In my last post I started a conversation about a question that is usually top of mind for those of us who are in the fight to break anxiety’s hold in our lives – how long will it take me to get free of this crap? In that post I listed out two crucial pieces – basic thinking skills needed and getting good information about how anxiety works, and what works in overcoming anxiety.

With this post I’ll discuss two more pieces, then finally answer the question. (No, I’m not trying to tease you – some answers are longer than others…)

Regular Practice

Ugh. Practice. I’m reminded of my days as a piano student (back when I thought piano was a grand waste of time – sigh.) I HATED practice. I didn’t see the point, I got bored, it was hard… you know the story.

Except as I got older I realized that to get some things I wanted I HAD to get comfortable with the notion of practice. Maybe most kids develop a crappy understanding of practice, but, I begin to believe (here in middle age) that it isn’t so much about practice as a thing. I think it is more about the fear of failure.

Practice 1

Practice needs to be understood as inexperience working towards experience, and from experience to better and better performance. As I mentioned at the start of this blog post we’re really not clear on the truth that some things we need take TIME – time and consistent effort.

Even the word “consistent” is too fraught with the feeling of failure to use with some people. Consistent is perfect practice (what the heck would that mean anyway?) as in doing the exact same amount of time, the exact same way, every day. Practice is learning, experimenting, trying this and trying that, as well as giving yourself time to get better, slowly, over time.

Practice is NOT trying it for 3 days, or two weeks, or for 2 minutes a day for 6 months. Practice is NOT moving from triumph to triumph, consistently improving skill in noticeable ways every time we do practice.

So what IS practice? Practice IS leaning into the work in a steady, regular way. Practice is a mix of staying clear on our goal, doing the work, staying clear on WHAT we need to practice and expecting every day to be what it is – more effective, less effective, but all of it building upon itself, making us slowly better over time.

Let’s get more specific. Practice looks something like this:

1) Regular sessions reviewing our what if thinking (on paper, on a laptop, on our phone, someplace where we can keep a real, consistent record of our unpacking work) and in that reviewing getting more and more skillful at seeing our “crises” as problems.

Practice 3

That might be 10-15 minutes, twice a day, three times a day. Maybe before breakfast, after lunch, after dinner. Get a schedule that works for you.

2) Have clear goals and keep working those goals, with those goals centered largely on two things: actual, physical practice confronting your old crisis thinking and replacing it with a problem orientation in the real world – not just on paper, as important as that is – and actively engaging your life.

If your goal is to get to the corner alone then do that, while you’re staying clear on how getting to the corner isn’t a crisis, whatever your what if fears are shouting at you. It’s reminding yourself that the corner is, for the moment, a problem, and you have ways to manage that problem.

You might do this work 3 or 4 or 5 times in a day. I would really encourage you to come back home and record what happened, how your thinking worked this time, what you can do better, where you’re still holding yourself up. Keep a record!

3) Are you doing good self-care? How’s that sleep thing for you? What are you putting in your face in the way of food? Where are those boundaries you keep wanting to draw?

4) Practicing patience – with yourself more than anyone else. Seeing the work as being practice across time, rather than one heroic effort.

So – the speed of our results in breaking anxiety’s hold will depend on the effort we make to practice.

Mistake 5

Expecting a Learning Curve – including the Bumps that come with any Learning Curve

OK. We’ve tackled good thinking skills, good information and practice. ALL of that will lead, naturally, to a learning curve. Although, maybe, I should be called a learning hiking path. 🙂 Over difficult and easy terrain both! Sometimes the path seems unclear or overgrown. Sometimes we hear scary noises in the bushes. And sometimes we get sunburned, and really tired, and grumpy, and we just want a hot shower and a comfortable bed.

Yeah, I like hiking trail better than curve. Learning is rarely straight-forward. We have plateaus, slow places, even back-tracking in a learning curve – a lot like hiking. (For my post on plateaus and stalls in our work to overcome anxiety go HERE.)

So what? That’s part of learning. It doesn’t signal failure and if anything it says that we ARE learning.

And – you guessed it – the speed of our getting clear of crappy, anxious thinking will depend in part on our patience and fortitude in the face of the learning curve/hiking trail.

My partner Bob likes to hike. He hikes pretty much every weekend. He likes to hike at a particular park about an hour from our house, up among the redwood trees. The park he hikes in has a couple of easy trails – maybe half a mile or a mile total, mostly flat, very easy to follow. The rest of the park has a variety of trails, some of them miles in length and going over some impressive terrain.

Guess what he notices? Most people who visit this beautiful park stay on the easiest trail, do the shortest walk, and miss 8/10’s of what is available in this location – including the most beautiful views and the most glorious stands of redwood trees. Those people really never see the park – they mostly see the parking lot. 🙂 The good stuff takes a little work.

We can’t get free of anxiety if we won’t make the hike. Learning Curves are rarely nice, linear, steadily-improving experiences. In the case of rewriting our anxious thinking it will involve experiences like this:

Give Up 4

We face down a fearful thought and it overwhelms us the first two, five, ten, twenty times we try.

We have a burst of Flight or Fight reactions “come out of nowhere” (not the case, it’s always a thought, but it feels like it’s out of nowhere)

We have a day when we seem to forget everything we’ve been learning – we’re tired, we’re distracted, we just feel overwhelmed

We get angry and frustrated! We go to a corner and pout, or break some dishes, or just say screw it, I’ll never get this, I suck, etc.

All of that is natural and normal. This is part of being in a learning curve. Don’t forget how eager anxiety thinking is to get you to GIVE UP – after all, why is this so damn hard anyway? – and besides, it’s hopeless for you no matter what you do. 🙂 Recognize any of that crap?

Learning a new skill takes TIME. Learning a small handful of skills (which is what you’re doing) will take longer still. It’s OK. It’s better than OK. These are skills that will be with you the rest of your life.

So how long WILL IT TAKE?

I’m sorry (but only a little) to report that there is no clean, simple answer to this, at least chronologically. That’s true for any attempt to acquire new skills. I’ve seen people see substantial relief in just a couple of months. I’ve seen people take years. I’ve seen people start this work, stop, start again, stop – but they eventually get there.

skill 3

And, hardest of all, I’ve seen people never really wade in, never really start this work. I’m not putting anyone down. I fought this process tooth and claw. But we can’t get anyplace if we don’t get started, despite how we feel, despite how much we wish it was easier, less scary, etc.

Permit me to argue that it will take the time it takes. A better question to ask ourselves is what’s getting in my way in this work? Where can I lean in, face down the next obstacle, get better at being uncomfortable so I can get where I want to go?

Another good question to ask is how easily do I give up? Anxiety is SO GOOD at teaching us to just surrender, just stop trying, when things get scary and difficult. As I mentioned in my last post we live in a time when we expect things to happen FAST – as in RIGHT NOW – not realizing that some things, some processes, some changes take time.

Finally, it will take less time than it’s taking if we’re avoiding if we just get down to it. 🙂

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