There are a LOT of people offering counsel and advice on how to overcome anxiety these days. Hardly a surprise – there are a LOT of people dealing with anxiety in the world.

Just look at the ads on TV for anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications! Holy crap! Then cruise through Facebook or on the web in general for all the groups that people can join to talk about anxiety and depression.

When you get enough of that wander into your local bookstore. Dozens of books on this anxiety stuff there. When you get done with that go on Amazon and see how many MORE books there are for you to read and study.

Of course there are scads of therapists (such a good idea in our fight to break anxiety’s hold.) And your doctor stands ready to prescribe some of those medications I mentioned above. Books, doctors, medications, therapists, groups – there is a lot in the anti-anxiety arsenal these days – more than any other time in human history.

The quality of that advice and help varies of course, and there are some goofy/less-than-useful notions about anxiety’s origins and permanence that can get in the way, but in general we have some good stuff floating around. One thing, however, sometimes goes missing in our thinking about how to get free of chronic anxiety and depression.

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We have to do the work. We have to wade into our fears (more specifically our fearful thinking) and pin them down. We have to identify the thinking that is scaring us, see it for what it is – crisis thinking about something that is not an immediate crisis – and start wrenching it out of crisis status in our thinking.

We get to do all that while we deal with the firestorm of Flight or Fight activating as our fears get tackled. UGH. It’s a kind of one-two punch – not only do we have to get down and dirty with our fears, we have to deal with our reactions to our fears.

This is work any of us can do. I say that over and over again in this blog. And while the information, advice, counsel and support is vitally important, at the end of the day we have to get down to the work. Today’s post is about getting as clear as possible on what is required of us to make this work WORK.

Step 1: Wade in

Anxiety is a crafty son-of-a-gun. It doesn’t usually care if you’re talking about doing something about your fears – as long as it just STAYS talk. Yak all you like, anxiety says, as long as you don’t actually start doing anything serious about your fears.

That’s a metaphor, of course. Our anxiety isn’t a living creature inside of us. 🙂 A more accurate description is that we’ve walled our fears away, and we can hear the growling and howling of our fears over that wall – and it scares us.

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It FEELS safer to leave those fears locked up behind that wall in our minds. The howling and growling never really go away, of course, but if we make enough noise, stay busy enough, we come to believe that we can live with the racket.

In fact we do what we can to run away from our fears. It isn’t because we are weak or chicken – it’s because our fears seem so huge, so impossible to deal with, that it just makes sense to run as far as we can from them.

This works – often for a long time. It works in the sense that we succeed in mostly keeping our fears out of our daily lives – or at least we don’t see significant impact from our fears. If we find a medication that helps shut down Flight or Fight – as most of the anti-anxiety drugs do – then it’s even easier to keep away from our fearful thoughts, stay away from that wall and the howling.

But for most of us, sooner or later, we find our fears getting bigger and our capacity to run shrinking. It’s (again with a metaphor) almost like those fears are breeding there, behind the wall – making more and more things for us to fear.

We often try to keep running. It’s worked before, right? We might increase our meds – and that can work for a while too. We get busier. We do whatever we can to keep our fears at arm’s length (preferably further.) But if you’re reading this blog it’s pretty likely that your capacity for running or avoiding has reached a limit.

Here’s the weird news: that’s good. It doesn’t feel good – it feels terrible – but it is still good news. It means it is time to wade in, bust a hole in that wall between you and your fears. It comes down to either dealing decisively with our fearful thinking or continuing to live with what has become, over time, chronic anxiety.

Step 1: wading in. That’s where it all begins. It may be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And it is the absolutely vital step in the right direction. What does wading look like? It is turning to identify and unpack our fearful thinking, seeing it for what it is, and keeping at that unpacking until our fears become what they really are – problems.

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes - moving concept

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes – moving concept

Step 2: Unpack our Fears

Here’s the core of the work. We have to identify how we’re scaring ourselves in our thinking. We have to get specific and we have to muck around in here long enough to get those specifics.

There’s no way around this – it’s scary. It’s scary for two reasons. The first is that we are treating these fears as crises. We think they are REALLY DANGEROUS, death-risky, literally, and it rocks our world to look at our fears face-on. The second reason is that we fire up Flight or Fight in our bodies when we confront these fears (hell, when we even seriously consider confronting these fears we can do that.)

I’ll get to Flight or Fight in a minute. But step 2 is as much as anything about sitting with our fears while recognizing that, however we feel and whatever we’re worried about, it’s all based in “what if” fears about what this COULD mean.

Let’s repeat that: our fearful thinking is all about what COULD happen. It might be 10 minutes from now in our thinking, or it might be next year, but it’s all about being afraid of the future. Flight or Fight reactions can muddy the water for us – it FEELS like it is about right now, this second – but being anxious by definition means we are afraid of something that COULD happen at some point in the future.

That’s it. That’s the heart of it. I’m NOT saying it’s easy! That’s the principal reason I’m writing this post today. It’s scary and it’s hard.

It’s also the way we start to get free of our fears. As long as they stay in the shadows, behind the walls of our Comfort Zone, there isn’t much we can about them – and they will continue to scare us.

Part of what makes this so hard to start is that running WORKED – probably for a long time, longer than we are conscious of in our daily lives. We’ve gotten used to running as a way to deal with fear. But our fears have a way, sooner or later, of catching up with us.

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So let me encourage you to expect to be tempted to run – and to actually run – even if you want to stay and get your fears sorted out. It’s natural and normal.

The scariness of facing our fears (and what they seem to say about our future) often leads people to start this work again and again, only to back away. That can go on for years. That’s legal too. Sure, you’re not getting anyplace – but you’re also not a freak for not leaning in and finishing this in one titanic fight. 🙂

Lots of other people pump up their meds and manage their fears a while longer that way. NO shame in that. It’s easier, frankly. Doesn’t mean we’re actually dealing with and overcoming our fears, but we’re not bad people for taking this route!

To turn and deal with anxiety is to, for a while, actively disrupt and make something of a mess in our worlds. That can range from some mild disruption of schedules and activities to having to temporarily pulling back from most our lives to deal with these fears. That’s tedious, messy and brings its own fears of failure.

But this is the route that will get us actually over our fears. There are posts HERE, HERE and HERE that describe the basics of unpacking. The work isn’t complicated – just scary. (Sure, Erik, JUST scary. Easy for you to say! Don’t think I don’t remember how scared I was when I started this work, and for the first months after that start.)

There’s another reason this freaks us out – we have to

3) Contend with Flight or Fight yelling at us

The nano-second we get serious about facing down our fears Flight or Fight jumps up and starts getting in our face. We’ve been telling it for most of our lives that this or that fear is too terrible to examine, and now suddenly we’re wading in.

Flight or Fight is a big piece of why facing our fears is scary. It’s bad enough that our fearful thinking has us up in the hypothetical future contemplating disaster – Flight or Fight then begins screaming at us, making our bodies and emotions seemingly freak out. It is of course just doing its job – trying to get us to safety – but we’re not running from actual, right-now danger – so it isn’t helping much. Or at all.

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We come to link all kinds of theories to that freaking out. We are having a heart attack. We are going crazy. This feels awful. We’re going to die from these sensations and feelings. We must be defective or damaged or just weird. We build a whole second layer of fears around these sensations and feelings being generated by our frightened thinking.

So wading in means two things: facing down our scary thinking AND facing down our reactions to our reactions (to Flight or Fight.) It isn’t easy. It can be very challenging some days, and especially at the start of this work. We’re having to identify our fears and sort them out while riding this wave of feelings and sensations.

It’s hard to stay clear on the work when we get in this place. It’s one reason to do it in pieces, small bites, at the start, or anytime we’re getting overwhelmed. It’s like learning any skill, only this skill (more accurately, set of skills) is also SCARY.

Our thinking tends to degrade to some degree when we’re in this place. Flight or Fight isn’t big on lucid thinking – it’s only got one mission, get everyone to the life boats – and so it will take practice and patience to stay in our skins when we’re doing this work.

But that’s also part of what gets us smarter and stronger in dealing with our fears. When we can spend even a little time in that place, staring our fears in the eye and keeping Flight or Fight semi-clear in our thinking, we begin to see how much we’ve been running from thoughts, rather than actual danger.

BOTH skills are necessary – unpacking our fearful thinking back to problem thinking AND learning to see Flight or Fight for what it is.

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Let me be clear: this is hard work. Not impossible, not dangerous – but hard. A lifetime of training to RUN AWAY in one form or another is a hard habit to break when we’re as anxious and keyed up as we get when we wade into this work – or even seriously think about it.

What gets in the way?

Well, one thing that makes this work hard and frustrating is that it is slow going, at least some of the time. We start to identify and unpack fears, we start to get our arms around the smoke screen of reactions that is Flight or Fight – and then we seem to lose it all. It seems to all go right out the window.

Call those setbacks, or bumps in the road, or whatever you like, they are part of the learning curve. (More about those in my next blog post.) They are part of ANY learning curve, whether it’s a sport, a dance move, a course at school or learning to cook. They are part of us learning skills and mastering those skills.

The only difference is… we make those bumps into a crisis. 🙂 Oops. Oh well – we’re fighting anxiety, nothing very surprising there. We’ll learn from these times too. As I’ve argued in other places these are essential, actually, in our deeply learning our skills.

It isn’t particularly speedy work either. It takes TIME, and practice, and steady effort. None of us like that fact either – we’re SICK to death of anxiety and we want it gone NOW. Been there, did that. Doesn’t change that it takes the time it takes.

Something else that trips some of us up is how untroubled and carefree the rest of the world seems – at least from our viewpoint. It sucks that we’re fighting so hard and every else seems to be at recess – at least mentally and emotionally.

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Of course we don’t know where they are. We don’t know their struggles. And it doesn’t matter anyway! We are where WE are. We have the work we have in front of us. As I’ve said other places it’s perfectly OK to whine, bitch, kvetch, have a tantrum – do what works for you. But then get back to the work.

One Foot in front of the Other…

There are lots of famous quotes about how nothing of worth is free. I don’t know about that. If I won the lottery I’m pretty sure I’d be holding something of worth, at least financially. 🙂 But learning a skill, or set of skills (in this case, learning to think clearly and quickly and well about what’s a problem, what’s actually a crisis, how to manage Flight or Fight and how to dismantle the crap of anxious thinking) takes time and practice.

And the payoff is enormous. Take it from a guy who had all but shut out the world, living in an OK double-wide trailer in the crappy part of town, terrified to go outside, convinced he would never, ever have the life he wanted, enduring constant panic attacks and certain it would never get better.

I was wrong. These are skills I learned – and so can you. So take up the help, learn the information, get the therapist you need, retain that coach, rally your support in family and friends and folks online, join the group, whatever you need to make this work. And then lean in. Want some help from a veteran? Hit me here – happy to assist.