We human beings are creatures of experience. We are in some respects the sum total of our personal histories – what we’ve learned directly and what others have taught us. This learning and teaching forms a framework for how we both see and respond to our world.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog most of us have taken very little time to review those histories with a critical eye. We tend to act as if our learning and experience was “the truth” – a reflection of reality. That’s fine much of the time – much of our learning does reflect reality. We can usually trust chairs to hold us up, pizza to be tasty and a bad smell from the milk carton indicating that we shouldn’t take a big drink.

But some of our thinking and assumptions need to be reviewed, called into question and even changed – and that goes double for anyone fighting anxiety on a regular basis. It is thinking that has gotten us into the morass of anxiety, and it is the mission of overcoming anxiety to clean up and correct that anxious thinking.

One BIG assumption I’m challenging in this blog post today is the belief that we need to respect warning signals of Flight or Fight – that we should, when that ancient personal defense mechanism sounds the alarm, immediately react to it by getting away from whatever is making us uncomfortable. That assumption isn’t just wrong, it’s a very bad idea. Because in doing that stepping away we only feed and support the anxious thinking that fired up Flight or Fight in the first place.

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Run Away!

It’s simple. Flight or Fight tells us to RUN when we’re anxious. It’s carved into our very genes. And that’s a brilliant idea – when we’re actually in danger.

But when we’re fighting anxiety WE’RE NOT IN DANGER. Period. There’s no question we’re SCARED. We FEEL like we’re in danger. It SEEMS like something terrible is right on the verge of happening. But it isn’t. Anxious thinking is just that – anxious thinking.

We may understand that intellectually. It is however a deliberate practice to come to understand and resist the temptation to flee when Flight or Fight shouts “boo!” at us. There is no question that the compelling of Flight or Fight is strong. Evolution has made sure that when Flight or Fight fires up we are powerfully motivated to get the hell away from whatever is scaring us.

But we are not the helpless prisoners of Flight or Fight, and it isn’t JUST the motivation of Flight or Fight that we’re battling with when we feel the urgent need to run away. We’re also fighting the assumptions and learning we’ve acquired in the course of our lives. And that’s at least as much the problem as Flight or Fight…

In other words we’re not just fighting our genetic call to flee when we’re scared. We’re also responding to old programming – often unconsciously, especially at the beginning of this work for each of us around overcoming anxiety. It’s programming that SEEMS wise – and which, often, worked in the past.

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Running Away Makes Us Feel less Anxious – for a While

It probably started right from the get-go – right at the beginning of our war with anxiety. Not understanding what was going on – that we had begun to acquire thinking that scared us, made us feel unsafe, had us worrying about the future – we experienced Flight or Fight. Maybe it was yucky nausea. Maybe it was a bad dizzy spell. Maybe we just felt an overwhelming sense of dread.

But whatever it was we KNEW, in our gut, we needed to move away, somehow, from this thinking that made us uncomfortable. And so we did – in one fashion or another. We started suppressing the thinking that scared us. We stepped away from the activity that we were engaged in when we had that sensation or feeling. We flinched back.

And, for a while, we felt better. Whoo-hooo! It worked! We were safe. Or so we thought…

But in fact we were NOT safe – because we were never really in danger. We were facing some problem or set of problems – but we were seeing them as crises, unmanageable, overwhelming, and so we ran away.

Not only were we not safe, but we were creating a terrible set of habits around stepping away from the discomfort and fear of our thinking and of the responses of Flight or Fight, physical and emotional. It’s a double-whammy of that habit being largely unconscious AND how we were training ourselves to avoid discomfort – at all costs.

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We can only Run so far…

One of the hardest (and most crucial) lessons of the fight with anxiety is the scary day that finally arrives when we realize we’ve run ourselves into a corner. Most of us are terribly unprepared to discover that our habit of running one day runs us right into a wall.

I don’t think I have to explain the hard part. We’ve been retreating from the world for years and years and we didn’t even know it. We’ve started limiting our driving, or avoiding the movie theater because we had a panic attack there, or we’ve gone from full-time to part-time to no-time work. We’re scared to go to the store, or the mall, or even outside the house. (Agoraphobia, anyone?)

And every time we retreated we were strengthening our nasty habit of avoiding discomfort, avoiding a feeling of fear or that scary physical sensation or all of the above. Until the day came when what had been safe – retreating, our house, our bedroom, our safe person – didn’t suddenly seem as safe. We were in our safe place – and the anxiety came to visit after all.

Maybe you’re not there yet. Maybe you’re “just” housebound. Or maybe you’re still living your life and you just don’t do some things, or avoid them when you can. And of course it doesn’t have to reach the place where we’re backed against the wall.

The bottom line is that at some point in this work, if we want to be free of the burden and harassment of anxiety in our lives, we HAVE to turn and face down what’s scaring us in our thinking. And part of that work is learning to be comfortable, at least for a while, with being uncomfortable.

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(And, honestly, if we’re going to engage life and get the life we want, one that’s open and free and large and interesting, we’re going to have to acquire the habit of moving through periods of discomfort in our lives. It is part of the recipe for a healthy life.)

OK, so if you’re anything like I was when I was butt-deep in this fight with anxiety you REALLY didn’t like reading that last little bit of blog writing. 🙂 I get it. It feels completely counter-intuitive, dangerous and crazy to talk about risking feeling the way you feel when you’re afraid.

And, as I said earlier, it WORKED to run away – probably for a long time. Which means our first reflex from that training, plus the urging of Flight or Fight, is to keep running away, keep avoiding. The problem is it ISN’T working – at least it isn’t working to do anything to break the power of anxiety in our lives. And, if you’re on approach (or already there) to the place where running isn’t helping any more, well, then you already understand that running is a limited-time option.

I wonder if in fact we don’t all know, down deep, that running isn’t helping, even when it does relieve the fear and pressure…

This isn’t a reason to start blaming ourselves or beating ourselves up for running. 99.9% of us didn’t have the first damn idea what was happening when anxiety began to encroach on our lives. We don’t need to make this into another way we’ve failed – a risk too many anxiety fighters also battle with on a regular basis.

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But we do have to decide to build a new habit. We need to begin to strengthen the “muscle” of our tolerance for discomfort. And that’s going to be stinkin’ uncomfortable for a while, especially when we really turn and face into it – and keep facing into it.

We will be fighting the habit of years and decades. We will be fighting Flight or Fight’s siren song to stop facing and return to running. We will feel angry, and scared, and frustrated, and we will experience the sensations of Flight or Fight that we’ve run from for so long.

Here’s the good news: that’s GOOD. That’s good because we will have started strengthening our ability to deal with discomfort. And that’s good because in turn that strengthening will give us the capacity to unpack and sort out that anxious thinking that started the whole mess – and we can begin to really break free of the grip of anxiety.

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Time to Hit the Gym

I don’t mean the gym like lifting weights – although that’s a good analogy, and we do need to find ways to get physical movement back in our lives if we’ve lost that habit. No, I mean get in the habit of turning and facing down our fears. It’s time to get some comfort with being uncomfortable.

Here are some blog posts to help you do that work:

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Running away is a habit. We need to develop a new habit. And one of the most effective ways I know to start developing that habit is simply DOING the WORK.

That means starting slow and small. Anxiety fighters are prone to over-reach. We’re not talking about marathon face-down sessions when we begin this work. I’m talking about 5 minutes of effort at the start. Then maybe you work up to 8 minutes. Then you take a break. Then you go again.

Muscles that haven’t been used get very grumpy when you first start using them! The metaphor is apt for this work as well. Flight or Fight will protest – after all, you’ve been saying how awful this thing is and how much you hate it for years and years – it’s only trying to do its job. That doesn’t mean however that you should back away and retreat to old habits – at least not for long.

It’s going to feel strange. Hell, it’s going to feel WRONG. You’ll have Flight or Fight sensations, physical and mental, that you’ve never or only rarely felt before. You’ll feel even MORE anxious for a while. That makes sense too. When you stop running and start facing you’re doing something you don’t have good habits for – and you’re looking your anxiety thinking right in the eye. That’s going to be weird and scratchy and scary for a while.

But the way out isn’t running away. You already know that, yes? Nope, the way out is back the way you came, straight into the fears that had you running in the first place.

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