If you’re an anxiety fighter then I have some news for you: you are the victim of too many horror films.

You know horror films, right? Those stupid, scary stories where some guy in a mask comes looming out of the shadows to stab or strangle or do some other terrible thing to a petrified, screaming victim. The stories vary, but the outcome is the same. The person meets some grim fate and the monster stumbles on, looking for the next victim.

Well, if we’re fighting anxiety, we’re the victim of horror films. We didn’t set out in any deliberate way to buy a ticket to this stupid movie, but here we are, glued to our seats, staring in fascinated, freaked-out horror at the stories playing over and over again in our thinking. And although we think our mission is to shout at the screen and tell the knucklehead that’s about to be attacked to get the hell out of there (or squeeze our eyes and cower in our chair) what we really need to do is get up and walk out of the performance.

The Movie

The people who study neurology (brain scientists) tell us that the left hemisphere of the brain is quite a little storyteller. In a sense that side of our brain is constantly interpreting the world, constantly telling itself what is happening and what it means to us.

Here’s another little interesting factoid: that story doesn’t have to have much to do with what is actually happening. Yes, it’s true – the story doesn’t have to match up with what is actually going on, not for the left hemisphere of the brain. The left side of the brain wants to make sense of things, put some structure around what is happening – but it is deciding what is happening more than it is clarifying what actually IS happening.

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In other words, it’s making a movie… a story about what is going on in the world and in our experience. You know how movies can be, yes? How they can suck you in, overwhelm your senses if you’re not paying attention, get you shouting at the screen or crying or laughing or whatever the movie is trying to evoke in you? Only when the lights go up do we start to realize that it was just a story, just a movie…

Well, that is happening in your thinking all the time! You and I and everyone else are responding to “The Movie in our Minds” (to paraphrase the song title from “Ms. Saigon.”) But unlike in the movies we can lose sight of the truth that we are interpreting the world, seeing it through our story – and it takes a bit more work to regain perspective, get clear on what is actually going on vs. what we’re telling ourselves about what is going on.

Let me say that again: we can easily lose sight of what is objectively true (what’s actually going on around us) because of the story we’re telling ourselves, by how we’re interpreting what’s happening in our lives. That’s not weird, or strange, or sick – it is utterly human, very, very normal, and everyone, anxiety fighter or not, gets caught in that thinking challenge.

We anxiety fighters just take it to an extreme…


So let’s say you are walking down the street and you see a friend. You smile and say hi to them and they look over at you, no sign of recognition in their face, nod uncomfortably and keep walking. It looks like they are upset with you, or like they don’t want to talk to you, and you’re offended. What the hell was that about?

You start reviewing the last encounter you had with that person. Did you say something they didn’t like? You think about your mutual friends. Did someone say something nasty about you to this person? You look at how your dressed. Did you make some fashion mistake and piss this person off?

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Most people spin this story out, usually by making some decision based on their experience and what they think happened. And that’s when the trouble REALLY starts, because now they begin acting on what they’ve assumed AS IF IT WAS THE TRUTH. In other words they’re telling themselves a story, creating a movie in their minds, and now they treat it as fact.

Let’s run with the they-must-be-mad-at-you-for-something-you-said notion. You come through your thinking until you find what they must be mad at, decide that’s the problem, then start being angry because of course you didn’t mean to say anything that would upset them, why can’t they see that, they’re really stupid and selfish to assume that… etc.

So what happens? You see that person the next day and now you’re hurt, or mad, or upset, or pissed off, and so YOU give THEM the cold shoulder. They say hi to you and you’re chilly, distant, barely acknowledging their presence. Or maybe you drop some scathing comeback like “well, NOW you have time to say hello to me!”

Why do we do this? Two reasons: 1) in creating these stories about our experience we begin to see the world THROUGH our story, and 2) as we tell ourselves those stories we have reactions to them – i.e., Flight or Fight fires up and makes them SEEM real, FEEL real.

That is, until, after our snippy comment, our friend says “what the hell? What are you talking about? Why are you so upset?” If we’re honest we say because hey buddy, you treated me like dirt yesterday. Then, to our chagrin, they tell us that they just learned their Mom is sick, or their son failed math again, or their company might be sold and they’ll be out of a job… and they didn’t even see you as a result.

Whoops. There you were, busy telling yourself this fierce and angry story, sure you were right, and… you were wrong. Don’t you feel silly now? 🙂

What If – the Ultimate Movie Maker

Anxiety is a result of what if thinking. That’s the first principle of this Fear Mastery work. We cannot be anxious unless we’re caught up in some what if thinking of one flavor or another. Another way to say that is that we’ve constructed scary movies about our lives, about our futures, and we’re running them, consciously or otherwise, on the movie screen of our thinking, over and over again – and scaring ourselves the whole time.

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How did it start? There are so many possible scenarios, but it comes down to this: at some point we each had to learn a story about making a situation, issue or problem into a crisis in our thinking. Let’s pick the topic of self-sufficiency for this discussion – how capable we see ourselves as being able to take care of ourselves in the world.

If we learned as younger humans that we had some capability to deal with life as it comes – that we can hold down a job, have friends, feed ourselves, etc. – then we see ourselves as capable, and see that self-support as at most a problem. Challenges will come, issues will surface, but we can deal with them when they do.

If, however, we come to believe that we are NOT capable (we get told that, we try some things and we don’t learn the right lessons about our ability, we are traumatized by some terrible experience that rocks our world and our self-confidence, or all of the above) then we’re going to see capability as a crisis for us. We’re going to construct a story that we’re not capable, that we’re going to be dependent on other people to get by, that it would be terrible if we were alone… in other words, we’re going to build “what if?” stories about our capability in life, wherever we doubt that.

Ugh. Without intending to you’ve hired a film crew, got some actors, rented a wardrobe and made yourself one hell of a movie. It’s in color, it’s dramatic and scary and horrible, and you run that movie a LOT in your thinking. You run it so much early on that you may not even be conscious you’re running that film – but it’s there, and it’s scaring you, and usually at the worst possible times

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What if I can’t make it on my own? What if I wind up alone and then I die because I’m alone? What if people see me as weak? What if people think I’m a failure? What if I can never have the life I want because I’m incapable of making it? And on and on and on…

Here’s the worst part about this: you are making this movie based ON YOUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE EXPERIENCED, rather than on what’s really true. Failure in the past doesn’t guarantee failure in the future. Lack of skill then (when you first started making that movie) doesn’t mean you can’t acquire skill NOW. Lack of training is just lack of training, not proof that you’re doomed to never be able to care for yourself.

But the story is STRONG, and reinforced by years of sitting in that movie theatre, watching it over and over again, interpreting your experience through that movie…

This movie could be about almost anything – relationships, money, physical health, coping with getting older, career, children, church/faith, success, you name it. And of course every anxiety fighter is watching more than one horror film at the same time in our theatre, i.e., we have multiple stories running in our thinking – this can get to be one noisy, scary moviehouse…

Time to Leave the Theatre

When we “what if?” in our thinking is when we get anxious. That means we have to start disrupting the habit of “what if?” thinking to get free of anxiety. One tool in our arsenal is to SEE that we’re very, very energetically (as anxiety fighters) engaging with our movies, our what if thinking, and to begin to develop a new habit – seeing the what if crises we’ve been feeding for so long in our thinking as problems we can address and find ways to manage.

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One vital way we can do that is to stop watching the damn movie in the first place. We have developed a nasty habit of engaging in the what if dialogues in our thinking, aided by the encouragement of Flight or Fight, in an effort to somehow solve these what if crises we’re conjuring in our thinking. We feel compelled to revisit them again and again, trying to not be the victim, to get away from the guy in the mask in our horror story…

When what we need to do is shut off the film in the first place.

That’s not easy. Habits are strong creatures, and we’ve been feeding these habits for a long time. Add to that how Flight or Fight makes it all seem so real, FEEL so real, and we’re pulled right back into the chair in that movie theatre in our minds.

The work starts by first getting conscious of our films at all. That’s work by itself – figuring out where we are turning issues/challenges/problems into crises in our thinking. It continues by see how Flight or Fight, reacting to our frightened thinking, feeds those scary stories and becomes, in our thinking, itself a scary thing. It means practicing a new understanding of what being anxious is about, seeing anxiety and our thinking clearly, and actively discounting the messages we’re getting from Flight or Fight.

It comes down to focusing what we actually know, what we’ve actually learned is true, rather than deciding to surrender again to what feels real, to what our histories and our thinking want to make us think is true. It comes down to letting go of the illusion that by constantly engaging our fearful thinking we’re going to get anyplace and do anything constructive about that thinking.

It means allowing ourselves to be scared AND see through the fear to what’s actually happening – that we’re scaring ourselves, habitually, in our thinking. That’s how we push ourselves up out of that chair and make our way down to the exit, leaving the horror films running in an empty theatre.

Time for a New Movie

Ever sneak into another theatre when you went to the movies because you didn’t like the film you paid for? It’s kinda fun. That’s possible with anxiety too. It’s a lot more work than just trying to avoid the usher, but it’s utterly something we can all do.

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The work is hard. It doesn’t just happen with one or two practice sessions. It means a rigorous self-honesty and a determination to get your life back, regardless of how crappy you feel on any particular day or in any specific hour. It means CHOOSING to be scared for a while in order to get free of chronic anxiety.

It means defying habit and refusing to review the what if thinking again – and not doing that very successfully while you begin to build a new habit and new skills. It means Flight or Fight screaming at you to sit down – you’ve GOT to keep paying attention to those stories. It means distracting yourself, occupying yourself with new thinking, even when it seems stupid and pointless, even when your what if thinking is insisting you focus on it again.

It means getting up from the chair and sitting down again. Hell, it means changing chairs in the theatre as you fight to get to the exit. It means stepping on toes and having people yell at you because you’re in the way. It means a lot of discomfort. It means getting a LOT more uncomfortable, for a period of time, before you feel less afraid.

But there’s nothing quite like exiting that theatre, getting away from that endless horror film in our thinking.