We who fight anxiety (and who have become aware of the fearful thinking that lies at the core of anxiety) find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. (Why do dilemmas have horns? Are there any pictures of horned dilemmas?) The dilemma is this: we FEEL very anxious, very afraid, and we have learned/taught ourselves over time that we should RUN from how this crap feels.

BUT if we run we only retreat more and more from our lives, more and more from everything that scares us – and at the end of that run lies a wall. So we KNOW we need to push back on our fears, but when we do it is SO SCARY…

If we’re not careful we can slide into a pattern of pushing on our fears, then running away, pushing on our fears, then running away – but neglecting to deal with the source of all that anxiety, our what if thinking. In other words all the pushing in the WORLD won’t do most of us much good unless we get to the heart of the problem. We have to shut down what if thinking.

Let’s talk about how.

We are NOT obligated to think about our Worries – even though it feels like we are…

Action 1

Let’s understand something fundamental about Anxiety – it’s only composed of two elements. Yes, that’s right, just two things. 1. What if thinking, 2. Flight or Fight. That’s it. Yup, nothing more complicated than that.

Here’s the rub: Flight or Fight, once it is fired up, has one mission – GET US OUT OF DANGER. One of the ways it is trying desperately to do that is to find a SOLUTION to our current “crisis.” It won’t stop by itself. It hears you screaming “Oh My Gosh I’m scared of (fill in the blank)” and it says “Sir Yes Sir! Looking for a solution now Sir!”

And off it charges, frantically trying to “solve” whatever thing we’ve blown up into a crisis in our thinking. THIS is the reason we chew over our fears over and over again, reviewing and rehashing and rehearsing and replaying our frightened thinking scenarios in our busy skulls… for nothing, 99.9% of the time.

What does this mean? It means that we have to put the brakes on all that frantic Flight or Fight Solving Stuff. Because (as you know, as a reader of this fine blog) YOU CAN’T SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE A CRISIS. It doesn’t matter how much it FEELS like you’re doing something, or how much it FEELS like you SHOULD worry about whatever it is you’ve got locked in your jaws at the moment.

You can’t get there from here. So the practice we have to engage is shutting down that thinking.

When I say shut down I mean acknowledge that this litany, this mad babbling mental effort is happening, then work to move our thinking to other things. Sounds like I’m saying this is easy?

It isn’t. It is damn hard at the start. We become very, very habituated to just defaulting to our thinking, especially our anxious thinking. Worse, Flight or Fight is screaming NO, let me solve this, we’re clearly about to get eaten alive, I can handle this! Except it can’t. It didn’t develop for this kind of problem at all. It developed for lions, and rockslides, and guys with spears coming at us – stuff like that.

Action 5

Nope, we’re best served by beginning the hard but necessary practice of shutting down that thinking. That doesn’t mean we can turn it off like a faucet, or if we practice for 5 days and nothing happens we suck and we should give up. It means that we start and begin to grow a practice of seeing the anxious thinking, then focusing on something else.

We won’t do this well right away. We’ll be tempted back again and again by F or F and the sheer momentum of our anxious thinking histories. We’ll get mad and scared and start obsessing over all our fears again and again. We’ll be pissed off because we’re failing. Etc. Etc. Etc. Doesn’t change the fact that over time, with steady practice, we can begin to divert our thinking away.

It doesn’t have to be anything huge. Focus on making a meal, or planning the week (even when your brain is saying holy crap we can’t plan the week, our lives our doomed, we have to DO SOMETHING about our anxious thinking, etc.) Focus on finishing a project you started a long time ago. Practice doing something you haven’t done before. Help a friend, even if just over the phone. Read a new book, practicing on letting the words pull you away from your anxious thoughts. It is much more the slow, halting, not-so-good-at-the-start practice that is important here.

You WILL feel scared while you’re doing this. No way around that. The habits of years of obsessing over your fears won’t just blow away in the wind because you want them too. But the will begin to erode and change over time, under pressure from your practice.

In other words you’re REALLY, REALLY practicing shaking loose of crisis thinking.

It can’t happen fast. It will be hard. But it is essential, and you can do it.

Action 3

One essential piece of this work is, in the acknowledging that you’re doing anxious thinking, that you practice staying clear that however scary this thinking is it is only a problem. Maybe a big problem, maybe something that will need your attention AS a problem – but still, not a crisis.

Diversions are LEGAL

In the section you just read I discussed the practicing of pulling our thinking to other thinking. A variation of that is allowing ourselves to be diverted by something that consumes our attention, or at least a big part of our attention. It can be almost anything.

It can be as simple as a big, involved cleaning project around the house. It can be getting lost in preparing for an event of some kind. It can be a consuming video game – one that requires some thought and effort and attention. It can be an engrossing TV show or movie. It can be, weirdly enough, working to help other people. It can be mindless physical exercise.

The mission here is to simply 1) allow ourselves to get pulled into other, attention-demanding activities that require a significant part of our focus and 2) come to realize that, because we do get distracted, that our thinking really is the problem with our anxiety.

Yes, this means that you’ll have a hard time staying in the diverting activity. Yes, it means that old habits will still be screaming at you to notice the CRISIS and give ALL YOUR ENERGY to solving this faux disaster in the making. And you’ll get caught up in that – which is when you dive back into the diversion.

Action 4

More practice. That’s what all this is doing. It doesn’t mean that you need to have diversions 24/7. This is not an effort to avoid feeling afraid, or even avoid in some ongoing way your anxious thinking. Avoiding our fearful thinking and allowing it to grow and take over our lives is how we got in the mess in the first place!

No, we’re not avoiding. We’re practicing taking charge of our thinking.

This will mean we will have anxiety. It means that your brain and Flight or Fight will FREAK that you’re NOT focusing on your anxious thinking all the time. Don’t you understand, they will scream at you! You HAVE to worry! That’s how you’ll “solve” your crises, that’s how you’ll avoid the terrible fate that awaits you…

Forgive my directness, but bullshit. We can’t solve a damn thing by obsessing over our what if thinking, or running away from Flight or Fight when it scares us trying so hard to make us obsess over it.

So far we have

1) Deliberate refocusing
2) Diversions that work to pull our attention

What else can we do in this work to NOT avoid, but to instead take control of our thinking?

See this Work as small steps, daily

Nobody who fights anxiety wants the fight to take much time. Most of us want this crap done YESTERDAY. Which makes sense. As I’ve said before in this blog we’ve been battling this junk for years and decades – to think of it going on for more weeks and months before it’s truly shut down seems terrible and unfair.

Control thinking 4

But (as I’ve also pointed out here before) this is a set of skills, not a single massive effort done in an afternoon. We have to get clear in our thinking that we’re rebuilding our thinking, doing thinking in a new way. We’re not going to instantly master these skills.

Think on this hard for a moment: we learned, at the feet of our parents, siblings, community, to see big pieces of our world as potential CRISIS. We learned that early and hard, and we learned that to see the world in this way was to be SAFE.

We (and they) were wrong. Or, more accurately, while it may have kept us “safe” in the sense that we didn’t get in as much trouble with those people, or they approved of us more, or (terribly) even kept us from physical or emotional abuse to some degree, none of that applies now, here in our present. Seeing big swathes of our experience as being potentially crisis – something that is terrible, will destroy us, etc. – is both fundamentally wrong and fundamentally distorted.

This deeply trained set of thinking habits won’t just shift on a dime. Holy crap, how could it? But it will move across time, with practice, steady effort, setbacks, frustration and getting up again after we’ve “fallen.” Small moves, daily practice, challenging the crisis in our thinking, seeing through it to the problems (at most) that are really there – that’s the way we’ll build new habits of thought.

Changing Thinking while taking Action – that’s the way out

I’ve discussed 3 things we need to do in our thinking while pushing back on our fears that are essential to shaking loose from the burden of anxiety. Deliberate practice at changing the focus of our thinking, diversion to help pull our thinking away from obsessive crisis thinking and remembering that we do this work in small pieces, daily – all of these will, across time, with practice, disrupt and rewrite the anxious thinking that consumes us.

Action 6

Here’s a metaphor for you: when we’re pinned by anxiety in our lives we’re like people in a cage. We can throw ourselves against the bars, again and again, screaming to be let out – but the bars don’t care, and they won’t move just because we’re fighting like hell to get out. Nope, our mission is to pick the damn lock on the door. 🙂

Picking the lock will take time. But we have the lockpicks, we have hands, we just have to practice until we get good at lockpicking. We will be frustrated, we will even weep for sheer annoyance at the slowness of our journey out – but every day, every effort at changing our thinking AND pushing our Comfort Zone boundaries, is building skill, reorienting our focus and getting us closer to breaking the hold of anxiety in our lives.

ACtion 7