There is a very specific obsessive behavior that Flight or Fight, in reaction to our frightened, anxious thinking, drives us to do over and over again. It FEELS like something we HAVE to do, and it even feels scary to NOT do it – but it is not only a waste of our time, it is one of the active sources of our ongoing anxiety. And it is a total waste of our time and energy.

In a sense this post is a follow-up to the last post on acceptance. You might also find it useful to review this post HERE on what problem-solving is, vs. what anxiety worry and treating things as a crisis tempts us to do.

What Flight or Fight calls us to do is this: it tries to get us to “solve” the terrible scenarios that we conjure in our anxious thinking, consciously or not – and in so doing sets us up to keep scaring ourselves, over and over again, and feel even more compelled to resolve our hypothetical fearful thinking…

It all Starts with Scary Movies in our Heads…

Let’s do a little review. Chronic anxiety – really, anxiety of any kind – stems from one simple mis-step in our thinking. That mistake is to start trying to treat a problem, issue or challenge that is NOT life-threatening, not immediately about to kill or maim us, as if it was a life-or-death crisis. If you’ve read this blog at all then you’re crystal clear on this being the heart of all the misery and dysfunction that anxiety brings into our lives.

Solving the Future 1

Let’s do a little more review. The moment we start treating anything like a crisis, whether it is a crisis or not, we activate Flight or Fight. And one of the essential features of Flight or Fight is the automatic (and I mean automatic, as in pre-programmed, part of the DNA coding we have in dealing with real danger) attempt to escape, if at all possible, the danger we’ve told ourselves we’re facing.

One more time for the cheap seats: Flight or Fight, the moment it fires up, begins trying mightily to get us clear of whatever danger, real or manufactured in our thinking, that we think we’re facing down. One of the features of that attempt to escape is figuring out the worst-case scenarios.

This is brilliant. You really should reach around and pat yourself on the back for that amazing reflex. If you’re actually in danger your brain is WAY ahead of anything you could muster in a moment in the way of a response. In nano-seconds our brains our assessing the situation and working furiously to give us alternatives in the face of that danger.

But of course we’re not talking about real danger. We’re talking about the fears we’ve been nurturing, without meaning to, in our busy gray matter. And that sets in motion us trying to “solve” the future, in increasing desperation, and in utter futility.

Trying to Escape what isn’t there

Let’s say you’re afraid of facing down a difficult/scary conversation with your Significant Other. Let’s make the subject money management. The moment you begin thinking about the conversation you need to have you fire up Flight or Fight. In the midst of that reaction you begin, consciously or semi-consciously, worrying about how the conversation will go…

Solving the Future 2

Your brain starts to examine specific potential outcomes (according to your thinking.) Maybe you’re afraid that there will be a fight. Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll have to confront a serious shortage, directly, in your shared finances. Maybe you’re not even that clear on what scares you about the money thing with your partner – you just know that you ARE scared about it and don’t want to have this conversation.

Your thoughts riffle through what MIGHT happen (again, according to your fears.) What if he or she gets very angry? What if this damages your relationship? What if they never speak to you again? What if they storm out of the house, or even leave you forever? What if… well, you get it, yes?

Now you’re busy REALLY scaring yourself. Your brain begins to try to solve the terrible idea that you will wind up alone, without support, on the street, the wind howling around you… or whatever your idea of scary looks like at the present moment. You’re full-on treating this scenario in your head as a crisis – even though it hasn’t happened, even though it isn’t real –

And so your brain revves up a merry-go-round of efforts to “solve” this crisis – which isn’t a crisis at all. It isn’t even REAL. It’s simply a conjecture in your head. You’re trying to escape what isn’t there – and it is feeding your anxiety in a big, big way.

Now you have Flight or Fight really going strong in your thinking and body. Now you’re freaked out, a little or a lot, and the most natural thing in the world at this point is to try and run away from this thinking completely – or at least try to. Except of course that Flight or Fight is still trying to save you from the terrible danger of this conversation… the conversation that hasn’t happened yet… and the outcomes that are for the moment only in your head.

But it COULD happen that way!

Well, at least some part of your brain is saying that when you’re in Flight or Fight. Of COURSE its saying that – because you’re freaking yourself out about what MIGHT happen. You’re treating a problem (if it is a problem) as a crisis.

Solving the Future 3

Sure, Erik, but you don’t KNOW my Significant Other. He or she is a crazed wombat when it comes to money. And I’m not convinced that I can manage my own money anyway. And he or she is my primary support. And I can’t imagine my life without someone to help me with money. And what if I run out of money and never have any money ever again? And what if…

And you’re off and running again. It is what Flight or Fight DOES when we are fired up treating any issue/challenge/problem as a crisis. What does that mean?

1) It means we have to identify when we do that, with the issues we do it with as we’re doing it. It can be anything, about anything, and it can happen anytime. (It will in fact happen anytime to those of us that fight chronic anxiety, until we get that thinking sorted out.) We need to develop a brand-new skill (for us) of identifying where we turn thinking into a crisis.

2) We also need to begin to practice the awareness/understanding that IF we are trying to solve the future and we are NOT about to be consumed by man-eating piranha that we are by DEFINITION doing crisis thinking about a problem/issue/challenge. We don’t ALWAYS have to identify the specifics in that moment – but it is damn useful to start going “hey, I’m anxious – which means I’m up in the future, doing what if thinking, right now.”

That can be signaled by the conscious thoughts we notice – us solving the future in this unworkable way. Or it can just be the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight – anxious, restless, upset stomach, dizzy, angry, feeling helpless, etc.

Both 1 and 2 on this list are great things to practice – and they we need to practice both.

3) We really, really need to see Flight or Fight not as the enemy – however much we’ve learned to hate the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight, however much we’ve trained ourselves to run like hell from Flight or Fight – but see it is just as reactive as we are when we have anxious thoughts. In other words we can really use the practice of understanding that we’re treating Flight or Fight as a crisis – when it isn’t.

'See if our technical people can get this up and running.'

We attach so much significance (largely unconsciously) to Flight or Fight reactions that have no basis in reality. We really are able to change those meanings, call bullshit on them and diminish the significance of this set of reactions to our fearful thinking. We can learn to stop scaring ourselves when we experience Flight or Fight.

We Can’t Solve The Future

But we can, definitely, stop spending all our time there. We can come to understand that our frantic efforts to get away from Flight or Fight, and our fierce focus on trying to figure out some way to avert disaster, in whatever form we are currently imagining it, is all the product of asking ourselves scary what if questions about the future, coupled with the desperate efforts of Flight or Fight to “get us to safety.”

Ugh! We can get off this merry-go-round! It isn’t instant, and it will take some work – but it is within every human’s reach. Tired of the ride? Want to stop all that crazed spinning?

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