In my last post I summarized the nature of anxiety as I’ve framed here in this blog. If you haven’t read that post already let me encourage you to do – it frames today’s discussion. That blog explains the origins of anxiety and the long-term consequences of on-going or chronic anxiety.

This post is the first of two posts to review what we can DO about anxiety in our lives. As I said at the end of the last post part of the fight is just understanding what the hell is going on when we are anxious – the thinking that fuels it, the Flight or Fight reactions that amplify it, and the terrible feedback loop that thinking and reacting creates if we don’t understand what’s going on.

But understanding, as significant as it is, will not usually do the trick by itself. We also have to face down our fearful thinking and reactions – face them down and change the thinking and meaning that we’ve been scaring ourselves with this whole time. We have to DO as well as understand. We need to develop skill in four ways:

Skill 1: Identify where we are Turning Problems into Crises

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I listed out in the last blog post a sampling of the things, issues, challenges, life experiences we can transmute from a problem into a crisis. I defined crisis as life-or-death, right-now risk to life and limb – the definition that we would have for a crisis in the natural world. I defined problem as ANYTHING not a crisis.

That definition is huge, and the distinction is literally the difference between calm, reasoned, healthy thinking and panic/anxiety thinking. We have to get clear when we are doing one and when we are doing the other!

One person experiences a minor fender-bender. They are frustrated, maybe even annoyed, but they see it as just an issue to take care of with insurance and a body shop. They say a small prayer of thanks for it not being any more serious and shake their heads at the vagaries of the world.

Another person has the same exact fender-bender. But this person starts a riff on “what if?” thinking in response to this accident. “What if this had been worse? What if I had arrived at the intersection 2 seconds later and it was a broadside? What if my insurance gets mad at me for having an accident? What if my wife or husband is pissed off? What if I have ANOTHER accident right after this one and lose my insurance?”

Any of those questions sound familiar to you? 🙂 We start envisioning the possible results of our what if thinking (the broadside, the accident being worse, our insurance saying they don’t want to pay for this for some reason, an angry spouse, a string of accidents…) and of course what happens is we start scaring ourselves.

In other words we began treating this problem (a fender-bender) as a real, life-and-death crisis. And in doing so we fire up Flight or Fight – of course we do – because we’re SCARED, and that’s what Flight or Fight does.

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Flight or Fight then starts trying to get us to safety – oh my God, a string of accidents, my spouse yelling at me, money lost to a stupid accident, etc. – but of course there is nowhere really to go. We can only try to push the thinking away, distract ourselves, eat a pizza, get lost in “Lost”, anything to take our minds off this horrible thing…

Which actually was never horrible to begin with. It is just a problem. That’s pretty important to focus on. It is a PROBLEM. There are effective ways to deal with problems (see my post HERE about problem-solving), but treating a problem as a crisis usually makes us crazy (read: anxious!) and often doesn’t do a damn thing for actually solving the problem.

We have to start seeing where we learned, long ago for most of us, to turn some kinds of problems into crises in our thinking.

Be clear on what I said in my last post about how this thinking very often gets walled away from our conscious thinking, largely because it can scare us so badly. It will often take some work and time to break those walls down, and more work to practice “staying in the room” while you look at that thinking squarely – that takes some practice, patience and time.

Please note that I’m definitely trying to make light of or treat as trivial our fear around our thinking. That fear and anxiety creates the very serious problems of chronic anxiety, panic attacks, depression and even PTSD. I AM saying that if we’re not actually in danger – if we’re facing scary thinking, rather than actually physical danger IN THAT MOMENT – then we are still looking at a problem to deal with, not a crisis to flee.

One last thought in this direction: there are really two kinds of problems we face – problems we can do something about (which is a hell of a lot of the problems we deal with in our lives) and there are problems we can do nothing about. In EITHER case it is a colossal mistake to treat EITHER kind of a problem as a crisis – because when we do, we begin to generate ongoing anxiety in our thinking and lives.

Skill 2: Learn to Discount the Meaning of Flight or Fight Responses

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Right alongside the work of starting to excavate out that problem-as-crisis thinking is the skill of treating Flight or Fight effectively/correctly, instead of letting it make you crazy and frightened.

I list HERE all the ways that Flight or Fight activates in our body. From that impressive list most of us find two or three or four that REALLY freak us out when they surface in our bodies. We, over time, learn to treat Flight or Fight as the enemy – through no fault of our own. We just don’t understand that Flight or Fight is nothing more than a very effective alarm and emergency response system, honed over 100’s of millions of years, to get us MOVING when we are really, actually in danger.

The problem (and it really is a problem!) is that the alarm is going off because WE are pulling the handle, not because we’re actually in danger.

Sure – that’s easy for you to say Erik – but it feels so damn scary! I get it! It is scary. The million dollar question is WHY is it scary? Two answers – it is supposed to motivate us to action when are actually in danger, so it feels strong, overwhelming, like there really is a crisis. And it feels scary because, not understanding what was happening when it first began in our lives, we created a pretty strong story of how terrible, how awful, how bad it was when it did fire up.

What do we DO about this? We get clear, first, on the thinking that we’re doing that’s making crises out of problems. Just understanding when you can expect this to happen is a good step in the right direction. We can start seeing our thinking more clearly and at the minimum not taking it quite so seriously – even if it’s only a little intellectual understanding that Flight or Fight will fire up when we do scary thinking.

We also start deliberately changing the story in our thinking around what Flight or Fight MEANS. Which means more practice NOT running away from the anxious thinking and responding we’re doing – means being with that anxious thinking, even if only briefly, and while there starting a new set of meanings about Flight or Fight.

Meanings like it actually can’t (and never has) hurt us. Sure, it’s been scaring the crap out of us – but that’s what alarms do when they go off and we think it means both that something terrible is happening and we don’t seem to have any control over it.

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Meanings like it isn’t Flight or Fight making us scared – not really – it is the anxious thinking that we’ve been doing that fires up Flight or Fight in the first place that’s the REAL problem. Sure, we’ve also built some fearful thinking around Flight or Fight – but that, again, is a THINKING issue – not Flight or Fight.

This is a vital step in this work because we can very easily try very, very hard to make Flight or Fight somehow stop without changing the thinking that is making it activate in the first place. This is, sadly, a big waste of time and energy.

Two Down, Two to Go

Let’s review – steps one and two are identifying where we are making anxious thinking happen in the first place (the conversion of problems to crises in our thinking) and the fear that both comes naturally to and we’ve generated around Flight or Fight in reaction to our fearful thinking. See these are two skills in a total of four that are essential in breaking the grip of anxiety – and skills are things we grow and develop with practice over time.

In the next post I review the last two necessary skills in overcoming anxiety. In the meantime see the posts HERE and HERE that discuss these skills in more detail – and feel free to start some of this work for yourself as well. 🙂

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