 5

We have to break the habit of retreating from Flight or Fight. We have to turn and see it for what it is, change the meanings that we’ve given it, expose the “monster under the bed” for what it really is – nothing of importance or danger.

Because it really is a habit. It is both a habit of behavior and a habit of thought. We’ve scared ourselves on a regular basis, not understanding what Flight or Fight was, just a reaction to the thinking that frightened us in the first place (whatever those thoughts were or are about.) And habits only change when we exert the effort to change them.

Sure, Erik, Easy for YOU to Say…

Don’t think I didn’t run like hell from this work for a LONG time, including even after I began to understand that there was really nothing to be afraid of in the first place. And don’t think that MOST people don’t avoid this work – most of us do.

But my fear wasn’t going anyplace just by doing the unpacking and changing crises back to problems. I also had to teach myself, behaviorally, that there was nothing to fear. Therapists call this desensitization. It’s a very powerful tool IF we also do the work of cleaning up the thinking that is scaring us in the first place.

So HOW does one go about that work?

Push 1

1) Make sure that you are doing the identifying and unpacking of the fearful thinking that is the primary source of your anxiety in the first place. (More on that HERE.) This work is essential.

2) Make a plan for small moves. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you won’t shake free of your fears of Flight or Fight in one push. Steady, regular practice.

3) Get clear that however Flight or Fight FEELS it is ONLY a reaction to anxious thinking. You don’t have to be aware of that specific thinking to have Flight or Fight fire up! Repeating: you don’t have to consciously know the thinking that is scaring you to have Flight or Fight fire up.

4) If Flight or Fight is ONLY a reaction then it cannot, cannot hurt you. Get clear that this automatic defense mechanism is, in the case of anxiety, misfiring – it is not telling us anything useful except that we are afraid of one or more thoughts.

That includes the fears we’ve built up around Flight or Fight. This is very much monsters in the closet thinking. We become anxious/scared/terrified of something, we start to avoid it, we avoid it for years – then we face it down and discover there was never anything of real danger to begin with. Ugh!

5) We have to expect that we’ll have up and down days – more progress here, less progress there, etc. Some days we’ll have more energy. Some days we’ll have a bunch of our fears try to surface and demand attention, each of them firing up Flight or Fight.

Those are GOOD days, believe it or not. Flight or Fight can HELP us – specifically by helping drag those fearful thoughts to consciousness where we can do something about them.

Push 2

6) Expect what I call “aftershocks” (more about those HERE) – a kind of reaction to pushing on your Comfort Zone/Flight or Fight fears. They can come minutes or hours after this work, and they can SEEM to come out of nowhere – but of course they don’t, they are just reactions to your brave work.

They don’t MEAN anything, but they can seem freaky if we don’t anticipate them/plan for them. And they themselves are good opportunities to practice reminding ourselves that Flight or Fight can’t hurt us, and we are only scaring ourselves around Flight or Fight because of our fears that there is something wrong or that it is dangerous, somehow.

An Example of Pushing Back on Flight or Fight

Let’s talk about Marcus. (Not his real name – but he’d love it that I was calling him Marcus.) Marcus is a 44 year old guy who has been fighting anxiety since the end of high school. He’s been housebound for 12 years, able really only to go out into his backyard garden, and not always then. His big Flight or Fight fears are an overwhelming feeling of dread and hopelessness (that really freaks him out) and he gets terrible nausea – like he wants to throw up, right NOW.

Marcus had a tough personal thing happen (the loss of an old friend) and because he was too afraid to leave his house he didn’t go to the funeral and gathering of friends and family. He was pretty mad about that, and decided he needed to start fighting back.

He decided he was going to start with a hard push – get across the street to the little park that is opposite his house. He loved that park (when he was still fighting a retreating action, heading to housebound but not quite there yet), and wanted it back in his operating territory.

Push 4

The problem was of course that while he was at his kitchen table making big plans Flight or Fight warned him not to get too uppity, but didn’t give him any real grief since he wasn’t doing anything crazy like trying to walk out the front door. The next afternoon, however, when he steeled himself to make the march, he immediately began experiencing Flight or Fight.

Before he headed out for his Comfort Zone push he returned to his journal work around his fearful thinking (something he had been avoiding for months) and reviewed with himself the fears that had made him housebound in the first place. In Marcus’ case it was very much about his fears of being unable to support himself financially or relationally (never mind that he had earned the money before he became housebound to buy and support a house, or that he had a cadre of people that loved and admired him.)

He spent some time unpacking/challenging that thinking (and came to realize he had been avoiding this work because of Flight or Fight firing up when he was working on it, like it did again that afternoon.)

That started again as he got his shoes on. First there was a heave in his stomach. Those heaves frighten him, so he sat for a few minutes, hoping it would calm down. They did, some, but when he got up to head out of the house (literally the first time in years) he suddenly felt that terrible sense of hopelessness, what he describes as the world going dark. He just wanted to RUN back to his couch –

And in fact he did. The gloom didn’t easy right away (and in fact he got pretty anxious – his stomach started to seriously churn given how much the gloom scares him) but after sitting for a couple of minutes he decided to get up anyway and try again. He pushed all the way out of the house, down through his front yard and got to the gate.

That was as far as he got that day. But even though Flight or Fight really freaked out that day (giving him an upset stomach all that afternoon, and doom and gloom hitting him hard) he focused on the fact that he had never been in danger, that there WAS no danger, just his fears of leaving the house amplified by Flight or Fight.

Push 3

So he tried again that night. And the next morning. And the next afternoon. By day 3 he reached the sidewalk and even got part-way across the street. That day he was making dinner and suddenly had the despair show up – seemingly out of nowhere. It freaked him out until he remembered that he was likely to have “aftershocks” doing this work. He powered through his meal, his fears trying very hard to find something to worry about because of his nausea and his gloom/doom feelings.

Those feelings didn’t go away – he was after all challenging the fearful thinking and reacting of years and years, and NOT backing off – but when he got up the next morning he realized that he was caring less about them – even though they still upset him. So he stayed with it.

It was three weeks before he reached the park. Oddly enough (he said ironically) he found that once he reached the park he could continue all the way to the store another block down the street!

Let’s Review

Flight or Fight isn’t dangerous. But we are both freaked out about it when it fires up because it FEELS like something scary is happening, and because we didn’t understand what was happening when this began we taught ourselves to back away, flee from the messages of Flight or Fight.

Comfort Zone 3

We HAVE to stop fleeing. We’re running away from fire alarms when there is no fire. We’re reacting to the habits of years. Yes, it FEELS scary. It IS hard, especially at the beginning. But the work is done in small steps, and the work happens across time, and the only way out is through –

As some wise people have said we have to learn to get comfortable (to some extent) with being uncomfortable. Discomfort is one of the keys to breaking free of anxiety. Comfort hasn’t been helping us – it has in fact been busy building the walls of our self-constructed prison.

Tired of being a prisoner? You just have to start knocking down some Flight or Fight walls…