One of the great things about being an anxiety fighter in these modern days of 2015 is that there has been some great thinking and study done around what anxiety is and how it rolls. When I set out to create this Fear Mastery model it was in large part to simply organize the best of that thinking into something that people could access and use effectively.

Some of that work comes from Dr. Martin Seligman and research he and his colleagues did in the 60’s and 70’s. I have described these experiments elsewhere in this blog, but I want in today’s post to really drill down into what this research means for us anxiety fighters, and what we need to take away from that study and use fiercely in our own fight with anxiety.

The experiments sounds terrible, and I apologize in advance to the dog lovers in the audience. I was also rattled when I first read about the way this research was done. But don’t fear – the dogs that were subjected to these experiences were taken care of, and in their suffering we came to learn something exceptionally important and useful.

Dogs in Cages

What happened is this: Dr. Seligman’s team put some dogs in situations where they were unable to escape. Under these conditions the dogs could be given a shock, again and again. (This wasn’t excruciating levels of shock – just damn uncomfortable.)

You can imagine the dog’s responses. They barked, they yelped, and they wanted to get away from those shocks. They tried HARD to get free. They couldn’t, of course, and so the first of three very interesting things happened. They gave up.

When I say give up I mean they just lay down on the floor and whined, but stopped trying to escape – even when they continued to receive shocks. (I warned you, this isn’t a very pleasant story so far. But hang on – it gets better.)

Cage 2

The researchers were operating under a theory. They theorized that once the dogs had given up they could set those dogs free and the dogs would bolt to freedom. But that isn’t what happened. What happened was that the dogs still acted like they were trapped. What the hell?

The researchers showed the dogs they were free. They offered the dogs rewards to get up and move. They demonstrated how other dogs were free. They even used threats of punishment. None of that worked for these poor dogs.

And that’s when the second interesting thing happened –

Practicing Freedom Behavior

The people doing this study had to literally pick the dog up and move it through the motions of escaping – make it practice the efforts of getting free – before the dog began to do it on its own. They had to do this multiple times! So, for example, if the dog had to jump over a low barrier to get to freedom the researcher had to move the dog through the motions of jumping, more than once, before the dog understood it was actually free.
(So those dogs didn’t STAY trapped – see, those researchers were not such monsters after all.) 

You see the implications, yes? Because this isn’t just about dogs. It’s about us as well. We, too, become trapped, get shocked again and again and again by our fearful thinking and the reactions of Flight or Fight to that thinking – and we, too, can take away the lesson that because we couldn’t escape from those shocks/traumas/frightening experiences for some part of our lives means we will NEVER escape them.

Cage 3

That’s huge. We like to think of ourselves as smart, self-aware, conscious-of-what-we-are-thinking-and-assuming kinds of people – but in fact we are much more the unwilling slaves of old thinking and learning than we usually understand. We don’t see that we’re trapped in a cage of our thinking, and that, even with open door in front of us to get free of our fears, we will stay trapped, convinced that we have nowhere to go.

And to come to understand THAT is a giant key in getting free of anxiety. Because there is that third interesting thing that came from this research.

Specific vs. General

Lots of people (maybe even most people) have something they think they are trapped by, limited by or shut down by in their lives. You can have a very successful sports star who is terrified of intimate relationships. You can have a business tycoon who avoids the gym because he or she is certain they look stupid. You can have a confident mother of 4 kids who would never dream of taking a part-time job for fear they would fail at it.

Those folks are dealing with anxiety, but they are dealing with anxiety in limited/specific areas. There is however another scenario, one where two or three areas of anxiety wind up teaching a person that EVERYTHING is scary, that the world in general is dangerous and risky, that they can’t trust their bodies or their thinking, etc.

CAge 4

And presto – you wind up with a chronic anxiety fighter. And one of the key components of that chronic anxiety is this thinking that you can’t really escape from your fears and worries. You see yourself as helpless, unable to manage or cope. You develop what I’m starting to call the surrender reflex.

Who wouldn’t be tempted to just lie down, like those poor dogs, in the face of ongoing and relentless anxiety? Our brains are racing to try to find some “solution” to all our various fears, even as we’re running away from them. Our bodies, buffeted by Flight or Fight (firing up in response to all that anxious thinking) are beaten flat by nausea, dizziness, heart speeding up or skipping beats, the shakes, a mysteriously dry mouth, shallow/rapid breathing, and a host of emotional surges…

We have learned/been taught by our experience that there is no way out of our “cage”, and so we learn to give up. I wish they hadn’t needed to make those dogs suffer to understand this, but they helped those dogs learn they weren’t helpless or trapped. It’s time for us to do the same…

There is No Cage

Here’s the exceptional news: the cage exists only in our thinking. Yes, it doesn’t FEEL that way – just like those dogs didn’t feel like they had any way out. But the dogs were wrong, and so are we when we think we’re trapped by anxiety.

I’m going to say it again: the only “trap” we’re in is our thinking. We come to tell ourselves that things are hopeless, that we are helpless, that things will never change, etc. We have been “shocked” again and again as anxiety has filled up our lives (or even just convinced us in one or another part of our lives that we can’t manage that part), so we stop trying.

Cage 1

So who the heck is going to show us how to get out? Well, we’re not dogs (at least I’m assuming my readers are not canines – if one of you is a dog please email me so I can apologize!) and we can use the same brains that have convinced us that we’re trapped and helpless to learn new thinking and behaviors.

1) We need to take this notion that anxiety is thinking-based very, very seriously. It is so tempting to say “I’m just an anxious person” or “there must be some mysterious biological cause to my anxiety”. The most current research gives us nothing conclusive at ALL about anxiety being physically inherited, and while we’re free to spend a lot of time and money searching for exotic illnesses/physical problems we’re at LEAST as well-served to clean up our thinking and get “out of the cage” of our fears at the same time – or even first.

2) We have to identify that thinking. (Starting points: HERE and HERE.) We need to understand the stories that we’ve been telling ourselves for years and decades – how we fail, why we are not good enough, why we can’t trust our thinking or our bodies, how we can never have what we want, etc. Time to staunch the wounds, splint the broken bones of our assumptions, and build new habits of thought.

3) We have to move beyond analysis to action. This doesn’t mean that we just grimly face into our fearful thinking and reactions and hope things change. It means that we both stop flinching back from what scares us AND do the work I’ve mentioned in #1 and #2 above. Action without tackling our anxious thinking will eventually, usually just drive us back into hiding – into our “cages.”

Cage 6

4) We do need help! A competent therapist is a great start and ally in this work. Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a psychologist who will listen and not immediately relegate you to a course of medications – these are all good resources. Shop for someone you connect with, feel good about, and then dive in. Even a good personal coach could go a long ways to helping you clean up your anxious thinking.

5) We also need to relearn what Flight or Fight IS – all those anxious physical and emotional reactions we’re having – and see them as simply efforts to escape the terrible box we’ve built for ourselves. They are not the problem – the box is, and the box is in our thinking.

6) We need useful support from our friends and families, however much we can muster. That’s going to vary from person to person, but we need them to help us focus on the real issues – our anxious thinking, our flinching back, our terrible self-stories of helplessness and hopelessness. They can love us and support us – but we don’t need them to feed those stories or our flinching back. Hand-holding, cookie-baking and cheering on – that’s what we need. (Yes, cookies are vital in this work.)

One more Thing you can do

You can holler at me if you want someone to help you with this work. I’ve been doing this kind of coaching for 5 years now and would be more than happy to talk with you and help you get moving in the right direction. Hit me here at the blog.

One more time: there is no cage, except the one we’ve built in our heads. There is no mystery – we’re wrestling with long-practice anxious thinking. There is a way out.

(For more on this topic reference my blog post HERE.)

Cage 5