Ugh. Anxiety is fear about the future – fearful what if thinking about things that scare us. That’s the bottom line. To break anxiety’s hold we have to break the habit of the repeated what if dialogues in our heads.

One element that gets in our way in our thinking/fearful ruminating about the future are the things that we refuse to accept about life and the world we live in. We have set some issues up, usually through no fault of our own, into huge scary monsters that roar at us from their misty future location in our brains.

We can only defang those monsters if we’re willing to look them in the eye and see through them. In Malaysian cultures children are taught to face the monsters they find in their dreams – and to face down those monsters. That’s a huge gift to give children. Unfortunately here in the West we too often learn to run away from our monsters instead…

Refusing to Accept is a form of Running Away

Human have amazing imaginations. We can conjure things in our thinking that don’t exist (and may never exist) and imbue them with life, color and energy. That’s a remarkable ability. As smart as you think your dog is he or she doesn’t have anything like that kind of imagination. Imagination has been one of the key gifts in the building of our human world.

But the gift can be a curse when we turn anxiety loose on our imagination. It’s a natural sin, and one we have to be aware of to do much about. This is especially likely to happen when we begin think that we’re in danger – real or imagined.

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Why? Well, one of the features of Flight or Fight works like this: when it fires up in our bodies and brains it starts estimating which route is safest/most likely to work in our efforts to get away from danger. (I.e., what will be most likely in getting me out of danger’s way?) This is very effective in dealing with an angry mob or lions looking for a snack…

It is not so effective, however, when it comes to imagining ways to escape the IRS bill you owe, the doctor you need to visit or the in-law you’d like to avoid. Flight or Fight evolved to deal with real, present-moment CRISES. That means dealing with immediately available facts and the situation right in front of us. But PROBLEMS (including the ones we inflate into crises) don’t usually consist of either immediately available facts OR are situations we have to solve this second.

Which means Flight or Fight isn’t nearly so useful to us in problem situations. So when Flight or Fight fires up it just starts to mess with us! We start imagining the worst-case scenarios – and our monsters are born. Flight or Fight is just trying to help us, chiefly by trying to help us figure out the worst-case scenario and then figure out a solution…

Only it’s operating on limited facts/information, and it really can’t solve a problem that’s still up in the future – not the way it can solve or largely solve an immediate, right-now situation. I’ll bet you know what I’m talking about.

A Scenario you Might Recognize

Let’s try that doctor thing. Say you are supposed to see the doc for a problem – a racing heart, maybe, or high blood pressure. You are afraid that something is wrong. Flight or Fight, trying to help you, starts imagining the worst-case scenarios in an effort to “figure a way out.” Great – except that you don’t know a lot of info yet. You don’t know your physical situation well enough to make any good evaluations. That’s why you’re going to the doctor!

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But you have fears about where you are physically. So you conjure possible scenarios – and they scare you. What if the doc says your BP is too high? What if that means it’s straining your heart, or putting you at risk for stroke? What if the doc puts you on medication? What if that medication doesn’t work, or makes you dizzy, or makes you want to eat pizza? (OK, that last isn’t really scary.) What if you have to stop eating certain foods? What if you never get better? What if your brain explodes? Etc. Etc. Etc…

Sound familiar at all? Now you’re all freaked out. Your heart IS racing, or you’re feeling nausea, or you’re screaming no way I’m not going to the doctor, or whatever you’re doing in your anxiety and fear. So you refuse to go to the doctor. Great. You’ve managed to avoid the scary outcomes you’ve summoned –

Except that by running away, by refusing to accept the situation and find out what you can in order to do something helpful for yourself, you’ve only managed to 1) feed your fears more and 2) set yourself up to do more avoiding. That might not be bad today, or tomorrow – but that doesn’t mean you’ve done anything to really deal with the problem that might be there – or dispel your fears if it isn’t.

Not Accepting Doesn’t mean that Thing is not There

Running away feels good – for a while. Maybe for years. But, to keep playing with that doctor scenario, you have this little voice in the back of your head (the rational part, trying to shout over the anxious part of you) saying hey, sure would be nice to KNOW what’s happening with that blood pressure thing. If there’s a problem we could do something about it. But anxiety isn’t having it. NO, it shouts, it’s better if we just pretend that nothing’s wrong, or if we can’t pretend, just refuse to accept the possibility. We’ll feel safer that way.

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But that doesn’t change anything – and we KNOW it. And of course it isn’t like anxiety contents itself with just worrying about blood pressure and doctor responses. Nope, it starts worming its way into other parts of our life – and it fact has been doing it the whole time. We develop a terrible habit of running away – and that habit only gets stronger the more we support it.

Crises, real-life crises, come and then get resolved, one way or another. You’re either in a life-or-death situation or you’re not! It’s either happening or it’s over! But problems don’t usually work that way. In fact they NEVER work out that way, because when it becomes life-or-death then it isn’t a problem any more – it’s a crisis.

Problems, even problems we inflate into crises in our thinking, have a way of not going away – until we do something about them.

Which means we have to start to challenge that nasty habit of avoiding, of not accepting the world we live in as it is right now. Sure, we’re scared. I get it. I was scared as hell of lots of things back in my fight with anxiety. I ran like a champion.

But all that did for me was slowly worsen problems I was avoiding, as well as made me MORE anxious. Because our brains are not really fooled. We can run, and we can refuse to accept, but we still KNOW down deep that the problems are still there, lurking in the shadows. We really do have to develop the skill and strength to open the closet door, look under the bed, and face down our scary monsters…

99% of our Monsters are not Monsters at all

One of the most wonderful, and often the most infuriating, things about those monsters we’re avoiding is when we discover they are not monsters at all. We go to the doc and… discover our BP is fine, or a little elevated. We call the IRS (gasp!) and learn that we can pay what we owe in installments – they just want their money. We face down the in-law and realize that while he or she is tedious, even annoying as crap, the visit doesn’t kill us.

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Not accepting seems to automatically mean we make our problems-turned-to-crises larger and larger in our thinking. Small things get bigger, big things get huge, and we burn tremendous amounts of energy and lifespan running away, avoiding, not accepting the things we need to face down.

Flight or Fight is to blame for all of this. It’s trying so hard to help us “escape” our monsters – but it can’t. There’s nothing to escape. We have problems to address and solve, not crises to flee from, however it feels.

WE are the ones shouting “Oh my God this is terrible!” Flight or Fight obediently tries to help us escape the scary monster… which isn’t a monster at all. So even Flight or Fight is the helpless prisoner of our fearful thinking.

In other words we have to tackle the thinking that is scaring us if we are to deal with and overcome anxiety. It really all does come down to that.

Great, you say. That’s lovely. And you’re right Erik – I’m running away from problems I’ve made into monsters most of the time. But there are problems that I really can’t do a damn thing about –

What about the 1%?

Good point. There are problems we can do something about – the doctor visit, the IRS, the in-law – but there is a much smaller cluster of problems that we CAN’T resolve. We just have to accept them as part of our world, part of the world in general.

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Aging is one of those problems. We’re all going to get older (or, in my case, GETTING older.) We can rave about it, we can go get cosmetic surgery, we can eat healthy and get lots of sleep and wear facial masks and we’re still going to age. OK. That’s still not a crisis, whatever we think about aging. It’s a problem that we can’t solve – but we can learn to accept it as part of life, and then get about the business of living.

There is a whole little class of problems that we can’t solve by OURSELVES. We might potentially solve them with the assistance of other people – world hunger, the Middle East Mess, etc. – but we won’t do it by ourselves. We can contribute – help out – try to make a difference –but we won’t solve it all by our lonesome. What can do then? Not make it into a crisis. It’s a problem that’s too big for us alone .

And of course there’s the little problem we call death. Yes, death sucks. Nobody really wants to die. (Think of all the cookies that won’t get eaten when I, for instance, pass from this world.) Guess what? We will die. I don’t like it any more than you do.

But we can’t solve it. We can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen! We HAVE to accept it and get about the business of living while we are here, now. If we don’t we run the risk of running away from death, start treating it like a crisis, and when we do that we feed anxiety – and slowly begin to lose the capacity to live our life in the here and now.

In other words we can live until we die, or we can shut down our joy and engagement and life by running like hell away from something that will happen anyway. Only one of those makes any damn sense, yes?

Stop Running – Start Facing and Accepting

Avoidance. Monsters. Problems we can solve (which are most of them, in one form or another of solution) and problems we can’t solve. None of these things have to rob us of our capacity to live. And none of these things need to take up much more time in our thinking, making us anxious and keeping us trapped in our fears.

It starts with accepting where we are. It starts with accepting that our fight with anxiety is a thinking problem, and not some mysterious illness or mental breakdown. It starts with accepting that we have to turn and face down our closet monsters, our (unintentionally) conjured scary future scenarios. And it starts with accepting that Flight or Fight really can’t hurt us (has no interest in hurting us).

We can face down our fears. We can convert crises, the crises we’ve made in our thinking, back into problems. We can get our life back. It’s scary. It means a new way of thinking. It also means that we can get our lives back from our fears. Anyone can do this work, with the right information and a little encouragement.

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