I have a confession to make: I’ve never been much of a reader of “classic” literature. I read the stuff I had to in high school and college – and liked some of it – but never developed a passion for stuff like Jane Eyre or Moby Dick or the Canterbury Tales.

Why confess all this to you? Because there is one classic story that I have read, and it is just about the perfect metaphor for what it means to fight our way out of serious anxiety. It is called Dante’s Inferno, and it is about a man’s journey, literally, through Hell, and what he learned along the way.

Today’s post is a review of what he learned, why it’s relevant in our fight to get clear of anxiety, and what we need to ‘gird our loins” for in this work. Loins girded? Let’s go –

The Journey starts in Hell

Let me say first that this isn’t an easy blog post to write, and it probably won’t be an easy blog post to read. What I want to do (and have often tried to do in this blog) is encourage people as much as possible. Anxiety is hard enough most of the time.

Dante 1

But I’ve come to re-realize in the last few months that there is an essential quality to this work that way, way too many of us don’t grasp sufficiently – it is very challenging work. Not so challenging that we can’t do it – but it is not easy, it is not comfortable, and it will most definitely take us way out of our Comfort Zones.

Let’s start with a basic truth about dealing with chronic anxiety. By the time we realize we are in the grip of anxious thinking and reacting we have already been fighting anxiety for years and years. Metaphorically, when we wake up to the battle, we’re already in hell – a hell of anxious thinking and dealing with Flight or Fight.

That can look like agoraphobia, or almost agoraphobia. That can look like repeated panic attacks that seem to come from nowhere and that plague our days. That can look like chronic, unrelieved depression. Or it can look like all those things at once.

Of course we didn’t just realize one day we were deep in the hold of anxiety. We’ve known at some level for a long time. But when it becomes something we can’t avoid looking at any more we are, in a sense, in Hell.

Hey, I don’t like saying it, and I don’t mean to imply that we can’t get OUT of Hell. But it doesn’t help to pretend that something isn’t what it is. Chronic anxiety sucks. It is life-draining, soul-smashing, terrifying and an utter burden. It FEELS like Hell.

We want to go up – but we have to go down first

Dante, at the start of the book called Inferno, finds himself in Hell. He has a guide (a guy named Virgil), and Virgil tells him that he’s going to have to walk through Hell to get out. Dante isn’t very excited about this news, but if he wants out it is what he has to do, so off they go –

Dante 4

Down. In Dante’s Hell everything heads down, with the nicest parts of Hell (if such a thing can be said) at the top, and conditions worsening as you go further down. Here’s the catch: the exit is at the bottom.

That’s a perfect description of the work to get free of anxiety. We want to go up – of course we do. We just want anxiety to STOP! Holy crap, who wouldn’t? But we can’t. In the Inferno there are monsters blocking the way – scary things that prevent us from moving to freedom. With anxiety there are scary monsters too – scary monsters of thinking that force us to try NEW thinking.

Permit me to remind you that anxiety is a thinking problem, a thinking disorder, and we won’t “just” get over it. We have to (as I’ve said over and over in this blog) change our thinking – hard work and slow all by itself.

But it’s also SCARY thinking – thinking we’ve been avoiding for years and years, running away from as hard as we could – and that makes it harder still. See where I’m going? We have to, in a sense, move deeper into that thinking, face it down – be willing to be scared, and tired, and mad, and reactive, and dealing with Flight or Fight – for a period of time before it starts to get better.

Kinda like heading down through Hell to get out. Again, at the very least it FEELS like Hell, and we can find ourselves saying things like “why am I putting myself through this hell?” The answer is simple: to get OUT.

The Journey is Hard!

If you’ve ever read The Inferno you know that Dante saw some pretty awful things in his journey down through the Circles of Hell. The souls in Hell were subjected to a series of terrible punishments based on their sins, but we who fight anxiety are not paying for sin – we’re paying for learning to treat problems, issues, LIFE as a crisis.

I can do it

I can do it

It would be wonderful (comparatively speaking) if we only had to change one thought, one what if fear in our heads. But part of the reason the journey through our personal Hell is such a struggle is that we didn’t just learn ONE what if. Nope, we’ve learned to think a number of what if fears, multiple habits of turning problems into crises, and so we’re facing down multiple scary thoughts and regular bouts of Flight or Fight reacting to that thinking.

This gets very tiring, very tedious, and often very scary. Yes, we’re reacting to thoughts, not real danger. But it feels like real danger.

This might be the hardest part of the journey for us as we address and rethink our thinking, because for a while it is very punishing – we are still reacting to those thoughts as crisis thoughts, Flight or Fight is still beating at our door, and we are having to endure those reactions until we begin to clearly establish that new thinking approach, the treating of problems AS problems.

I often call this work “cleaning out the basement.” (Which, for some of us, is very much like having to go through Hell.) Think of a big, dark, cluttered basement. It’s hard to see in (the light has burned out), you keep banging your shins into hard edges, the place is full of dust and spiderwebs and you’re on edge because you don’t really know what’s down there!

What are we cleaning out? We’re cleaning out old assumptions about who we should be, what we should be able to do, what we must NEVER do, how we should ALWAYS act. We are assessing and rethinking rules, beliefs and personal standards (which are usually insanely, impossibly high and self-punishing.)

What can make this particularly “hellish” is how we keep flinching back, keep wanting to run every time that our fears fire up Flight or Fight. This is why I drive SO diligently the practice of seeing Flight or Fight for what it is –an automatic alarm system trying to “get us to safety” when there in fact is no danger.

Dante 2

The problem is that Flight or Fight becomes our own personal demon (or demons), constantly trying to scare us, poke at us, freak us out, make us RUN. Again, it feels like hell –

This is a Hard Journey – but it is a Journey anyone can take

This work won’t get done overnight. It will take weeks and weeks, months of work to rework our thinking into healthy tracks. It will very much feel like moving down through Hell, many days. But at the end of the day the only way out is through.

And perhaps more importantly it is a journey that anyone can finish. There really is a door in the bottom of hell, both in Dante’s fictional story and in our very real fight, and it leads out into a life beyond incessant anxiety and worry.

And there is more than just an ending to chronic anxiety. There is a powerful new set of thinking skills that we’ll possess, and we’ll never look at anxiety the same way again. There is a huge new sense of freedom, a freedom to tackle life in comfort and confidence. There are new adventures, whole new people to meet, new ways to live our life.

All of that is waiting outside this hell we’ve come to live in. All that’s left for us to do is start the journey down – and out. It feels like hell, it sure seems like hell sometimes, but it’s really just us facing down our fears.

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