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With today’s writing I’ve created 255 blog posts about overcoming anxiety. I’ve put a lot of words on “paper” about how anxiety works and what we can do about it.

I have realized in the last few weeks that, in the middle of all that writing (and lots more writing at a Facebook Group I’ve had the good fortune to participate in over the last 3-1/2 years, and lots of conversations with those Facebook friends and my anxiety coaching clients) it is easy for me to lose sight of the basic nature of this work.

Today I want to review those basics, reset the stage, clarify precisely what overcoming anxiety looks like and how we get there. Here are the basics: What if thinking (problem to crisis thinking, the thing that makes us anxious in the first place), the reactions of Flight or Fight to that what if thinking that come to scare us so badly, unpacking that thinking back into problem thinking, and functional self-care.

Making Crises out of Problems – the heart and soul of Anxiety

I suspect you’ve heard stories about people that are afraid of what seems to you to be silly things – rabbit’s feet, or clowns, or moths, or having the peas touch the carrots. You say to yourself “how could a clown scare anybody?” (Of course it is possible those fears don’t seem silly at all to you – maybe one of those things scares YOU.)

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A better question to ask ourselves is WHY anything scares anyone when it isn’t actually an immediate, physical danger. In a sense we could say that when we are presented with real, immediate, physical danger we’re not being scared at all. We are simply reacting to that danger. If I’m being attacked by an angry polar bear I’m not being simply scared – I’m dealing with a life-or-death issue RIGHT NOW.

But if I’m afraid of a rabbit’s foot or a clown then I’m being scared – without actually being in danger of being hurt in this present moment. This is anxiety, pure and simple.

How does it work? That’s simple too. To have something make us anxious we have to anticipate a bad, dangerous thing happening to us, sometime in the future. That’s it. That’s all we have to do. Some anxiety thinkers call this what if thinking, and it’s a perfectly descriptive phrase in my opinion.

Let’s say this a different way: to be anxious we have to have a thought, or multiple thoughts, about something that isn’t actually dangerous in the here and now, but which we’re anticipating BEING dangerous in the future. That’s what if thinking.

There are a couple of things that make this SEEM more complicated. One is the truth that we don’t have to be conscious of what if thoughts to have them scare us. Often we are completely unaware of the anxious thought that is rocking our worlds (or, more likely anxious thoughts, plural.)

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That doesn’t mean we can’t BECOME aware of those thoughts, with some effort and practice – but we sure as heck don’t have consciously think a scary thought for that thought to freak us out. Lots of our thinking is habitual thinking. And habitual thinking is rarely conscious thinking.

Another issue that makes this seem more complicated than it is concerns the safety mechanism that we humans have to deal with REAL danger – the Flight or Fight Response. When it goes to Red Alert it makes things FEEL like we’re in real danger –

How did we get here? Why do we do this? We learned to do this. This is a much longer conversation (you can see more HERE if you like) but for the purposes of this conversation anxiety starts and grows here – in the learned, habitual pattern of treating one more issues as a crisis.

Flight or Fight – the second part of the Equation of Anxiety

When we have an anxious thought – when we anticipate danger in the future, do this what if thinking thing – then we activate Flight or Fight. Everyone knows Flight or Fight – that rush of adrenaline, the burst of nervous energy, the natural mechanism that evolved to help us get to safety, one way or another, in the face of real, physical danger.

A host of things happen to us physically and emotionally when Flight or Fight goes to work, but the crucial thing to understand what it is attempting to do: get us ready to RUN – RIGHT NOW. Running is always better than fighting in the natural world, because running, if successful, gets us to safety AND avoids the risk of injury that might impede survival later. We only fight if we are cornered.

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That host of things includes a dry mouth, sweating, dizziness, various heart reactions like skipping and racing, shallow breathing, tingling and numbness, nausea, flushed skin, terror, rage, embarrassment, despair, hopelessness and depression. This is a longer conversation (see my post HERE on this topic) but the bottom line is that most of these sensations and feelings are just Flight or Fight gearing us up to run (or fight if we must) – and the rest are the result of anxiety being sustained for long periods of time without relief – and us becoming convinced that nothing can change for us.

We very easily get caught in a loop that has us believing that there MUST be something terribly wrong with us – after all, why would our bodies react and feel this way if there wasn’t? The answer is that we’re shouting OH MY GOSH I’M IN DANGER – and our body, obligingly, is standing to alert again and again, trying to help us get to safety.

The only problem is that we’re not in real, immediate danger. There’s nothing to run from. Which means Flight or Fight gets us all dressed up without nowhere to go. We’re coursing with energy, seething with adrenaline – but there’s nothing really to do with it.

There’s one more aggravating factor with Flight or Fight reacting to our anxious, fearful thinking. We start doing what if thinking about Flight or Fight! We start asking questions like what if this never stops, what if this means I’m crazy, what if I have a brain tumor… and so in a sense we set up a second level of what if fearful thinking, based on our Flight or Fight reactions, which originally began in response to our earlier what if thinking about stuff in the future. Ugh!

What if thinking activating Flight or Fight – this is anxiety. So what do we DO about it?

Unpacking – Cleaning up our Thinking so we stop Scaring ourselves

Anxiety is based on us taking an issue, problem or situation and blowing up that issue or problem into crisis in our thinking. To get free of chronic anxiety we have to convert that crisis in our thinking back into what it really is – an issue, problem or situation.

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Please don’t think that I don’t understand that it FEELS like a hell of a lot more serious than “just” a problem or issue when we’re in the grip of anxiety. I get it, down in my bones. I spent the majority of two decades running hard from my own anxiety. I was in the grip of terror both over what I was afraid might happen to me (my original what if thinking) and I was scared to death about what Flight or Fight might mean for me (in my case, I was going to go crazy.)

How do we escape this merry-go-round of thinking and reacting? We have to clean up our thinking. We have to stop running, turn around and look our what if thinking in the eye.

We have to do that because we’re treating problems or issues as crises – which means we’re both scaring ourselves silly AND not dealing effectively with the issue or problem. I’m not saying it might not be a BIG problem. I’m saying that if you’re not immediately at risk for death or serious injury then it is not a crisis – and will be MUCH better managed if you will start treating it as a problem. (Not to mention that you won’t be scaring yourself silly over it.)

(See my post HERE on what it means to treat a problem as a problem.)

This is intense, often challenging work. This takes energy, time, patience and a willingness to be, sometimes, damn uncomfortable. Of course that’s the case. We’ve learned to run from our fears – now we’re facing them and seeing them for WHAT THEY ACTUALLY ARE.

That requires the fourth component of mastering anxiety – good self-care.

Self-Care

I have lots to say HERE about the basics of good self-care, but it all comes down to providing yourself with the energy and reserves to do this work as effectively as possible. It isn’t complicated – but it is essential.

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It looks like this:

Some sort of regular physical movement (yes, the dreaded exercise)
Eating decently (not perfectly, but decently)
Getting the best sleep you can
Making your needs at LEAST as important as the people around you – i.e., learning to draw healthy boundaries

This is more challenging than it might first appear for most anxiety fighters. Anxiety is such an energy suck over time. It tempts us to inactivity and motionless – “freezing” in place. It often leads to various forms of self-medication – including eating junk and overeating. It can wreak havoc on sleep – after all, we’re very busy trying to solve problems as if they were life-and-death crises – how the hell are we supposed to sleep?

And perhaps most insidious of all is what 99% of anxiety fighters learned to do – put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own. We don’t know how to draw healthy boundaries in our life. We don’t know how to ask for (and, in some cases, insist on) what we need, even if someone else might be annoyed or a little put out by us getting what we need.

This is by itself a set of skills and we won’t get there overnight. But even baby steps in this direction can make a significant difference in our ability to take on and unpack our fearful what if thinking. Walking every day can be a game changer. Cutting out the extra dessert we think we need to stay rational can have an immediate impact on how we feel (and sleep.) Slowing down at night, setting a regular bedtime, reading or practicing breathing exercises before bedtime, these things can begin to improve the quality of our sleeptime.

Think of this as the most basic self-support we c an do to have the energy and focus we need to take on and break the hold of anxiety.

Simple isn’t the same thing as Easy – but this is work any of us can do

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This is, in a nutshell, how we get anxious, and what we can do about anxiety. We can (and usually do) make it more complicated, unfortunately. 🙂 We fight to avoid the sensations and emotions that Flight or Fight generate – they’ve scared us for so long we have a hard time letting them come and practicing seeing them for what they are.

We fall back into the habit of treating this or that problem as a great hairy crisis. Sure we do – we’ve been doing it a long time. We continue to take crappy care of ourselves – including not treating ourselves with respect when it comes to our limits and boundaries. Sure we do. It’s scary to draw boundaries when you’re fighting chronic anxiety.

But the work is the work. The way out is the way out. It is work any of us can do. It isn’t like falling off a log easy – but it is completely within our reach.

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