Today’s post is about one of the things that makes most anxiety fighters pretty pissed off in their journey out of chronic anxiety (as well as just plain folk who are wrestling with a serious fear.) Here’s the thing: this journey to freedom from anxiety is anything but clean, neat and easy.

I’m not trying to scare you off or anything. 🙂 Seriously. One of the reasons I began this thinking and writing around overcoming anxiety was a half-formed notion that, by compiling the best and the most lucid thinking and tools around breaking anxiety’s hold, I might also find a less struggle-filled, less challenging road out.

Because it was me too! I wanted it to be easier, simpler, not nearly so frustrating! I think most of us want it to be neat and tidy, a linear progression at the very minimum, and, ideally, hell to heaven with a couple of motel stops.

I think in fact that we can make it significantly easier. But here’s something I’ve relearned in the last couple of years: it isn’t just the road. It’s also the people traveling on that road. Most of us we are going to make it messy for ourselves – because of our training, because of our unwillingness to steadily fight through the battles with Flight or Fight, because we just get bloody tired and want a damn break.

In other words our training and our own inclinations slow this process down and make it messier. We can, however, make it less tedious, less crazy-making if we can get a little clarity on why it’s messy, slow and hard, and with that knowledge in our pockets take some steps to diminish some of the tedium, some of the frustration, and make things happen a little faster.

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Problem 1: we got set up to be Anxious Thinkers

I’m never comfortable with this conversation, but it has to be said – we learned to be anxious thinkers. (Standard disclaimer here: I’m not setting out to malign, trash or call nasty names when it comes to anyone’s family, school experience, church experience, etc.

t however remains true that this is a thinking problem. Given that this is a thinking issue, and that we have to LEARN how to think, it then follows that we learned to think anxiously.)

Be clear: nobody said to themselves “gee, I know, I’ll make this kid anxious as hell.” Of course they didn’t. But then it might be said that’s true for lots of our learning. Sure, some of what we learn is very consciously applied to us – how we should act in public, how we should use language, what we should care about, etc.

But then there’s some of the problem right there – we are learning all those things through the lens, the focus of the people that are trying to teach us these things. And those souls are themselves carrying thinking that has the potential to make us anxious. In fact a lot of THEM are thinking anxiously – and with the best of intentions (at least most of the time) they are passing that thinking on to us.

Why is this so important to stress in this blog post? Because we have to see, really have to get under, the truth that part of what holds us up, slows us down is deeply trained, old, out-of-conscious-thinking thinking.

Which means that we won’t just breeze into our brains and whisk away that tedious old anxious thinking. Nope, we’re going to have to get in there and do some work, face down what we consider fundamental, basic assumptions about the world if we’re going to unseat anxiety from its throne in our lives.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: brains are lazy. They want to expend the least energy possible to get the job done. (See my post HERE about the nature of habits and how that applies to thinking.) We develop a thinking routine, whatever it might be, and then we just set it running in our skulls, ready to pop up when we’ve told it to pop up.

Here’s an ugly example: stereotypes. We all do them. We have an experience or two and then, with our lazy brains, we categorize something or some kind of situation or some kind of person as this or that. Another name for this is prejudice (under some circumstances.)

All women are emotional. All black people are natural dancers. All Asian people are smart. All guys named Erik are nice guys. (Well, maybe that’s just me…)

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Prejudice seems easy to think around when it’s somebody else, doesn’t it? But when WE have prejudices it doesn’t always seem quite so easy. We find ourselves rationalizing, defending our stereotypes. “Yes” we say, “but I’m not being prejudiced. In MY case I’m just telling you my experience…” prejudice, stereotyping, is one of the dark sides of the brain’s habit to make assumptions (another way in some respects to describe thinking habits.)

Little kids don’t just magically have prejudices, right? They learn them.

Sure, they might learn them from direct experience (and the assumptions they might make in those experiences) but way more often they learn them from the people around them.

Same thing for us anxiety fighters. So what does this mean for making the journey somewhat easier? We HAVE to get serious and build a little basic skill around a practice of introspection – i.e., examining our thinking, questioning our thinking, calling it out into the light and asking ourselves if this is useful, accurate or healthy thinking.

An Anxiety Example

Let’s say I assume that only people that are in a relationship with someone romantically are truly happy. Translation for the cheap seats: people who are alone CANNOT be happy. Too bad, so sad.

Wow. That has some potential to make us anxious, yes? Worse still, it’s running in the background. So let’s say further that at the moment I’m alone – not in a serious romantic relationship.

That means I CAN’T be happy. Worse still I don’t even really know, consciously, that I’m carrying this crock of you-know-what around with me like a stinky sock – nope, I’m just moving through my world, feeling anything from a nagging sense of discomfort and sadness all the way through swirling grief that my life is so damn miserable, obviously, because I’m alone…

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And of course there are triggers all around us. Couples holding hands, commercials during our favorite TV show for diamond engagement rings, invitations to other people’s weddings or anniversaries, you name it. We feel sad, depressed, flawed, unlovable, you name it. And guess where all those feelings are coming from?

Our brain’s thinking that happiness is impossible solo. This isn’t limited to discussions about happiness. We could also decide at some point, based on our thinking, that we’re not capable of taking care of ourselves. So forget happiness – now we’re talking about SURVIVAL being threatened if we’re alone.

Oops. There’s some room for anxious thinking there, yes? This is one of the reasons our fight with anxiety isn’t the smooth sailing we’d like it to be. Our thinking won’t just go quietly when confronted by our need to change. It’s become a habit, and habits need energy, clarity and practice to change.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Problem 2: We don’t like being Scared

I know, that’s huge news, right? 🙂 It’s all very well and good for someone to talk about the process for confronting our anxious thoughts, for dealing with the reactions of Flight or Fight, but when we start having those anxious feelings, having our body do weird things that scare us (racing heart, sweaty all over, feeling cold, mouths going dry, knees knocking, vision getting blurry, etc.) then it’s a different story…

It’s tedious as crap, but this is easily one of the biggest reasons we run from this work with our anxiety. (See the posts HERE and HERE for the most common reasons we avoid this work.) But it isn’t that we just avoid the work. We make it HARDER to get the work done because we’re so tempted to flinch back from the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight.

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We learned to do that too – only mostly in this case because we had no flippin’ idea what in the hell was going on when it first starting happening to us. We have to start writing new habits, and those begin with new habits of thought.

Your heart is racing. OK. Crisis or problem? Yes, yes, it FEELS like a crisis – I get it. Been there did that. Or maybe it’s that terrible nausea sensation – like you’re going to hurl right now – accompanied by a profound sense of despair. Or it could be that numb feeling in your hands or all over your body and a sense of being trapped. Lots of combinations here.

NONE OF THEM ARE DANGEROUS. We can’t just tell ourselves that and expect it to stop feeling scary. We have to confront the thinking and confront the Flight or Fight reactions that will come along when we start pushing back on our fear.

Those sensations and feelings are going to surface again and again, both because we’re confronting scary thinking AND we’ve learned to see those sensations and feelings AS dangerous. I know I’ve written about this a lot in this blog. It bears repeating.

There are an enormous number of people charging through the world right now who are significantly slowed down because they just don’t want to confront Flight or Fight’s warning signals. (I’m not even talking about the millions and millions of people who have never STARTED the work to get free of anxiety for the exact same reason.)

They want SO MUCH to be free – but it’s just so stinkin’ frustrating, scary and tedious to have to experience Flight or Fight pushing back on us SO HARD. Here’s the good news: it doesn’t do this forever. It does ease off. Why?

It eases off when we start changing our thinking – both converting our old crisis thinking to problem thinking (which stops Flight or Fight from firing off in the first place) and when we stop making Flight or Fight a crisis. We go from “oh my God not that sensation/feeling!” to “oh yeah, those tiresome sensations/feelings again.” Practice, time and steady work takes us there – but only if we’re changing our thinking, doing the work.

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Problem 3: We get Damn Tired

There’s one more reason that this work slows down/stalls for us. It’s exhausting. It takes a lot of energy. We forget that our brains use a lot of energy – as much as 20% or more of the body’s total energy output – and brain work is real work. Do enough of it and you are going to be TIRED.

We’re doing multiple things when we face down our fears. We are confronting old, scary thinking. We are learning a habit of self-reflection and a comfort with asking ourselves hard questions.

We are fighting the temptation to flinch back from our body’s reactions to our what if thinking. We are having to remind ourselves again and again that we’re OK, that we’re not in crisis, that we’re not going to die.

And we’re still trying to have some kind of life – i.e., get stuff done, eat sometimes, go the store, hassle with the bank, maybe get work done, etc. We give away a lot when we fight anxiety! It’s not a picnic energy-wise! 🙂

Lots of us have a funny story about this energy cost. Anxiety fighters in general wrestle with insanely high standards of personal performance (one of the prime sources of anxious thinking.) REAL work should be something like making dinner for 20 people, remodel the extra room and cure cancer, all while hardly breaking a sweat.

THIS can’t be real work, can it? We don’t really produce or create anything when we’re doing this work, right? WRONG. We are literally rebuilding our thinking from the ground up. We are facing down tigers (even if only conjured in our thinking) again and again and again. We’re learning whole new ways of living and thinking and reacting.

Not small stuff. Energy-draining stuff. And of course life keeps coming at us. (Not very nice of life sometimes, but such is life.) Most of us don’t get to go to Aruba to overcome anxiety. (Hey, there’s an idea – I should get someone to fund a Fear Mastery Center in Aruba… any takers?) 🙂

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So we are going to get tired, and being tired we’re going to slow down some days.

Finally we NEED to take breaks in this work. We can’t do it 24/7. We have to step back, regroup, catch our breath. Nobody does anything all day every day. Taking breaks (a, day, a few days, a week) can sometimes be when what we’re learning solidifies, becomes the new thinking that blots out the old thinking, the new habit that replaces the old habit.

This Work is Messy and Not a Straight-line Progression

We can stop anxiety from ruling our lives. To do that we have to be clear-eyed about how the process works and give it the time it takes. As I’ve said here before it took us years and years, decades for most of us, to get where we are, bogged down in chronic anxiety. It will take a little time to get out.

Not years and decades – but months of steady work. Well, when I say steady, I mean more or less steady. With lots of bumps, and some setbacks, and some relearning what we think we already know, and some self-doubt, and some victories, and some more bumps… you get it. 🙂

Embrace the mess, my friends. It’s a mess worthy of making. At the end of all this work is a life that isn’t ruled by anxiety. And that’s worth all the hassle and mess.

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