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Anxiety can sometimes seem like a skillful actor – or maybe disguise artist. Sometimes it is crystal clear to us that we are in the grip of anxiety/fearful thinking. But sometimes anxiety wears other masks, and in doing so can muddy the water, confusing us as to why we’re feeling what we are feeling, and what we should or can do about it.

Today’s blog post mission is to clear up some confusion around the origins of and the connections between three seemingly distinct emotional states – anxiety, anger and depression. Despite the wealth of information and discussion around these topics I, your humble blog writer, will contend today that the last two, anger and depression, are simply different expressions of the cause of all three of these – our ancient ally (and now turned enemy) Flight or Flight.

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How it All Gets Started

In talking about anxiety and the road out of chronic anxiety suffering it is useful to understand that anxiety is really two things – it is the thinking that scares us in the first place AND the emotional reaction that we label “anxiety.” The root cause is that thinking – pure and simple. We cannot and will not break the hold of anxiety in our lives until our thinking changes – end of story.

But anxious thinking doesn’t constitute the entire problem. Flight or Fight, firing up in our brains and bodies in response to that anxious thinking, is what sends us running for the hills and experiencing all the emotional and physical drama that too often travels with anxious thinking. (Read my blog post HERE for a detailed discussion of Flight or Fight.)

A little review here: remember that Flight or Fight ALWAYS starts with an effort to GET AWAY from the danger we are experiencing (if we’re actually in a real, life-or-death crisis) or if we THINK we’re in a crisis (i.e., doing anxious thinking.) It’s invariably better (in the non-conscious thought, natural world) to run away from danger – because if we succeed then hey, no injury, no damage, and we live to run away another day. Running makes sense in the natural world when real danger shows up, and it is carved into our very genes, into the alarm system called Flight or Fight.

THAT running away feeling is what we call anxiety. Anxiety says “holy crap, this is scary as hell, I’d better get my frightened self OUTTA HERE.” This is why your cats jumps 8 feet in the air when you surprise him or her. This is why you get that ants-in-your-pants feeling when you get anxious, that restless, let’s get moving urge whenever you are confronted by one of your fearful thoughts (or when you are troubled by sensations or feelings from Flight or Fight when you’re not even necessarily conscious of your anxious thinking.)

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Of course the vital thing to be clear about is the difference between REAL, life-or-death danger and the perceived, in-our-thinking nature of our fear from anxious thinking. They are not the same and can’t be treated the same. One of our challenges in this work to break the power of anxiety is that Flight or Fight doesn’t really know the difference. All Flight or Fight needs is us saying in our thinking “holy crap, this is scary as hell” and it’s off and running – literally.

Anxiety = running. Great. Except in the natural world we sometimes CAN’T get away from the thing or experience that is threatening us. Sometimes we have no choice but to fight.

Anger – Anxiety’s Cousin

When we are trapped (physically or mentally) and can’t exercise the option of running (at least not yet) we escalate to anger. This again makes a hell of a lot of sense in the natural world. ANY creature will fight if cornered – because if it’s really life-or-death then fighting is the only option.

This can take a couple of forms in the natural world. This is can full-out confrontation – i.e., a fight between predator and prey, a fight between natural enemies, etc. – but it can also be anytime a creature feels threatened and assumes that there is NO other way to get what they need – i.e., they can’t run from that situation without threatening their survival. That might be competition for food supplies or defending their young.

This is why when you go to get that piece of steak that fell on the floor away from your dog or cat that they might growl or hiss at you – you’re threatening their survival, after all. This is why every creature (including even us advanced, big-brained humans) get angry, defensive, even growl when we think someone is threatening our survival (i.e., can’t get what we need another way, or can’t run away.)

We can feel every bit as trapped by our anxious thinking as well. Here’s an example: let’s say we avoid thinking about managing our money. (I know that probably doesn’t apply to YOU – for sure I NEVER had this fear…OK, actually I was terrified for years and years of dealing directly with my money/finances.)

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So maybe your direct deposit goes straight to your checking account, and you only even get close to seeing your balance when you go to the ATM to grab some cash. Otherwise you artfully glance away from the bottom-line total in your account (and so you in essence run away from the “danger” of the anxious thinking around money/finances.)

So far so good – at least as far as not dealing with your anxiety. But then you get a note from the bank that says “hey, knucklehead, your account is overdrawn! Give us some money!” Now you HAVE to deal with your dang bank account and the whole money issue. Ugh! NO! Now you get pissed off. Maybe you stomp around the house. Maybe you yell at your kids. Maybe you start crying from sheer frustration. But whatever you do you’re MAD. You’re angry because you feel threatened but you can’t run away – you have to fight this fight until the threat stops for you.

In other words anger is “holy crap, I’m being threatened and I CAN’T run. I HAVE to fight, at least until I win the fight or an avenue for running opens up.” With me so far? Anger = fighting (until the threat ends or you CAN run.)

Some of us have learned to see anger as this uncontrollable, out-of-nowhere monster that can ruin our days and mess up our relationships and lives. Some of us think anger is its own creature, a wild animal that we have to cage away and control. Not true. Anger is anxiety feeling like it can’t escape but that fighting WILL bring relief/freedom from risk. It doesn’t HAVE to be conscious. These are deeply embedded reactions.

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But the thinking that lies behind those anxious and angry response – those CAN be addressed, cleaned up, and set to rights.

There is one more member of the anxiety family – depression.

Dogs in Cages with Electric Floors

I have a longer discussion of the nature of depression HERE and HERE. For this conversation here’s the summary: depression is essentially “holy crap, I’m feeling threatened but I can’t run and I can’t fight – I’m trapped.”

Depression is in one sense an outcome of long-term anxiety. But that explanation misses the other half of depression – the conviction that there is no hope, no future, that all options have been closed off and THIS, whatever this is, will never change, and this is BAD.

Nevertheless we have to see the connection between anxiety and depression. Depression for most of us springs from a long history of being anxious. As long as we think there is SOME way out – even through avoidance – then anxiety stays anxiety. Anxiety tips to depression when the sense of being trapped begins…

This is a MENTAL thing – a thinking thing. It is strongly amplified by Flight or Fight, but make no mistake, if we are not actually trapped in a cage then WE ARE NOT TRAPPED. Our beliefs, fears, rules, faiths, assumptions may leave us believing we are trapped – but we’re not.

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One more thing to get clear on: depression is a transient state most of the time. Much of our depression is a thing of the afternoon, or 20 minutes, or two days, or constant dipping into depression and then back out to chronic anxiety. Why do I mention this? Because, again, we are NOT trapped, and we are not doomed – not unless we can’t see through to the anxious thinking that is making us depressed in the first place…

In the blog post I mentioned above a guy named Seligman and his research homies did some experiments that would horrify a lot of people – but which taught us some crucial things about anxiety and depression. He and his cohort put some dogs in cages and then repeatedly shocked those dogs through their feet with an electrified cage bottom.

The dogs initially tried desperately to escape. No surprises there. The dogs then essentially gave up (because they had tried to escape and couldn’t) and so they just lay down and continued to endure the shocks. No surprises here either, yes?

But the big news came when the researchers opened the cage doors and continued to deliver the shocks, fully expecting the dogs to now leap out of the cages. Instead the dogs CONTINUED TO LIE THERE AND BE SHOCKED. They had become so sure they couldn’t get away from the shocks that even with a clear escape route they continued suffering… and so they had to be literally enticed out of those cages, retaught to see escape where it was possible, before they would leave the cage and the electric shocks.

Depression isn’t a mysterious thing. It doesn’t come out of nowhere and it isn’t a force by itself. It is an outcome – an outcome of thinking that we are failing, or unable to help ourselves, or doomed – and not seeing the ways out of that thinking. It is anxiety with no hope of escaping the “danger” we have talked ourselves, unintentionally of course, into…

So What’s The Answer to this Crap?

Amazingly it’s pretty straightforward. We HAVE to identify the thinking that’s scaring us. We HAVE to see where we have learned to turn problems, issues, challenges into life-or-death crises in our thinking. (Look at my next blog post to see a LOT of examples.) We HAVE to rethink Flight or Fight, to see it NOT as the enemy we’ve learned to believe that it is, but instead as a well-meaning but misfiring alarm system responding to our thinking – and that it, itself, doesn’t signal doom or is dangerous in itself.

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We HAVE to convert all those crises in our thinking BACK into what they are – problems, to be dealt with AS problems. And we have to, quite possibly for the first time in our lives, start taking decent, honest, compassionate care of ourselves.

Those last two paragraphs are what this blog is all about.

Anxiety. Anger. Depression. Three close cousins, but anxiety is the root of them all. We are not dealing with mysterious monsters when we deal with these three kinds of reactions to danger, real or (for most of our experience) simply perceived in our thinking. We do NOT have to be trapped by them, owned by them, or have our lives ruined by them. And they all get dealt with by tackling what is scaring us, in our thinking, in the first place.

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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A friend and coaching client of mine recently asked me to help him face down his fears around a life unlived, and in particular all the time and opportunity lost to his long fight with chronic anxiety. He is angry – very angry – and very, very sad. And, of course, he’s afraid.

(He isn’t the only person who has asked this question in the last few months in my world. He’s just the most recent example.)

He’s afraid that life has passed him by. He’s afraid that he can never have what he wanted in his life. And he’s afraid that whatever he does now it is too late and too little.

Any of that sound familiar to you? Because it sounds damn familiar to me. In the darkest days of my fight with anxiety (days that stretched across decades) I was certain that life had in fact passed me by. I watched friends who seemed to live in eternal sunlight – who found love, created families, started and sustained careers, traveled, LIVED – and felt like an eternal, looking-through-the-impenetrable glass outsider, doomed to only watch, and envy, and never have…

But I was wrong. Yes, I lost a lot of time to anxiety. Yes, there were a lot of sun-lit summer days and autumn afternoons filled with blazing colors that I missed. Yes, the fight was hard, even terrible sometimes, and there’s a lot I didn’t do that I could have done.

I was still wrong. This post is my explanation of why I was wrong – and why my friend is wrong – and why, unless you’ve only 5 minutes from your own life coming to an end, you’re wrong too. I’m going to argue in this post that a huge amount of this worry and anxiety around missing our lives is the very, very common fear of death. Yup, I said it out loud – we’re afraid of dying even though we feel we have yet to really LIVE…

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And by the way, I’m very, very aware of just how scary and touchy this subject is for most of us. I don’t undertake this writing lightly. I also know that too many of us who are in the grip of relentless anxious thinking need a clearer vision of what is really happening to us – and part of that clarity is dealing with our fear of death and the trickled loss of life until that death.

Here we go –

Why I Was Wrong: Reason 1

OK, let’s get what might be for some of you the hardest part out of the way first. Bear with me – it really does get better after this next sentence. It’s even good news, although I’m pretty sure that you won’t see it that way right away. 🙂 Here it is:

We will all die. It’s hard news, I know. It was very hard news to me. I don’t know that anyone is OK with this at the beginning of this work. Maybe it’s just hard to embrace our own mortality in our own thinking.

But that’s exactly what I’m insisting in this blog post that we start to do. I use the word start because it isn’t anything that we can just casually do. It is a kind of journey. I have been forced into this work several times, beginning with my own climb out of anxiety. It was a journey I had to make again these last 2-1/2 years after the loss of my oldest and closest friend, Laura, to cancer, back in July of 2011.

Yet there is an amazing and even life-giving paradox in this acceptance. I’m stealing this next piece straight from the writings of Scott Peck, the guy who wrote “The Road Less Traveled” and “Further Along the Road Less Traveled.” In the second book Dr. Peck tells us that in order to really live – to really engage our lives, stop waiting for something to happen and get up and MAKE something happen – we have to embrace the reality of our own dying.

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He’s exactly right. I didn’t like it when I first heard it, and I still can’t claim that I’m dancing the dance of joy at the notion of no longer walking this fair planet one day. But I can say that it brings a remarkable sense of freedom. It is a freedom from, to some extent, anxiety. Because if we’re going to die (and we are, all of us, sooner or later) then we can start to put that fear DOWN and get on with the business of living.

Weird, isn’t it? But true. The journey towards embracing our own mortality starts to help us feel less like we’re supposed to hang on for dear life in the vain hope that we can avoid any injury or even death, and more like what we are – participants in the world, mortal, but here to do some living while we’re on the planet. We can’t hide from death, whatever our anxious thinking tells us.

Now if you’re anything like me you are in all likelihood experiencing quite a remarkable range of emotions right now. This could be absolutely terrifying – I get it. It could be anger generating. I get that too. Don’t run away from those emotions. Don’t try to bury them or pretend they’re not happening or make light of them.

Because those emotions are really just reactions to your thinking, and your thinking (I’m guessing) isn’t at all happy about the notion of dying. Makes sense. Like I said, this is a journey. Let it start for you, as and when you’re somewhat ready. (None of us is EVER really ready, right?)

OK, that’s reason #1 that I was wrong about my thinking around death. On to –

Why I Was Wrong: Reason 2

Realizing and even starting to face into the reality of my own demise one day (note the one day part – I’m still here and I’m still kicking, thank you very much) is first and possibly most important to this work. But I was wrong for another reason.

Life isn’t about how much life we might have left. It isn’t a savings account or a stack of gold coins on the desk. It is very much like a power supply, or maybe getting paid a gold coin a day that you HAVE to spend the same day. We have NO promise of how much life we’ll get – ever.

Sound scary? Sure was to me. I had somehow acquired the notion that I was spending from a big savings account of life, and every day I was losing a little more from that savings. WRONG. I was getting paid as I went. I didn’t (and don’t) have any more life saved up now than I did when I was 18 years old.

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Sure, in a big, abstract way I probably have less POTENTIAL lifespan now than I did at 18. But only the word potential makes that a viable notion. I could be smacked by a train this afternoon. I could keel over and fade from view after dinner tonight. I don’t like the notion, but if I can’t accept that truth then I’m fooling myself and I’m back to hiding in my room, hoping against hope that nothing shuts down my life too soon…

All we have is today. All we have – period. What that news should do for us is, like the first reason I was wrong, get us moving to engage life now, today, to the extent we’re able. We don’t get more life by sitting in a corner, and we don’t lose any life by engaging in our lives where we are.

This is Scary Talk Erik! Cut it Out!

I don’t mean to scare you. What makes me sad (and even a little angry) is how this thinking is something we don’t get exposed to much earlier in our lives. We learn to be cautious, tentative, risk-adverse. It might even be said that one of the sources of our maddening fight with anxiety is precisely that – we didn’t learn to get in and mix it up with our lives.

Instead we learned to back away. Ugh. Bad idea. I’m betting everyone that’s reading this blog wishes they were more engaged with their lives and less afraid of the big D…

Well, that’s a damn good idea. Some things to help you start facing down that fear of death crap that’s slowing you down:

1) There is never a perfect time to start. There is always, in the midst of being anxious, reasons to slow down, wait, prepare more, do more research, etc. Bullcrap. Whatever you can start, start. If I had ONLY learned this earlier I’m pretty sure I’d be in charge of some large country someplace…

Because I have been the King for too much of my life at sitting around and waiting until I was more ready, or had more courage, or had more money, or had better instructions, or SOMETHING. Don’t wait. Enough of waiting.

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2) You will make mistakes. Mistakes are not death (unless you’re driving at high speed or not checking your parachute before you jump.) Make them. Such a good idea. One of my favorite quotes is “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes I’m thinking of making a few more.” Go make some mistakes!

The weird part of this work is that when we do engage the world and make mistakes we learn that we’re a lot less fragile and death-prone than we thought. (Which will piss you off even more for a while – but that’s OK – you’ll be engaging your life.) Go make mistakes. Most mistakes are repairable – and even the ones that break the antique chair or mess up the party are things we can learn from in our work to be less afraid of death/engage our life –

(and don’t think I don’t know how crazy that sounds to many of you – just the THOUGHT of making a mistake scares the crap out of a lot of us. Which is precisely why we need to get out and make some mistakes – this is one of those vital-life-lesson things – mistakes are how we learn, and mistakes help us get on with the business of living.

It Isn’t About Dying – It is About LIVING

So really what this comes down to is focusing on living, rather than our (someday) death. And really, at the end of this discussion, it is treating death as a problem, rather than a crisis. Yes, even death is just a problem – and it is one of those problems that we cannot solve by treating it as a crisis, because we CAN’T run from death and we can’t fight death.

As I said earlier in this blog post this isn’t a one-shot deal. Accepting and even embracing our own mortality is a process. We can’t and won’t finish this in one 30-minute therapy session or by reading a book. We can and will do to it by getting involved in our own lives.

So – ready to start living? Or at least start living a lot more than you are right now? No better time than today. No better place to start from than imperfection. It’s OK to make mistakes. And it is infinitely, infinitely more useful to get up and live now than to worry about your someday death.

Time to live…

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If there is one emotion that I associate with the experience of chronic anxiety more than any other it is despair. Just writing the word makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure there is anything more life-sucking than this single emotion.

One of the most insidious aspects of feeling despair is that it can, if left to its own devices, destroy motivation. Motivation to make any effort to change things, motivation to see things differently, motivation to take action even when it feels pointless. There’s the killer part – that despair makes everything seem pointless. It FEELS real.

This might make despair the most dangerous of the emotions we experience. Most of us can see through our other feelings, at least some of the time. If we’re wildly happy we don’t necessarily expect that wild happiness will go on forever. If we’re sad or fighting the blues we don’t necessarily expect the blues to never go away.

But when despair moves in it feels like it is coming to stay. One of my clients describes it as the world going grey. Another says it looks like the lights have lost power in the room. I know for me it was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness – like none of it mattered, whatever I tried to tell myself.

But I was wrong. And so are my coaching clients! Because nothing happens to the lights, the world doesn’t lose color and hopelessness isn’t real. That’s true despite how things feel…

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F.E.A.R. (False Expectations Appearing Real)

I have to confess that this little acronym used to really piss me off. I hated the word “false”. The one thing my fear didn’t feel to me was false. I was paralyzed by my fears more often than not, and it was certainly real enough to keep me awake at night worrying over all that might happen in the future.

What I wasn’t hearing in this phrase was the word “appearing”. I didn’t grasp that my feelings didn’t necessarily reflect reality. And that was no-where more true for me than when it came to despair.

I never learned to question my feelings. And that last sentence could be considered the heart of today’s blog post. I simply assumed that when I felt a feeling it was something I should respond to as real. It never crossed my mind to ask if that particular feeling was valid or, more accurately, if the reason I was feeling that feeling in the first place was valid.

That’s because I had never learned that feelings start with thinking. I didn’t see feelings as weathervanes following the wind of my thinking. I saw feelings as creatures in their own right, independent things that I had no control over and was helpless to control when they did their thing.

That seems odd now to me, but it was how I thought back then. I thought that because that’s how the people around me also saw their feelings, and that’s how I learned to see feelings/emotions.

But they were wrong, and so was I. Thank the heavens. Let me repeat a statement I made a couple of paragraphs ago: it never crossed my mind to ask if a particular feeling (especially despair) was even valid in the first place.

This is completely out-of-the-box thinking for most people. It is a natural mistake. Feelings are in some ways very, very primitive parts of us, part of our heritage as creatures of this planet. Feelings were very, very important to motivation back before we had thinking to carry some of that burden.

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And if feelings were about motivating us, and they have been around longer than our big, impressive brains, then, well, they will FEEL important, useful, real. Otherwise they wouldn’t be much good for motivating…

Add to this basic physical/emotional truth about emotions the fact that we are, most of us, terribly ignorant of this fact in the first place, and now we’re in trouble when it comes to emotions. Let’s make it even tougher – let’s also have people be ignorant of the notion that feelings are usually CAUSED by thinking – and now we’re really clueless when it comes to how we react to emotions.

I have reviewed some of this material a number of times in this blog. I am driving it again in this post because nowhere is this more important to understand than when we’re talking about despair. We who fight anxiety, to whatever degree we’re fighting it, MUST learn that despair really is false expectations appearing (or really feeling) real.

You Really Can’t Predict the Future

Despair is the child of depression. And depression comes when anxiety (which says crap, this is scary, we better get out of here) and its sister reaction, anger (which says crap, this is scary, we can’t get away so we’d better put up a fight) decide that neither running or fighting will do any good.

In other words depression says hope is gone. Despair is the natural feeling we experience in the face of depression. This doesn’t however mean that we have a lock on truth, reality or the future, HOWEVER we feel.

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And again I have to blame, at least in part, our terrible ignorance of the origin of feelings (coming from thoughts) and our tendency to assume that if we feel something it must be true.

You’ve done it, right? You’ve said to yourself man, this is pointless, I’m never going to beat anxiety, or I’m never going to be any better off financially than I am now, or I’m always going to be alone, or whatever thing you’ve been thinking (and therefore feeling despair, hopelessness, etc.) Then you begin acting as if you had heard it straight from God…

When all that you’re really depending on is your feelings and, well, how they FEEL to you. They FEEL real, solid, true. Except that they are just feelings. That’s all they are.

Yes, we say when confronted with this thinking, but I really DO know. I’ve always had bad luck with relationships, or I didn’t get to go to college so I’ll never make any real money, or I’ve always fought depression and it will never get better… etc.

I did some of that. I remember the months and years (and even decades) I gave away to those convictions of utterly real-feeling certainties.

I gave up on opportunities, walked away from jobs, didn’t take the risk in asking someone out that I wanted to get to know better, avoided the move to a new location because my life sucked and it would never change… all because I took my feelings as gospel truth.

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Feelings Don’t Have to Rule our World

If I was granted to chance to do one thing to make a difference in the world this would be it: to help people understand what Albert Ellis said so long ago and I’m busy yapping about in this blog post. Feelings are not real. They are feelings. They come from thinking. They are reactions, not truth.

This means we have to start questioning both the validity of our feelings AND their origin. We have to start developing the habit of putting a spotlight on that sense of despair, hopelessness and black mood. Why are we feeling this way? No, it didn’t come “out of the blue.” It came from one or more thoughts we had. We didn’t have to be aware of those thoughts – but we CAN become aware of them, with some work and practice.

A terrible number of people are afraid of the feelings and the physical sensations that are caused by Flight or Fight. They will do almost anything to avoid them – medicate them, bury them, push them away, get lost in TV, sleep the day away – anything.

We don’t have to run from our feelings. We don’t have to be tortured by them either. Despair is simply a feeling that came from some thinking. I’m not saying that many of us are NOT dealing with difficult or even terrible circumstances. Many of us are – divorce, lack of money, job challenges, relationship problems, difficult to horrible family histories, physical hurdles – you name it.

But that STILL doesn’t mean that we have to be slaves to our feelings. Problems can be very serious. But they remain problems. And we will NEVER see improvement in our problems if we sit down and give up based on our feelings.

Feelings want to be your servant – not your master. They are something we can manage and even come to control – if we’ll tackle the thinking that generates them in the first place. Despair is a powerful feeling – but it is only a feeling.

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How many of you remember when you were in grade school and they had a fire drill? Do you remember that first rush of adrenaline that coursed through your body, that first rush along your nerves of “holy crap, that’s the fire alarm – I wonder if we really have a fire?” Remember the cascade of physical and emotional responses in your body and feelings?

If you were anything like me you were probably half-way out of your chair before you knew it. Yes, intellectually you knew that it probably wasn’t really a fire – I know for me it never was – but that really didn’t make any difference. That alarm signaled danger to you, and it meant get moving and get out of that building.

That alarm wasn’t about sitting around wondering if there was an actual fire. Even the way the alarm sounded made it urgent, a crisis – clanging, loud, insistent. That alarm told us that we needed to get our butts in gear and GET MOVING. And that makes sense, right? Responding to a false alarm was smarter, a better survival technique, then assuming that it was false and, well, getting caught in a fire…

That’s REALLY good logic when it comes to the dangers of the physical world. When real, physical danger threatens we do NOT need to sit around pondering anything – not most of the time. We need to get moving! We can do some re-evaluating once we’ve got some distance between us and the danger.

As I’ve said before that is something you see even in the big land predators like lions and tigers. Scare them (very loud noise, unexpected, for instance, will do the trick) and they are falling over themselves to get away. Only when they’ve already begun running do you see them THEN maybe slow down and look back to see what the heck made that awful noise.

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That’s Flight or Fight. That’s the exact thing we need to do when we’re in danger, real, physical danger. Any other response, in the natural world, leaves a creature (or person) too exposed to the risk of injury or death – and (this just in) that’s not a great survival tactic…

But that’s also the source of a terrible amount of anxiety. In the fight/process of overcoming the power of anxiety in our lives we have to start learning to not run when we hear the alarm of Flight or Fight.

Learning to Fear the Alarm

When I was teaching college and helping students overcome their fear of public speaking I would describe a place I like to hike. They are some cliffs overlooking the Monterey Bay, and there are signs that say “stay back from cliff 50 yards.”

That’s good counsel, because baby, it’s a long fall and a big splash if you decide to get too close to that cliff edge. 🙂 The cliffs are crumbly, they are unstable and yet people persist in getting too close to the edge. So yes, stay back – no question about it.

But here’s where my story to my students becomes relevant, because while the CLIFF EDGE is dangerous, the signs are not. The signs are well in front of the cliff, and the signs themselves obviously present no danger to anyone. Yet people can get very, very agitated when people get too close to the SIGNS… “hey! Get back from there! It says the cliffs are dangerous! Get away from that sign!” I hear it all the time.

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Caution is a virtue when it comes to cliffs. But even caution can become excessive. And that’s exactly what happens when we start being afraid of the warning signs instead of the actual problem/issue (or even crisis) itself. I’ve watched people at the Santa Cruz cliffs stay back 30 or 40 feet from THE SIGNS because of their fear of the cliff edge.

But the signs can’t and won’t hurt us. They are there to alert us. But in the warning we learn to fear the alarm just as much as the thing it is trying to keep us safe from… and that’s where anxiety can get seriously amplified. Not to mention out of control in our lives…

It gets crazier. For fear of the cliff people will refuse to even walk the cliff trail – a completely safe activity. “I’m not going out there – those cliffs are dangerous!” Sure. The CLIFFS are dangerous. But the road along the cliff is beautiful, with spectacular views of the ocean and sky, and some of the cleanest air and most glorious solitude a person could ask for on a summer or fall day.

But, some folks say, it’s just too risky. What they’re really saying is that they have become afraid of the warning signals – that they are now afraid of the signs as well as the cliff, and the best answer is to just stay away from ANYTHING that makes them anxious.

Bad idea. That’s like being afraid of the fire alarm at school. The alarm can’t and won’t hurt us. It is there to warn us if something goes wrong, or even just help us remember what to do in case there’s a fire. But being afraid of the alarm only makes us anxious.

And that anxiety begins to haunt us. We start to restrict our lives, shut down our range of motion, all in a desperate effort to get away from the potential of experiencing the alarm…

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Alarms are Not Dangerous

Flight or Fight is an alarm system. When we become afraid of Flight or Fight – the physical or emotional responses of Flight or Fight – then we become afraid of an alarm. That in turn sets us up for anticipatory anxiety, that great torment of the anxiety fighter.

Anticipatory anxiety is that nervous watching over your shoulder thing, the constant edge of waiting for some sign that our Flight or Fight response system is going to scare us again. It is a terrible energy drain. It is a kind of constant self-torture. We don’t MEAN to do that, of course – but we’ve become so afraid of the alarm system that we have developed some terrible habits of avoidance.

To make matters worse most of us haven’t sorted out that fact – that we’re scaring ourselves over the alarm. And to add insult to injury the root thinking that scared us in the first place – the problem-converted-to-crisis thinking that started Flight or Fight up in the first place – is buried underneath our fears of the alarms of Flight or Fight.

So where do we wind up? We start avoiding the bridge because Flight or Fight fires up just thinking about driving towards the bridge. We stay off the highway because Flight or Fight makes us dizzy or nauseous or have a racing heart when we think of just the damn on-ramp. We stay away from the family gathering because we remember the last time we saw those crazy people and how much anxiety coursed through our body at the dinner table.

Worse STILL we can make ourselves anxious just thinking about our Flight or Fight responses – that’s how much we’ve learned to be afraid of the alarm system. So we’re just sitting at home, minding our own business, and suddenly we have a racing heart or numb fingers or overwhelming sadness, and it’s all because some small hint of Flight or Fight zipped through our bodies.

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Maybe it was just a normal body thing that felt like the start of Flight or Fight. Maybe you had a stray thought that made you anxious, something you were not conscious of in that moment. Doesn’t matter. We become so worried about hearing the fire alarm, and so freaked out when we do hear that alarm, that all we want to do is GET AWAY from it.

When this continues unabated guess where we wind up? One result is agoraphobia, that end-stage condition of chronic anxiety. Another result is chronic depression, in large part because we’re so sick and tired of being afraid (and also convinced that we’ll never be free of fear again).

Neither is necessary. We’re letting an alarm system run our lives. Yes, we have terribly anxious thinking, no question. Yes, it won’t be an instant cure. Yes, it will be uncomfortable. But we’re by no means doomed to be anxious for the rest of our lives. And we sure as hell don’t have to be afraid of an alarm!

It’s Time to Stop Running from the Alarm

Flight or Fight can’t hurt us – in the same way those cliff edge signs in Santa Cruz can’t hurt us. We can (and too many of us do) learn to be afraid of the signs and the alarm system. But what we learn we can unlearn and learn differently.

FIRST: we have to see Flight or Fight for what it is. It is a hard-wired defense system every living creature comes equipped with, and it isn’t something we can just turn on and off. That sounds BAD if we’re fighting chronic anxiety. But the problem isn’t the alarm – the problem is that we’re constantly pulling the alarm!

So we have to stop pulling the alarm – how do we do that?

SECOND: Two kinds of thinking pull it, but they are essentially the same thing: either you’re freaking out over what Flight or Fight means (what it implies for your life and the future, it is terrible, it will never stop, my life is hell with these sensations, etc.), or you’re freaking out over the scary stories you’re telling yourself about some problem/issue/challenge that you’ve morphed into a crisis.

Either way it is your thinking that is pulling the alarm. Don’t blame the alarm for going off when you’re doing the pulling! So you have to sort out that thinking. I know, I’ve said it a 1000 times in this blog. But it is so easy to get sidetracked by the damn alarm, isn’t it?

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I hear it all the time. “Erik, if I could just stop feeling so bad, or stop my heart from racing, or stop this terrible depression, then I could make some progress.”

Not true. Not true because it doesn’t work that way. If you pull the alarm it is going to go off. Stop pulling the alarm, no alarm.

Which leads me to –

THIRD: This is a process that takes TIME. The thinking that makes us anxious in the first place doesn’t just change presto – it takes time, work, introspection, thinking and effort. Yes, the damn alarm is scary and loud and we just want it OFF. I get it – been there, did that.

We are fighting strong, deeply grooved habits of thinking. Habits take time and effort to change. It’s a whole new skill set for most of us, this learning to examine, question, challenge and change our thinking. Anxiety doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t get fixed overnight.

The fixing, however, takes a heck of a lot less time than the time it took to get anxious in the first place. The key is getting started and staying with it…

Can Somebody PLEASE shut off That Alarm?

The answer is yes – you can. You’re also going to keep pulling the alarm for a while (assuming you’re in this work or just getting started.) So get some earplugs, and more importantly, start the practice of reminding yourself that the alarm, by itself, isn’t dangerous, can’t hurt you and doesn’t have to scare you the way it’s been scaring you.

That’s the bottom-line for this blog post: it’s time to start challenging the meaning of the alarm system that is Flight or Fight. It won’t happen overnight – but it is one huge piece of breaking the power of anxiety in our lives.

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The topic of feelings has come up a LOT in this blog over the last (almost 4!) years of writing this blog. One of the central skills we have to learn in our work to diminish and overcome anxiety is the ability to see feelings for what they really are – reactions to our thinking.

That takes some practice, as anyone reading this blog knows. Feelings, well, FEEL so real. They seem to carry crucial messages. They almost seem to be their own creatures – distinct from us, and having a power and a will all their own.

That makes a ton of sense. Feelings evolved as ways to motivate creatures that didn’t have the rather impressive brains we modern humans do. Feelings help drive us to do what they need to do. That includes dealing with danger…

SO – if our brains THINK we’re in danger then feelings are just going to do their natural thing and react to that perceived danger. They will try to get us to GET MOVING – run away or fight – and as you all know that leads to all the reactions of the Flight or Fight Response.

It is really, really important to get this thought firmly planted in our brains: feelings are reactions to thinking. That’s ALL of our thinking – not just the stuff we’re conscious of at the moment. As I’ve written in an earlier blog post HERE we have multiple tracks of thought running in our brains and often unaware of a lot of those tracks. Feelings can react to ANY of those thoughts zipping through our brains…

I’m focusing on this discussion today because there is a special class of feeling that can get even us experienced fear-busters rattled, upset or even think we’re getting off-track. That’s those ugly feelings of depression, doom, despair that can well up from our souls and overwhelm us.

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What the Heck IS Depression?

Holy crap, there is a ton of writing and thinking around depression. It is my argument that depression, like a lot of things that happen in the brain, is not just one single thing. Nor is it always springing from one single cause. It is however also my argument that depression the vast majority of the time is the result of ongoing anxiety – anxiety that seems to be unable to find any relief.

What does that mean? Let’s try it from an evolutionary perspective:

Anxiety = I’m in danger and I better get the hell out of here! (Run or hide)

Anger = I’m in danger and I CAN’T get away, so I’m going to have to fight my way out!

Depression = I’m in danger, I can’t run, I can’t fight – I’m trapped and I will stay trapped.

I’m basing all this thinking on the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the bulging brains who at the University of Pittsburgh back in the 1960’s did all the work around depression (see my post about his work and more about depression HERE Based on the work of Seligman and his fellow researchers depression has been pretty accurately mapped. And armed with this understanding we can tie depression back to anxiety…

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I Think I’m Doomed

That isn’t a bad summary statement for depression. It seems to be that as long as we have a sense that there’s some hope for eventual relief/freedom from our fear, whatever that happens to be, then we are anxious but not depressed. But when we decide (often, maybe even usually, unconsciously) that we are screwed/trapped/not going to escape our terrible fear, well then, depression kicks in.

If it’s this simple why do we make depression such a big deal? I argue it is linked to our parallel confusion about figuring out why we’re anxious (at least at the start of our anxiety work.) Many of us that have fought or are fighting anxiety have had a heck of a time identifying what our anxious thoughts actually are when we first wade into this work.

Well, if we’re having a hard time identifying what thoughts are scaring us, it makes perfect sense that we could also have a hard time identifying what thoughts are making us depressed. We just “suddenly” seem to be depressed, and that it “comes out of no-where.” Which isn’t true – but it FEELS that way.

And that leads to all kinds of problems. Depression is so (pardon my French) DAMN debilitating. There isn’t any real motivation in our soul. Everything seems gray, like the color has been leached out of the world. Nothing seems to matter anymore. Joy is a distant memory, and we tend to see everything in the worst possible way when we’re fighting depression.

Maybe worst of all is that terrible sense that this WILL NEVER CHANGE. That’s how it feels… and that can really get us in trouble. As with anxiety when we’re fighting depression we are not thinking clearly or well, but we often treat our thinking JUST as if it was still useful/clear. We start making less-than-intelligent decisions, we begin to abandon work or efforts that might actually help us, and we reason it away by saying we don’t FEEL like it…

Notice how I’m talking about thinking vs. feelings again? This is one of the first places we can attack this problem – but more about that in a minute.

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A Quick Note About Medication and Depression

I’m going to divert off briefly to talk about the role of medication in dealing with depression. As you may have noticed medicating depression has become a big business in this country. That by itself tells us just how many people are fighting anxiety that has morphed into a sense of being trapped, but that’s another blog post.

Depression takes a terrible toll. It makes a lot of sense that the medical community wants to find a quick and effective way to deal with depression. But in our rush to medicate depression we can become convinced that depression is usually some physical problem, best dealt with by medication. The problem with this thinking is that way, way too many of us go that route, and even find some relief from our crushing sadness and despair, but never turn and deal with the problem’s origin – our anxious thinking.

Do NOT get me wrong – medication can be a fiercely effective tool in the fight to break the power of depression and anxiety. Sometimes our depression needs something to disrupt it to help us get moving. And used in conjunction with work to identify and root out the thinking that is generating depression in the first place it can be extremely useful. But it will not, by itself, for the vast majority of us, end depression.

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We Can’t Trust Our Feelings When It Comes to Depression

In fact we really can’t trust our feelings very much when it comes to anxiety, period. And depression, believe it or not, is a set of feelings. It is the emotional response to the conviction that things will never get better – and that conviction can ONLY come from thinking.

So the bottom line in this conversation is that to deal with depression we must first identify where we’ve convinced ourselves that things have or are going to hell in our lives. Which is exactly what we need to be doing in our fight with anxiety as well. In other words (one more time for the cheap seats) depression is an OUTCOME of long-term anxiety.

While we begin that work we have to get firmly planted in our thinking that however we feel when we’re depressed those feelings are a direct reflection of our thinking, and NOTHING MORE. They don’t tell us the truth, they can’t read the future, they don’t have certain knowledge that we need to listen to – they are just feelings.

One important outcome of that understanding is this: depression isn’t addressed effectively by sitting in a corner and doing nothing. It is very tempting, it FEELS like what we should do – but that’s a lie. It is a lie because whatever is making us anxious isn’t going to kill us and eat us right this second, and whatever is making us anxious is a PROBLEM – something we need to face, sort out and address, rather than run and hide from.

That may mean seeking medical help and finding a medication that works. That by itself can be a big challenge – not all of us respond well to anti-depressants and some of us have reactions to those meds that make us feel worse. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort.

It definitely means finding the tools and assistance to identify what anxious thinking has led to depression in our thinking. Tools like this blog, tools like the number of books on depression you can find at your local bookstore, tools like solid, helpful therapy. Easier to say than do when we’re fighting depression – no question about that. But it is also the way out.

Depression/feelings of despair are very debilitating. They can suck the air out of the room. They destroy motivation. Everything seems to hurt, everything seems an effort. But all of that directly springs from anxious thinking that has turned to depressed/trapped thinking. We have the ability to break free of our feelings. We are more than our feelings. We are stronger and more able than we know. The first step is taking a first step…

God Light

In my last post I pushed hard on the issue of confronting our fears of our Flight or Fight responses, physical and emotional. In this post I’m going to discuss some examples of how this work looks, both from my experience and from some of my coaching client’s experiences.

Remember a couple of things as you read these examples:

1) Everyone seems to have a particular combination of Flight or Fight responses that rock their world. You may not see your exact issues in these few examples (i.e., one person is freaked out by a racing heart and nausea, another person can’t stand when they break into a sweat and feel guilty), but it’s a pretty safe guess that if you’re fighting anxiety then you’re dealing with one or more Flight or Fight responses that at least trouble you, whatever those happen to be for you.

So don’t get too caught up in these precise examples. See them as samples of how the work looks as you work through confronting the mix of Flight or Fight reactions that trouble YOU.

2) I’m a big believer in doing that check-with-the-doctor thing if you have doubts. This is vague advice at one level because Flight or Fight isn’t the only thing that can make you have various physical reactions, obviously.

At the same time some people wind up going to the doctor again and again and again, spending tons of money and lots of time, but never quite reaching the place where they’ll at least consider that those wacky reactions they’re experiencing are rooted in anxiety.

So by all means, if you think you’re fighting something serious go to the doctor! You don’t get points for not covering your bases or “being strong.” 🙂

But if you’ve seen the doc and you get the “I don’t see anything wrong with you, you’re healthy as a horse” speech (or worse, you keep going back and getting that same response) then it might be time to look at the possibility that what you’re really fighting is the outcome of anxious thinking.

OK, let’s do some examples of the work.

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The Trouble With Mariah

I happen to know a lovely lady named Mariah (name changed to protect the anxious.) Mariah is in her 50’s, and she had been fighting chronic anxiety for over 15 years when we started working together.

She has raised 3 kids, is very bright (one of the traits of anxiety-fighters, even though we tend to be pretty self-deprecating), hasn’t by any means given up yet, but was growing very, very tired of being afraid of her body.

So when we started the work she said she was READY to face down her fears of her physical and emotional reactions. One of the Flight or Fight responses that she really hated was the sense of the world going dark (what one of my clients calls “perception darkness”, a term I like very much – very descriptive.)
It is that sense that things are fading to gray, losing their color, or as I used to describe it, that the light is being leached from the room.

Another was muscle tightness, especially in her back and legs. The third symptom of anxiety she loathed was a profound hopelessness that swept over her and left her sitting in a chair or lying in bed for hours.

It never seemed to last more than a morning, but she dreaded it. Everything seemed pointless when she felt that way, and she would lose a whole day (or days in a row) trying to pick up the pieces of those attacks and their aftermath.

She made good progress on unpacking her anxious thinking in our first couple of sessions, but got increasingly irritated at how stubborn her Flight or Fight responses seemed to be. She said several times that maybe she was doing something wrong in her work, because she’d get a couple of days of relief from her physical and emotional anxiety reactions, and then WHAM, they’d be making her crazy again.

Then she told me that her progress had slowed to a crawl with her anxiety work, in part because she wasn’t “getting better” with her fear about her Flight or Fight reactions. She said if anything she seemed MORE scared of those physical and emotional bogey-men, and was worried she was just making them worse.

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Monsters, Closets, Etc.

As I have said before the reactions of Flight or Fight exist for one reason: to get us away from danger. Those reactions are deep, primal, hard-wired into our brains and bodies. They are going to FEEL important, FEEL urgent, even FEEL LIKE IT IS LIFE OR DEATH to get away from those sensations and whatever is causing them.

People who don’t fight chronic anxiety usually don’t get this. They are puzzled by our frightened, anxious responses to something as innocuous as a tight muscle or a racing heart. But in those moments they are not in OUR bodies – they are not feeling the rush of adrenaline and cortisol, they are not dealing with an overwhelming sense of panicky need to get the hell out of here NOW.

That’s what Flight or Fight is SUPPOSED to do to us. It isn’t JUST the tight muscle or the racing heart (or whatever your favorite responses happen to be.) No, it is the combination of physical and emotional and mental events taking place that make those responses so unnerving to us.

And, of course, we’ve also learned to associate those responses with some pretty dark hours of fear and worry. Many of us have all but frozen in place during those times, unable to move, feeling trapped, and having the terrible suspicion that things will always be like this…

So when Mariah (and anyone else who doesn’t yet understand what’s actually going on) was in the grip of her particular Flight or Fight reactions to her anxious thinking she just wanted them to STOP. They were bad, they were scary, they all but shut her life down, and so she wanted them to GO AWAY. As long as they were happening it MUST have meant that she wasn’t getting better, wasn’t overcoming anxiety.

In other words she kept assigning meaning to those reactions. She was having Flight or Fight responses, so there MUST be something wrong. Which in turn scared her more, which in turn generated more Flight or Fight responses…

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Get Me Off This Merry-Go-Round!

The key to this part of the work is to understand, very clearly, that none, NONE of those Flight or Fight responses, carry any meaning except this: you’re afraid. You’re afraid of the future. You’re afraid these responses signal some terrible truth about the future. You’re going to always be anxious. You’re going to have a heart attack.

You’re going to faint and keep on fainting. You’re going to never NOT have stomach nausea. You’ll NEVER be able to leave your house, or go out with friends, or leave this job, or end this relationship, or start that new relationship, or do anything you really want to do.

Except of course none of that is true. None of it! Even in our darkest hours and days we are not constantly having panic attacks. We may have a string of them across hours or days, but then they stop. The body can’t sustain it. We don’t have an endless supply of adrenaline and cortisol. We eventually fall asleep. We eventually get distracted…

And there is the huge, giant, crucial key. The minute our attention is diverted from our fear and anxious thinking our bodies gear down, even if only a little. Because it isn’t really the Flight or Fight responses we’re afraid of – it is the MEANING we’ve assigned to those responses.

In Mariah’s case, even after she had begun to make headway with unpacking her anxious thinking (i.e., figuring out where she had taken a small collection of problems/concerns and transformed them into crises, life-or-death in her thinking) she was still assigning terrible meaning to her Flight or Fight reactions.

Tensing muscles meant that she was going to lose another whole day or two to anxiety. The room going dark meant there was a panic attack on the way. Feeling hopeless meant that there WAS no hope for her future – she would always be like this.

And of course she had never been clear on all these meanings and assumptions she had been making about her physical and emotional reactions! She didn’t realize she was spinning up that Merry-Go-Round herself. She was desperate for it to stop even as she kept doggedly pushing it around and around…

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Step Off the Merry-Go-Round

After we had the conversation I just wrote here she started challenging her assumptions about what her body and emotions were telling her (or, more accurately, what she was telling herself about her body and emotions.) The first couple of times were HARD. She had pretty well trained herself to do ANYTHING to NOT think about those responses, so staying in the room (metaphorically) for the conversation was the first step.

Then she just let her body have its reactions. She began to connect that her Flight or Fight response was firing up in reaction, 90% of the time, to some well-worn and increasingly transparent fears she had about the future, her career and her family. And as she began to reframe what those reactions meant she began to, oddly enough, both be less afraid of them AND have them occur less frequently.

Make no mistake. She had tougher and easier days. About 3 weeks after this pivotal coaching session she got herself good and tired from a long day of work and kids, began to come down with a flu bug and skipped breakfast and lunch. All of a sudden the world went dark, her legs got very tight and sore, and she felt like everything had gone gray and pointless.

That went on for about 10 minutes (so she tells the story) and then she found herself saying out loud “hey, what the hell? I was fine 10 minutes ago and now I’m in full Flight or Fight. This doesn’t mean anything – it’s just some anxious thinking that hit me hard because I’m tired and hungry.” And to her surprise the lights began to come back up, her tension eased and she felt better.

Nothing miraculous here. Just the result of patient work – unpacking anxious thinking and unplugging fear of the meaning of Flight or Fight reactions.

Next post – more examples. Flight or Fight is NOT the enemy. It is our thinking, our expectations, that are the problem… a problem we can address, sort out and conquer.

In the framework for overcoming anxiety I articulate here in this blog I talk about “unpacking” and “unplugging” work. Unpacking is figuring out where we have let a problem or issue transform into a crisis in our thinking – what we have made into anxious thinking.

Unplugging is the deliberate discounting of the physical and emotional Flight or Fight responses we have to our anxious thinking.

Today’s post is all about clarifying more precisely what unplugging looks like and what it will do for us when we begin to get skillful at it. If you’re anything like I was (in the heart of my anxiety fight) even the thought of looking directly at the physical and emotional reactions of Flight or Fight could make you worry about Flight or Fight…

And that’s exactly the problem. When we start doing anxious thinking we are very likely going to trigger Flight or Fight in our bodies. And over time we begin to associate our anxious thoughts WITH those Flight or Fight responses, so we develop, essentially, a second source of fear – the fear of those responses. You might almost say that we learn to be afraid of being afraid.

We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself… (Yeah, Right!)

People who haven’t fought anxiety can have a very hard time understanding this piece of the work that we have to do to get free of anxiety. They are often baffled at our anxious, worried, frightened responses to our bodies, and they can sadly be pretty dismissive of how we feel.

But if you’ve been fighting anxiety for any length of time then you know exactly what I’m talking about, this reacting with fear and worry to what our bodies do when we are in the grip of anxious thinking. We have learned to be afraid of our fearful reactions. And that’s a merry-go-round we really, really want to get off of as soon as we can…

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If you’ve been reading this blog you know that the reactions we have when we’re afraid evolved to help us get away from physical, life-or-death danger in the natural world. Intellectually you get that ALL that is actually happening in our bodies and emotions is a highly effective system response to help us deal with danger NOW – either run (really good idea, no injuries, no fighting, just some sweat and a chance for a quick cardio workout) or, if we have to, fight until the danger stops or until we CAN run.

Let’s say it one more time for the cheap seats: the Flight or Fight response has only one mission – to get us the hell out of here if we are in danger. It is deeply wired into our brains and bodies, and good thing too, because it’s one of the big reasons you and I are here today – it got our ancestors MOVING when they were hanging out with cuddly things like sabertooth tigers and dire wolves.

But our problem, we who fight anxiety, isn’t tigers and wolves. Our problem is our anxious thinking. We scare ourselves with dark scenarios of the future, “what if?” questions that invariably lead to those dark scenarios (everything will go to hell, I’m doomed, this is terrible, my fear will never end, etc.), and when we do that we wind up firing up Flight or Fight.

That brilliant survival system for the dangers of the natural world didn’t evolve for late mortgage payments, or your son failing his chemistry class, or that pretty girl saying no, she really doesn’t want to out with you, or your wife losing her job and you worried about family finances. All it knows is YOU’RE AFRAID!

And if you’re afraid you’ll fire up Flight or Fight to some degree. End of story.

Flight or Fight isn’t here to scare us. It is here to HELP us. But we’ve learned along the road of our anxiety to also be afraid of our Flight or Fight reactions because we’ve associated them WITH our anxious thinking, and then we scare ourselves both with our thinking and with our physical and emotional reactions. Ugh. A great 1-2 punch that we keep delivering to ourselves over and over again…

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The (Partial) List

Once Flight or Fight powers up all kinds of things happen in our bodies and emotions (as well you know.) Your body gears up for action. That includes but isn’t limited to the following:

• Heartbeat speeds up
• Breathing speeds up and gets more shallow
• We start to sweat (dumping heat for that sprint or fight we’re anticipating)
• Digestion shuts partially or completely down (don’t need breakfast right now!) – nausea, butterflies, etc.
• Vision narrows/goes gray at the edges (gotta look sharp at those escape routes and that damn tiger)
• We tense up/muscles go tight
• We become restless, agitated (good thing too – need that energy to deal with that danger)
• We get tingling or even go numb in our extremities (blood pulls out in case we get injured)
• We become light-headed/experience vertigo
• Sometimes we get shocky – i.e., blood pressure drops and we get chills, other shock symptoms
• Our head starts to pound/get a headache (all that adrenaline and cortisol coursing through us)
• Time seems to slow down/reactions times speed up
• We freeze in place (sometimes hiding is the best running in the natural world)

None of this is bad or dangerous in and of itself. They are just physical reactions to our Flight or Fight mechanism. The bad part is when we, unintentionally, assign these responses MEANING, when we decide (again, usually not consciously) that our racing heart MEANS something terrible is about to happen, or our tingling fingers and toes signal DISASTER is just around the corner.

We even learn to hate these responses, get angry at them, and make ourselves even crazier in our anxiety fight. We learn to dread these physical responses. We also associate them with specific places or events or activities, and so we learn to dread those events/places/activities as well.

And all the while we just get more anxious, more afraid, and all from a system that is only trying to do its job – get you away from whatever you’re afraid of in that moment. Except, as I’ve said here before, there’s no danger here. And you can’t really run away from your thoughts! You CAN, however, change them. You can stop scaring yourself.

Flight or Fight’s physical reactions are ½ of the puzzle. The other half is our emotional responses –

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Emotions are Not Decorations – Emotions Get Us MOVING

And let’s not forget all the emotional responses that we have to Flight or Fight activating in us. Those emotions serve a vital function in the natural world – they motivate us. Nothing quite so energizing (in the natural world) as sheer terror to get our little feet moving!  Speaking of which:

• Terror
• Sadness
• Worry
• Anger
• Anxiety
• Embarrassment
• Guilt
• Grief
• Irritable
• Rage
• Despair
• Hopelessness

We might have any or all of these when we’re wrestling with anxiety. Except of course that we’re not really in DANGER when we’re anxious, so while those feelings surge and crash inside us we don’t have much in the way of anything to DO with them – we just slosh around in our anxious feelings, making ourselves more anxious.

If we didn’t learn to be afraid of these physical and emotional responses in our body to fear we would often be in much better shape to deal with our anxious thinking in the first place. But we DO learn to be afraid of these F&F responses, and it makes our fight with our anxious thinking that much harder.

Thankfully we rarely learn to be afraid of ALL of them. We seem to latch on to some combination of F&F responses (probably because we associate those particular reactions with early or particularly intense experiences with our fearful thinking) and then start watching anxiously for any sign those reactions are presenting themselves.

Doesn’t this sound like a great game to play? We learn to turn a problem/issue/challenge into a crisis (anxious thinking), we learn to associate particular Flight or Fight responses with our anxious thinking and therefore be scared of those reactions as well, and we learn to be on guard for any sign of those responses (anticipatory anxiety), what I and others call hyper-vigilance (see my post on this 6/12/12.) Crap!

It is any wonder that people who fight anxiety are so incredibly tired, exhausted, beat up?

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You Know What I’m Talking About!

If you’re reading this blog then I’d bet cold cash that you know exactly what I what I’m describing here from your own experience. And I’d bet even more money that you’d do just about anything at all to NOT be so freaked out/worried about those physical and emotional responses.

So what do we do? I’m so glad you asked:

1) Get very clear in your mind that ALL of your physical and emotional reactions when you’re anxious/afraid (and you’re not being chased by an angry buffalo or something actually dangerous) are just that – reactions to your anxious thinking. They don’t mean anything – nothing – except that you’re currently processing (consciously or often unconsciously) worries about the future, what if questions that scare you.

There are two challenges to this first step: first, those reactions FEEL like something serious. They should, because they evolved for serious threats! They are all about keeping you SAFE. But that doesn’t mean that they are RIGHT when it comes to responding to anxious thinking.

I hear friends and clients say this all the time: “but Erik, it FEELS so bad, It FEELS so real”, etc. Sure. It does. Doesn’t make it real. This takes practice, just this understanding. That’s why in my blog posts on the essential skill sets to master anxiety I call this one thing, discounting anxiety’s Flight or Fight responses, a skill. It is a skill, and it will take a little time and practice.

The second challenge is that most of us learned a long time ago to run away from those physical reactions and feelings, precisely because they frightened us. It can be hard to admit that we’ve learned to be afraid of our bodies and feelings. We are not only fighting the fear but the all-but-unconscious force of habit when we start this practice.

Like I said – a skill.

2) The next thing to do is to deliberately confront those sensations and feelings. I discuss this in more depth in the blog posts dated 3/22/12, 3/27/12 and 4/1/12. It means creating a journal for both the unpacking work and the unplugging work and sorting out what thinking triggers Flight or Fight for us in the first place.

It means developing a few minutes several times a day to open the closet of our fearful thinking and deal with the feelings and reactions that closet brings on in our bodies. It means taking the thinking of step 1 above and holding that thinking while you ride out those Flight or Fight reactions. Not necessarily fun. Not something to do lightly. But it is essential to do –

Because when you do this you’re literally reprogramming your thinking and your reactions. I ran in terror (really, terror) from even the possibility of vertigo in my life for 2 decades. It was the first Flight or Fight response I learned to fear, and it was the last I faced down because I hated how it felt.

And I still remember both the elation of the moment when I realized I was just afraid of a temporary physical reaction to anxiety, and the real anger at all the things I had avoided, all the trips I didn’t take, all the life I could have lived if I had just understood and faced down this aspect of my fears sooner…

You’ll be scratchy when you do this – don’t be surprised at that. Some days it will feel like the worst and last thing you want to do. Expect that.

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3) And this is why you really need to do this work in stages, short bursts, and not try to do it 24/7 until you’re free. It’s exhausting, for one thing. For another it is WAY too easy to start obsessing over whether you’re making progress or not, is it going away, WHY HASN’T IT STOPPED YET?  More hyper-vigilance.

Breath. Really. You’ll be making progress, it just won’t come as fast as we’d like (because we want it RIGHT NOW.) Repeating: do this work in pieces. Maybe a morning session, then maybe a few minutes at lunch (if you’re feeling like you’re up for it plus whatever else is going on in your day, work or kids or whatever), and definitely once in the evening, probably well before bed.

And that’s my last recommendation in this post: it becomes essential that as you move into this work you work extra hard to just live your life. You’ve got shallow breathing going on and it is scaring you? Get up and take a shower.

You don’t feel like it – I get that – but nothing’s wrong. Sitting still won’t do you any good. Remind yourself of what you know – there’s nothing wrong, just some scary thinking freaking you out –

You don’t feel like getting out of bed because you feel so blue and your chest is tight? Get up anyway. You won’t always succeed, especially as you start this work, but even the effort is worth the work. Fear says freeze in place. But there’s nothing dangerous here – just us reacting to Flight or Fight.

We Learned to Be Afraid of Our Bodies – We Can Unlearn That Fear

Flight or Fight isn’t the enemy. It can become a tremendous burden to endure our fears about how Flight or Fight reacts to our fears, but we don’t have to either be afraid of those reactions or let them shut down our lives.

You probably don’t feel like doing this. You’re tired, beat up, already at your limit. I understand. Did a lot of time there. But consider how close you are to your freedom if you’ll just start really understanding the meaning of and discounting the physical and emotional reactions you have to your fearful thinking. You don’t have to stay afraid.

I can’t believe that we’re already at the end of Thanksgiving Week – this entire year feels like it has moved at light-speed. I hope this finds you faithful blog readers getting ready for the swirling vortex we call the holidays…

I am writing this blog post for two reasons: 1) I’ve had a couple of people tell me recently how much they dread the holiday season (in large part because this time of year can feel both very stressful and very lonely) and 2) I had a less-than-stellar time myself at the holidays, especially at Christmas, for many years. I was usually anxious, and often found myself blue and sad at this time of year.

Which really, if you’ll forgive my saying so, sucked! The holidays were NOT supposed to be like that. But that’s how I felt, and that’s why I want to offer my two cents about at least some of the reasons why this time of year can be both so anxiety-creating and, too often, a downer as well.

Too many of us anxiety-fighters have learned that dealing with the holidays means dealing with anxiety, worry, panic and depression.

I can make that stronger: this can be a REMARKABLY stressful, anxiety-creating time of year, even for people who don’t necessarily deal with anxiety on a conscious or regular basis. What’s up with THAT? It is too easy in this season that is supposed to be about thanksgiving, celebration and love to find ourselves angry, stressed, feeling beaten up and hopeless.

How Do The Holidays Stress Us? Let Me Count The Ways…

Well, there’s lots of reasons, right? One is that we put ourselves under enormous pressure to perform for other people, in several ways. One way we do that is gift-buying. We have to buy the PERFECT gift, or at least the gift that someone will like and be happy about. Entirely too many of us all but make ourselves sick worrying about this single thing.

And in the process we, somewhere in our thinking, turn this problem (if it can be called a problem) of finding a good/appropriate gift into a crisis. What if they don’t like it? What if it is the WRONG gift? What if they think I don’t care about them? Holy crap! Isn’t it impressive how sideways we can get over just this single issue?

Perhaps worst of all we’re giving away insane amounts of energy and worry over something that a person will focus on for what – 5 minutes? Less? Then they’ll push it to one side and open the next gift! All that pain and stress for something that will be a minor player in someone else’s holiday.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

But I’m just getting warmed up! Another way we stress ourselves out in our expectations of making others happy (anything from constant anxiety to experiencing full-blown panic) is dealing with family at the holidays. (Of course family includes in-laws and relatives, right?)

It is almost a cliche, this dread of seeing family at the holidays. And while not everyone feels this way, an enormous number of us shudder when we think about dealing Dad, or our Aunt, or that Mother-in-Law, or whoever makes us crazy/ stressed/uncomfortable.

You know the routine. You start thinking about it sometime in November – maybe after your significant other says “so who’s house are we doing Christmas at this year?” You get that sinking feeling in your stomach. Your hands get sweaty. You feel your blood pressure starting to climb…

Maybe it is YOUR parents. Maybe it is THEIR parents. Maybe it is the grandparents. And all you can think of is how you resent having to surrender an evening or a day, or a week-long visit, to these people that make you so crazy.

And again we convert a problem (a tedious relative) into a crisis (if I lose my temper Christmas will be ruined, if she gives me that dismissive look one more time I’ll take the turkey knife to her, etc.) There’s room for concern, certainly, that a family visit go at least decently… but does that make it a crisis?

Don’t think that I’m dismissing your anxiety – not at all. I’m just pointing out that however much that there are people you would rather have root work canal work done than see isn’t a CRISIS. It is a problem. Maybe it is several problems. But they are NOT worth the stress, worry and anxiety that your thinking conjures when you think of them.

Because when our worry and anxiety start to suck the life out of us, make us worried and anxious and drained, well, that’s not helping us or anyone else.

But Wait – There’s More!

We haven’t even touched holiday travel yet! Talk about a great way to make us stressed!

Maybe you’re just driving down the highway for an hour or two. Maybe you’re making the annual pilgrimage across the state to your family’s house. Maybe you’re locking yourself in an airplane with a bunch of other stressed-out holiday travelers, heading someplace half the country away.

Whatever the scenario is it is easy to get frenzied before and during these travels. We stress over packing, we stress over getting to the airport or on the highway on time, we stress about travel delays – we can turn the entire experience into one long anxiety/worry marathon.

When I was traveling for Thanksgiving several years we stopped at a highway town for gas and some food. As I was climbing out of the car I saw and heard a family getting out of the car in front of us, a Mom and several kids.

The smallest kid, maybe 5 years old, was crying, and Mom was saying (clearly upset and stressed) “we are going to see your Grandmother and Grandfather on this trip, and you kids will enjoy yourselves, I don’t care what it takes!”

Really? I’m betting the last thing this Mom would have said is this, IF she wasn’t already half-crazed from the stress of this trip. The stress, that is, for HER.

It might be different if the holidays were only a week or so long. But no, we’ve turned the entire Thanksgiving to Christmas time period into a frenzied orgy of cranking out Christmas cards, generating family newsletters, attending Christmas parties after long days of work, getting our shopping done, preparing for long road or air trips, you name it.

And all of it, every last bit of it, centers on our thinking. The holiday isn’t the problem. WE are the problem.

Wherever I Go, There I Am

Part of the challenge with this whole holiday scenario is all the expectations we place on the poor thing, and on ourselves. This is a brilliant example of just how much fear/anxiety is based in our thinking, as opposed to any external source. WE put the burden, in our thinking, on the holiday.

As an example of this I live in a very ethnically diverse neighborhood. We have East Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese all living in our immediate area. Many of them don’t celebrate Christmas. It is pretty interesting to see them at this time of year!

They are just going about their lives. They are off the hook, quite literally, when it comes to all the stress and rushing and worry about Christmas. You’d never know by watching them that there was anything special about the window of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Why talk about all this? Because we really can do something about the stress of the holidays – we can frame it differently, change our thinking about it, learn to take care of ourselves and, in the process, make the holidays a little more joyful, a little more celebratory, and hopefully a lot less stressful.

How do we do that?

What do YOU Want From the Holidays?

Here are some things to think on and try:

1) Identify for yourself where you’re turning a challenge/issue/problem into crisis thinking at the holidays. Are the tedious in-laws a crisis or a problem? If they are a crisis in your thinking, why? How do they make you angry or defensive or even hurt? Where does your fear/anxiety come from in your thinking?

This is at least half the battle. Knowing clearly what is making you anxious in your thinking gives you at least the potential to address it. Maybe they are constantly finding fault with you (a favorite game of some of the in-law set.) Maybe they are experts on everything (in their eyes.) Maybe you don’t discipline your kids the way they think you should. Maybe they are just boring! 🙂

Whatever the issue, unless they’re attacking you with clubs and knives, it is only an issue or problem. And if that’s the case you have more power to address it than your anxiety is making you believe. Maybe it is as simple as deciding that what they think about you doesn’t matter as much as your anxiety would have you believe, and then practicing that thinking with them at the holidays.

Whatever the issues you find in your anxious thinking you don’t have to keep converting that thinking into anxiety. Problems are just that – issues that won’t kill us, but almost always have some sort of solution, temporary or permanent. We don’t find those nearly as easily if we are treating them as crises…

2) Where are you not taking care of yourself? This is in some respects an extension of point #1. Those of us who battle anxiety and depression are way, way too often NOT good at drawing the boundaries that good self-care requires.

Again, what works for YOU? What would a healthy, happy holiday look like to YOU? This isn’t permission to simply ignore what everyone else in your life wants or needs, but it IS a BIG invitation to stop and at least ask yourself that question. There is something very, very wrong with the notion that the holidays needs to devolve into making everyone else happy at the total expense of yourself, yes?

Maybe it means skipping one of the 5 parties you’re planning to attend (sure, fear says you’ll REALLY offend the people’s party you decide to skip… or will you? Crisis, or problem?) Or maybe it means GOING to a party you want to attend but your husband doesn’t. Maybe it means really asking yourself if you HAVE to fly all the way across the country to see the folks this year, or is it enough to send gifts and cards and love, and stay home this year…

Or maybe it means you only visit for 2 days instead of 6. Maybe it means staying in a hotel instead of the family house, or staying with friends. Maybe it means that you skip the turkey and order Chinese this year (WHAT? NO TURKEY? Hey, it isn’t in the Bible! You can have anything you like at Christmas!) 🙂

And, if you’re like many of my readers here, maybe it means putting yourself first, this year, even if other people indicate that you’re somehow letting them down or failing them because you’re not driving 16 hours or sending all the gifts your checking account can stand. Maybe healthy boundaries this year mean taking care of you FIRST, so you can, in coming holidays, be better at caring for yourself and the people in your life…

3) Maybe it is useful to take a page from all those people I mentioned in my neighborhood that don’t have any special meaning assigned to Christmas in their thinking/traditions. Christmas can be a great, happy, beautiful holiday. But all of that comes from our thinking, not from anything in the physical world that demands that it be so.

One of the wisest people I know has taught me again and again that our expectations govern so much of what we actually experience in any given expectation. So many of us have such FIERCE expectations of both the holiday season and of ourselves at this time of year that it is all but impossible for even a perfect Christmas to be good enough for us.

Maybe it is time to lower our expectations just a little. Maybe some turkey and cranberry sauce at home with your immediate family, a DVD or two, and some egg-nog are exactly enough for Christmas this year. Or maybe Christmas this year is skipping all the holiday cards (God really won’t strike you dead for that, I promise) and instead taking the kids and the spouse to the beach.

And maybe the best Christmas you can give yourself this year is to just not worry about it, but treat it like any other time of the year. I know in some respects it was the beginning of restoring Christmas to a normal and much healthier place for myself. That may feel wrong, or selfish, but in fact it’s not just legal, it may be the best possible way to have a happy holiday season this year.

The bottom line is all of this starts with what YOU think, and expect of yourself and the holidays.

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas…

Or not! It’s up to you! 🙂 Yes, the in-laws might be a little freaked out that you’re not freaking out when you see them this year – or when you call to explain that you’re doing Christmas at home this year. That’s OK. They won’t die, and you won’t either. I KNOW this can be scary thinking for a lot of us – but you’re still free to at least consider it, and start thinking about what healthy might look like for YOU.

Whatever your decisions and plans this Christmas, remember that it is, in fact, only a holiday. It will be over sometime on December 25th, and you’ll be out of the vortex. How do you want to get there? How would YOU like Christmas to be for you this year? It really is, to a very large extent, up to you. If nothing else, in how you set your expectations…

Today (the day I’m writing this post, that is) I learned some sad news. I was told that Susan Jeffers, the author of one of the seminal books on managing anxiety, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”, had passed away this past weekend.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Jeffers, and she was a remarkable woman. She was already ill when we first met, yet she was great and gracious enough to share an entire afternoon with me (along with her husband, a wonderful guy named Mark.)

Her book was one of the first I read when I was starting my climb out of the dark hole of my anxiety, and she has always been a kind of role model and mentor for me. She was encouraging, she had been there, she knew what it felt like to be afraid, and she clearly had actually faced some of her fears.

Today’s post is partly in honor of her memory, and partly to answer a question that a reader of the blog put to me this past week. The question is deceptively simple, yet I hear various versions of this question on a regular basis: is it possible to be work too hard at being positive?

Isn’t there some danger in being hopeful and optimistic and dismissing our fears? Is there in some real sense a danger that we’ll close our eyes to the risks of living if we work to hard at being positive thinkers?

We Were Born to Be Negative

Evolution has only one requirement for success in the natural world: survive. And survive means being able to assess dangers we face in our immediate environment and respond to them NOW, quickly, and in ways that maximize our chances for that survival. In nature we’re either facing danger or we’re not. Period.

And IF we’re facing danger then we need to (all creatures need to, in the natural world) take a pretty harsh view of the facts if we’re going to make the best decisions we can make to survive the danger we’re facing.

Can we escape this pack of wolves? Which way is the best way to do that? Up that hillside or tree? Straight back behind us? What are the risks of either direction?

This is one of the primary abilities of our Flight or Fight Reflex – to quickly assess danger, with the underlying assumption that we’re going to try and run FIRST, and only fight if we can’t run. We developed to assess risk quickly, in a matter of moments.

And we tend to take the pessimistic view of all of our options. That makes a TON of sense when it comes to real, immediate, physical danger in the natural world.

And it makes sense anytime we’re confronted by real, immediate danger here in our human world too – when we’re dealing with a drunk driver coming at us, or are confronted with angry barking dog, or whatever might potentially hurt us NOW, in the present moment.

In other words were literally born to be pessimists – when we’re afraid.

There are Kinds and Kinds of Danger…

As you hopefully already understand from this blog the dangers we evolved to face (and respond to with Flight or Fight) are natural world, immediate, at-risk-for-injury-or-death dangers. Being “negative” in this context makes a pile of good sense.

But we don’t develop chronic anxiety, panic attacks and depression by facing real-world dangers – at least, not when it’s happening. When an antelope in nature is faced by a tiger looking for dinner it gets scared as hell – then it runs away if it can, and 10 minutes after the tiger experience that antelope is back to looking for its own dinner (salad, please, to go.)

It isn’t worried about the next tiger attack, or reliving over and over again the previous tiger encounter…

It’s different for us humans. We have this wacky thing called a mind, including long-term memories, and we can (and too often do) either anticipate some crisis coming in the future, or relive crises past, over and over again.

Here’s the crucial part for this conversation: based on how we evolved to deal with danger, if we feel threatened (by real danger OR dangers we’ve got in our thinking) we will respond with some degree of Flight or Fight.

And Flight or Fight says GO NEGATIVE. Look for any flaws in the escape route, examine it again and again as quickly as you can, so you can run and take the best route for that running.

Except that worrying about why your career seems stalled isn’t facing a tiger. And worrying about next month’s rent (however much it rattles your cage) isn’t facing a tiger. And having to tell that co-worker that they’ve messed up your joint project isn’t facing a tiger (even though he kinda sounds like a tiger to you when he’s mad.)

Nope, those are all problems. Say it with me – PROBLEMS. They FEEL like crises when we have Flight or Fight activated, and worse still, we’re trying to solve them via Flight or Fight – but they are not going to hurt us. Not right now. Maybe not ever. They are problems, not crises.

Negative Is Helping Us Less Than We Like to Believe

So what does this mean for you, the fighter of anxiety? It means that however smart negative seems or feels it isn’t necessarily doing us any good at all.

Problems are not crises. I’ve said that 100 times in this blog if I’ve said it once. But sit with this notion a moment and really think about it: a problem is fundamentally different from a crisis.

A crisis, a real, honest, in-your-face crisis, is potentially LETHAL. Soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan are dealing with crises on a regular basis – real, physical risk to life and limb. The police face some of those same dangers.

But most of us, in our daily lives, are NOT facing crises. And if we’re not facing crises we’re facing, worst-case, problems. And it doesn’t serve us to start that work by assuming the very worst-case outcomes, consciously or unconsciously.

Get Clear on When You’re Getting Negative!

So recommendation one: check with yourself to see if you’re “going negative” on something that is making you worried. Are you responding to this issue as a crisis or a problem? One great way to tell is if you’re assuming that everything will go to hell in some form or another in your looking into the future.

Sure, it may FEEL smarter to assume the worst. And if you were working for FEMA, or planning for a nuclear war, you might be right. 🙂

But if you’re getting up the courage to change careers, or ask somebody out, or looking for a new apartment, or just thinking about trying something new in your life, I can pretty much guarantee that assuming the worst isn’t doing much for you in the taking chances and improving your life department.

Second recommendation: how often does the worst-case scenario actually happen, in your experience? Sure, sometimes bad things happen. But when you look at the average of your experience (i.e., take all those predictions and tell me how often that disaster actually happened) what do you find?

I’m going to bet that you, if you’re being honest, discover that most of the time the worst-case situation you were worried about never materialized. Hmmm. Isn’t that weird? And even when it DID I’m assuming it didn’t kill you or maim you for life. So again – how did assuming the worst serve you?

The way it usually “serves” us is that it gets us to back away, not try, not take the risk, stay with what we know, even if doing that makes us frustrated, stuck or unhappy.

Third recommendation: GO FOR IT. In my last post I mentioned an example of trying freeway driving in a small way as an example of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” (thank you Susan!)

Nothing is quite as useful in unpacking our fear as just facing into it. We can’t always do that. If we’re really afraid/anxious/terrified then it might sound like a completely crazy thing to do.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, with a good understanding of how fear works and what is happening when you’re afraid in your body and mind, confronting fear is the key to getting free of fear.

So find a place to begin with your fear and push on it. Expect pushback. Expect to be uncomfortable. That’s more than OK. It means you’re engaged in the work of taking your life back from your fear. Don’t expect it all to get done in one effort (although it would be sweet if it did.)

And don’t expect that you won’t have negative thoughts jump on your butt! Oh my gosh, this is terrible, this is going to be bad, blah blah blah… you know the litany of your anxiety…

Negative thoughts are with us. They are part of the mechanism that keeps us safe from real, physical dangers. But they don’t need to run our lives, and we don’t need to automatically assume they have the final word on truth or safety.

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