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

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

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

The Journey starts in Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey is Hard!

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

I can do it

I can do it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(I’ve had some friends and clients feeling the stress of doing this work, and I wanted today to help cheer them on. I originally put this post up at the start of the year, and thought it be might useful to have a mid-year reminder…)

Too many of us anxiety fighters learned a crazy lesson over the years of living in fear: we learned that we were fragile. We’re wrong, but we don’t know we’re wrong. This post is a follow-up to my post HERE on not flinching back from this anxiety work – as well as a discussion of how much agency/strength we have in our lives. HOWEVER it seems or feels to us for the moment…

You might be thinking at the moment hey Erik, I AM fragile. I feel overwhelmed by my life, my stress, my fears and my inadequacies. You might also be saying that there is a lot of evidence that you ARE fragile, and that seems hard to refute from where you’re sitting.

I understand that thinking, that feeling. I thought and felt the same way for decades – really, I thought and felt that way before I even KNEW I did. But I was wrong – and so are you.

We’re not made of glass. We won’t shatter in the face of troubles. We just don’t get it yet. So let’s talk about just how not fragile – and about how TOUGH we actually are. Because it’s time you knew that you’re a fighter, and that you’re tougher than you know.

How did we start thinking this way?

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As much as I talk about the origins of anxiety in this blog I don’t think I have written enough about the early days of our acquiring the foundations of our anxious thinking. Because, you see, we don’t show up anxious. We learn to think anxiously, and that’s where we get in trouble.

There are some folks running around in the world that have a conviction that at least some of us are born anxious. There’s nothing in the research that’s been done to date that says there is any convincing evidence of this, but it can be a tempting theory. One of the reasons it’s tempting is that we don’t remember, most of us, some clear demarcation in our lives when anxiety began.

In fact (speaking both from my own personal experience and my experience working with chronic anxiety fighters) it seems to sneak up on us, to just “come out of nowhere.” It might seem to come in the form of a sudden traumatic moment where we have our first panic attack. It might be simply that we become aware one day of just how frightened and nervous and anxious we feel one overwhelming afternoon.

But most of us don’t really parse out how this got started. It isn’t complex. It started with us learning to see the world through anxious eyes – more specifically, through the lens of anxious thinking. We picked up, to a significant extent, in the way we learned to think from the people around us – family, friends, even school and church can contribute.

There is much more to say on this subject, but the point here is that we understood SO LITTLE of what was going on. This lack of good information/understanding left us floundering when chronic anxiety made its first obvious appearance in our lives.

When that ugly/scary first anxiety experience happened we had Flight or Fight fire up. And man, it scared us. It FELT like something terrible was happening – something too terrible for us to manage. We succumbed to the warnings of Flight or Fight – we ran away. And, because we ran away, Flight or Fight calmed down to some extent.

Fragile 3

That set us up two ways: 1) running away is a good idea, and 2) we couldn’t handle what scared us. In other words We learned early that we were NOT equal to our lives, in some or in many areas – i.e., we learned to think that we couldn’t manage our own lives, that we weren’t smart enough, strong enough, capable enough, you name it.

UGH. Not so useful. But all we knew was we were “safe” from those terrible feelings of panic and anxiety, and so we counted our blessings and tried to forget it.

What we didn’t understand then was we were NOT anxious “out of the blue” We were anxious because we had spent years and years looking at things in our lives as crises – i.e., things that would be too awful to endure if they turned out the way our fears had us thinking about them.

We were trying desperately to avoid offending other people. Or making anyone mad at us. Or failing in our role as wife, mother, daughter, son, husband, dad, friend, co-worker, etc. Or failing in our career. Or not being holy enough. Or in some way treating multiple issues that were only WERE issues as if they were life-and-death crises.

We were trying to follow a LOT of rules, shoulds, must bes, etc. – and it proved overwhelming to us – and so we ran away, not understanding the real reasons we were anxious, and now terrified of this panic and fierce anxiety thing.

And, in running away, we confirmed with ourselves that we were not able to endure all we were supposed to endure/manage/deal with in our lives.

And the Party was just beginning…

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This pattern of thinking and feeling anxiously, then running away and in our running finding some relief from that anxious thinking and feeling, got reinforced every time we ran. We developed the habit of running away – in our minds and in our lives. We could feel our lives getting smaller – but we really didn’t see an alternative.

Not so great for self-confidence and the sense that we can take care of ourselves, yes? We felt unsure of ourselves, fragile, weak and other nice words we might have used to describe how we felt then (and maybe now.)

Worse, we looked at other people and THEY seemed to be managing their lives – what the hell was wrong with us? (Appearances are deceiving, we’re not seeing into their lives or thinking, etc., but again, we didn’t or don’t see that when we’re busy beating ourselves up because we feel so weak/fragile/unable to cope.)

And of course we’ve KEPT backing up, kept running away from what is making us so freakin’ scared.

We may have turned to medication, which can in some cases be a real help/relief to how we FEEL, and even help give our thinking some room to maneuver. But it also, at some level, gave way too many of us further proof that we weren’t strong or capable enough to manage life on our own ability. It made us feel dependent and even more fragile.

(Worse, unless those meds were accompanied by the work necessary to challenge and change those old habits of anxious thinking, nothing really changed about our anxiety. It was still there, still in the background, and that, too, was a gnawing concern for us.)

As the days and months and years rolled on our worlds got smaller, our fears didn’t really go anyplace and we wound up with the conviction that we were NOT capable of dealing with life.

We were wrong

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The therapy people talk about how we create stories about our experience and lives – a narrative of what is our truth, what is real for us. The bad news is that story, that narrative doesn’t necessarily reflect what IS really going on or what we have experienced.

But the good news is that we are free to examine and even change that narrative to something that is closer to the truth. Dang good thing too, because we are much, much more capable than we allow ourselves to think, and we have been much tougher than we have ever believed.

Look at what you HAVE done for a minute. If you’re a chronic anxiety fighter than you have

put up with chronic anxiety and fear for years or decades,

managed to still get along, by hook or crook, even as we told ourselves we couldn’t go on,

have often kept on dealing with anxiety AND feeding and raising kids, holding down a job,

taken care of elderly parents or disabled kids, dealing with other people’s problems, etc.,

have had to endure a terrible amount of negative feedback – intentional or unintentional – from the people in our lives that don’t understand chronic anxiety.

Holy crap. That’s a lot of stuff to manage for people who are supposedly fragile and weak and unable to deal with life. We are much stronger, much tougher than we see, because our stories of failure, weakness, inability cloud our ability to see what we’ve really been able to do. Weak people, fragile people couldn’t do all that I’ve listed here.

We need to understand that we are much stronger, much more able than we have been understanding about ourselves, and we need to learn to exploit that strength, use it to can help us climb out of anxious thinking and build new habits of thought.

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Pardon my French, but we have been telling ourselves a bullshit story, and it’s time we got honest about what we can do in this fight to beat anxiety.

Time for a New and More Honest story

So much of this comes down to FEELING. We don’t FEEL like we’re strong enough. We don’t FEEL like we can take care of ourselves. We don’t FEEL like we’ll ever get free of anxiety.

That makes sense. Flight or Fight is a strong mechanism, designed to get us moving in the face of real, actual danger. (How often do I say THAT in this blog?) But we are much more than Flight or Fight. And we are much more than our feelings.

Because our feelings are only a weathervane for our thoughts. If the wind picks up we don’t attempt to manage the wind by gluing the weathervane in one direction, do we? No. The weathervane just indicates what the wind is doing. Our feelings just indicate what our thoughts are doing.

Which means we need to review and rewrite this story of weakness and fragility. Here are some starting points:
We have endured anxious for years and years. If we have the strength to do that we have the strength to turn and face it down, deal with it and change our thinking.

We have endured the symptoms of anxious thinking – Flight or Fight’s sensations and feelings – for years and years. We have the capacity to face down those sensations and feelings and stop letting them scare us so much.

We have raised kids, managed houses and marriages, dealt with other people’s problems, suffered loss and grief and still pressed on, however much we told ourselves that we couldn’t manage all of that. If we can do that stuff we have the ability, energy and endurance to face down anxiety.

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We REALLY want to live a healthy, happy life. That by itself is a great focus to drive towards, even when our fears insist that there is no way, we can never have that, etc. This redirecting of our thinking to what we DO want is exactly the kind of practice we need to begin to develop the ability to redirect our thinking and take control of our thinking.

One last thing: as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog anxiety fighters are STUBBORN. Holy crap we are stubborn. We have tenacity and stubbornness in abundance. (You know it’s true.) Let’s come out of the closet as stubborn people and use that stubbornness to go get what we want – a different story about our thinking, our fears and our lives.

Not Sure what to Do Next?

1) Consider writing out both your current story, all that fear and junk in your head, and writing out the actual things you’ve had to move through, manage and deal with. Get help from family and friends if you find yourself unsure about the second story details – you’ll be surprised at what you hear. 🙂

2) Read “Compassion and Self-Hate” by T.I. Rubin (cheap on Amazon.) Read JUST the Compassion part (the second half of the book) FIRST – and begin to see how you are both telling yourself a faulty story AND see some examples of what a more healthy, more realistic story would look like.

3) Hit me here at the blog. I’ll be happy to help you start clarifying the real story of your ability and strength.

We are much, much stronger and more capable than we are being honest about with ourselves. Time to claim our real strength and ability…

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Video

With today’s writing I’ve created 255 blog posts about overcoming anxiety. I’ve put a lot of words on “paper” about how anxiety works and what we can do about it.

I have realized in the last few weeks that, in the middle of all that writing (and lots more writing at a Facebook Group I’ve had the good fortune to participate in over the last 3-1/2 years, and lots of conversations with those Facebook friends and my anxiety coaching clients) it is easy for me to lose sight of the basic nature of this work.

Today I want to review those basics, reset the stage, clarify precisely what overcoming anxiety looks like and how we get there. Here are the basics: What if thinking (problem to crisis thinking, the thing that makes us anxious in the first place), the reactions of Flight or Fight to that what if thinking that come to scare us so badly, unpacking that thinking back into problem thinking, and functional self-care.

Making Crises out of Problems – the heart and soul of Anxiety

I suspect you’ve heard stories about people that are afraid of what seems to you to be silly things – rabbit’s feet, or clowns, or moths, or having the peas touch the carrots. You say to yourself “how could a clown scare anybody?” (Of course it is possible those fears don’t seem silly at all to you – maybe one of those things scares YOU.)

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A better question to ask ourselves is WHY anything scares anyone when it isn’t actually an immediate, physical danger. In a sense we could say that when we are presented with real, immediate, physical danger we’re not being scared at all. We are simply reacting to that danger. If I’m being attacked by an angry polar bear I’m not being simply scared – I’m dealing with a life-or-death issue RIGHT NOW.

But if I’m afraid of a rabbit’s foot or a clown then I’m being scared – without actually being in danger of being hurt in this present moment. This is anxiety, pure and simple.

How does it work? That’s simple too. To have something make us anxious we have to anticipate a bad, dangerous thing happening to us, sometime in the future. That’s it. That’s all we have to do. Some anxiety thinkers call this what if thinking, and it’s a perfectly descriptive phrase in my opinion.

Let’s say this a different way: to be anxious we have to have a thought, or multiple thoughts, about something that isn’t actually dangerous in the here and now, but which we’re anticipating BEING dangerous in the future. That’s what if thinking.

There are a couple of things that make this SEEM more complicated. One is the truth that we don’t have to be conscious of what if thoughts to have them scare us. Often we are completely unaware of the anxious thought that is rocking our worlds (or, more likely anxious thoughts, plural.)

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That doesn’t mean we can’t BECOME aware of those thoughts, with some effort and practice – but we sure as heck don’t have consciously think a scary thought for that thought to freak us out. Lots of our thinking is habitual thinking. And habitual thinking is rarely conscious thinking.

Another issue that makes this seem more complicated than it is concerns the safety mechanism that we humans have to deal with REAL danger – the Flight or Fight Response. When it goes to Red Alert it makes things FEEL like we’re in real danger –

How did we get here? Why do we do this? We learned to do this. This is a much longer conversation (you can see more HERE if you like) but for the purposes of this conversation anxiety starts and grows here – in the learned, habitual pattern of treating one more issues as a crisis.

Flight or Fight – the second part of the Equation of Anxiety

When we have an anxious thought – when we anticipate danger in the future, do this what if thinking thing – then we activate Flight or Fight. Everyone knows Flight or Fight – that rush of adrenaline, the burst of nervous energy, the natural mechanism that evolved to help us get to safety, one way or another, in the face of real, physical danger.

A host of things happen to us physically and emotionally when Flight or Fight goes to work, but the crucial thing to understand what it is attempting to do: get us ready to RUN – RIGHT NOW. Running is always better than fighting in the natural world, because running, if successful, gets us to safety AND avoids the risk of injury that might impede survival later. We only fight if we are cornered.

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That host of things includes a dry mouth, sweating, dizziness, various heart reactions like skipping and racing, shallow breathing, tingling and numbness, nausea, flushed skin, terror, rage, embarrassment, despair, hopelessness and depression. This is a longer conversation (see my post HERE on this topic) but the bottom line is that most of these sensations and feelings are just Flight or Fight gearing us up to run (or fight if we must) – and the rest are the result of anxiety being sustained for long periods of time without relief – and us becoming convinced that nothing can change for us.

We very easily get caught in a loop that has us believing that there MUST be something terribly wrong with us – after all, why would our bodies react and feel this way if there wasn’t? The answer is that we’re shouting OH MY GOSH I’M IN DANGER – and our body, obligingly, is standing to alert again and again, trying to help us get to safety.

The only problem is that we’re not in real, immediate danger. There’s nothing to run from. Which means Flight or Fight gets us all dressed up without nowhere to go. We’re coursing with energy, seething with adrenaline – but there’s nothing really to do with it.

There’s one more aggravating factor with Flight or Fight reacting to our anxious, fearful thinking. We start doing what if thinking about Flight or Fight! We start asking questions like what if this never stops, what if this means I’m crazy, what if I have a brain tumor… and so in a sense we set up a second level of what if fearful thinking, based on our Flight or Fight reactions, which originally began in response to our earlier what if thinking about stuff in the future. Ugh!

What if thinking activating Flight or Fight – this is anxiety. So what do we DO about it?

Unpacking – Cleaning up our Thinking so we stop Scaring ourselves

Anxiety is based on us taking an issue, problem or situation and blowing up that issue or problem into crisis in our thinking. To get free of chronic anxiety we have to convert that crisis in our thinking back into what it really is – an issue, problem or situation.

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Please don’t think that I don’t understand that it FEELS like a hell of a lot more serious than “just” a problem or issue when we’re in the grip of anxiety. I get it, down in my bones. I spent the majority of two decades running hard from my own anxiety. I was in the grip of terror both over what I was afraid might happen to me (my original what if thinking) and I was scared to death about what Flight or Fight might mean for me (in my case, I was going to go crazy.)

How do we escape this merry-go-round of thinking and reacting? We have to clean up our thinking. We have to stop running, turn around and look our what if thinking in the eye.

We have to do that because we’re treating problems or issues as crises – which means we’re both scaring ourselves silly AND not dealing effectively with the issue or problem. I’m not saying it might not be a BIG problem. I’m saying that if you’re not immediately at risk for death or serious injury then it is not a crisis – and will be MUCH better managed if you will start treating it as a problem. (Not to mention that you won’t be scaring yourself silly over it.)

(See my post HERE on what it means to treat a problem as a problem.)

This is intense, often challenging work. This takes energy, time, patience and a willingness to be, sometimes, damn uncomfortable. Of course that’s the case. We’ve learned to run from our fears – now we’re facing them and seeing them for WHAT THEY ACTUALLY ARE.

That requires the fourth component of mastering anxiety – good self-care.

Self-Care

I have lots to say HERE about the basics of good self-care, but it all comes down to providing yourself with the energy and reserves to do this work as effectively as possible. It isn’t complicated – but it is essential.

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It looks like this:

Some sort of regular physical movement (yes, the dreaded exercise)
Eating decently (not perfectly, but decently)
Getting the best sleep you can
Making your needs at LEAST as important as the people around you – i.e., learning to draw healthy boundaries

This is more challenging than it might first appear for most anxiety fighters. Anxiety is such an energy suck over time. It tempts us to inactivity and motionless – “freezing” in place. It often leads to various forms of self-medication – including eating junk and overeating. It can wreak havoc on sleep – after all, we’re very busy trying to solve problems as if they were life-and-death crises – how the hell are we supposed to sleep?

And perhaps most insidious of all is what 99% of anxiety fighters learned to do – put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own. We don’t know how to draw healthy boundaries in our life. We don’t know how to ask for (and, in some cases, insist on) what we need, even if someone else might be annoyed or a little put out by us getting what we need.

This is by itself a set of skills and we won’t get there overnight. But even baby steps in this direction can make a significant difference in our ability to take on and unpack our fearful what if thinking. Walking every day can be a game changer. Cutting out the extra dessert we think we need to stay rational can have an immediate impact on how we feel (and sleep.) Slowing down at night, setting a regular bedtime, reading or practicing breathing exercises before bedtime, these things can begin to improve the quality of our sleeptime.

Think of this as the most basic self-support we c an do to have the energy and focus we need to take on and break the hold of anxiety.

Simple isn’t the same thing as Easy – but this is work any of us can do

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This is, in a nutshell, how we get anxious, and what we can do about anxiety. We can (and usually do) make it more complicated, unfortunately. 🙂 We fight to avoid the sensations and emotions that Flight or Fight generate – they’ve scared us for so long we have a hard time letting them come and practicing seeing them for what they are.

We fall back into the habit of treating this or that problem as a great hairy crisis. Sure we do – we’ve been doing it a long time. We continue to take crappy care of ourselves – including not treating ourselves with respect when it comes to our limits and boundaries. Sure we do. It’s scary to draw boundaries when you’re fighting chronic anxiety.

But the work is the work. The way out is the way out. It is work any of us can do. It isn’t like falling off a log easy – but it is completely within our reach.

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

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

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

Ghost Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

Memories of Fear

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

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

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

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

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

You know the litany, don’t you?

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

Begone Old Ghosts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We don’t have to fear the Night

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

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

There are a LOT of people offering counsel and advice on how to overcome anxiety these days. Hardly a surprise – there are a LOT of people dealing with anxiety in the world.

Just look at the ads on TV for anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications! Holy crap! Then cruise through Facebook or on the web in general for all the groups that people can join to talk about anxiety and depression.

When you get enough of that wander into your local bookstore. Dozens of books on this anxiety stuff there. When you get done with that go on Amazon and see how many MORE books there are for you to read and study.

Of course there are scads of therapists (such a good idea in our fight to break anxiety’s hold.) And your doctor stands ready to prescribe some of those medications I mentioned above. Books, doctors, medications, therapists, groups – there is a lot in the anti-anxiety arsenal these days – more than any other time in human history.

The quality of that advice and help varies of course, and there are some goofy/less-than-useful notions about anxiety’s origins and permanence that can get in the way, but in general we have some good stuff floating around. One thing, however, sometimes goes missing in our thinking about how to get free of chronic anxiety and depression.

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We have to do the work. We have to wade into our fears (more specifically our fearful thinking) and pin them down. We have to identify the thinking that is scaring us, see it for what it is – crisis thinking about something that is not an immediate crisis – and start wrenching it out of crisis status in our thinking.

We get to do all that while we deal with the firestorm of Flight or Fight activating as our fears get tackled. UGH. It’s a kind of one-two punch – not only do we have to get down and dirty with our fears, we have to deal with our reactions to our fears.

This is work any of us can do. I say that over and over again in this blog. And while the information, advice, counsel and support is vitally important, at the end of the day we have to get down to the work. Today’s post is about getting as clear as possible on what is required of us to make this work WORK.

Step 1: Wade in

Anxiety is a crafty son-of-a-gun. It doesn’t usually care if you’re talking about doing something about your fears – as long as it just STAYS talk. Yak all you like, anxiety says, as long as you don’t actually start doing anything serious about your fears.

That’s a metaphor, of course. Our anxiety isn’t a living creature inside of us. 🙂 A more accurate description is that we’ve walled our fears away, and we can hear the growling and howling of our fears over that wall – and it scares us.

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It FEELS safer to leave those fears locked up behind that wall in our minds. The howling and growling never really go away, of course, but if we make enough noise, stay busy enough, we come to believe that we can live with the racket.

In fact we do what we can to run away from our fears. It isn’t because we are weak or chicken – it’s because our fears seem so huge, so impossible to deal with, that it just makes sense to run as far as we can from them.

This works – often for a long time. It works in the sense that we succeed in mostly keeping our fears out of our daily lives – or at least we don’t see significant impact from our fears. If we find a medication that helps shut down Flight or Fight – as most of the anti-anxiety drugs do – then it’s even easier to keep away from our fearful thoughts, stay away from that wall and the howling.

But for most of us, sooner or later, we find our fears getting bigger and our capacity to run shrinking. It’s (again with a metaphor) almost like those fears are breeding there, behind the wall – making more and more things for us to fear.

We often try to keep running. It’s worked before, right? We might increase our meds – and that can work for a while too. We get busier. We do whatever we can to keep our fears at arm’s length (preferably further.) But if you’re reading this blog it’s pretty likely that your capacity for running or avoiding has reached a limit.

Here’s the weird news: that’s good. It doesn’t feel good – it feels terrible – but it is still good news. It means it is time to wade in, bust a hole in that wall between you and your fears. It comes down to either dealing decisively with our fearful thinking or continuing to live with what has become, over time, chronic anxiety.

Step 1: wading in. That’s where it all begins. It may be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And it is the absolutely vital step in the right direction. What does wading look like? It is turning to identify and unpack our fearful thinking, seeing it for what it is, and keeping at that unpacking until our fears become what they really are – problems.

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes - moving concept

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes – moving concept

Step 2: Unpack our Fears

Here’s the core of the work. We have to identify how we’re scaring ourselves in our thinking. We have to get specific and we have to muck around in here long enough to get those specifics.

There’s no way around this – it’s scary. It’s scary for two reasons. The first is that we are treating these fears as crises. We think they are REALLY DANGEROUS, death-risky, literally, and it rocks our world to look at our fears face-on. The second reason is that we fire up Flight or Fight in our bodies when we confront these fears (hell, when we even seriously consider confronting these fears we can do that.)

I’ll get to Flight or Fight in a minute. But step 2 is as much as anything about sitting with our fears while recognizing that, however we feel and whatever we’re worried about, it’s all based in “what if” fears about what this COULD mean.

Let’s repeat that: our fearful thinking is all about what COULD happen. It might be 10 minutes from now in our thinking, or it might be next year, but it’s all about being afraid of the future. Flight or Fight reactions can muddy the water for us – it FEELS like it is about right now, this second – but being anxious by definition means we are afraid of something that COULD happen at some point in the future.

That’s it. That’s the heart of it. I’m NOT saying it’s easy! That’s the principal reason I’m writing this post today. It’s scary and it’s hard.

It’s also the way we start to get free of our fears. As long as they stay in the shadows, behind the walls of our Comfort Zone, there isn’t much we can about them – and they will continue to scare us.

Part of what makes this so hard to start is that running WORKED – probably for a long time, longer than we are conscious of in our daily lives. We’ve gotten used to running as a way to deal with fear. But our fears have a way, sooner or later, of catching up with us.

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So let me encourage you to expect to be tempted to run – and to actually run – even if you want to stay and get your fears sorted out. It’s natural and normal.

The scariness of facing our fears (and what they seem to say about our future) often leads people to start this work again and again, only to back away. That can go on for years. That’s legal too. Sure, you’re not getting anyplace – but you’re also not a freak for not leaning in and finishing this in one titanic fight. 🙂

Lots of other people pump up their meds and manage their fears a while longer that way. NO shame in that. It’s easier, frankly. Doesn’t mean we’re actually dealing with and overcoming our fears, but we’re not bad people for taking this route!

To turn and deal with anxiety is to, for a while, actively disrupt and make something of a mess in our worlds. That can range from some mild disruption of schedules and activities to having to temporarily pulling back from most our lives to deal with these fears. That’s tedious, messy and brings its own fears of failure.

But this is the route that will get us actually over our fears. There are posts HERE, HERE and HERE that describe the basics of unpacking. The work isn’t complicated – just scary. (Sure, Erik, JUST scary. Easy for you to say! Don’t think I don’t remember how scared I was when I started this work, and for the first months after that start.)

There’s another reason this freaks us out – we have to

3) Contend with Flight or Fight yelling at us

The nano-second we get serious about facing down our fears Flight or Fight jumps up and starts getting in our face. We’ve been telling it for most of our lives that this or that fear is too terrible to examine, and now suddenly we’re wading in.

Flight or Fight is a big piece of why facing our fears is scary. It’s bad enough that our fearful thinking has us up in the hypothetical future contemplating disaster – Flight or Fight then begins screaming at us, making our bodies and emotions seemingly freak out. It is of course just doing its job – trying to get us to safety – but we’re not running from actual, right-now danger – so it isn’t helping much. Or at all.

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We come to link all kinds of theories to that freaking out. We are having a heart attack. We are going crazy. This feels awful. We’re going to die from these sensations and feelings. We must be defective or damaged or just weird. We build a whole second layer of fears around these sensations and feelings being generated by our frightened thinking.

So wading in means two things: facing down our scary thinking AND facing down our reactions to our reactions (to Flight or Fight.) It isn’t easy. It can be very challenging some days, and especially at the start of this work. We’re having to identify our fears and sort them out while riding this wave of feelings and sensations.

It’s hard to stay clear on the work when we get in this place. It’s one reason to do it in pieces, small bites, at the start, or anytime we’re getting overwhelmed. It’s like learning any skill, only this skill (more accurately, set of skills) is also SCARY.

Our thinking tends to degrade to some degree when we’re in this place. Flight or Fight isn’t big on lucid thinking – it’s only got one mission, get everyone to the life boats – and so it will take practice and patience to stay in our skins when we’re doing this work.

But that’s also part of what gets us smarter and stronger in dealing with our fears. When we can spend even a little time in that place, staring our fears in the eye and keeping Flight or Fight semi-clear in our thinking, we begin to see how much we’ve been running from thoughts, rather than actual danger.

BOTH skills are necessary – unpacking our fearful thinking back to problem thinking AND learning to see Flight or Fight for what it is.

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Let me be clear: this is hard work. Not impossible, not dangerous – but hard. A lifetime of training to RUN AWAY in one form or another is a hard habit to break when we’re as anxious and keyed up as we get when we wade into this work – or even seriously think about it.

What gets in the way?

Well, one thing that makes this work hard and frustrating is that it is slow going, at least some of the time. We start to identify and unpack fears, we start to get our arms around the smoke screen of reactions that is Flight or Fight – and then we seem to lose it all. It seems to all go right out the window.

Call those setbacks, or bumps in the road, or whatever you like, they are part of the learning curve. (More about those in my next blog post.) They are part of ANY learning curve, whether it’s a sport, a dance move, a course at school or learning to cook. They are part of us learning skills and mastering those skills.

The only difference is… we make those bumps into a crisis. 🙂 Oops. Oh well – we’re fighting anxiety, nothing very surprising there. We’ll learn from these times too. As I’ve argued in other places these are essential, actually, in our deeply learning our skills.

It isn’t particularly speedy work either. It takes TIME, and practice, and steady effort. None of us like that fact either – we’re SICK to death of anxiety and we want it gone NOW. Been there, did that. Doesn’t change that it takes the time it takes.

Something else that trips some of us up is how untroubled and carefree the rest of the world seems – at least from our viewpoint. It sucks that we’re fighting so hard and every else seems to be at recess – at least mentally and emotionally.

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Of course we don’t know where they are. We don’t know their struggles. And it doesn’t matter anyway! We are where WE are. We have the work we have in front of us. As I’ve said other places it’s perfectly OK to whine, bitch, kvetch, have a tantrum – do what works for you. But then get back to the work.

One Foot in front of the Other…

There are lots of famous quotes about how nothing of worth is free. I don’t know about that. If I won the lottery I’m pretty sure I’d be holding something of worth, at least financially. 🙂 But learning a skill, or set of skills (in this case, learning to think clearly and quickly and well about what’s a problem, what’s actually a crisis, how to manage Flight or Fight and how to dismantle the crap of anxious thinking) takes time and practice.

And the payoff is enormous. Take it from a guy who had all but shut out the world, living in an OK double-wide trailer in the crappy part of town, terrified to go outside, convinced he would never, ever have the life he wanted, enduring constant panic attacks and certain it would never get better.

I was wrong. These are skills I learned – and so can you. So take up the help, learn the information, get the therapist you need, retain that coach, rally your support in family and friends and folks online, join the group, whatever you need to make this work. And then lean in. Want some help from a veteran? Hit me here – happy to assist.

We are created beings. When I say that I don’t mean in the way most of us might think of creation – i.e., that we are the products of a Master Craftsman. That’s not what I’m talking about in today’s post.

Nope, when I say this I mean we are, mentally (and as a result also largely emotionally) the products of our environment – what we learned and how we come to think about our world.

This isn’t to say that genetics doesn’t play a role. It does, in big ways. But that can only, and only to some extent, set the stage for who we become. Humans are thinking creatures, and our thinking governs an enormous amount of how we deal with the lives we live (and create – too often unconsciously.)

To get free of anxiety we, literally and in significant ways, have to reinvent ourselves – specifically, recreate portions of our thinking, dumping some stuff and creating a new map of our world.

How we think when we develop anxiety

It might seem weird to you when I say that we are, mentally and emotionally, largely the creatures of our environment. That’s because most of us think, at some level, that we “just are”. We were not conscious of a creation process of any kind, or at least most of the time.

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We are not old enough, for example, to remember all the conversations that happened around us while we were gurgling and cooing in our cribs or on that cute blanket grandma made for us. We were listening, however – listening pretty closely as we began to grow and develop.

We heard, for instance, what good and bad meant to our parents, our older siblings, our grandparents, and maybe our, in that fine British term, “minders” – babysitters. Never do this, always do that, this means this, that means that.

We heard things like don’t be selfish, always think of other people first, don’t make that noise, pick up your toys, aren’t those Republicans (or Democrats, or Catholics, or Mormons, or Baptists, or black people, or white people, or poor people, or rich people…) terrible… we heard a lot of stuff, a lot of ways to think about and see the world.

In fact we absorbed a LOT of thinking. Holy crap! And like the little sponges that we were we took it all in, filing it away, building a map of the world. We also had our own experiences, and thankfully also had a hand in building our universe.

But a great deal of that building took place against the backdrop of our training – our learning at the feet of the people in our world. Our thinking and experience was often in the context of their thinking, beliefs, attitudes – and fears.

Yeah, I just said fears. We absorbed a lot of fears as well (or you wouldn’t be here reading this blog.) As I’ve said before in this writing it wasn’t like our family, minders, etc. set OUT to make us anxious. Hell no. They just, by their words and deeds, trained us to absorb those fears, those worries they were carting around.

Did we add to that list? Almost certainly. Did we absorb EVERY fear they had? Probably not. But we had the groundwork laid for us, and too often we built upon that groundwork.

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How that thinking derails us

This blog post isn’t about assigning blame. It doesn’t matter at this point who did what. What matters now is how it happened – because how it happened is also how we can CHANGE that thinking. We’ve covered how it happened. Let’s talk about how we get changed.

Specifically for this conversation we get derailed because we usually have very little idea that we were TRAINED to think anxiously. We persist in the thinking that we are “anxious people” or that “we just think the way we think.” That’s not true, but it is very easy to stop there.

(Worse still there are a cluster of people running around in the world that are convinced that anxiety is something that “just is” – part of us, native to us – and that we can’t ever really get free of anxiety. I use this word a lot in my writing here, I know, but – bullshit.)

To break the hold of anxiety in our lives we have to see and come to understand that we are seeing portions of our lives through a very specific lens of thinking. We learn to tell the story of our lives in very specific ways – unaware, largely, there are other ways to tell that story, experience what we experience.

Example: we learn to evaluate conflict (people verbally fighting, not physical fighting) from the training we received from the people in our lives (by and large.) We learn both from what they SAY about what it means when people fight verbally and from how they REACT to those fights.

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So if we hear that saying cross words to other people is terrible, wrong, bad – if we see people fight and then be reduced to tears of rage and grief – if we see people reacting to verbal fights with long periods of sullen silence and distance – we are likely to take away the lesson that ALL relational fighting is evil and must be avoided at ALL COSTS.

So we can grow up doing anything to avoid conflict – saying yes to things we don’t really want to do, or worse, attempting to do things (like make everyone happy, never have anyone ever be upset) that are literally impossible. Not so helpful. Often a prime source of anxious thinking.

Let me repeat that last sentence: this is often a prime source of anxious thinking, and it is dysfunctional as crap.

Because of course EVERYBODY knows that ANY conflict is destructive, terrible, the very evidence of Satan on Earth – right? Conflict destroys relationships, poisons them, leaves nothing but hurt and damage in its wake.

Or does it? Maybe a better question is does it have to?

You see, we could have learned a different story about personal conflict. Some people (not many, sadly, but some) learn that fighting is often a way to get to difficult subjects, subjects that are scary or hard to talk about. They learn that it’s OK to be uncomfortable for a period of time while people are wrestling with these conversations.

They learn that sometimes the best thing we can do is just listen to the other person if they’re angry, reflect back what they’ve heard and let that person have their say.

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Wow. That’s a pretty different story. So different for some of us that it seems almost impossible. But either story could be true, depending on how we think about conflict, how we come to learn to manage conflict – both of those things.

In other words they learned to see people fighting in a relationship as at MOST a problem – and even a thing that can be useful to make relationships even healthier. We anxiety fighters, on the other hand, usually learn to see it as a crisis – and presto – it makes us anxious.

We’re forced to rethink how we think

What am I saying? I’m saying that anxiety is the result of specific programming in our thinking. If you’re a computer person you understand that programs are distinct from the computer – i.e., what the computer is (the hardware, the wires and chips and such) differs from the programs that run on that computer.

That’s our brains vs. our thinking. We’re not hardwired to think anxiously. We learn to think anxiously, about some collection of issues, and we can learn to see those issues differently/much less anxiously.

This isn’t to say that we are not hardwired to REACT with anxiety once we’re thinking anxiously. 🙂 Flight or Fight is very much hardwired into our systems, our brains and bodies. It better be! Real danger won’t give us time to ponder what to do.

But anxiety isn’t real danger, despite how it feels. And when Flight or Fight fires up in response to our anxious thinking it just makes things worse – it isn’t helping anything.

Thankfully we are not going to have to wait around for Flight or Fight to calm down. Flight or Fight isn’t the problem. Our thinking is the problem. Our mission becomes rewriting the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place.

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(And yes, I know, you’re thinking to yourself hey Erik, Flight or Fight IS the problem! I hate how I feel when I’m all revved up and fighting nausea or dry mouth or feeling panic or about to barf or feeling dizzy or whatever we’re dealing with when Flight or Fight gets going. But it is not the problem – it is a result of our anxious thinking. And of course we start whole trains of anxious thinking ABOUT Flight or Fight – but that’s still, simply, anxious thinking.)

To do that we have to dig into our thinking. We have to in a sense map how we think – identify where in our beliefs, attitudes and habits we treat whatever we treat as a crisis. This is WEIRD for most of us! We are rarely taught to sit down and sort out how we think about the world.

But think about the example I had above, the example about how to react to conflict. How do YOU think? What did your parents do? What did your church teach you about conflict? What did you learn in school? What did your friends think of conflict?

How does conflict make you feel? Because those feelings will point back, with practice on your part, to the thoughts that stand behind them, even if right now you’re not sure precisely why you dislike or even like conflict.

What words come out of your mouth when you think about engaging in a conflict with someone in your life? Even if you knew, for instance, that in this conflict you were the person in the right? That it was important, even very important, to have that conversation, let it turn into a fight, so you could get the issue out in the open and dealt with in a useful way?

That’s a simple, beginning example of mapping our thinking.

We are compelled to recreate/reinvent ourselves

What happens to us when we engage in this work and begin to get our arms around our anxious thinking. That sounds great and rational and pretty straightforward…

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Except it is often anything but. We tend to resist change, we wacky humans, and we really seem to resist changing how we see the world. That includes how we see ourselves and our place in that world. We like things to stay pretty stable/familiar when it comes to our “mental map.”

So if we learned, early and hard, that conflict is dangerous and bad and selfish and destructive, then we’re going to resist changing that map we have of conflict. We can know intellectually that it’s a good idea to rethink conflict, we can nod knowingly when we read or hear people say this –

And then the moment we start thinking about maybe, just maybe, risking someone else’s displeasure or annoyance or actual, outright anger – we flinch back like a hand from a hot skillet. It’s SCARY to think about someone getting upset, we say to ourselves.

We find reasons to avoid it because it just feels so damn uncomfortable. We may rationalize away WHY we are resisting, in this example, risking conflict with another person – it isn’t kind, it isn’t Christian to get angry, it will just cause problems – but at the heart of things we’re AFRAID.

So when we do get down to it – when we do bring up the difficult topic, risk another person’s displeasure – we will have to do a little reinventing of ourselves. We’ll have to try new things, take a chance or seven on making mistakes. We’ll have to experiment with how we do this new thing, approach things this new way.

Fear of Conflict is Just one Example

There are a LOT of other things we learn to think that come from our training. I’m going to discuss some more in future blog posts. All I’m asking you to do in THIS post is get your arms around the notion that your thinking didn’t come from nowhere, or that you are somehow “just” anxious.

You learned to think anxiously. You can learn to not think anxiously. It takes sweat, labor and some reinventing of who we are – but those are all things any of us can do. Scary? You bet? Life-changing? You have no idea…

Some words are fuzzy. We use them as if they had precise, clear definitions, but if we look at them a little closer it gets hard sometimes to explain what we mean – or even what something is.

One example might be the word “freedom”. We use the word a lot, but most of us are not clear what freedom precisely means from use to use, from user to user. Freedom could mean a complete lack of rules, boundaries or restrictions.

Or it could mean the capacity to move easily within a framework of restrictions – i.e., parameters that define a certain range of motion or activity. Or it could mean that someone is free BECAUSE they are also responsible for specific outcomes or duties.

Those are some pretty varied meanings – yet we use one word for all those meanings. The same thing could be said of motivation or drive, two words I hear a lot in this work of breaking the power of anxiety in our lives.

I usually hear the word used in a sentence like this: “Erik, I’d love to get serious about digging into my what if anxious thinking and facing down my Flight or Fight reactions, but I’m not really motivated right now. I just don’t have any drive. I think I’ll wait until I have some motivation before I face this work.”

Oops. We need to get clear on the definition of motivation and drive…

Let’s get out the Dictionary

Most of us have the notion that motivation is a mysterious inner force, a fund or well of energy or push that just is, like the sun or the rain. It comes and goes, it waxes and wanes, and it is more than anything else based in how we FEEL.

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Uh, no. That’s not motivation. Let’s go to the Oxford Dictionary. It says that motivation is “the reason or reasons one has for acting in a particular way.” Hmm. Reason. Not feeling. That’s pretty interesting. It implies that feelings don’t have a lot to do with motivation.

That’s a pretty serious reorientation for most of us. We have learned to see thinking like “I just don’t feel like doing this work” as an accurate way to assess our motivation, when how we feel has very little to do with whether we have REASONS to get up and tackle our fears.

This ties in very nicely to the notion that feelings are the result of thinking, and not the other way around. It pulls the curtain back on that illusion that says feelings just come out of nowhere, or that feelings stand independent of what we are experiencing in our thinking. Motivation isn’t emotional – it’s mental.

Which means that to create motivation we have to get clear on reasons to do something. Motivation comes from knowing what we want enough to go get it, regardless of how we feel. Like so much in life (healthy, actually-based-in-how-things-work life) we have to have the cart in FRONT of the horse for the process to work in the first place.

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OK. What about the word “drive”? You hear similar conversations around drive that you hear around motivation. “I’m not driven to do that right now.” “I lack drive.” “Some people seem so driven – I wish I had their drive.”

Driving Miss Daisy

Let’s go to Merriam-Webster for this definition: “to direct the movement of, to move in a specified manner or direction, to travel.” Here’s some more: “to carry on or through energetically, to set or keep in motion or operation.”

Wow. That’s not really what I expected to find when I first looked up the word drive. But isn’t it interesting to see how, again, the word has very little to do with feelings or emotion, and instead has everything to do with DOING and TAKING ACTION.

This made me think of something else we apply drive to – using a car or truck. The car or truck doesn’t drive us (although if Google has its way we could all easily wind up with vehicles that do the driving for us.) Nope, WE drive the car, we drive the truck, we direct the movement of that collection of steel, computer chips and rubber.

Motivation. Drive. These are both things that come from us making a decision to do something and then doing it. They are not based in feeling, they are based in thought that forms to action.

So that begs the question: what reasons would generate motivation and drive in us? Note that I’m not talking about generating any feelings here. I’m talking about reasons that would make it worth our while to lean in and do the hard work of changing thinking, rather than sitting around waiting for something to change on its own…

This is such a crucial thing to understand. Feelings don’t spring from a mysterious inner well. They are not fairies that sprinkle magic dust on us and presto! we’re having a feeling.

Ixnay on the airiesfay! Feelings come from our thinking. (Man, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve written that here I could get a week in Puerto Vallarta at the beach…)

Motivation 2

In fact drive and motivation are precisely how we can GET the feelings we’re sitting around waiting for, not the other way around.

What is my Motivation?

In younger days I was an actor (high school, some in college.) I loved it. At some level of my soul I’m a ham. One of the questions that an actor learns to ask when they are creating a character is what is that character’s motivation? Why are they doing or not doing in this particular scene of a play?

And doesn’t that make sense of the definition we’ve discussed in this blog post about motivation? Characters in stories take action because they have reasons to do so. They then both take action and have feelings.

You hear it all the time on the stage. “What is my motivation?” “Why is my character doing this thing?” We can use those same questions to help us motivate, drive ourselves to do the work we need to do.

So – what is your motivation? Why push against anxiety? Well, that seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? We don’t want to be afraid anymore! We don’t want to hand away any more of our lives to this stupid and maddening condition called anxiety! We want to feel happy and peaceful and NOT ANXIOUS.

OK. Sounds like a great set of motivations to me. They were my motivations as well when I waded into this battle with anxiety.

But Erik, you don’t seem to Understand – I’m AFRAID!

Ah, but I do understand! I understand that we too easily confuse feeling or lack of feeling, energy or lack of energy, with motivation and drive. They are not the same thing.

Because trust me, I had ZERO energy and ZERO passion for this work when I started. ALL I wanted to do was JUST NOT FEEL ANXIOUS. And this work meant that I had to both face down my anxiety and FEEL a LOT of anxiety to make any real progress.

Motivation 5

I said out loud a 100 times “but I don’t feel like doing this work. I don’t have any drive. Nothing seems important, nothing seems worth the effort.” That was my anxiety and my depression talking, and, combined with my believing that I had to FEEL like doing something before I did it, I stayed frozen, waiting for something to magically change in me so I could take action.

Here’s some big news: I slowly, haltingly, began to learn that nothing was going to change until I DROVE the BEHAVIORS of change in my life, in my daily activities. I began to learn in small baby steps that feelings and energy didn’t change until I DROVE change – in my thinking, in how I treated Flight or Fight, and in deciding that feelings and energy came from sustained action rather than some mysterious place in my soul.

This Car won’t Drive Itself (at least not yet)

Motivation and drive are not feelings. They are reasons. What are the reasons you have to break anxiety’s hold?

Would you like a real life?
Would you like to not be anxious all the time?
Would you enjoy getting out of that damn house and seeing the rest of the world?
Would you like to get a job, or volunteer someplace, or just be involved in life again?
Would you like to get more time with your kids, or spouse, or total strangers again?
Would you like to travel, see the planet?

There’s some GREAT motivations right there. Lots of things to drive towards, yes? This work isn’t about feeling like doing it first. It’s about doing the work and then seeing feelings and energy change.

That won’t happen overnight. And it can’t happen if we keep NOT doing the work. That specifically looks like this:

Taking action while still fiercely feeding what if stories
Flinching back from Flight or Fight sensations and emotions
Hanging on to old anger and self-abuse behaviors
Deciding that we must be fighting anything but anxiety – i.e., making our condition into a mystery we can’t solve

Motivation is reasons to act. Drive is moving towards those reasons, making them real in our lives. We don’t have to feel it first. In fact we can’t. Feelings will come later. All we need now is clarity and taking action.

Push 4

Flight or Fight is a sneaky thing. The name we give to this ancient self-protection mechanism sounds like it might focused on getting us moving – and indeed, if we’re faced down with real danger, that’s exactly what it often does.

But Flight or Fight might be sometimes more accurately labeled Flight or Fight… or Freeze. You know about baby deer when they feel danger, right? They freeze in place, hoping their little white spots keep them from whatever predator is hunting them. Well, it happens to us humans too. We can freeze in place.

That might not be a big deal if we didn’t STAY frozen. But as anxiety creeps into and begins to take over our lives we can stay more and more frozen – and that’s a problem if we want to get free of anxiety. We need to develop a focus for taking action – in multiple directions.

And I’m not just talking to chronic anxiety fighters. ANY area of our lives where we’ve developed the habit of freezing/hiding from what scares us will stay frozen – if we don’t shake free of that habit, that tendency to not make a move and deal with our fears.

Freezing 1

The Temptation to Freeze – and stay Frozen

It really comes down to this: we FEEL safer, too often, if we flinch back from our fears. We feel safer for two reasons and at two levels. First, if we flinch away and hide from the thinking that scares us (by avoiding the situation, by avoiding the conversation, by refusing to examine our own assumptions/beliefs/training, etc.)

Then we can, for a while, avoid the discomfort of challenging that anxious thinking. Second, if we run away from what Flight or Fight is doing in our bodies and feelings, then again, for a while, we feel less anxious – or even not anxious at all.

If the human race really, really understood this we’d be all but invincible! So much of what we run from isn’t dangerous, can’t hurt us – not unless we keep running. Worse, the damage that running does is SLOW – taking years and even decades to accumulate in our lives. We don’t see that we’re trading away our lives in the long term by running away from anxiety and discomfort in the short term.

This is the reason people’s lives get so small when they fight anxiety. Not seeing the answer is to face down the scary thinking and the reactive twitches of Flight or Fight they retreat, and keep retreating.

For a lot of people that means they don’t take on the challenges they need to get the lives they want. They explain it away. They say they didn’t really want the better job, the place they really wanted to live, the romance they had always hoped for, the LIFE they wanted to live. Maybe they only lock off that fear, and their lives are still decent, even good a lot of ways.

But they don’t get where they want to go. Worse, when the next thing that comes up that scares them, they run again. And again. Ever notice how often older people seem to be more and more anxious, more and more frightened, more and more unwilling to try new things or even risk discomfort?

Freezing 2

With those of us who fight chronic anxiety it’s simply more global, consuming more of our lives – and it probably started earlier for us. It isn’t one thing for us, it’s a lot of things, and we’ve turned running away into a lifestyle. More accurately we’ve turned FREEZING into a lifestyle. Rather than risk feeling anxiety we freeze.

If we freeze long enough guess what? We become agoraphobic. Agoraphobia is just an end-stage condition of chronic, unaddressed anxiety. This is GOOD news. Why the hell is this good news? Because it isn’t a permanent condition. No way Jose – this is a temporary situation brought on by – freezing. Running. Hiding.

Time to Climb out of the Freezer

If you’re fighting anxiety, whatever stage of anxiety you’re in (you’ve locked off one area of life, you’re avoiding just a couple of things, you’re fighting chronic anxiety, you’re utterly housebound and can’t even go into the garage) you can change your game. You have to develop a bias for action.

Let me be clear: a bias for action doesn’t look like the following things:

1) Running from treatment to treatment, doctor to doctor, program to program: Flight or Fight is a very all-or-nothing kinda creature. The opposite of freezing isn’t frenetic, frantic, flailing action. The opposite of freezing is turning to face our fears, developing some skill at it and learning that we are NOT in danger – however we feel.

But Flight or Fight says solve this fear NOW. And this opens the door to a lot of people racing from potential answer to potential answer, not finding what they want quickly enough, and then racing on to the next hopeful cure.

This is also why so many people find meds that work, to one degree or another, and then don’t do anything except keep taking those meds. No blame and no fault to them! It is SO much more interesting and much less scary to have a med that takes away our anxiety and our discomfort than it is to wade in and engage the work of correcting our anxious thinking in the first place.

This leads us to say things like “I’ve tried everything, but nothing works. My anxiety must be different, or special, or unique.” Ugh. Not true. But it FEELS true – it SEEMS true. But it isn’t. It’s just that we’re creating the right, useful bias for action that we need to beat this thing called anxiety.

Freezing 4

2) Bursts of anxious action, then running away again. Plenty of us get sick of anxiety, pick up the bat and start swinging, then decide that we “can’t do this” and put that bat right back down.

I know people that have been doing this for years and years. They are deeply frustrated, angry and shut down, and they just want it to be DONE. This is a nasty route because it can lead to despair, the conviction that there is no more fight left in us. Ugh again. Not good.

Because in fact there is fight left in us, any of us, if we’re still on the planet. Life wants us to LIVE.

So then what IS the right bias to action?

The Skinny on Not Freezing

1) Get clean and clear on the what if thinking that you’re freezing about/hiding from. Until you do you’re the prisoner of your reactive running away. This means that you have to stand still long enough to write, discuss and think about your specific fears.

No fun. Tedious as crap. Likely to drive you crazy for a while. But it is utterly essential in the work of breaking the habit of freezing. You need a clear, bullet-point statement of your specific fear(s).

It can’t be “I’m afraid of failure.” All anxiety is fear of failure, as Susan Jeffers pointed out decades ago. Too vague. It can’t be “I’m just scared all the time.” Thanks for playing, but when we say that we’re describing a symptom of our fearful thinking (Flight or Fight’s reactions) not the fearful thought itself.

Freezing 5

As you begin this work it might start with “I’m scared of being alone.” Good start. Then it might get clarified further into “I’m scared of being such a bad/selfish/evil person that nobody COULD love me.” And that might sharpen further into “I’m scared of ever saying no to anyone because they will hate me and I will wind up alone.”

2) The MOMENT we start to get some clarity on our specific fears we can begin to wrench them out of the habit of treating them like crises and start treating them as problems. (For examples see this post HERE.) Yeah, that’s scary too. That means that we have to continue to look at our fears long enough to see past the habit of freaking over them –

And instead see them as an issue to address, rather than a crisis to hide from. The fear of rejection is not solved by treating all rejection as the kiss of death. The fear of rejection is solved when we see rejection as, at worst, a problem to deal with, an experience that might be difficult, even hard, but not life or death.

Yes, Erik, you might say, but what about diabetes and cancer and car wrecks and housefires and charging elephants and economic problems and somebody stealing my car? Here’s my answer: did it kill you? Not does it FEEL like it’s killing, not maybe one day it MIGHT kill you – but did it kill you?

If the answer is no then it’s a problem. It might be a scary ass-problem, but it’s a problem. And here’s the really important part: if you keep treating this problem like a crisis then you’re going to keep running, keep freezing, and you’re going to get exactly nowhere in the mission of getting free of anxiety.

I often hear people who are wrestling with anxiety marvel at seeing people with chronic illness or injury or huge economic problems COPING with their situations. “How do they do that???” they ask in amazement, seeing such handling as nothing short of miraculous in the face of their own huge fears.

Tigers 7

The answer is those people are seeing their situations as problems, and they are treating them as problems. That doesn’t mean they are not afraid, not worried, not having doubts, not having bad days. But their fundamental orientation is one of problem-solving, not crisis fleeing/freezing.

3) We have to start aggressively discounting the frightened reactions of Flight or Fight, twitching in response to our fearful thinking. It’s very easy to treat those weird physical reactions and emotional storms as something serious. They are not.

This is the second nasty habit we have to break, and again, it means standing our ground in the face of those sensations and feelings. YES IT IS HARD. YES IT DOESN’T ALL GET DONE IN ONE PUSH. And yes, we’ll be more afraid one day and less afraid another. It’s a bumpy, anything-but-smooth-progression process.

Stop Freezing

Anxiety really, really tempts us to inaction. We need a bias for action. We need a HABIT of taking action. Not JUST action – thoughtful, fear-facing, standing our ground action, action that involves both mental work and physical work.

Feel free to break some dishes, or shout at the computer, or be mad and pout for a while. That’s OK too. None of this work means we shouldn’t feel things. We will feel – a lot, and sometimes overwhelmingly. That’s all legal. Those are just feelings.

Stop freezing. You can stop today. Your life, whatever you’ve locked away from yourself because of your what if thinking, is waiting just beyond your Comfort Zone.

Comfort Zone 2

Today’s post is about one of the things that makes most anxiety fighters pretty pissed off in their journey out of chronic anxiety (as well as just plain folk who are wrestling with a serious fear.) Here’s the thing: this journey to freedom from anxiety is anything but clean, neat and easy.

I’m not trying to scare you off or anything. 🙂 Seriously. One of the reasons I began this thinking and writing around overcoming anxiety was a half-formed notion that, by compiling the best and the most lucid thinking and tools around breaking anxiety’s hold, I might also find a less struggle-filled, less challenging road out.

Because it was me too! I wanted it to be easier, simpler, not nearly so frustrating! I think most of us want it to be neat and tidy, a linear progression at the very minimum, and, ideally, hell to heaven with a couple of motel stops.

I think in fact that we can make it significantly easier. But here’s something I’ve relearned in the last couple of years: it isn’t just the road. It’s also the people traveling on that road. Most of us we are going to make it messy for ourselves – because of our training, because of our unwillingness to steadily fight through the battles with Flight or Fight, because we just get bloody tired and want a damn break.

In other words our training and our own inclinations slow this process down and make it messier. We can, however, make it less tedious, less crazy-making if we can get a little clarity on why it’s messy, slow and hard, and with that knowledge in our pockets take some steps to diminish some of the tedium, some of the frustration, and make things happen a little faster.

Messy 1

Problem 1: we got set up to be Anxious Thinkers

I’m never comfortable with this conversation, but it has to be said – we learned to be anxious thinkers. (Standard disclaimer here: I’m not setting out to malign, trash or call nasty names when it comes to anyone’s family, school experience, church experience, etc.

t however remains true that this is a thinking problem. Given that this is a thinking issue, and that we have to LEARN how to think, it then follows that we learned to think anxiously.)

Be clear: nobody said to themselves “gee, I know, I’ll make this kid anxious as hell.” Of course they didn’t. But then it might be said that’s true for lots of our learning. Sure, some of what we learn is very consciously applied to us – how we should act in public, how we should use language, what we should care about, etc.

But then there’s some of the problem right there – we are learning all those things through the lens, the focus of the people that are trying to teach us these things. And those souls are themselves carrying thinking that has the potential to make us anxious. In fact a lot of THEM are thinking anxiously – and with the best of intentions (at least most of the time) they are passing that thinking on to us.

Why is this so important to stress in this blog post? Because we have to see, really have to get under, the truth that part of what holds us up, slows us down is deeply trained, old, out-of-conscious-thinking thinking.

Which means that we won’t just breeze into our brains and whisk away that tedious old anxious thinking. Nope, we’re going to have to get in there and do some work, face down what we consider fundamental, basic assumptions about the world if we’re going to unseat anxiety from its throne in our lives.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: brains are lazy. They want to expend the least energy possible to get the job done. (See my post HERE about the nature of habits and how that applies to thinking.) We develop a thinking routine, whatever it might be, and then we just set it running in our skulls, ready to pop up when we’ve told it to pop up.

Here’s an ugly example: stereotypes. We all do them. We have an experience or two and then, with our lazy brains, we categorize something or some kind of situation or some kind of person as this or that. Another name for this is prejudice (under some circumstances.)

All women are emotional. All black people are natural dancers. All Asian people are smart. All guys named Erik are nice guys. (Well, maybe that’s just me…)

Messy 4

Prejudice seems easy to think around when it’s somebody else, doesn’t it? But when WE have prejudices it doesn’t always seem quite so easy. We find ourselves rationalizing, defending our stereotypes. “Yes” we say, “but I’m not being prejudiced. In MY case I’m just telling you my experience…” prejudice, stereotyping, is one of the dark sides of the brain’s habit to make assumptions (another way in some respects to describe thinking habits.)

Little kids don’t just magically have prejudices, right? They learn them.

Sure, they might learn them from direct experience (and the assumptions they might make in those experiences) but way more often they learn them from the people around them.

Same thing for us anxiety fighters. So what does this mean for making the journey somewhat easier? We HAVE to get serious and build a little basic skill around a practice of introspection – i.e., examining our thinking, questioning our thinking, calling it out into the light and asking ourselves if this is useful, accurate or healthy thinking.

An Anxiety Example

Let’s say I assume that only people that are in a relationship with someone romantically are truly happy. Translation for the cheap seats: people who are alone CANNOT be happy. Too bad, so sad.

Wow. That has some potential to make us anxious, yes? Worse still, it’s running in the background. So let’s say further that at the moment I’m alone – not in a serious romantic relationship.

That means I CAN’T be happy. Worse still I don’t even really know, consciously, that I’m carrying this crock of you-know-what around with me like a stinky sock – nope, I’m just moving through my world, feeling anything from a nagging sense of discomfort and sadness all the way through swirling grief that my life is so damn miserable, obviously, because I’m alone…

Messy 2

And of course there are triggers all around us. Couples holding hands, commercials during our favorite TV show for diamond engagement rings, invitations to other people’s weddings or anniversaries, you name it. We feel sad, depressed, flawed, unlovable, you name it. And guess where all those feelings are coming from?

Our brain’s thinking that happiness is impossible solo. This isn’t limited to discussions about happiness. We could also decide at some point, based on our thinking, that we’re not capable of taking care of ourselves. So forget happiness – now we’re talking about SURVIVAL being threatened if we’re alone.

Oops. There’s some room for anxious thinking there, yes? This is one of the reasons our fight with anxiety isn’t the smooth sailing we’d like it to be. Our thinking won’t just go quietly when confronted by our need to change. It’s become a habit, and habits need energy, clarity and practice to change.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Problem 2: We don’t like being Scared

I know, that’s huge news, right? 🙂 It’s all very well and good for someone to talk about the process for confronting our anxious thoughts, for dealing with the reactions of Flight or Fight, but when we start having those anxious feelings, having our body do weird things that scare us (racing heart, sweaty all over, feeling cold, mouths going dry, knees knocking, vision getting blurry, etc.) then it’s a different story…

It’s tedious as crap, but this is easily one of the biggest reasons we run from this work with our anxiety. (See the posts HERE and HERE for the most common reasons we avoid this work.) But it isn’t that we just avoid the work. We make it HARDER to get the work done because we’re so tempted to flinch back from the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight.

Messy 6

We learned to do that too – only mostly in this case because we had no flippin’ idea what in the hell was going on when it first starting happening to us. We have to start writing new habits, and those begin with new habits of thought.

Your heart is racing. OK. Crisis or problem? Yes, yes, it FEELS like a crisis – I get it. Been there did that. Or maybe it’s that terrible nausea sensation – like you’re going to hurl right now – accompanied by a profound sense of despair. Or it could be that numb feeling in your hands or all over your body and a sense of being trapped. Lots of combinations here.

NONE OF THEM ARE DANGEROUS. We can’t just tell ourselves that and expect it to stop feeling scary. We have to confront the thinking and confront the Flight or Fight reactions that will come along when we start pushing back on our fear.

Those sensations and feelings are going to surface again and again, both because we’re confronting scary thinking AND we’ve learned to see those sensations and feelings AS dangerous. I know I’ve written about this a lot in this blog. It bears repeating.

There are an enormous number of people charging through the world right now who are significantly slowed down because they just don’t want to confront Flight or Fight’s warning signals. (I’m not even talking about the millions and millions of people who have never STARTED the work to get free of anxiety for the exact same reason.)

They want SO MUCH to be free – but it’s just so stinkin’ frustrating, scary and tedious to have to experience Flight or Fight pushing back on us SO HARD. Here’s the good news: it doesn’t do this forever. It does ease off. Why?

It eases off when we start changing our thinking – both converting our old crisis thinking to problem thinking (which stops Flight or Fight from firing off in the first place) and when we stop making Flight or Fight a crisis. We go from “oh my God not that sensation/feeling!” to “oh yeah, those tiresome sensations/feelings again.” Practice, time and steady work takes us there – but only if we’re changing our thinking, doing the work.

Messy 3

Problem 3: We get Damn Tired

There’s one more reason that this work slows down/stalls for us. It’s exhausting. It takes a lot of energy. We forget that our brains use a lot of energy – as much as 20% or more of the body’s total energy output – and brain work is real work. Do enough of it and you are going to be TIRED.

We’re doing multiple things when we face down our fears. We are confronting old, scary thinking. We are learning a habit of self-reflection and a comfort with asking ourselves hard questions.

We are fighting the temptation to flinch back from our body’s reactions to our what if thinking. We are having to remind ourselves again and again that we’re OK, that we’re not in crisis, that we’re not going to die.

And we’re still trying to have some kind of life – i.e., get stuff done, eat sometimes, go the store, hassle with the bank, maybe get work done, etc. We give away a lot when we fight anxiety! It’s not a picnic energy-wise! 🙂

Lots of us have a funny story about this energy cost. Anxiety fighters in general wrestle with insanely high standards of personal performance (one of the prime sources of anxious thinking.) REAL work should be something like making dinner for 20 people, remodel the extra room and cure cancer, all while hardly breaking a sweat.

THIS can’t be real work, can it? We don’t really produce or create anything when we’re doing this work, right? WRONG. We are literally rebuilding our thinking from the ground up. We are facing down tigers (even if only conjured in our thinking) again and again and again. We’re learning whole new ways of living and thinking and reacting.

Not small stuff. Energy-draining stuff. And of course life keeps coming at us. (Not very nice of life sometimes, but such is life.) Most of us don’t get to go to Aruba to overcome anxiety. (Hey, there’s an idea – I should get someone to fund a Fear Mastery Center in Aruba… any takers?) 🙂

Depression 3

So we are going to get tired, and being tired we’re going to slow down some days.

Finally we NEED to take breaks in this work. We can’t do it 24/7. We have to step back, regroup, catch our breath. Nobody does anything all day every day. Taking breaks (a, day, a few days, a week) can sometimes be when what we’re learning solidifies, becomes the new thinking that blots out the old thinking, the new habit that replaces the old habit.

This Work is Messy and Not a Straight-line Progression

We can stop anxiety from ruling our lives. To do that we have to be clear-eyed about how the process works and give it the time it takes. As I’ve said here before it took us years and years, decades for most of us, to get where we are, bogged down in chronic anxiety. It will take a little time to get out.

Not years and decades – but months of steady work. Well, when I say steady, I mean more or less steady. With lots of bumps, and some setbacks, and some relearning what we think we already know, and some self-doubt, and some victories, and some more bumps… you get it. 🙂

Embrace the mess, my friends. It’s a mess worthy of making. At the end of all this work is a life that isn’t ruled by anxiety. And that’s worth all the hassle and mess.

Messy 5

We who fight anxiety (and who have become aware of the fearful thinking that lies at the core of anxiety) find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. (Why do dilemmas have horns? Are there any pictures of horned dilemmas?) The dilemma is this: we FEEL very anxious, very afraid, and we have learned/taught ourselves over time that we should RUN from how this crap feels.

BUT if we run we only retreat more and more from our lives, more and more from everything that scares us – and at the end of that run lies a wall. So we KNOW we need to push back on our fears, but when we do it is SO SCARY…

If we’re not careful we can slide into a pattern of pushing on our fears, then running away, pushing on our fears, then running away – but neglecting to deal with the source of all that anxiety, our what if thinking. In other words all the pushing in the WORLD won’t do most of us much good unless we get to the heart of the problem. We have to shut down what if thinking.

Let’s talk about how.

We are NOT obligated to think about our Worries – even though it feels like we are…

Action 1

Let’s understand something fundamental about Anxiety – it’s only composed of two elements. Yes, that’s right, just two things. 1. What if thinking, 2. Flight or Fight. That’s it. Yup, nothing more complicated than that.

Here’s the rub: Flight or Fight, once it is fired up, has one mission – GET US OUT OF DANGER. One of the ways it is trying desperately to do that is to find a SOLUTION to our current “crisis.” It won’t stop by itself. It hears you screaming “Oh My Gosh I’m scared of (fill in the blank)” and it says “Sir Yes Sir! Looking for a solution now Sir!”

And off it charges, frantically trying to “solve” whatever thing we’ve blown up into a crisis in our thinking. THIS is the reason we chew over our fears over and over again, reviewing and rehashing and rehearsing and replaying our frightened thinking scenarios in our busy skulls… for nothing, 99.9% of the time.

What does this mean? It means that we have to put the brakes on all that frantic Flight or Fight Solving Stuff. Because (as you know, as a reader of this fine blog) YOU CAN’T SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE A CRISIS. It doesn’t matter how much it FEELS like you’re doing something, or how much it FEELS like you SHOULD worry about whatever it is you’ve got locked in your jaws at the moment.

You can’t get there from here. So the practice we have to engage is shutting down that thinking.

When I say shut down I mean acknowledge that this litany, this mad babbling mental effort is happening, then work to move our thinking to other things. Sounds like I’m saying this is easy?

It isn’t. It is damn hard at the start. We become very, very habituated to just defaulting to our thinking, especially our anxious thinking. Worse, Flight or Fight is screaming NO, let me solve this, we’re clearly about to get eaten alive, I can handle this! Except it can’t. It didn’t develop for this kind of problem at all. It developed for lions, and rockslides, and guys with spears coming at us – stuff like that.

Action 5

Nope, we’re best served by beginning the hard but necessary practice of shutting down that thinking. That doesn’t mean we can turn it off like a faucet, or if we practice for 5 days and nothing happens we suck and we should give up. It means that we start and begin to grow a practice of seeing the anxious thinking, then focusing on something else.

We won’t do this well right away. We’ll be tempted back again and again by F or F and the sheer momentum of our anxious thinking histories. We’ll get mad and scared and start obsessing over all our fears again and again. We’ll be pissed off because we’re failing. Etc. Etc. Etc. Doesn’t change the fact that over time, with steady practice, we can begin to divert our thinking away.

It doesn’t have to be anything huge. Focus on making a meal, or planning the week (even when your brain is saying holy crap we can’t plan the week, our lives our doomed, we have to DO SOMETHING about our anxious thinking, etc.) Focus on finishing a project you started a long time ago. Practice doing something you haven’t done before. Help a friend, even if just over the phone. Read a new book, practicing on letting the words pull you away from your anxious thoughts. It is much more the slow, halting, not-so-good-at-the-start practice that is important here.

You WILL feel scared while you’re doing this. No way around that. The habits of years of obsessing over your fears won’t just blow away in the wind because you want them too. But the will begin to erode and change over time, under pressure from your practice.

In other words you’re REALLY, REALLY practicing shaking loose of crisis thinking.

It can’t happen fast. It will be hard. But it is essential, and you can do it.

Action 3

One essential piece of this work is, in the acknowledging that you’re doing anxious thinking, that you practice staying clear that however scary this thinking is it is only a problem. Maybe a big problem, maybe something that will need your attention AS a problem – but still, not a crisis.

Diversions are LEGAL

In the section you just read I discussed the practicing of pulling our thinking to other thinking. A variation of that is allowing ourselves to be diverted by something that consumes our attention, or at least a big part of our attention. It can be almost anything.

It can be as simple as a big, involved cleaning project around the house. It can be getting lost in preparing for an event of some kind. It can be a consuming video game – one that requires some thought and effort and attention. It can be an engrossing TV show or movie. It can be, weirdly enough, working to help other people. It can be mindless physical exercise.

The mission here is to simply 1) allow ourselves to get pulled into other, attention-demanding activities that require a significant part of our focus and 2) come to realize that, because we do get distracted, that our thinking really is the problem with our anxiety.

Yes, this means that you’ll have a hard time staying in the diverting activity. Yes, it means that old habits will still be screaming at you to notice the CRISIS and give ALL YOUR ENERGY to solving this faux disaster in the making. And you’ll get caught up in that – which is when you dive back into the diversion.

Action 4

More practice. That’s what all this is doing. It doesn’t mean that you need to have diversions 24/7. This is not an effort to avoid feeling afraid, or even avoid in some ongoing way your anxious thinking. Avoiding our fearful thinking and allowing it to grow and take over our lives is how we got in the mess in the first place!

No, we’re not avoiding. We’re practicing taking charge of our thinking.

This will mean we will have anxiety. It means that your brain and Flight or Fight will FREAK that you’re NOT focusing on your anxious thinking all the time. Don’t you understand, they will scream at you! You HAVE to worry! That’s how you’ll “solve” your crises, that’s how you’ll avoid the terrible fate that awaits you…

Forgive my directness, but bullshit. We can’t solve a damn thing by obsessing over our what if thinking, or running away from Flight or Fight when it scares us trying so hard to make us obsess over it.

So far we have

1) Deliberate refocusing
2) Diversions that work to pull our attention

What else can we do in this work to NOT avoid, but to instead take control of our thinking?

See this Work as small steps, daily

Nobody who fights anxiety wants the fight to take much time. Most of us want this crap done YESTERDAY. Which makes sense. As I’ve said before in this blog we’ve been battling this junk for years and decades – to think of it going on for more weeks and months before it’s truly shut down seems terrible and unfair.

Control thinking 4

But (as I’ve also pointed out here before) this is a set of skills, not a single massive effort done in an afternoon. We have to get clear in our thinking that we’re rebuilding our thinking, doing thinking in a new way. We’re not going to instantly master these skills.

Think on this hard for a moment: we learned, at the feet of our parents, siblings, community, to see big pieces of our world as potential CRISIS. We learned that early and hard, and we learned that to see the world in this way was to be SAFE.

We (and they) were wrong. Or, more accurately, while it may have kept us “safe” in the sense that we didn’t get in as much trouble with those people, or they approved of us more, or (terribly) even kept us from physical or emotional abuse to some degree, none of that applies now, here in our present. Seeing big swathes of our experience as being potentially crisis – something that is terrible, will destroy us, etc. – is both fundamentally wrong and fundamentally distorted.

This deeply trained set of thinking habits won’t just shift on a dime. Holy crap, how could it? But it will move across time, with practice, steady effort, setbacks, frustration and getting up again after we’ve “fallen.” Small moves, daily practice, challenging the crisis in our thinking, seeing through it to the problems (at most) that are really there – that’s the way we’ll build new habits of thought.

Changing Thinking while taking Action – that’s the way out

I’ve discussed 3 things we need to do in our thinking while pushing back on our fears that are essential to shaking loose from the burden of anxiety. Deliberate practice at changing the focus of our thinking, diversion to help pull our thinking away from obsessive crisis thinking and remembering that we do this work in small pieces, daily – all of these will, across time, with practice, disrupt and rewrite the anxious thinking that consumes us.

Action 6

Here’s a metaphor for you: when we’re pinned by anxiety in our lives we’re like people in a cage. We can throw ourselves against the bars, again and again, screaming to be let out – but the bars don’t care, and they won’t move just because we’re fighting like hell to get out. Nope, our mission is to pick the damn lock on the door. 🙂

Picking the lock will take time. But we have the lockpicks, we have hands, we just have to practice until we get good at lockpicking. We will be frustrated, we will even weep for sheer annoyance at the slowness of our journey out – but every day, every effort at changing our thinking AND pushing our Comfort Zone boundaries, is building skill, reorienting our focus and getting us closer to breaking the hold of anxiety in our lives.

ACtion 7

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