When we are thinking anxiously – when we are scaring ourselves in our thinking – we make it hard to think. That’s not news to most of us, I know. If you’re reading this blog (heck, if you’re human) then you’ve had that eager but, in the case of anxious thinking, not so helpful guardian of our safety, Flight or Fight, fire up – and in doing so make it hard to stay rational enough to deal with our fears.

Today’s post is about that challenge – the challenge of keeping our thinking functional enough to meet our fearful thinking, through the roar of Flight or Fight, and make some headway in taking back control of our thinking and lives from anxiety.

It starts with getting clear on what the hell is going on…

A Little Review for the Cheap Seats

It rolls like this: you have a thought that scares you/makes you anxious. The nano-second that happens Flight or Fight gets to work trying to prepare you for the danger you’re anticipating.

Lots of things happen in our bodies when we activate Flight or Fight. For one thing we get ready physically to RUN (or fight if we really have to.) Lots of the reactions we have when we’re anxious can be neatly summarized as just that – our bodies gearing up to take physical, right-now action.

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Heartbeat jumps up, breathing gets faster and more shallow, blood pressure does funny things, stomach shuts down (hence nausea/butterflies) because we DON’T need to digest that donut right now, tingling sensations happen as the extremities get ready for potential injury, etc. That’s one big group of things happening with Flight or Fight.

Meanwhile our emotions are surging – because strong emotions are good motivators when we’re in danger. That sense of dread, that anxious restless feeling, anger, being easily startled, lots more besides – all of that is Flight or Fight as well.

But of particular interest in today’s post is what happens to our thinking under the influence of Flight or Fight –

Brain? What Brain? I don’t have a Brain right now…

When we get ourselves crazed (or even somewhat rattled) over our anxious thinking and Flight or Fight tries to take charge (note the use of the word “tries” here) our brains also have reactions, just like our bodies and emotions. Many of these scare us (they don’t have to) and some of them frankly get in the way of dealing with our anxious thinking.

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One thing that happens is our thinking narrows and sharpens on the crisis we’re creating in our thinking. This is great with a real crisis, since that focus allows us to be totally present for the danger we’re facing down. Another thing is that, when we get really fired up, we can often detach or experience “disassociation” – we seem to float away from our bodies or detach from the world.

This is amazing to experience when we’re in a crisis, because it makes time slow down and gives us distance to see the crisis and have some capacity to deal with it.

Still a third impact of Flight or Fight is that it becomes challenging to take a strategic or problem view of the issue in front of us, mostly because we’re telling ourselves we’re in a crisis, and Flight or Fight only knows one time to solve a crisis – RIGHT NOW.

And this means that we can get caught in what I call the “spin cycle” of worry – i.e., we keep worrying and keep agonizing over the fearful thinking in our skulls, not doing anything useful with it, but definitely feeding our worry and fear, which in turn keeps firing up Flight or Fight, which feeds our worry… etc.

So Thinking gets harder – but it doesn’t get Impossible

Let’s review the thinking issues that can get in the way I just listed:
Narrow/sharpened focus
Spin cycle of worry

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None of this means we CAN’T think when we’re anxious. It just means it is going to take more work. One thing that can seriously help is what might be called “assisted thinking.” All I mean by that is WRITE STUFF DOWN AND MAKE IT EASY TO SEE IT WHEN YOU’RE ANXIOUS.

Write what down, you ask? The thinking you want to be focused on when you’re freaked out with anxious thinking. Things like “this isn’t a crisis, however the hell I feel this moment.” Things like “these sensations are coming from my frightened thinking via Flight or Fight – I don’t have to take them this seriously.” Things like “disassociation isn’t me going crazy – it’s just Flight or Fight.”

Things like “I’ll never solve this worry by worrying about it” and “the only way to break the cycle of what if thinking is to shut down the discussion in the first place.”

I’m not going to promise it is easy. And I AM going to promise that when we seriously face into this specific aspect of the work we ourselves will fight it tooth and claw. Why will we fight it? Because we’re already tempted to believe, by Flight or Fight, that worry is doing us any damn good – and so it feels like we’re doing the right thing by worrying.

Incorrect. Worse than incorrect – utterly life-sucking and pointless. (Note – notice that I’m not talking about taking ALL your unpacking notes, as I recommend you do HERE to identify your scared thinking – I’m talking about taking summary notes, short notes you can put on a 3X5 card or on your phone.)

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So assisted thinking is one tool. Another is getting other people to remind us what’s useful when we’re freaking ourselves out. Maybe we keep a couple of friends and/or family on speed-dial while we’re doing this work. “Hey, Fred, I’m totally in a twist about my damn nausea and my fears that I’m an utter loser – can you slap me around for a minute?”

After all, what are friends for, if not get us sorted out when we need it? 🙂 You’ll probably want to tell them what you need to hear in those moments – don’t leave it up to them to have to guess.

Still another way to work on this to deliberately sit with your fears when you are NOT freaked out and clarify, over and over again, that your fears are not crises, however they feel, but problems – and then tell and retell yourself what those problems actually are – and what you are working to do to deal with them.

Because it can help as much to deliberately face those fears down, again and again, as it can help to do it when you’re in the middle of a freak-out. Expect this to be scary. Expect to fight it and find any reason to not do it.

And, of course, a good therapist or coach can be a great way to help you think when you’re not thinking so clearly yourself. Take notes when you’re with that therapist. Add it to the notes you’re already creating. Get them to help you to practice better, clearer thinking when you’re anxious.

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Because what you can expect, as you continue to do this work, is to slowly get some control over those racing, anxious thoughts. It won’t come fast, and it will be frustrating and scary at points, but it will come. But it can ONLY come with practice and refusing to run away from Flight or Fight…

An Apple a Day

Or, in this case, a thinking practice or three a day, and you’ll begin to see some movement, begin to get some traction in your anxious thinking.

Expect this to be a stop-and-start process. Facing down the thinking that scares us SCARES US – and we each move at the speed that works for us on any given day. And, honestly, most of us don’t learn this taking control of our thinking until we’re forced to by something like chronic anxiety.

But learn it we can. And in learning it we can finally bust free of the fears we’ve been nurturing in our anxious thinking.