In the last two posts I’ve been reviewing both the basics of why we get anxious in the first place (origins and long-term consequences) and the first two of the four skills we must have to break free of anxiety, whatever level of anxiety we are experiencing in our lives. This post covers the last two necessary skills and makes recommendations on how to get started…

(You DID read the last two blog posts, right? This post is MUCH more helpful if you do.)

Skill 3: Converting Crises back to Problems – and Dealing with them AS Problems

OK, so you’ve done some work around where you have been turning problems into crises in your thinking. You’re seeing those issues but they still very much scare you – but that’s because you’re still seeing them AS crises.

The work now becomes transmuting those faux crises back to what they really are – at worst, problems. (You went and read the link HERE about what a problem is and how we tackle problems, right?) What does that look like?

Skills 1

(And BTW, when I say faux crises I am NOT implying that anyone reading this blog, or anyone having panic over a fearful thought for that matter, is weak or stupid for making a problem into a crisis. Just about the entire human race makes these kinds of thinking mistakes. I use faux to mean exactly that – it seems like a crisis, but it isn’t, regardless of how it feels to us.)

I’ll use an example I’ve written about here before in the blog. Towards the end of my time with chronic anxiety and panic attacks I literally forgot to file my taxes. That was tax year 1995. (It was a pretty rough time – lots of stuff got misplaced and lost in my life that year.) The following year, having for the most part broken the hold of anxiety in my life, I realized I hadn’t filed for 1995.

I of course freaked out (which is why I said mostly broken anxiety’s hold – there was still some cleaning up work to do…) So guess what? I KEPT treating the IRS like a crisis and didn’t file for 1996. Or 1997. Or 1998. Or 1999!

When I finally found my courage and called those fine tax people they said one thing: “Mr. Kieser – file your taxes. We can’t do anything until you do that.” And I was flattened by how much THEY didn’t treat my tax issue like a crisis.

Which, of course, it never was. A crisis is us at risk in the next 30 seconds of being injured or killed. The IRS doesn’t routinely show up with knives and attack you when you don’t file your taxes. 🙂 The story gets better – THEY owed ME money for three of the five years I didn’t file.

It had always been a problem – and not much of one, as it turned out. Problems take time to resolve – sometimes a little, sometimes a fair amount. Problems usually take some thinking, some planning, some experimenting to find a good solution. Problems often need a little research/data-gathering. None of those things apply to crises – you either resolve them RIGHT NOW, or you’re injured or even dead…

Skills 6

ALL of my fear – every last drop of it – around the IRS and my taxes came from MY thinking, my turning the issue of taxes into the faux crisis of taxes. I can make that same argument for ANY thinking that isn’t a crisis here in this present moment.

We can do that with almost any thinking we can conjure. It can be as minor as someone saying “no” to a request we make (and that scares a LOT of people, that one thing) or as major as a history of physical and emotional abuse. How can I call the latter “only” a problem, and not a crisis? Because it is in the PAST – it is only hurting us now because we are scaring ourselves (unintentionally, of course) by our thinking around it.

I am NOT saying this is easy-peasy or the work of an afternoon. We spend years and decades teaching ourselves that some problems are crises, and it takes time and diligent effort to undo that thinking. Some of the most intense of that thinking (like the abuse histories I mentioned above) probably requires some help from a therapist. The skillful use of medications to ease the anxiety during that process isn’t a bad thing either. But the bottom line is that it is still very much our thinking that is the problem – how we’re framing what happened or what we’re afraid might happen.

Skills 3

Anxiety comes from this exact source – the treating of anything that isn’t a crisis AS a crisis. These first three skills, taken together, are what will break us free from anxious thinking (and give us entirely new and healthier ways of managing problems AS problems.)

There is one more skill we need to make this work –

Skill 4 – Self-care

One of the skills we anxiety fighters seemed to largely miss in our growing up was a sense of what good self-care looks like/how it operates in our lives. That makes sense – when we’re learning to treat life as a crisis self-care isn’t really first on our priority list.

Yet we’re going to have a hell of a time getting our thinking clear if we’re not taking care of the basics of self-care. What does self-care look like?

1) SLEEP. This isn’t just a problem afflicting anxiety fighters – it seems most of the modern world fails to appreciate how important sleep is to healthy living. The studies seem to be coming thick and fast these days – how sleep affects appetite, physical health, ability to focus/concentrate, even how being seriously short of sleep is akin to be seriously drunk!

We need to get sleep – decent amounts of it (most of us seem to need 7-8 hours) as well as semi-consistent sleep times on a daily basis. This is fundamental, but most of the anxiety fighters I know/talk with are not good self-carers when it comes to sleep!

There’s a host of good information on sleep. Real Age (on the web) is a good place to start, but any decent web search will give you good information on good sleep.

Skills 5

2) MOVEMENT. No, this doesn’t mean you have to buy some gym clothes and start putting in three hours a day at your local health club. It does mean getting up from that couch or chair or bed and, to the extent you physically can, MOVING. Walking, jogging if you’re up for it, swimming, biking (stationary or actual), hell, dancing to the oldies or the latest Beyonce hit – whatever movement looks like for you.

How much? Well, 20-30 minutes is a great start. SO many benefits derive from physical exercise that it would consume a couple of blog posts just to list those out. Clearer thinking, better energy, decreased muscle and joint pain as we get older (yes, you’ll be creaky when you start if you haven’t been moving in a while, but believe me, you’ll also start feeling better overall), improved mood/outlook on life (I learned this one very early in my fight to break anxiety’s hold in my life) –

All of this and more can be derived from getting some movement in your life. It is an important weapon in the war on anxiety.

3) FOOD. I know – you need one more person in your life telling you to eat better. Let me be clear – I’m as big a fan of McDonald’s French Fries as the next guy – but eating decent food (and decent amounts of food) is giant when it comes to self-care. We don’t have to become health food freaks – although that’s legal and there are some pretty great benefits from fierce food management, including weight loss and more energy) – but we do have to curb the worst excesses in our food consumption.

Excesses like too much food in the day for our physical activity level. Excesses like a bag of potato chips instead of just a serving (OK, two servings.) Excesses like no veggies and too much full-power soda.

This is touchy material for a lot of us (myself included) because many of us self-medicate with food to try and ease our anxiety. My whole family in fact does this behavior. And while it almost certainly beats chronic meth use or hitting ourselves with a hammer it gets in the way of our fight with anxiety.

So be kind and patient with yourself if you do medicate anxiety with food – but still recognize the need to start making small changes to your eating habits, with the goal being better energy and nutrition in your work to shake free of anxiety.

Skills 4

4) MEDIA. We live in a world of massive information overload. Cellphones that are now computers, tablets, laptops, TV’s, Ipods, you name it, we are pouring information from it into our skulls. Not all of that is bad by any means. But what is perhaps less useful to us during our work to get free of chronic anxiety?

Daily news consumption is one habit to reconsider. How much disaster and doom do you really need right now? I’m not saying cut yourself off from the world. I am saying that you can’t do much to fix the dust-up in the Ukraine or ease world economic conditions – sorry. 🙂 But you CAN add to your own stress and worry by absorbing the world’s woes – and is that helping anything?

I argue NO – it isn’t helping. It can for many of us simply add to and ramp up our current anxiety. Break the habit. Step away, at least for a while, the relentless watching of news – whatever channels you call authoritative. Time to get more local and less global, at least in the information you’re consuming. You have plenty on your hands with your own life – focus on that for a while…

This isn’t a completely comprehensive list of self-care. But just tackling these basics to some degree will constitute excellent self-care as you make your way out of anxious thinking.

Four Skills, Working Together

In THIS post I talk about these four skills as a set, very much akin to learning to ride a bike. Riding a bike isn’t just pedaling, or just balancing, or just watching for traffic, or just managing the mechanics of braking and hills and turns – it is all those things, working together.

So it is with overcoming anxiety. None of this is complicated – but it takes some work and practice, and we fight some of this pretty hard at the beginning – especially the sitting still long enough to really look our fearful thinking in the eye and face it down.

Skills 2

Expect to start slow. Expect to rebel and flee from the work. Expect to have bad days, even bad sets of days, as you begin this work, and as you move through this work. Expect to have tantrums, and crying jags, and pity parties. All of this is part of the march out of anxiety.

But you can also expect some movement, some new thinking, and some hints of the life you CAN live if you’re not constantly converting problems into crises (and being scared stiff of your own body’s reactions in the form of Flight or Fight.)

The best way I know to start this work is get yourself a journal – paper or computer. Start with skill one – begin to identify where you’re scaring yourself in your thinking. Expect that to kick up some anxious responses! While you’re doing that start the process of reframing Flight or Fight – start practicing seeing it for what it really is- just an alarm system, firing up because you’re pulling the handle.

And while you’re doing that, take a little time and examine your sleep, movement and food habits. What can you do, in small steps, to make those more self-caring for you? And while you’re at it maybe skip “Oz”, “Boardwalk Empire” and the news channel of your choice for a few weeks. What can you absorb media-wise that can make you feel BETTER instead of more stressed?

So – what’s next for you in your skill-building work? Hit me here or at my email address if you would like to discuss issues like journaling for problem-to-crisis thinking or where you might be stuck in this skill-building process – more than happy to help/discuss with you.