There are few things we’d like to get rid of faster than the habit of anxious thinking. It only makes sense. We are sick of the torment, the flinching back from our lives and the utter drain from our souls in the daily battle with anxiety.

In addition we live in an age when we have come to expect things to move along pretty quickly. We’re not accustomed to having to wait for much these days. Microwaves, online shopping, quick weight-loss programs and 1 billion channels of television make it easy to expect to get what we want NOW.

There is a class of desires, however, that can only come with solid basic thinking skills, good information, regular practice, a learning curve and the bumps that come during that learning curve – in other words, when we are building new skills. Want to, for example, learn to play the banjo? (I think you’re a lunatic if you do, but hey, some people really LIKE a good banjo.)

You’re going to have to practice. And you can’t really practice until you have some basic idea what the hell you’re doing in the first place. That practicing is going to take time. You’re going to learn some things well, and other things not so well – you’ll learn them wrong, make mistakes, and have to go back and learn them differently.

And no, you won’t be able to play “Smokey Mountain Breakdown” in 10 days. Or even 20. It’s going to take some time to master the ancient art of banjo playing. Now this is where the metaphor of learning a musical instrument stops being comparable to overcoming anxiety, because it doesn’t have to take near as much time to break the hold of anxiety as it does to learn to play the banjo. More about that later in this post.

Let’s apply this thinking to the work of breaking free of chronic anxiety –

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Solid, basic Thinking Skills

Thinking is a skill. I know, that sounds crazy. Can’t everybody just think, the way they just breathe? No. Thanks for asking. Thinking is actually a fairly complex set of skills. Most of us learn some (but not all) of those skills in two ways: watching/modeling other people and formal training.

This just in: most of us don’t get the full complement of useful thinking skills from either of these sources. I’m not, by the way, trashing your esteemed parents or your K-12 teachers. I am, however, accusing ALL of us of missing vital components in good, adept thinking. What are those skills?

1) Questioning our assumptions/being careful of assuming we know the final word.
2) Running good experiments – i.e., trying things out and giving them the time and attention they need to really tell us if we’re finding results or not.
3) Noticing and being aware of our bias – i.e., being wary of gathering information /vetting information with the intent of only already proving our current thinking, rather than letting what we’re learning tell us what it is trying to tell us.

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It can be useful to ask yourself which skills are you good at, and which ones do you need to strengthen?

These skills are doubly important for anxiety fighters who want OFF the merry-go-round of anxious thinking. Anxiety makes it so easy to just throw up our hands, assume that we’re screwed. It takes us extra effort to keep working to keep our thinking as clear as we can in the face of that tendency.

There’s another issue anxiety brings on: when we’re in Flight or Fight it’s harder (not impossible, but harder) to keep our thinking clear. That, by itself, is a small skill – and one that only comes with practice and time.

So – the speed that you’ll finish this work will depend in part on how effectively you’re doing your thinking. This is work ANYONE can do – but it has to be done. We can’t take short-cuts and we can’t skimp on doing at least some careful thinking.

Good Information

For the love of all that’s holy there is a LOT of bad information and thinking about the nature of anxiety, as well as what we can do about it, floating around out there. Take this pill. Do this breathing technique. Assume that you’re screwed – you’re just an “anxious person.” And a lot more besides…

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Lots of anxiety fighters float from theory to theory, teacher to teacher, book to book, technique to technique, flailing for the thing that will give them relief FAST. Sure we do. We’re not bad people for doing that – but we are often not doing much to help our efforts to break anxiety’s hold if we’re doing this.

We need to ask questions in our search for good information, good resources. Is this person someone who has actually dealt with anxiety – lived the dream, as it were? Do they seem to actually understand what it means to wrestle with anxiety over time? Have they seen good results from the tools and techniques and framework they are advocating?

Good information (and vetting/evaluating that information) isn’t as easy as looking at someone’s credentials or title. Yes, doctors and therapists are in theory supposed to be great resources for getting information about anxiety. Sadly there are too many doctors or therapists who don’t even stop to take a full history of our experience, or listen to our specific experiences. They hear the word “anxiety” and they are already reaching for a prescription pad or recommending desensitization exercises.

Part of the problem is they don’t really understand anxiety and how it works – conceptually or personally. Don’t get me wrong – meds and desensitization exercises both have a place in this work! But they can’t by themselves get us free of anxiety. They have to be applied with a strong, solid understanding of how anxiety works and how those tools can best serve that understanding for us.

We can’t just defer to doctors – much as that would be great or easy to do. We can’t just see one or two therapists and then assume that we’re screwed because they couldn’t help us effectively.

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Maybe the best summary of this point is this: are we gathering information, looking at it carefully, looking at who is saying it and asking the questions we need to ask? Or are we assuming that someone claims to have a way to manage and overcome anxiety MUST know what they’re talking about, then getting frustrated by our lack of progress?

(And, btw, I hope you’re doing this exact process with ME and ANYONE who says they have something useful to say about anxiety.)

Not all information is equal! At this point in the blog post I’m hearing some of you say (in my head) “man, this seems like a lot of work. Isn’t this tough enough already without having to do this careful research?” Well, in some respects it is a serious hassle. It would be brilliant if we didn’t have to work this hard.

On the other hand it is what it is. We don’t always get to pick our battles – but, once we’ve identified that we have a battle to fight, it is up to us to get the best information we can, mostly so we can do the best thinking and work we can do to win that battle.

So – our speed at overcoming anxiety will depend in part on the quality of information we’re using to deal with anxiety.

I haven’t finished Answering the Question yet…

In fact I’m only half-way! I’ll finish next post. In the meantime consider how this applies to YOU, dear anxiety fighter, as you ponder how long this work will take for you. Are you seeing the nature of the fight clearly, i.e., thinking about it clearly? Or is your theory of anxiety getting in the way? (See my post HERE about dysfunctional ways to see anxiety, just to double-check.)

And what about the information you’re operating from? Who are you using as your source material for dealing with anxiety? Can you apply what you’re learning? Are there tools you can use effectively?

Anxiety is a thinking issue. (How often do you read THAT here?) If we’re not doing good thinking and using good information we’re just getting in our own way.

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