Sometimes, in my zeal to write about all the issues that can surround this work to overcome the hold of anxiety in our lives, I forget how much the basics matter. But this work is all about the basics, and so I’m going to make some time today to pound on the most basic concept of all for anxiety – the temptation/training/too-often unconscious act of converting a problem into a crisis.

THIS is the central issue in both generating and overcoming anxiety. Everything else I talk about in this blog points back to this idea, supports this work and is aimed at getting to us to CUT THIS OUT. Whatever else we do doesn’t do much to ease our anxiety – but if we’re doing this, whatever else we’re doing, we are on the road out.

So bear with me while I go “old school” about Anxiety 101 –


Two little words: problem and crisis. We confuse these words all the time in our talk about anxiety, but clarity is crucial, so listen up:

Crisis-Problem 1

Crisis Thinking: anything that we think is about to kill or seriously injure us, and when I say about I mean in just a matter of moments. That’s a crisis when it comes to how our brains think, and that’s the trigger for the flaring up of Flight or Fight – our natural way to deal with crisis.

Notice how I said “we think” in my definition. It’s essential to understand that it doesn’t have to BE an actual crisis – all it has to be is a crisis in our thinking’s perception. Notice that I didn’t say when we FEEL that something is a crisis – because thinking has to come first, however unconsciously, however quickly. We think, and then we feel.

90% of the fight with anxiety is captured in the above two paragraphs. As long as we’re running a crisis story in our thinking about anything, regardless of it actually being or not being a crisis, it is enough to drive anxiety – anxious thinking, which generates anxious responding in Flight or Fight, which starts us (too often) on a hamster wheel of treating our Flight or Fight reactions as PROOF that we’re in a crisis, when we’re just reacting to our thinking.

Yes, I know, the word “just.” It sure as hell feels like something a lot more serious than “just” reacting to thinking. But that’s precisely the point, because if we’re NOT in an actual crisis – if we’re not on the brink of fierce injury or our own death – then we’re NOT dealing with a crisis, at least not in the way the brain and body understands crisis, and we are earnestly feeding a nasty habit of increasing anxiey.

Crisis-Problem 2

Here’s the wacky part: JUST because we think something is a crisis doesn’t mean it is. Here another wacky part: if something is actually a crisis it isn’t hard to figure out! From my very earliest days writing about this stuff I’ve been saying this statement: if we have time to even ask the question “hey, is this a problem or a crisis?” then it HAS to be a problem.

How do I know that? Because if it is a crisis WE ARE ALREADY DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT. If we hear a child scream in pain we are on our feet and moving before our brains are even clear that we’re in motion – yes? If we hear an explosion near us we duck – yes? If we see a drunk driver start to swerve in front of WE TAKE ACTION NOW – yes?

So – there is crisis thinking and an actual crisis. But the food for anxiety comes from treating something that isn’t a crisis in this moment AS a crisis – crisis thinking. If we’re not facing down imminent death or njury we’re not dealing with a crisis, but a

Problem Thinking:

Problem are not crises. Problems 99% of the time can’t be solved by running or fighting – the way Flight or Fight would have us roll.

See my blog post HERE for an in-depth discussion of problems, what they are and what to do with them. The thing that’s most important for this conversation is the definition of a problem. A problem takes TIME to solve – anywhere from 5 minutes to years, depending on the size, complexity and information/skill needed to solve the problem.


This is the biggest reason we can’t solve a problem like we resolve a crisis (actual crisis.) But there’s something else that’s very important to understand here: problem thinking is a rational, look-at-the-options, think-it-through way of dealing with an issue. We think better in problem thinking than we do in crisis thinking. And we DON’T crank up our anxiety meter when we’re treating something as a problem.

Confusion sets in for most of us when we start saying to ourselves “hey, THIS thing I’m afraid of IS actually a crisis – or at least I sure FEEL like it’s a crisis!” It isn’t feelings that decide whether something is a crisis or not.

Let me say that again. Feelings can’t be our guides in deciding if something IS actually a crisis. You have the definition of crisis in this blog post. It either IS about to eat your face off or it isn’t. A problem is not a crisis.

Feelings depend so much on the story we tell ourselves (largely, if not mostly unconsciously) about an issue or challenge or situation. One person sees a leaky water heater and says oh my Gosh, this is the worst thing ever, this will wreck my savings, infuriate my Significant Other, waste my whole day getting fixed and it probably won’t even get done right! Help! This is a crisis!

Another person has the exact same issue and says well, this sucks, I don’t really want to spend that money, why did this have to happen today, Significant Other could well be cheesed off, but we’ll figure it out and hell, the new water heater will probably be energy-efficient and save us money in the long run. Talk about two different stories…

One generates a crisis reaction. Heaven only knows what happens next… we spend a fortune to get the water-heater fixed NOW. We completely avoid the problem and pretend it hasn’t happened (good luck with that.) We freak out, call 30 friends and burn lifespan regaling them with our horrible lives. We flail, thrash and make ourselves crazy and anxious…

Crisis-Problem 6

One generates some thoughtful phone calls to trusted thinkers who know stuff about plumbing, a visit to Angie’s List or similar vendor referral website, a phone call to the Significant Other to get the finance thing figured out, then a call to the vendor we like to get our water heater PROBLEM sorted out.

Anxiety Fighters are Amazing at Converting Problems to Crises

And we know we are! We have an amazing gift honed over years and decades. We can take almost any sunny day and conjure a rainstorm. We don’t have to keep doing that. Let’s start with the basics in this blog post:

Where are we converting problems to crises? Here are some hints –

1) If we have time to ask this question it’s a problem. It might BE a crisis soon if we don’t do something, or it might not be – but right now it’s a problem, and we’re going to both avoid a lot of unnecessary anxiety AND probably come up with a better answer if we treat this thing as a problem.

2) Is there a what if question present? We don’t have to always identify that question – just the presence of Flight or Fight feelings and reactions (surging emotions, physical stuff that makes us crazy, you know the drill) can answer this question (and assuming you’re not facing down an angry bison.) If you are doing what if questions it’s a lock that you’re making yourself anxious. Time to stand down from that story. Easier to say than do – but it’s a skill we get better at with practice and time.

Crisis-Problem 5

3) Standing down looks a lot like this: how is this actually a problem, and not a crisis? One answer is you’re not about to die – HOWEVER you feel at the moment. Another answer is what are some of the options that might exist to deal with this? If you find yourself nuking every answer that comes up because you can’t do it in the next 30 seconds that a flag on the field as well.

4) Ask someone else what they think. Don’t sit there shouting how terrible this is – simply ask their opinion. (Make it someone you trust and respect, please.) If THEY treat it like a problem, then, well, hmmm – maybe you can too? 🙂 At least in theory for the moment?

I have lots more to say about this elsewhere in this blog. Here are some places to start: HERE, HERE, HERE. In the meantime, try tackling one of your scary what if stories the way I’ve outlined here today. Start identifying where you’re making problems into crises. You’ll be amazed at the real power and strength this thinking skill can, with time and practice, bring you…

So, we all clear on this basic concept? 🙂 There will be a test soon…