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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.

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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 –

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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.

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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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Although it is nowhere near Halloween I thought I’d tell you a scary story today. Well, not really scary, but a wanna-be scary story. I had an old ghost come visit me last night. He drops by every now and then, and every time he shows up I find myself irritated and grateful, all at the same time. I’ve known him since the middle of the 8th grade, and he used to scare the crap out of me. Now the best he can do is wake me up (sometimes), and occasionally startle me for a few moments.

The ghost I’m talking about is the memory of my days battling anxiety. It is probably more accurate to say it is a small handful of ghosts – a group of ghosts, if you will – that rise from memory when I’m tired, or not feeling well, or just out of sorts with the day and with my life at that moment.

At the heart of those ghosts of anxiety is old thinking, thinking that used to dominate my life and mess with my health and happiness. And as I said, those ghosts can both piss me off and make me glad they came by. Why make me glad?

Ghost Conversations

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We think a LOT of thoughts as we make our way through our day. We’re not conscious of a significant number of them, which seems weird, but is true. Some of those thoughts are no big deal – hey, it’s raining, I wonder what that dog is looking at, did I put the milk in the fridge? Nothing earth-shaking. Some thoughts make us laugh – memories of a conversation, reactions to a TV show, thinking about the Halloween costume you want to wear this year.

Some thoughts bring stronger reactions – remembering an argument with a co-worker, thinking on a friendship that took damage from both sides and that you miss, regret for a missed opportunity. And some of THOSE kinds of thoughts have the potential to make us anxious if they get us worrying about what might happen to us at some point in the future.

I’ve said a number of times in this blog that we don’t have to be conscious of our thinking for our thinking to impact us. And that’s exactly what happens in the dead of the night when I wake up and find my old ghost “friends” visiting me.

The ghosts have a pretty repetitive routine when they come to visit. They like to start with a general sense of unease and annoyance. I spent so many years being afraid to wake up in the middle of the night (for fear that I would feel anxious and not be able to go back to sleep) that just them dropping by is enough to, even now, start that first few thoughts of worry. What if I can’t go back to sleep? What if this goes on for a couple of nights in a row?

Ghost 2

99% of the time these days, I can shut that thinking down pretty quickly. (I’ll describe how a little later on in this post.) But some nights (maybe 4-5 in the last 10 years) the ghosts don’t give up so easily…

Memories of Fear

Because some nights the ghosts get a little more traction in my thinking. Maybe it’s a winter night (when I was most anxious, back in the day – hated the dark and the cold combined.) Maybe it’s after a long day and I’m a little stressed over a presentation or work the next day.

Whatever the reason my future worries get a little stronger. What if anxiety gets ahold of my life again? What if I can’t manage the physical reactions to Flight or Fight the way I have been, and I’m constantly twitching in response to those reactions (in my case, dizziness and numbness in my hands and fingers, and sometimes nausea in some form – hated that too, back in the day.)

Because I remember how it used to be, even though my last panic attack was in the summer of 1995, and my last real struggle of any duration with the fear of that stuff returning was the winter of 2001 – no panic, no chronic worry, just some sleepless nights and some tedious Flight or Fight harassment. When it is 3 in the morning the ghosts start that nonsense with me, and at 3 in the morning I’m sometimes vulnerable to their whispers…

Ghost 4

Why? Because in remembering how it used to be, at 3 in the morning, my shields are down, my brain isn’t working very well at that hour, and the old reflexes (trained by years, decades of anxiety) try to fire up once again.

And what tries to get lodged in my thinking (aided by the whispers of those ghostly memories) is that this won’t stop. The numbness, the sadness, the dizziness, the worry, will somehow go on forever. It won’t ever stop, my life will be miserable, won’t that be terrible…

You know the litany, don’t you?

In case you’re worried this ghost story has a scary ending, don’t worry – it doesn’t. I know how to get rid of ghosts.

Begone Old Ghosts!

Isn’t it interesting in all the ghost stories how ghosts are afraid of light? Something that is supposed to be so scary at 3 in the morning can be threatened by the coming of morning? It is the same with our fearful thinking and our fearful reactions to the Flight or Fight responses to that thinking. Those ghosts can be banished by the light of clear, useful thinking…

Fear only comes in the night when I start to think that something awful or terrible will happen to me. Anxiety starts to gain ground in my thinking when I start projecting this anxious moment into the future, imagining it going on and on, never getting better, always being like it feels right now.

Except of course it never did that – even back in the difficult, exhausting days of my chronic anxiety and panic attacks. Nothing lasts forever, and that’s good news in this conversation. Let me say it again: NOTHING lasts forever – including anxiety, fear and worry.

Ghost 5

It gets better: ALL that can sustain even recurring anxiety is our feeding our anxious thinking, constantly moving into the future, worrying about what could be, how bad things could turn out. If we are steadily, patiently working to get out of crisis thinking, if we practice refusing to live in the future (and it takes practice, practice and time) then it is impossible to sustain anxiety.

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind in this conversation about anxiety. The first is that we NEED to capacity to be anxious. That’s part of that Flight or Fight Mechanism that keeps us safe in the presence of actual, real danger. So the potential for regular, healthy anxiety is a tool that we actually want in our toolbelts.

In other words yes, anxiety is actually good for us – in the proper context. And, really, it isn’t anxiety in this case – it’s simple fear in the presence of real danger, along with the capacity to DEAL with that danger to the best of our ability when we’re confronted with real, physical, right-now danger.

The second thing to keep in mind is that sometimes anxiety (fear of the future) can trigger good, thoughtful, useful action in the face of things seeming overwhelming or too much in the moment we’re anxious. Yeah – sometimes anxiety is a stimulus to action, useful, needed action.

In a sense anxiety can be a guardian, a watcher on the walls, reminding us that we might need to do some preparing, or some thinking, or take some action in the near future. Both of these contexts are anxiety doing the job is supposed to do.

What WE, us chronic anxiety fighters, fight or have fought, is anxiety RULING our lives – because our what if thinking is ruling our lives. Not so useful. The ghosts of what if rattling chains and moaning at us about the terrible future are just that – ghosts, haunting thoughts. And ghosts are not very fond of the light. We are no more a prisoner of them than we are of any insubstantial thing – if we develop the skills of turning crisis in our thinking back into problems. Begone, old ghosts…

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We don’t have to fear the Night

Or, really, any other time. The heart and soul of anxiety is fearful thinking about the future, thinking that’s been habituated and put on a loop in our brains. However scared we feel, however hard it seems, we are always able to start building and strengthening skills to take control of that thinking and, over time, diminish and finally shut it down.

And that’s when we start smiling at the ghosts – when we stop being afraid of them, and instead start shaking our heads at their chains and moaning.

If you’re an anxiety fighter then I have some news for you: you are the victim of too many horror films.

You know horror films, right? Those stupid, scary stories where some guy in a mask comes looming out of the shadows to stab or strangle or do some other terrible thing to a petrified, screaming victim. The stories vary, but the outcome is the same. The person meets some grim fate and the monster stumbles on, looking for the next victim.

Well, if we’re fighting anxiety, we’re the victim of horror films. We didn’t set out in any deliberate way to buy a ticket to this stupid movie, but here we are, glued to our seats, staring in fascinated, freaked-out horror at the stories playing over and over again in our thinking. And although we think our mission is to shout at the screen and tell the knucklehead that’s about to be attacked to get the hell out of there (or squeeze our eyes and cower in our chair) what we really need to do is get up and walk out of the performance.

The Movie

The people who study neurology (brain scientists) tell us that the left hemisphere of the brain is quite a little storyteller. In a sense that side of our brain is constantly interpreting the world, constantly telling itself what is happening and what it means to us.

Here’s another little interesting factoid: that story doesn’t have to have much to do with what is actually happening. Yes, it’s true – the story doesn’t have to match up with what is actually going on, not for the left hemisphere of the brain. The left side of the brain wants to make sense of things, put some structure around what is happening – but it is deciding what is happening more than it is clarifying what actually IS happening.

Horror Movie 1

In other words, it’s making a movie… a story about what is going on in the world and in our experience. You know how movies can be, yes? How they can suck you in, overwhelm your senses if you’re not paying attention, get you shouting at the screen or crying or laughing or whatever the movie is trying to evoke in you? Only when the lights go up do we start to realize that it was just a story, just a movie…

Well, that is happening in your thinking all the time! You and I and everyone else are responding to “The Movie in our Minds” (to paraphrase the song title from “Ms. Saigon.”) But unlike in the movies we can lose sight of the truth that we are interpreting the world, seeing it through our story – and it takes a bit more work to regain perspective, get clear on what is actually going on vs. what we’re telling ourselves about what is going on.

Let me say that again: we can easily lose sight of what is objectively true (what’s actually going on around us) because of the story we’re telling ourselves, by how we’re interpreting what’s happening in our lives. That’s not weird, or strange, or sick – it is utterly human, very, very normal, and everyone, anxiety fighter or not, gets caught in that thinking challenge.

We anxiety fighters just take it to an extreme…

Examples

So let’s say you are walking down the street and you see a friend. You smile and say hi to them and they look over at you, no sign of recognition in their face, nod uncomfortably and keep walking. It looks like they are upset with you, or like they don’t want to talk to you, and you’re offended. What the hell was that about?

You start reviewing the last encounter you had with that person. Did you say something they didn’t like? You think about your mutual friends. Did someone say something nasty about you to this person? You look at how your dressed. Did you make some fashion mistake and piss this person off?

Ghost 5

Most people spin this story out, usually by making some decision based on their experience and what they think happened. And that’s when the trouble REALLY starts, because now they begin acting on what they’ve assumed AS IF IT WAS THE TRUTH. In other words they’re telling themselves a story, creating a movie in their minds, and now they treat it as fact.

Let’s run with the they-must-be-mad-at-you-for-something-you-said notion. You come through your thinking until you find what they must be mad at, decide that’s the problem, then start being angry because of course you didn’t mean to say anything that would upset them, why can’t they see that, they’re really stupid and selfish to assume that… etc.

So what happens? You see that person the next day and now you’re hurt, or mad, or upset, or pissed off, and so YOU give THEM the cold shoulder. They say hi to you and you’re chilly, distant, barely acknowledging their presence. Or maybe you drop some scathing comeback like “well, NOW you have time to say hello to me!”

Why do we do this? Two reasons: 1) in creating these stories about our experience we begin to see the world THROUGH our story, and 2) as we tell ourselves those stories we have reactions to them – i.e., Flight or Fight fires up and makes them SEEM real, FEEL real.

That is, until, after our snippy comment, our friend says “what the hell? What are you talking about? Why are you so upset?” If we’re honest we say because hey buddy, you treated me like dirt yesterday. Then, to our chagrin, they tell us that they just learned their Mom is sick, or their son failed math again, or their company might be sold and they’ll be out of a job… and they didn’t even see you as a result.

Whoops. There you were, busy telling yourself this fierce and angry story, sure you were right, and… you were wrong. Don’t you feel silly now? 🙂

What If – the Ultimate Movie Maker

Anxiety is a result of what if thinking. That’s the first principle of this Fear Mastery work. We cannot be anxious unless we’re caught up in some what if thinking of one flavor or another. Another way to say that is that we’ve constructed scary movies about our lives, about our futures, and we’re running them, consciously or otherwise, on the movie screen of our thinking, over and over again – and scaring ourselves the whole time.

Horror Movie 3

How did it start? There are so many possible scenarios, but it comes down to this: at some point we each had to learn a story about making a situation, issue or problem into a crisis in our thinking. Let’s pick the topic of self-sufficiency for this discussion – how capable we see ourselves as being able to take care of ourselves in the world.

If we learned as younger humans that we had some capability to deal with life as it comes – that we can hold down a job, have friends, feed ourselves, etc. – then we see ourselves as capable, and see that self-support as at most a problem. Challenges will come, issues will surface, but we can deal with them when they do.

If, however, we come to believe that we are NOT capable (we get told that, we try some things and we don’t learn the right lessons about our ability, we are traumatized by some terrible experience that rocks our world and our self-confidence, or all of the above) then we’re going to see capability as a crisis for us. We’re going to construct a story that we’re not capable, that we’re going to be dependent on other people to get by, that it would be terrible if we were alone… in other words, we’re going to build “what if?” stories about our capability in life, wherever we doubt that.

Ugh. Without intending to you’ve hired a film crew, got some actors, rented a wardrobe and made yourself one hell of a movie. It’s in color, it’s dramatic and scary and horrible, and you run that movie a LOT in your thinking. You run it so much early on that you may not even be conscious you’re running that film – but it’s there, and it’s scaring you, and usually at the worst possible times

Horror Movie 4

What if I can’t make it on my own? What if I wind up alone and then I die because I’m alone? What if people see me as weak? What if people think I’m a failure? What if I can never have the life I want because I’m incapable of making it? And on and on and on…

Here’s the worst part about this: you are making this movie based ON YOUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE EXPERIENCED, rather than on what’s really true. Failure in the past doesn’t guarantee failure in the future. Lack of skill then (when you first started making that movie) doesn’t mean you can’t acquire skill NOW. Lack of training is just lack of training, not proof that you’re doomed to never be able to care for yourself.

But the story is STRONG, and reinforced by years of sitting in that movie theatre, watching it over and over again, interpreting your experience through that movie…

This movie could be about almost anything – relationships, money, physical health, coping with getting older, career, children, church/faith, success, you name it. And of course every anxiety fighter is watching more than one horror film at the same time in our theatre, i.e., we have multiple stories running in our thinking – this can get to be one noisy, scary moviehouse…

Time to Leave the Theatre

When we “what if?” in our thinking is when we get anxious. That means we have to start disrupting the habit of “what if?” thinking to get free of anxiety. One tool in our arsenal is to SEE that we’re very, very energetically (as anxiety fighters) engaging with our movies, our what if thinking, and to begin to develop a new habit – seeing the what if crises we’ve been feeding for so long in our thinking as problems we can address and find ways to manage.

Horror Movie 5

One vital way we can do that is to stop watching the damn movie in the first place. We have developed a nasty habit of engaging in the what if dialogues in our thinking, aided by the encouragement of Flight or Fight, in an effort to somehow solve these what if crises we’re conjuring in our thinking. We feel compelled to revisit them again and again, trying to not be the victim, to get away from the guy in the mask in our horror story…

When what we need to do is shut off the film in the first place.

That’s not easy. Habits are strong creatures, and we’ve been feeding these habits for a long time. Add to that how Flight or Fight makes it all seem so real, FEEL so real, and we’re pulled right back into the chair in that movie theatre in our minds.

The work starts by first getting conscious of our films at all. That’s work by itself – figuring out where we are turning issues/challenges/problems into crises in our thinking. It continues by see how Flight or Fight, reacting to our frightened thinking, feeds those scary stories and becomes, in our thinking, itself a scary thing. It means practicing a new understanding of what being anxious is about, seeing anxiety and our thinking clearly, and actively discounting the messages we’re getting from Flight or Fight.

It comes down to focusing what we actually know, what we’ve actually learned is true, rather than deciding to surrender again to what feels real, to what our histories and our thinking want to make us think is true. It comes down to letting go of the illusion that by constantly engaging our fearful thinking we’re going to get anyplace and do anything constructive about that thinking.

It means allowing ourselves to be scared AND see through the fear to what’s actually happening – that we’re scaring ourselves, habitually, in our thinking. That’s how we push ourselves up out of that chair and make our way down to the exit, leaving the horror films running in an empty theatre.

Time for a New Movie

Ever sneak into another theatre when you went to the movies because you didn’t like the film you paid for? It’s kinda fun. That’s possible with anxiety too. It’s a lot more work than just trying to avoid the usher, but it’s utterly something we can all do.

Horror Movie 6

The work is hard. It doesn’t just happen with one or two practice sessions. It means a rigorous self-honesty and a determination to get your life back, regardless of how crappy you feel on any particular day or in any specific hour. It means CHOOSING to be scared for a while in order to get free of chronic anxiety.

It means defying habit and refusing to review the what if thinking again – and not doing that very successfully while you begin to build a new habit and new skills. It means Flight or Fight screaming at you to sit down – you’ve GOT to keep paying attention to those stories. It means distracting yourself, occupying yourself with new thinking, even when it seems stupid and pointless, even when your what if thinking is insisting you focus on it again.

It means getting up from the chair and sitting down again. Hell, it means changing chairs in the theatre as you fight to get to the exit. It means stepping on toes and having people yell at you because you’re in the way. It means a lot of discomfort. It means getting a LOT more uncomfortable, for a period of time, before you feel less afraid.

But there’s nothing quite like exiting that theatre, getting away from that endless horror film in our thinking.

I’ve been talking about the habit nature of fearful thinking in the last couple of posts. Most of us don’t think of thinking as a habit. We think of habits being things like brushing our teeth or always going to McDonald’s when work runs late, not our thoughts. But thinking can be very much a habit – and when it’s anxious thinking it’s vital that we see the habit, and do something about it.

As I’ve reviewed here recently habits have three basic elements: a cue (something that prompts the habit to start), a routine (a sequence of behavior and/or thinking that we move through) and the reward (what we get from the thinking/behavior routine/WHY we do that routine.) It seems from research into habits that we’re most effective at changing habits by focusing on changing the routine…

So how do we change those routines?

Blowing up the Routine of Anxious Thinking

It’s vital, central, crucial to understand that anxious thinking is an attempt is always about us trying to get to safety. The ruminating, the panicky review of what’s happening right at the moment we’re anxious in our bodies and minds, the obsessive behaviors we often move through when we’re anxious, the frantic avoiding of this or that thing, this or that sensation – all of that is us scrambling to get away from danger we believe we’re experiencing or about to experience.

A second thing to understand is that 99.9% of us develop these habits of anxious thinking way before we’re aware we’re doing it. In other words the HABIT of anxious thinking is firmly in place before we realize that we’re even really doing it. Which means that it is very, very easy to KEEP doing that habitual thinking and reacting, even when we want to stop it.

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Third, it’s important to get our arms around how Flight or Fight, once our fearful thinking activates it, is hard-wired into our brains, and hard-wired in such a way as to bypass our critical thinking abilities. Which means that once we scare ourselves we are going to have Flight or Fight fire up, and it’s going to be yelling RUN! Flight or Fight doesn’t know or care that you’re doing this in your thinking – it just knows you’re scared, and that you should get your ass in gear. 🙂

The last thing to understand in this habit of anxious thinking (and Flight or Fight’s inevitable reaction to that thinking) is that we come to be afraid of Flight or Fight itself, and begin flinching away not just from the thinking that scares us, but the reactions in our bodies and emotions that Flight or Fight generates in its mad efforts to get us to safety. I have discussed this last point a LOT in this blog, but in this specific context it’s necessary to see that we’re in some respects in a place of mindlessness when it comes to our reaction to Flight or Fight.

We’re flinching back and we’re often barely (or not at all) conscious of our flinching – we’re just letting Flight or Fight herd us into a corner, into a room, into a box, anything to NOT feel those scary feelings and sensations.

(Except of course Flight or Fight itself isn’t dangerous, won’t hurt us and doesn’t even mean us harm – it’s just doing its evolved biological thing, trying to gear us up for flight or combat. SO many anxiety fighters are terrified of their bodies and feelings when ALL that is happening is that Fight or Fight is taking its cue from our thinking – and that it is our thinking that is the problem AND the solution.)

Now at this point you might be thinking “crap, if this is all true how in the heck do I make it stop?” And the answer begins in seeing the routine that anxious thinking is running when it starts moving through our brain. That routine is both the reason the habit is so strong, and the place it’s most vulnerable to change.

Time for an example –

What if I Run out of Money?

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Talk about your basic modern fear – this one is a classic. Variations on this theme look like this:
What if I lose my job?
What if I can’t afford a place to live?
What if I can’t cover my medical expenses?
What if my spouse (who makes most of the money) leaves me, or something happens to them?
What if I don’t save enough for retirement?
What if I have unexpected expenses that I can’t cover?

Yikes. I’m betting some of you are already feeling scratchy from reading some of these what if questions. Let’s pull these apart from a habits perspective so we can identify how we can STOP doing this to ourselves. It starts with a cue of some kind.

That could be something as simple as seeing your checkbook. It could be seeing a bill in the mailbox, or looking at the calendar and noticing that you’re still a week short of payday. It might be noticing something you want to buy – and then about money and how little it seems you have. It might be something as innocent as someone else talking about their finances.

Any of these things, and a thousand more besides, could be the cues that fire up what if thinking. I’m hoping you’re seeing here that it is terribly frustrating and ultimately pointless to try and do anything about the cues that we’ve linked to the routine of what if thinking. A big part of what gets us in trouble with anxiety is that we, unconsciously for the most part, start running away from anything (any cue) that might fire up what if thinking and make us anxious.

That way lies madness… well, for sure it starts limiting our worlds. We retreat, pull back, avoid, and if we don’t veer off we’re diving into depression, the beginnings of agoraphobia and a desperate cycle of trying to keep the world at bay, working overtime to not have ANYTHING trigger anxiety for us. (Anyone recognize that set of behaviors?)

Futile, and it won’t take us anyplace useful. Ok, so screwing around with cues isn’t going to help. Let’s talk instead about the routine that we run in our thinking when that what if stuff starts to fire up in response to the cues that trigger it in the first place.

That routine looks something like this: “what IF I run out of money? (You pick the variation that sounds most like you.) You start wildly trying to “solve” that what if in a way that makes you feel less anxious. One routine might be what I just wrote above – running away from the whole problem in your thinking in the first place. Very rewarding for a while – maybe years – because you don’t feel as anxious.

Of course you can’t really run away. And while you may be pushing it out of conscious awareness some part of your brain, still worried about this money thing, is still trying to solve it. Which can be a second routine – an endless worrying about the what if in a desperate attempt to find some answer that makes us calmer.

THAT can go on for years and years – decades even. A third routine we can get into is flailing around for some quick fix – anything that makes this problem go away. Maybe it is cranking up the credit cards. Maybe it is borrowing money from family. Maybe it’s spending money you don’t have in a Hail Mary effort to feel better NOW – forget about how you’ll feel later when you get the credit card bill.

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And all the while you’re firing up Flight or Fight, which is almost certainly making you feel more anxious…

We need to stop running the same routine. We need a new routine. We in fact need to yank this whole automatic response off the turntable/out of the tape deck, and replace it with a new way of dealing with our automatic anxious thinking.

Changing Out the Routine

To start this change we need to get clear on the routine we’re running first. Which means getting conscious of that routine. And that means staying present with our fearful feelings and Flight or Fight sensations long enough to GET clear on the routine we’re running.

It is very, very easy to not be clear on what we’re telling ourselves, see the routine of thought and behavior that we’re running to get away from our fears. It FEELS safer to just default to the routine. But that is how we wind up becoming chronically anxious in the first place – we’re defaulting to running and avoiding and medicating, in multiple forms.

We can’t change a habit until we understand the automatic routines we’re running in that habit. This is why I ask my coaching clients to get a journal started. We have to spend a little time WITH our fears – I know, scary! – and listen to the routine we’re running in our heads and bodies.

1) What is the specific set of “what if?” thoughts you’re running in your brain? What are your specific fears? Write them DOWN. Get clear on them. Yes, you’re going to be anxious while you’re doing this work. It might feel like too much when you start. That’s OK. Take this work in small pieces. NOTHING is going to change if we keep running away from how anxious we feel.

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2) Expect Flight or Fight to go all “Oh my God RUN!” on you while you start this work. We have to begin to understand that Flight or Fight, while our fearful habit thinking is running, isn’t either trying to scare us or attempt to hurt us. It’s reacting to our fearful thinking.

It also doesn’t have any special wisdom or knowledge about us – it isn’t foretelling the future, foreseeing some terrible truth about our future. It’s just reacting to our FEARS of the future, based in our very anxious thinking.

3) We have to start disrupting and challenging the habitual anxious thinking AS it’s happening. We have to put the brakes on the tendency to run that anxious thinking out, and run it over and over and over and over again… because we’re not getting anyplace in our thinking, and we’re sure as hell not SOLVING anything , with that habit.

Remember, habits don’t have to be useful, even if at one time they seemed to help, seemed to make us feel better. Remember also that habits are automatic, and they won’t just stop on a dime. It’s going to take some time to change that tedious habit (or habits, really) of thought.

So we’ll wade into this work, freak ourselves out again and again as we get this thinking identified and written down so we can see it clearly, and then go right back to it again – it is, after all, an old and strong habit we’ve fed for a long time. It’s OK. It will change – just not usually quickly.

4) We need a new routine in place of that old routine. We need to see, with each habit of anxious thought that we currently run in our thinking, that we can and must change that routine from a path of crisis reacting to a path of problem-solving.

In other words we have to see that we’ve been treating X issue (like money challenges, or even just money worries) as crises. That created one kind of thought habit that we’ve been dancing to for way too long. We have to wrench that thinking out of its groove and convert it to problem-solving. That starts with learning to see the issue we’re panicking about AS a problem.

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Problem-Solving – the Actual Way to Break the Power of Anxiety

This post has already gotten big, so I’ll tackle the specifics of this around money, and at least one more issue we get freaky about, in my next blog post. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, you could do few things more profitably than get that journal started and get “naked” with your fearful thinking. Yeah, it’s going to be very uncomfortable. It’s going to do all the things that you don’t want it to do – make you anxious, get your thoughts racing, try to make you run away.

In other words it’s going to run that same habit or habits that have been scaring you for so long. But here’s the thing: you’re not in danger when you’re anxious, and it doesn’t matter HOW it feels. We’ve been running for a long time from a tiger that isn’t really there. We can teach ourselves to stop running (or at least slow to a walk) and begin to see the tiger for what it really is – a problem we’ve converted into a crisis.

And we can start to take our lives back. More next post –

This post is all about application of the notion that our anxiety springs from one central source – a nasty habit of asking ourselves scary “what if” questions about one or more topics. Today I’m going to demonstrate the process of unpacking those what if questions – finding them, seeing how we are making them into a crisis, and converting them back into what they are, at most – a problem.

Key points to remember in this discussion: 1) We don’t have to be conscious of what if thinking to have it scare the crap out of us. Very important to keep this in mind. We usually start this work rattling our own cages constantly but not really being clear on WHY – what the what if thinking is precisely. 2) It is in the nature of the Comfort Zone to resist this kind of examination. Each of us winds up saying “this stuff is too scary to think about” for a long time, consciously and unconsciously. It’s going to take some work and time to get clear on your what if thinking – and more time to get it converted back to what it is – a problem.

Let’s start with a brief summary of how we start scaring ourselves – how we get to what if questions driving us crazy…

Thinking plus Flight or Fight Equals What If – where the Trouble Starts

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I hear some variation of this what if just about every day. It makes a ton of sense. We get rattled by our fearful thinking – whatever it is – and we have Flight or Fight lurch out of the shadows and start shouting at us that something is WRONG!

And there is something wrong, in the sense that we are scaring ourselves silly. But for too many of us we’re not clear where the scaring begins or how much we’re letting both our fearful thinking and the reactions of Flight or Fight make us crazy.

Let’s be very clear – our anxiety started, at some point in our past, in our thinking. Whatever is happening at the moment, however crazed we feel we are right now, it can all be traced back to a moment when we learned/were taught (by circumstance or people around us) to see some issue, problem, challenge as a crisis – to see it as life or death.

That it wasn’t (or isn’t) life or death doesn’t matter. What matters is that we learned to SEE it that way. The moment we did that we who fight anxiety began to back away, flinch back, avoid that issue or challenge because we were seeing it as terrible, destructive, life or death.

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When we did that we engaged Flight or Fight, our natural defense system in the presence of life or death danger. And one of the most useful things Flight or Fight can do for us when we’re facing down actual life or death danger is figure out, RIGHT NOW, what might get us to safety.

If we’re backed against a cliff facing down a pride of lions this is damn useful. If we wake up and we smell smoke in the house this is brilliant. This mechanism does its thing at blinding speed, we’re thinking about how we get to safety and we’re already in motion, grabbing kids, finding a stick to fight off lions (or more likely scoping that thin path up the ledge to safety) –

In other words Flight or Fight is asking a fierce amount of “what if?” questions, all for the purpose of deciding which route to safety is the best, which course of action to take to get us away from whatever the danger is in front of us. All good – in real crisis.

But this amazing mechanism works exactly the same way the moment we THINK we’re in danger. It is here that we started to get stuck in the quicksand of anxious thinking, and it is here that we have to get our thinking cleaned up if we’re going to break free of anxiety.

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We Freak Out over Flight or Fight Reactions

One fiercely common example of what if thinking centers then around Flight or Fight reactions. LOTS of us get very caught up in this or that Flight or Fight response symptom, and then spin off into what if thinking about that symptom or symptoms. (For a list of the most common ones see the post HERE.)

Let’s try a common one – shallow breathing. There you are, Mr. or Ms. Anxiety Fighter, walking along or sitting at your computer, and BAM, you’re breathing is suddenly noticeable. You feel like you can’t get a deep breath. This scares you/freaks you out, so you start focusing on trying to breathe, or maybe you try distracting yourself, or you do whatever you do to comfort yourself or get away from this scary thing…

And you are what if thinking, right there, right now. What if this means something is wrong with me physically? What if I’m sick with something and don’t know it? What if this means I have cancer, or a brain tumor?

Another set of questions is simply what if this never stops? That’s scary to us precisely because we’ve made, all unintentionally, this symptom INTO something scary, and we spin that out into forever. Of course this anxious thinking opens the door to all of our other anxious thoughts – what if I can’t keep this job, what if my Mom dies soon, what if I never fall in love, you name it.

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Here’s the good news in this firestorm of anxious thinking: it’s all in our thinking. Every last bit of it. It isn’t Flight or Fight – shallow breathing, in this case – that’s the problem. It FEELS like the problem. It sure is the focus of our conscious thinking. But the problem is the thinking we’ve attached to this thing, not the thing itself.

Take “what if this never stops?” That seems scary as hell! But that thought isn’t anything in reality – it is simply and only our fear of what might happen. The truth is (and I fought this very hard when it first became clear to me) that we’re feeding and encouraging that shallow breathing by our thinking – in this case, by our what if this never stops thinking.

We have to disrupt, challenge and shut down that thinking. That’s hard at the start of this work. We FEEL like something terrible is happening with this shallow breathing. We want to make it stop by force of will. We want someone to turn it off for us. It’s too terrible to have to sit through, so we just want to run away – medicate with food, or some drug, or maybe just sit in our quiet corner and tremble, hoping it stops by itself.

But the way out is shutting down that what if thinking that is the problem in the first place. This applies to all of our Flight or Fight reactions. Feeling an overwhelming sadness? Sure you are. You are what if thinking about one or more (usually more) terrible fears about the future. What if this happens? What if this never gets better? What if I’m ALWAYS anxious? Etc. Who wouldn’t feel sad under the barrage of that kind of thinking?

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Feeling your heart race? Mouth suddenly so dry you can’t swallow? Dizzy as hell? Feeling mysterious and sudden anger? Does everything seem pointless? Guess what? Behind all of that is what if thinking, firing up Flight or Fight reactions.

We Don’t Stop this on a Dime

We have to go to the source of the problem to make this anxiety crap stop. That’s hard because we’re afraid to just “be” with our Flight or Fight reactions. That’s hard because we may not always be clear at the start of this work, or even well into this work, about which what if questions are scaring us – we’ve been pushing them away for a LONG time.

And this work is hard because we’ve gotten very, very good at avoiding our Flight or Fight reactions – we’ve learned to really scare ourselves with them. No question about any of that. But the work remains – identifying, tackling and changing that what if thinking.

I was, for two decades, terrified in my core of vertigo/dizziness/being lightheaded. Started for me in Junior High and haunted my days until my 35th birthday. I wept, raged, medicated with food and anything else that was at hand that also didn’t scare me, meditated, distracted myself, but the fear was always there.

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Then I met this whack job who said maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t my dizzy that was the real problem. Maybe it was what I was telling myself about the dizzy – and a whole lot of other things. I fought that tooth and claw for months and months. I tried to endure the days, endure the dizzy and the fear, but that didn’t change anything.

But I was learning to unpack my thinking. I was seeing how much I scared myself about a lot of things – my career, my relationships, who I was in the world, what failure looked like to me – I had a LOT of what ifs in my thinking. They were eating me alive, truth be told.

I identified those what if fears. I began to understand how they were problems. Some of them were serious problems. Some of them were only problems in my thinking. Some of them had never been problems at all. And as I got good at that I reluctantly realized that even my dizzy was just a what if question – what if this never stops, what if this goes on forever, what if I’m never free of anxiety?

I had been feeding and sustaining the dizzy for decades – and I had no idea. I was furious, I was scared, I wanted to do anything but face dizzy down. But face it down I did. I started refusing to engage in the what if thinking any more. It was hard. It was damn hard some days. I had been doing it for years and years.

And as I practiced that I began to scare myself less. Oh, you bet there were burps and backslides. I got confused, easily, but looking for NO dizzy as the mission, rather than seeing dizzy for what it was – a Flight or Fight response, something physical but not dangerous. I learned, and relearned, and relearned.

Guess what? It stopped being scary.

You can do this too.

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As I work to finish this book I’m reminded again and again how much we who fight or have fought anxiety just want to be DONE with being anxious. We’re sick of it, we’re over it, we hate how we feel and we want this to happen YESTERDAY. The problem with this thinking is that it makes us savagely impatient – with ourselves and with whatever approach we’re taking to the work of breaking anxiety’s hold in our lives.

This isn’t quick fix work. This is steady practice, skill-building, re-education and making mistakes in the process of learning along the way. It takes time, it takes energy and it is often frustrating/feels slow. On the other hand ANY skill-building takes time – and these are skills that literally transform our lives and our worlds as we learn them. And it is my argument that it doesn’t take any more energy to fight and overcome anxiety through this skill-building process than it does to constantly wrestle with anxiety’s life-suck every day – and THIS work actually takes us towards our freedom.

So, a little reminder from this post I put up last year. This isn’t quick-fix work – but it is life-changing and life-giving work.

If you deal with anxiety then I’m pretty confident you have one interest that stands out: you just want to NOT deal with anxiety. You want it to stop. You want a life like you see in the people around you – a chance to just be, for lack of a better word, normal.

You’re probably sick of feeling worried/stressed/nervous/scared all the time. You don’t like how your body seems to have a mind of its own, having weird reactions and sensations at the drop of a hat. You resent the energy it sucks out of you, the way it “grays” the world and diminishes the joy you’d like to feel. And I’ll bet you hate with a passion how it limits your life, however it’s doing that to YOU –

With that single goal in mind – getting rid of anxiety, NOW – it is very easy to treat anxiety like all the other things we do when we’re anxious – i.e., to treat anxiety like a crisis. It sure as hell FEELS like a crisis. We want to make it stop NOW.

I’m now going to say something that just about nobody wants to hear – but needs to hear if they want to break the power of anxiety in their lives. Anxiety is not a crisis.

I know – I’m a crazy person for saying that. But I know something else – that if you REALLY want anxiety to stop ruling your life, then you need to stop looking for the quick fix.

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I’ll do ANYTHING to Make This Anxiety Stop…

It’s amazing the lengths we’ll go to in our work to end anxiety in our lives. Some of us will go to the doctor again and again in an effort to get a solid diagnosis for all of our various physical and emotional and mental responses to anxiety. Some of us will try a long string of medications to find the one that ends anxiety once and for all.

Some of us will move heaven and earth to avoid both doctors AND meds, choosing instead to hide in our houses for years and decades, hoping somehow we can stay safe, praying fervently that anxiety just leaves us alone. Some of us will desperately try all the non-medical forms of medication – alcohol, food, obsessive shopping or gambling, you name it, we’ll bleed for it, seeking some way to escape the tyranny of our fears.

So we’ll do all of that (and more besides). The energy we’ll give to these efforts can only be called heroic, whatever we think of ourselves. One great quality of anxiety fighters is that we don’t seem to know when to give up. Excellent news. It’s a crucial trait to fight our way clear of anxiety –

What we’re not doing, too often, is the work that will actually get us free. We tell ourselves and those around us (if we feel safe telling anyone we’re fighting anxiety) that there’s nothing we wouldn’t do to have a regular, anxiety-free life. But there’s one thing we’re NOT really willing to do, and that’s

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Sit with Our Anxiety, Instead of Running Away from It

When I say that we’ll do just about anything to break the hold of anxiety I’m really saying that we’ll do anything that seems to promise quick, if not immediate, relief from anxiety. Medication, quick-fix techniques, distraction, some medical procedure – if it will just END anxiety NOW then we’re all in.

Makes sense. We are afraid of the physical and emotional sensations raging through us when we’re in the grip of panic attacks. We hate how we feel when we’re depressed. We despise our obsession with our fearful thinking even as we can’t seem to stop doing that thinking. We just want to STOP.

So when someone tells us that the way out of anxiety is to stop running, stop avoiding, sit down and look our anxious thinking and reacting squarely in the eye it is less than sexy to us. In fact it sounds like the definition of insanity! What lunatic would go LOOKING for more anxiety?

Here are some metaphors to help answer that question. If you’ve had kids or lived with kids then you know that young children (especially babies) cry or need attention in the middle of the night sometimes. And while you probably love those kids bunches I’m guessing it isn’t your first choice to get out of bed at 2am and see what the problem is that’s causing all the crying…

So – you can pull the covers up over your head, you can nag your spouse/significant other to get up and take care of things, you can stick earplugs in your ear or turn on the TV – but chances are you won’t stop that crying until you go see that kid. You don’t have to like it – but you do need to do it.

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I’ll up the ante a little: let’s say you’ve been avoiding balancing your checkbook. Thinking about money just makes you stressed and mad. You KNOW you need to pay some bills, you’re not sure you have enough to do so, but you hate the thought of going to look at that checkbook. I get it. That was me until my early 40’s. 🙂

So – you can go shopping on credit to comfort your anxious soul, you can avoid the pile of bills on the kitchen table, you can put a DVD on and try to forget the world – but the only way you’ll get the bills paid and know if you can afford that trip to the dentist is if you sit down and look at your finances.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it makes you anxious. Yes, it would be great if someone else would just come in and give you a lot of money. No argument there…

But by the same token the avoiding costs a lot too, yes? It’s remarkably painful and frustrating too, isn’t it? You can’t really buy anything without stressing, you can’t sleep well because you know you need to look at your checkbook and sort it out, you dread having any surprise expenses come up, etc. And all the while some part of your brain is spinning out terrible scenarios about what if you run out of money, what if you get in trouble with your credit card company, what if, what if, what if…

The Way Out is Through

Anxiety is the brain treating a problem like a crisis. Bottom-line. When we think something is a crisis, even if it isn’t, we’re going to keep reacting to it LIKE a crisis. Which means that we can hide from our fears, run away from our anxious thinking, bury our Flight or Fight reactions in medications and avoidance, but our brains and bodies STILL want to DO something about the crisis we’re sweating over in our thinking.

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Which means that what we have to do is turn and face our fears. We have to sort out where we have gotten off track in our thinking, where we have taken an issue, small, medium or huge, and turned it into an O-My-God-this-is-terrible thinking.

I have been over this ground a LOT in this blog. If it sounds like I’m repeating myself, well, I am. But I’m doing that today because it isn’t enough to understand the nature of anxiety. It isn’t enough to grasp what the problem is in the first place. We have to take that knowledge and DO something with it.

And doing in this case means gathering our resources and strength and then facing into our fears.

It is hard to start. I know. I was there. It is hard, especially at the beginning of the work, to even sit still long enough to spend any time working to identify that thinking. We have spent long years scaring ourselves silly over that anxious thinking, that anticipating of dark and terrible future outcomes, so to then calmly sit down and begin facing those scary stories is HARD.

It is energy-draining. OK, that’s an understatement. It is usually exhausting. It can also easily trigger those Flight or Fight reactions we’ve worked so hard to run away from and tamp down, with greater or lesser degrees of success. To deliberately court those reactions flaring up again makes us damn uncomfortable.

And, to make things even more challenging, we have taught ourselves that good or progress means Flight or Fight sensations diminishing or going away – when progress really means Flight or Fight firing up and us learning to not treat it as a crisis.

(Even just getting a handle on this is an enormous advantage in this work, and infinitely worth the frustration and repeated sessions of being scared by our bodies while we learn.)

This is not a quick fix. This is not a magical waving of a wand. It is the building of skills across time. It is literally rewriting our thinking around how to think – how to manage problems as problems instead of as crises. It is facing down old scary bogey-man fears and learning to not run away from them.

It is the way out.

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What to DO?

1) Look at the blog posts from 11/26/11 through 6/8/12. They articulate the first steps, which include starting a personal journal to help you track your anxious thinking identification and what is working well for you in this work, as well as talking about what good self-care looks like during this work. Here’s the first one HERE.

2) Speaking of self-care, gather whatever support you can muster. Family, friends, therapist, medications if there are any that help you, some sort of at least minimal physical activity to help bleed off some the stress and physical pressure that dealing with anxiety can generate. It’s not shameful to ask for help, and we can use all the encouragement we can get.

That will also mean being honest with one or more people in your support group. It is too often the case that we who fight anxiety keep it a big dark secret from the people we love. This isn’t so useful when we’re facing down our thought demons. And while there are definitely people we probably shouldn’t share our fight with (because they will make us feel bad or weak or stupid) there are probably other people that would like very much to help us, if they knew what you needed.

3) Expect this work to take some time! Remember (hard for adults to do sometimes) that learning curves start shallow for most new skills. We don’t get good instantly. We see improvement and then we get derailed or slowed down at points. We have great days and then crappy days. We get more self-confident and then we get freaked out and then we calm down again.

All of this is part of the process. We are each learning to rethink thinking, rethink reacting, rethink how we manage issues in our lives and our histories. It is all completely work that we can do – but it is not instant and it is definitely not comfortable. 🙂

The way out is through. Facing our anxiety, armed with good information, a sense of the process, the support we can muster around us and a willingness to really stay with the work are the weapons that will help us break the power of anxiety in our lives.

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There is a very specific obsessive behavior that Flight or Fight, in reaction to our frightened, anxious thinking, drives us to do over and over again. It FEELS like something we HAVE to do, and it even feels scary to NOT do it – but it is not only a waste of our time, it is one of the active sources of our ongoing anxiety. And it is a total waste of our time and energy.

In a sense this post is a follow-up to the last post on acceptance. You might also find it useful to review this post HERE on what problem-solving is, vs. what anxiety worry and treating things as a crisis tempts us to do.

What Flight or Fight calls us to do is this: it tries to get us to “solve” the terrible scenarios that we conjure in our anxious thinking, consciously or not – and in so doing sets us up to keep scaring ourselves, over and over again, and feel even more compelled to resolve our hypothetical fearful thinking…

It all Starts with Scary Movies in our Heads…

Let’s do a little review. Chronic anxiety – really, anxiety of any kind – stems from one simple mis-step in our thinking. That mistake is to start trying to treat a problem, issue or challenge that is NOT life-threatening, not immediately about to kill or maim us, as if it was a life-or-death crisis. If you’ve read this blog at all then you’re crystal clear on this being the heart of all the misery and dysfunction that anxiety brings into our lives.

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Let’s do a little more review. The moment we start treating anything like a crisis, whether it is a crisis or not, we activate Flight or Fight. And one of the essential features of Flight or Fight is the automatic (and I mean automatic, as in pre-programmed, part of the DNA coding we have in dealing with real danger) attempt to escape, if at all possible, the danger we’ve told ourselves we’re facing.

One more time for the cheap seats: Flight or Fight, the moment it fires up, begins trying mightily to get us clear of whatever danger, real or manufactured in our thinking, that we think we’re facing down. One of the features of that attempt to escape is figuring out the worst-case scenarios.

This is brilliant. You really should reach around and pat yourself on the back for that amazing reflex. If you’re actually in danger your brain is WAY ahead of anything you could muster in a moment in the way of a response. In nano-seconds our brains our assessing the situation and working furiously to give us alternatives in the face of that danger.

But of course we’re not talking about real danger. We’re talking about the fears we’ve been nurturing, without meaning to, in our busy gray matter. And that sets in motion us trying to “solve” the future, in increasing desperation, and in utter futility.

Trying to Escape what isn’t there

Let’s say you’re afraid of facing down a difficult/scary conversation with your Significant Other. Let’s make the subject money management. The moment you begin thinking about the conversation you need to have you fire up Flight or Fight. In the midst of that reaction you begin, consciously or semi-consciously, worrying about how the conversation will go…

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Your brain starts to examine specific potential outcomes (according to your thinking.) Maybe you’re afraid that there will be a fight. Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll have to confront a serious shortage, directly, in your shared finances. Maybe you’re not even that clear on what scares you about the money thing with your partner – you just know that you ARE scared about it and don’t want to have this conversation.

Your thoughts riffle through what MIGHT happen (again, according to your fears.) What if he or she gets very angry? What if this damages your relationship? What if they never speak to you again? What if they storm out of the house, or even leave you forever? What if… well, you get it, yes?

Now you’re busy REALLY scaring yourself. Your brain begins to try to solve the terrible idea that you will wind up alone, without support, on the street, the wind howling around you… or whatever your idea of scary looks like at the present moment. You’re full-on treating this scenario in your head as a crisis – even though it hasn’t happened, even though it isn’t real –

And so your brain revves up a merry-go-round of efforts to “solve” this crisis – which isn’t a crisis at all. It isn’t even REAL. It’s simply a conjecture in your head. You’re trying to escape what isn’t there – and it is feeding your anxiety in a big, big way.

Now you have Flight or Fight really going strong in your thinking and body. Now you’re freaked out, a little or a lot, and the most natural thing in the world at this point is to try and run away from this thinking completely – or at least try to. Except of course that Flight or Fight is still trying to save you from the terrible danger of this conversation… the conversation that hasn’t happened yet… and the outcomes that are for the moment only in your head.

But it COULD happen that way!

Well, at least some part of your brain is saying that when you’re in Flight or Fight. Of COURSE its saying that – because you’re freaking yourself out about what MIGHT happen. You’re treating a problem (if it is a problem) as a crisis.

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Sure, Erik, but you don’t KNOW my Significant Other. He or she is a crazed wombat when it comes to money. And I’m not convinced that I can manage my own money anyway. And he or she is my primary support. And I can’t imagine my life without someone to help me with money. And what if I run out of money and never have any money ever again? And what if…

And you’re off and running again. It is what Flight or Fight DOES when we are fired up treating any issue/challenge/problem as a crisis. What does that mean?

1) It means we have to identify when we do that, with the issues we do it with as we’re doing it. It can be anything, about anything, and it can happen anytime. (It will in fact happen anytime to those of us that fight chronic anxiety, until we get that thinking sorted out.) We need to develop a brand-new skill (for us) of identifying where we turn thinking into a crisis.

2) We also need to begin to practice the awareness/understanding that IF we are trying to solve the future and we are NOT about to be consumed by man-eating piranha that we are by DEFINITION doing crisis thinking about a problem/issue/challenge. We don’t ALWAYS have to identify the specifics in that moment – but it is damn useful to start going “hey, I’m anxious – which means I’m up in the future, doing what if thinking, right now.”

That can be signaled by the conscious thoughts we notice – us solving the future in this unworkable way. Or it can just be the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight – anxious, restless, upset stomach, dizzy, angry, feeling helpless, etc.

Both 1 and 2 on this list are great things to practice – and they we need to practice both.

3) We really, really need to see Flight or Fight not as the enemy – however much we’ve learned to hate the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight, however much we’ve trained ourselves to run like hell from Flight or Fight – but see it is just as reactive as we are when we have anxious thoughts. In other words we can really use the practice of understanding that we’re treating Flight or Fight as a crisis – when it isn’t.

'See if our technical people can get this up and running.'

We attach so much significance (largely unconsciously) to Flight or Fight reactions that have no basis in reality. We really are able to change those meanings, call bullshit on them and diminish the significance of this set of reactions to our fearful thinking. We can learn to stop scaring ourselves when we experience Flight or Fight.

We Can’t Solve The Future

But we can, definitely, stop spending all our time there. We can come to understand that our frantic efforts to get away from Flight or Fight, and our fierce focus on trying to figure out some way to avert disaster, in whatever form we are currently imagining it, is all the product of asking ourselves scary what if questions about the future, coupled with the desperate efforts of Flight or Fight to “get us to safety.”

Ugh! We can get off this merry-go-round! It isn’t instant, and it will take some work – but it is within every human’s reach. Tired of the ride? Want to stop all that crazed spinning?

emotions 3

We human beings are creatures of experience. We are in some respects the sum total of our personal histories – what we’ve learned directly and what others have taught us. This learning and teaching forms a framework for how we both see and respond to our world.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog most of us have taken very little time to review those histories with a critical eye. We tend to act as if our learning and experience was “the truth” – a reflection of reality. That’s fine much of the time – much of our learning does reflect reality. We can usually trust chairs to hold us up, pizza to be tasty and a bad smell from the milk carton indicating that we shouldn’t take a big drink.

But some of our thinking and assumptions need to be reviewed, called into question and even changed – and that goes double for anyone fighting anxiety on a regular basis. It is thinking that has gotten us into the morass of anxiety, and it is the mission of overcoming anxiety to clean up and correct that anxious thinking.

One BIG assumption I’m challenging in this blog post today is the belief that we need to respect warning signals of Flight or Fight – that we should, when that ancient personal defense mechanism sounds the alarm, immediately react to it by getting away from whatever is making us uncomfortable. That assumption isn’t just wrong, it’s a very bad idea. Because in doing that stepping away we only feed and support the anxious thinking that fired up Flight or Fight in the first place.

Uncomfortable 1

Run Away!

It’s simple. Flight or Fight tells us to RUN when we’re anxious. It’s carved into our very genes. And that’s a brilliant idea – when we’re actually in danger.

But when we’re fighting anxiety WE’RE NOT IN DANGER. Period. There’s no question we’re SCARED. We FEEL like we’re in danger. It SEEMS like something terrible is right on the verge of happening. But it isn’t. Anxious thinking is just that – anxious thinking.

We may understand that intellectually. It is however a deliberate practice to come to understand and resist the temptation to flee when Flight or Fight shouts “boo!” at us. There is no question that the compelling of Flight or Fight is strong. Evolution has made sure that when Flight or Fight fires up we are powerfully motivated to get the hell away from whatever is scaring us.

But we are not the helpless prisoners of Flight or Fight, and it isn’t JUST the motivation of Flight or Fight that we’re battling with when we feel the urgent need to run away. We’re also fighting the assumptions and learning we’ve acquired in the course of our lives. And that’s at least as much the problem as Flight or Fight…

In other words we’re not just fighting our genetic call to flee when we’re scared. We’re also responding to old programming – often unconsciously, especially at the beginning of this work for each of us around overcoming anxiety. It’s programming that SEEMS wise – and which, often, worked in the past.

Uncomfortable 4

Running Away Makes Us Feel less Anxious – for a While

It probably started right from the get-go – right at the beginning of our war with anxiety. Not understanding what was going on – that we had begun to acquire thinking that scared us, made us feel unsafe, had us worrying about the future – we experienced Flight or Fight. Maybe it was yucky nausea. Maybe it was a bad dizzy spell. Maybe we just felt an overwhelming sense of dread.

But whatever it was we KNEW, in our gut, we needed to move away, somehow, from this thinking that made us uncomfortable. And so we did – in one fashion or another. We started suppressing the thinking that scared us. We stepped away from the activity that we were engaged in when we had that sensation or feeling. We flinched back.

And, for a while, we felt better. Whoo-hooo! It worked! We were safe. Or so we thought…

But in fact we were NOT safe – because we were never really in danger. We were facing some problem or set of problems – but we were seeing them as crises, unmanageable, overwhelming, and so we ran away.

Not only were we not safe, but we were creating a terrible set of habits around stepping away from the discomfort and fear of our thinking and of the responses of Flight or Fight, physical and emotional. It’s a double-whammy of that habit being largely unconscious AND how we were training ourselves to avoid discomfort – at all costs.

Uncomfortable 2

We can only Run so far…

One of the hardest (and most crucial) lessons of the fight with anxiety is the scary day that finally arrives when we realize we’ve run ourselves into a corner. Most of us are terribly unprepared to discover that our habit of running one day runs us right into a wall.

I don’t think I have to explain the hard part. We’ve been retreating from the world for years and years and we didn’t even know it. We’ve started limiting our driving, or avoiding the movie theater because we had a panic attack there, or we’ve gone from full-time to part-time to no-time work. We’re scared to go to the store, or the mall, or even outside the house. (Agoraphobia, anyone?)

And every time we retreated we were strengthening our nasty habit of avoiding discomfort, avoiding a feeling of fear or that scary physical sensation or all of the above. Until the day came when what had been safe – retreating, our house, our bedroom, our safe person – didn’t suddenly seem as safe. We were in our safe place – and the anxiety came to visit after all.

Maybe you’re not there yet. Maybe you’re “just” housebound. Or maybe you’re still living your life and you just don’t do some things, or avoid them when you can. And of course it doesn’t have to reach the place where we’re backed against the wall.

The bottom line is that at some point in this work, if we want to be free of the burden and harassment of anxiety in our lives, we HAVE to turn and face down what’s scaring us in our thinking. And part of that work is learning to be comfortable, at least for a while, with being uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable 5

(And, honestly, if we’re going to engage life and get the life we want, one that’s open and free and large and interesting, we’re going to have to acquire the habit of moving through periods of discomfort in our lives. It is part of the recipe for a healthy life.)

OK, so if you’re anything like I was when I was butt-deep in this fight with anxiety you REALLY didn’t like reading that last little bit of blog writing. 🙂 I get it. It feels completely counter-intuitive, dangerous and crazy to talk about risking feeling the way you feel when you’re afraid.

And, as I said earlier, it WORKED to run away – probably for a long time. Which means our first reflex from that training, plus the urging of Flight or Fight, is to keep running away, keep avoiding. The problem is it ISN’T working – at least it isn’t working to do anything to break the power of anxiety in our lives. And, if you’re on approach (or already there) to the place where running isn’t helping any more, well, then you already understand that running is a limited-time option.

I wonder if in fact we don’t all know, down deep, that running isn’t helping, even when it does relieve the fear and pressure…

This isn’t a reason to start blaming ourselves or beating ourselves up for running. 99.9% of us didn’t have the first damn idea what was happening when anxiety began to encroach on our lives. We don’t need to make this into another way we’ve failed – a risk too many anxiety fighters also battle with on a regular basis.

Boo 1

But we do have to decide to build a new habit. We need to begin to strengthen the “muscle” of our tolerance for discomfort. And that’s going to be stinkin’ uncomfortable for a while, especially when we really turn and face into it – and keep facing into it.

We will be fighting the habit of years and decades. We will be fighting Flight or Fight’s siren song to stop facing and return to running. We will feel angry, and scared, and frustrated, and we will experience the sensations of Flight or Fight that we’ve run from for so long.

Here’s the good news: that’s GOOD. That’s good because we will have started strengthening our ability to deal with discomfort. And that’s good because in turn that strengthening will give us the capacity to unpack and sort out that anxious thinking that started the whole mess – and we can begin to really break free of the grip of anxiety.

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Time to Hit the Gym

I don’t mean the gym like lifting weights – although that’s a good analogy, and we do need to find ways to get physical movement back in our lives if we’ve lost that habit. No, I mean get in the habit of turning and facing down our fears. It’s time to get some comfort with being uncomfortable.

Here are some blog posts to help you do that work:

Blog Post

Blog Post

Blog Post

Running away is a habit. We need to develop a new habit. And one of the most effective ways I know to start developing that habit is simply DOING the WORK.

That means starting slow and small. Anxiety fighters are prone to over-reach. We’re not talking about marathon face-down sessions when we begin this work. I’m talking about 5 minutes of effort at the start. Then maybe you work up to 8 minutes. Then you take a break. Then you go again.

Muscles that haven’t been used get very grumpy when you first start using them! The metaphor is apt for this work as well. Flight or Fight will protest – after all, you’ve been saying how awful this thing is and how much you hate it for years and years – it’s only trying to do its job. That doesn’t mean however that you should back away and retreat to old habits – at least not for long.

It’s going to feel strange. Hell, it’s going to feel WRONG. You’ll have Flight or Fight sensations, physical and mental, that you’ve never or only rarely felt before. You’ll feel even MORE anxious for a while. That makes sense too. When you stop running and start facing you’re doing something you don’t have good habits for – and you’re looking your anxiety thinking right in the eye. That’s going to be weird and scratchy and scary for a while.

But the way out isn’t running away. You already know that, yes? Nope, the way out is back the way you came, straight into the fears that had you running in the first place.

Uncomfortable 3

In some earlier posts this fall I spent some time covering the basics of fighting anxiety as I see the work. In the next couple of posts I’m going to spend a little time discussing what gets in the way of doing that work, and some suggestions for what we can do about those obstacles.

As you read through these barriers to getting free from anxiety let me encourage you to avoid using these as weapons of self-abuse. Anxiety is one of the most insidious mind games we can play with ourselves. By its very nature it is something that leads us AWAY from the work to get free of it. Everyone who fights anxiety, and I mean everyone, is reluctant to wade into and keep wading into that work. It’s uncomfortable, it’s often scary, it’s exhausting – we just don’t wanna…

So please – cut yourself some slack if you see yourself in one or more of these pitfalls. You are always free to start climbing out again… but it’s more useful if we’re kind to ourselves, patient and even

Alright, here goes –

1) Continuing to Run from Flight or Fight Feelings & Sensations

I have been writing this blog for almost 5 years now. I have been doing anxiety coaching for longer than that. And (as some of my readers can attest to) I have been working with an amazing group of people on Facebook in a sort of group coaching situation around this material for over a year. I can say with a lot of confidence that this first reason to run is probably right up at the top of the list of the reasons people get stalled in this work.

Ostrich

It is SO easy to do. While not everyone that falls into the vortex of chronic anxiety and depression winds up terrified of one more Flight or Fight sensations or feelings, a huge number of us do – and we wind up letting those scary sensations and feelings wall us away, increasingly, from life and the world.

I have labored in this blog to clarify what Flight or Fight really is – a highly effective means of dealing with real, life-or-death crises that isn’t nearly so useful when it comes to what makes us anxious – problems or issues transmuted into crisis thinking. This amazing emergency response system is just trying to do its job – get us away from danger.

Because when we’re ramped up with anxiety we FEEL like we’re in danger – and that’s all Flight or Fight needs. So it powers up, gets us ready to go, dumps adrenaline into our bloodstreams, makes us hyper-aware of our surroundings, speeds up our heart and breathing, shuts down digestion, starts pulling blood in from the extremities – doing all the things it would do if we were being attacked by a pack of hungry wolves…

But we’re NOT being attacked. We’re scaring ourselves in our thinking, and in so doing we’re firing up Flight or Fight.

We have to turn and face down those sensations. Too many of us, not understanding what was happening, scared ourselves silly with fearful reacting to the reactions of Flight or Fight – and we’ve been running scared ever since. We’ve trained ourselves, without intending to, that those sensations and emotions are just too scary, just too real-feeling to face down – and so we get stuck, or worse still keep retreating from the world, trying to get away from how we feel –

Avoidance 3

And anxiety continues to rule our lives. We have to rethink our assumptions about Flight or Fight and how it affects us. We have to turn into the wind, metaphorically, and stay turned long enough to wade through our anxious reactions to Flight or Fight.

It isn’t enough to just endure Flight or Fight’s storm in our bodies and emotions. No, we have to, at the same time, challenge our thinking about it – identify where we have scared ourselves with those sensations and feelings, and CHANGE THAT STORY OR STORIES. Takes time. It is damn uncomfortable to boot. But it is absolutely essential if we want out of anxiety.

I have blog posts HERE and HERE to help you further in this work. And you can always hit me here at the blog if you want to discuss your specific fears. But sooner or later, if we want out, we have to face this tedious crap and move through it.

Next up –

2) Avoiding the “Unpacking” of the Thinking that Made us Anxious in the First Place

Anxiety does not come out of nowhere. It invariably begins in our thinking. Those Flight or Fight sensations I mentioned in the last section? They had to start with thinking that made us anxious first. There really is a chicken-and-egg sequence in this work.

Avoidance 4

Where are we turning issues, problems, challenges in our lives into crises in our thinking? This is the heart of the work. We can do therapy, take medications that alleviate some or all of those Flight or Fight reactions (or that help lift the gloom and create some distance from the scary thinking, at least for a while), we can exercise, meditate, work three jobs or seek the cure for cancer – but until we unpack our anxious thinking nothing fundamentally will change about our anxiety.

This is usually a very uncomfortable process! By definition if we had been comfortable identifying and facing down the thinking that made us anxious we most likely wouldn’t be fighting anxiety right now. 🙂 Nope, instead we ran away from that thinking – if we were ever very conscious of that thinking to begin with – and now we reflexively, unconsciously flinch away if we even get close to it…

And, of course, if we get close, Flight or Fight fires up – ugh! We don’t want to do this work! Make it all just go away! I know I said that, and I’ve heard a lot of other people say that.

The bad news is it won’t just go away. We have to identify it and change it – change our crisis thinking to what it really needs to be – problem thinking. It’s uncomfortable, even damn uncomfortable, but that doesn’t change the need to do it.

Avoidance 1

The good news is that it is literally the lynch-pin of all this anxiety that plagues us – and in doing this work we can break free, well and truly, from a life crippled by anxiety. It is a steady, often slow, often frustrating and scratchy process, but it is the way out.

Are you doing this unpacking work? I have blog posts HERE and HERE that discuss this work in greater detail/give examples. As I mention in these posts it is often very useful to enlist the help of a good therapist. But whatever you do, it must be DONE…

Those Are the Biggies…

Avoidance 5

When it comes to avoidance the two temptations I’ve listed in this blog post are probably the heavy hitters for most of us. That’s OK. It is in the nature of being anxious to want to avoid the stuff that scares us. We don’t need to use these as two more weapons to beat ourselves up with – but we do need to see them clearly and take action on them.

In my next post I’ll move through the rest of the reasons we delay in making this work happen for ourselves. In the meantime, how is the work going for YOU?

There are some smart people who have this interesting idea about humans and how they think. Here is the idea: we tend to see the world through the stories we tell ourselves about the world. We are story-tellers, and the stories we tell ourselves – about our experience, about what works and doesn’t work, about what’s real and isn’t real, and (maybe most important of all) what is and isn’t dangerous – those stories are the center of our thinking.

That’s a pretty interesting idea. It has a LOT of relevance in our work to changing our anxious thinking from crisis to problem in orientation. Today’s post is about identifying the kinds of stories we anxiety fighters tell ourselves, and what we can do to start and change those stories – take charge of that aspect of our thinking.

It’s the Story, Most of the Time

Story 2

We experience a LOT of stuff every day. We hear conversations, we practice behaviors, we have ups and downs, we experience a range of emotions, we take in information – it staggers the mind how much happens to us in a single day.

Here’s the thing: we don’t consciously remember all of that. A lot of it washes away not long after it happens, at least to our thinking. But some of it sticks – and becomes part of the story we tell ourselves about our lives and what is happening to us.

It’s kinda like playing the game Telephone. Remember Telephone? You sit in a circle of people and one of you whispers a quick story to a neighbor. They whisper that story to the next person, and it goes around the circle until the last person says what they heard out loud. It’s amazing (and often disturbing!) how much of the story changes or gets lost as it goes around the circle…

WHY does some of the story stick, some of the story change and some of the story get lost? Several reasons. One reason is that we don’t tend to remember things that don’t make sense to us. We often simply discard them in our thinking or conversation. Another reason is that we focus on the stuff that interests us or makes sense to us. Still another reason is that we decide what’s MOST important in any situation or story – and assign those important things priority status in our thinking.

Make sense? We are constantly editing and revising the information and experiences we take in as we go through our day. WAIT A MINUTE! This is GIANT. What this implies is that it isn’t nearly so much WHAT happens to us as what we THINK about what happens to us…

Better read that last line again, and let it sink in: this self-story telling, this deciding what to focus on and what it is important, implies that it isn’t nearly so much what happens to us as what we THINK about what happens to us.

Story 1

We’re playing Telephone with ourselves as well. Yikes! That has some pretty big implications for what our thinking can DO to us.

Let’s Try an Example –

I was in a meeting with a business client a couple of months ago. We were talking about a project I was assisting with, and suddenly I could see this client’s face cloud up – she got angry. It was very clear to me. She stopped listening to what I was saying and began furiously typing on her smartphone. Everything had been fine, and now suddenly she was obviously pissed off…

I stopped talking and waited for her to finish her phone typing. She suddenly looked up and said curtly “I’m going to have to pause this meeting. Please wait here.” She got up and left the conference room we were in. I sat wondering what the heck had happened. I reviewed the conversation we’d been happening, looking for a clue as to why she might have become upset.

I decided, based on my experience with her and my own assumptions, that she didn’t like the direction the project would go with my current recommendations, and she was deciding to find someone else to do the work. Then I started getting upset. Why the hell did this person hire me if they couldn’t calmly listen to my suggestions for action? I started assuming that this work would come to an end pretty quickly, and worked to reassure myself that I had other clients and that things would be fine –

But of course I was now engaging Flight or Fight. I sat there, thinking about ways to graciously end the meeting when I could, when she walked back in. “My apologies Erik” she started, looking a little embarrassed. “Our conversation reminded me that I had asked for some information from one of my staff two weeks ago, and I was already irritated with that person for dragging their feet on some other work. I got worked up and realized I had to deal with the situation immediately. I’m sorry we had to stop. Where were we?”

I was caught completely off guard, and had to laugh. I had been playing telephone with myself in a very real way. I took some of the information I had from the interaction (her facial expressions, the way she abruptly paused our conversation, where we were in the conversation) and then interpreted that information in my own thinking, based on my assumptions about the situation.

STory 3

I WAS WRONG. I was telling myself the wrong story – but reacting to it just as if it was the truth. Let’s go back to Telephone. I didn’t understand why she was reacting the way she did, when she did, in our conversation. That didn’t make sense to me, so I started looking for an explanation. I found one based on my assumptions – what DID make sense to me. Some of that triggered some concerns about work and doing a good job, so I riffed off that thinking and built a story around what was happening…

That’s Quite a Story you have there…

Now take my experience and suppose I had started reacting before she had explained what had happened from her side? Suppose she had just come back and said “let’s keep going.” Now I’m worried, I’m a little cheesed off and I’m already planning how to wrap this work up… all based on my inaccurate story of the situation.

So how does all of this relate to anxiety? Well, we’re telling ourselves some pretty intense and powerful stories in our anxious thinking, yes?

Like, for instance, what a particular Flight or Fight sensation or feeling might mean, based on our experience (and our existing story) with that sensation or feeling. Most of us began to experience Flight or Fight (consciously) at the same time we started having panic attacks or some sort of severe anxiety response. We didn’t understanding what was happening, so we started crafting a story (again, unconsciously) about what was happening and what it meant.

When I first had vertigo/dizziness in the middle of my first panic attacks back in Junior High School I had no freakin’ idea what was happening. All I knew was a) I was scared stiff and b) I was having these scary sensations happen in my body. I developed two stories around this set of experiences: one story was that someday it would start and never, EVER stop – and that would be unendurable – and one story was that it indicated that I was going or would go insane, and THAT would be terrible beyond description.

Hey, I didn’t know the story, yes? So I “made up” a story. That’s what humans do – we try to make sense of the world, and we do that with greater or lesser success depending on what we know. I used those stories to scare myself for decades. I told those stories over and over to myself, feeding the anxiety in my thinking and body.

STory 4

Then, when someone (a therapist, a semi-organized toolkit for trying to address anxiety) suggested that my stories were wrong, well, that shook me up. I had been telling those stories for a LONG time – how could they NOT be true? They FELT so true, so accurate – I couldn’t be wrong, could I?

We Have to Start Questioning our Stories

Here’s the really big news in this blog post: we have the power to begin to write new stories for ourselves. I’m going to talk more about that in the next blog post, but in the meantime let me reference the post before this one – we have habits of thought, and those habits can be changed.

That’s a big aspect of the stories we tell ourselves. We don’t usually realize how deep and how steady our stories about our life are – and yet we keep telling the same story to ourselves, over and over again. Then we make ourselves crazy because our lives seem so terrible, or some things seem so hard, or we get so frustrated with how we act and react.

Take heart. We do not have to be the prisoners of our stories – about ANYTHING. It is possible to change our thinking, change the stories we tell ourselves. I know this from my own experience. My terrible stories about what being dizzy and being physically numb when I was anxious were just that – stories. I didn’t have to keep experiencing those sensations, and I wasn’t going to go crazy.

It was very, very hard to see that when I was in the middle of anxiety. But hard wasn’t impossible. Hard was learning to change the story, create new thinking habits. Hard – but I did it. And you can too.

Beliefs 4

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