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You know who’s brilliant at looking backwards in time? Anxiety fighters. We are remarkable in our ability to get lost in grief, regret and pointless review of earlier days, earlier self-perceived failings and mistakes and not “getting it right.”

We who battle anxiety by definition are lost in the future too much of the time, no doubt. That’s the heart and soul of anxiety. But we can get lost in the future by getting consumed by the past and what did or didn’t happen. (What? How does that work? Stay with me – I’ll explain myself in a bit.)

To wage this battle against anxiety effectively we have to do something that always makes me laugh (and shake my head, remembering my own long history of doing this regret thing) when I hear my friend Sam say the following truth: “We have to give up hope for a better past.”

That’s the mission of today’s blog post: getting our heads out of the past is essential to getting free of anxiety. We can’t fight anxiety in the future OR the past (although, in truth, it is always and only EVER about the future.) We can only fight it here in the present.

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Looking over our Shoulder all the Time gives you a Stiff Neck…

One of the gifts of being human is that we remember stuff. We remember our names, where we live, what we did 4 weeks ago that was fun, why we shouldn’t touch a hot stove, cool stuff like that. It is sometimes great that we remember things.

Remembering things is essential to learning. There have been people who have taken brain injuries of one kind or another who literally cannot remember anything long enough to retain it – and as a result they cannot learn. Remembering is good because it can lead to learning. (Note that I said CAN – other things come into play, which we’ll get to in a minute – but it doesn’t have to drive learning.)

On the other hand one of the big challenges of being human is that we remember stuff – stuff we would rather not remember. We remember mistakes, failings, angry conversations, hurts, abuses, dangerous situations, scary situations. If we are not careful we can get lost in remembering, over and over.

We can get stuck in the past. This can in turn feed issues like lingering regret, on-going grief, sustained anger, the fear of loss, and yes, anxiety. We can get stuck in a feedback loop of, at least in part, our own creating. We review the past, we pore over our mistakes and stumbles, we do mea culpa (or rage against the injustice, or whatever we’re thinking about the past), and that in turn makes us feel all the feelings I just listed – and we start the merry-go-round up again.

All of this getting stuck in the past can be summarized by saying we are scared of what that past means for our future. We are scared of what it meant then, no doubt – but more importantly we’re scared of what it means for the future. Yeah – the future.

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All anxiety is about avoiding danger – real, or imagined. If we think that something in our past means something for our future, and that thing is scary, then we’re going to start treating it as a crisis.

Examples of how we can let the Past Scare us about the Future

Let’s say we went through, in the past, a really crappy relationship. We fell for the wrong person, or that person went off the rails, or whatever the problem was the relationship ended badly. We were pretty hurt, pretty damaged by the whole experience.

More importantly, it scared us. We were left doubting our ability to DO relationship in healthy ways. We began to speculate, using those two, terrible words: what if. What if I’m unable to have a healthy relationship? What if it is ME that makes it so hard? What if I just can’t find someone who I can make a life with EVER?

It feels like we’re stuck in the past. And we are. But we’re not really worrying about the past. We’re worrying about the future. And in our worry we’re treating that hypothetical, always-alone, never-find-love-again as a crisis – and that of course is firing up Flight or Fight, which feeds the anxiety and creates a wonderful feedback loop…

And presto, we’re anxious.

Or let’s say we suffered some terrible trauma in our earlier days. Maybe it was a bad car accident. Maybe somebody attacked us physically. Maybe we were physically abused. Maybe we got sick, or had a scary hospital experience. (Ugh. All terrible things to have to endure.) No question that anybody would have to do some recovering and healing from such experiences.

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It feels like we’re pinned by those bad experiences. We keep reliving them, or running away from them, or both. But there’s a problem with that thinking: the event is already behind us. Regardless of the trauma experienced, regardless of what happened, it is DONE.

I am not, in a thousand years, trying to say that we should “just get over it” or pretend somehow that it didn’t happen. Far from it. I’m saying that in the normal course of mental, physical and emotional healing we would normally grieve, process and then move on.

But when we start making it a crisis that we hang onto we are really worrying about the future. And that’s where we get in trouble. Having a bad experience in the PAST doesn’t mean that we’re forever chained to that past!

Were we emotionally and mentally hit (and scarred) by that experience? That’s not a small thing. I’m not saying that we didn’t experience trauma. But it is what we DO with that trauma moving forward that is crucial to breaking anxiety’s hold. Something that is done is DONE. It is only a burden to us if we carry it forward.

And the way we carry it forward is being afraid of it as if it was going to happen again. We don’t have to be conscious of that fear/assumption to have it rule (and ruin) our lives in the present. We can simply flinch away from the terrible memories, feelings, experiences to have them wreak havoc in our current life.

I’m not claiming that this is easy work. Any “what if?” thought can grow to giant proportions if we feed it over time.

So what do we DO about past trauma that is making a mess of our present?

My first recommendation is to find a good therapist. I’m not talking about an MD here. I’m talking about someone who is trained to deal with trauma and even PTSD. Yes, past trauma, even for people that have never been to war or caught in a firefight can be labeled PTSD.

It is in fact my argument that PTSD is just a very extreme form of what if thinking linked to a past traumatic event that we’re projecting into our future. Therapy, effective therapy, is often vital to that work. Get somebody who will both listen to you and help you see that the past is in fact the past, whatever happened – and that your mission moving forward is to get into the present, working to build the kind of life you want.

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My second recommendation is to get clean on precisely what you are what if thinking about. Depending on the intensity of the issue (a bad accident or hospital experience, for example, or a physical assault) it might be better to identify those what if assumptions WITH a therapist.

It is also however work that may be possible to do with journaling, a coach or a close friend/family member that we can drop our shields with and do some working through about. All anxiety comes down to what if thinking (anxiety that isn’t induced by, say, 4 café grandes from Starbucks.) Certainly doing both can only advance our cause.

My third recommendation (and related to number two) is to get clear what our expectations were and are about our life – what SHOULD have happened, what we SHOULD have experienced, what we SHOULD be able to do, etc. We can get stuck in what if thinking in part when we are holding onto old expectations, old rules, old assumptions about how life should or shouldn’t work…

This is emotional and difficult work. It will, for a while, ramp up Flight or Fight in our bodies and feelings. It will ruffle our feathers and make us scratchy as hell. We won’t do it all at once. We will flinch back some more and get mad and sad and frustrated.

But letting go of the past is one of the most healthy things we can do for ourselves, and especially a past that we are carrying with us into our present. The past is done, however much we regret it, however much we were hurt in it.

Today is today. And the future, as long as we’re here, stretches before us. Isn’t it time to stop paying rent on the past?

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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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I love good story-telling. I’m a big TV and film watcher (a little picky, but the stuff I love, I love.) Yes, I watch Game of Thrones, and Teen Wolf, and Star Trek, and the Night Shift. I have been a fan in the past of Law and Order, and ER, and Friends. The movies I treasure are too numerous to mention…

But as much as I love a good story I’m always reminded that even the best of stories (with the possible exception of Game of Thrones, which almost goes too far in the opposite direction) leaves out a lot of the slow, frustrating, tedious times that also make up any real story.

You know what I mean. A young couple meets, falls in love, goes through some adventures, maybe doubts their relationship once or twice, then it’s the final scene, love triumphs and the credits roll. Ta da!

Not usually how it works in real life. Makes for good, speedy story-telling, but it doesn’t do justice to how a developmental process actually rolls. That young couple will have some fights, some miscommunications, some friends interfering in their new-found relationship. They will have financial challenges, be pulled in different directions, have to reconcile things they don’t like about each other, etc.

The same is true of overcoming anxiety. We read the books, we go to the therapist, we learn some techniques – and then a lot of us expect that we’ll sail a clear path to freedom. (Or, at least, we hope like hell that there will be a relatively painless path to freedom.)

Thank you for playing, but no – that isn’t how this goes. NO question there will be growth, and victories, better days, clearer thinking, better understanding. Fear will diminish and there will be progress.

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But there will also be setbacks. There will be times we stall out and can’t seem to make any headway. We will seem to reach plateaus and only see frustrating sameness on the near horizon.

That’s normal. That’s part of this getting smarter/wiser/more skillful process. Let’s talk about it –

Setbacks

Let’s first of all question this word setback. It sounds like something from sports, although it’s actually a word from architecture (of all things.) The primary common definition however is what most of us think it means – “a problem that makes progress more difficult or success less likely.”

That is certainly what it can feel like when things suddenly seem like we haven’t learned anything! We think we’re making progress and then we wake up one morning and it is like we haven’t learned a damn thing. Skills seem absent, motivation seems in the toilet, we’re scared and confused and it FEELS like we’ve lost something.

We haven’t lost anything. Let me repeat that: we haven’t lost a dang thing. Learning is learning. Skills are skills. Sure, if we sat on our hands for years and didn’t do anything we might see skills atrophy, get rusty from disuse. But just ask anybody who ever learned to ride a bike and then didn’t ride a bike for a long time if they regained their bike-riding skills when they got back up on a bike –

Because they did. Same thing for the skills needed to deal with anxiety. Sure, it isn’t fun. And I’m going to explain in a minute what setbacks actually are. But it isn’t about losing anything.

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So, what ARE setbacks?

Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your Seat Belts

ANYONE who is fighting their way up and out of anxiety runs into several standard “bumps” in the road. I’ve only realized recently that not much has been written about these bumps (at least not that I’ve found) so it’s time to shed some light on the subject.

One thing that will bring on a setback is several of our fears coming at us at once. We’ve been dealing with our fears, we’re getting some skill at unpacking, we’re starting to feel the burn of exercise well-done, and then bam! We get hit by what feels like all of our fears at once.

In other words we get overwhelmed. We were OK with one fear, or maybe two, but here’s eleven – let’s see how you do now! 🙂 Of course we’re going to try, reflexively, to return to old habits of anxiety management. And there’s the rub – we’re just defaulting to old ways of anxiety coping.

Really listen to that last piece: we are reverting to old habits of anxiety management in the presence of temporary overwhelm.

We’re not losing what we’ve learned. We’re not “backsliding.” We’re not stupid, we’re not failing, we’re not fragile creatures made of spun glass – we’re just in a learning curve, just building some skills, and we’re not where we’d like to be just yet. Perhaps most importantly IT ISN’T A CRISIS. It’s just anxiety banging on our doors again.

What else can trigger a “setback”? In my experience physical debilitation – i.e., getting sick, dealing with a physical injury, either one – can put us off our game. We forget that our minds and our bodies are tied together – and weakness in one can bring challenges in the other, either direction. So we’re not at our best when we’re sick or injured – and it will be easier to again go back to old habits.

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This can also be set up by simply a period of sustained lack of decent sleep. Most people here in the 21st century have a very skewed view of sleep and our bodies’ needs. We act as if we were machines that can be driven hard, day after day, and not need to take ourselves off the highway for a rest stop. Anxiety can also impact our sleep quality. In any event we NEED to gear back and get quality rest, to the extent we can.

And if we don’t we can lose track of our developing skills. When I say lose track I don’t mean lose completely. I simply mean that we are still solidifying our skills, and with the drains of illness, injury or lack of sleep, at this point in the learning curve, we get distracted and default, again, to old anxiety habits of thought and reaction.

The third way I’ve noticed that we get a little sideways in our skill-building is falling back into the habit of self-abuse and self-criticism – self-hating behaviors. (See the posts that start HERE around a detailed discussion of the impact of learned self-hatred on our anxious thinking and what to do about it.)

We, the solid majority of us, learned that the way to make progress or measure up was to hammer on ourselves as a form of self-motivation. I don’t know that it ever works well for most of us, but it sure as hell doesn’t do much for sustained motivation, and it’s terrible when it comes to self-confidence, self-encouragement and self-care.

The worst part is most of us have no idea we’ve defaulted back to that crappy, self-abusive recrimination that we learned to do so well in an earlier time in our lives. Before we know it we’re yelling at ourselves, cursing our weakness, treating ourselves like wayward children. And none of that does much for our skill-building at converting anxious thinking to problem thinking.

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This is again, simply, time to practice getting our thinking clear – in this case, recognizing and shutting down the self-critical voice that ISN’T helping, getting our thinking clean and getting back to framing problems as problems, not failures or character flaws.

Need to be focused on changing thinking – but succumb to the temptation to trying, futilely, to controlling Flight or Fight by force of will.

Stalls/Plateaus

Where I grew up (Las Vegas) there are these interesting features in the desert landscape called mesas. They are these flat-topped little hills or mountains. I don’t understand all the geology behind them, but they are pretty great if you like to hike. You laboring up this steep hillside and then suddenly you’re on this flat, elevated place where you can see for miles around. And you can REST from the climb too.

Mesas are not a bad metaphor for what happens to us sometimes in our journey up and out of anxiety. There’s no question that we want to climb and be DONE with this work. It can get so urgent for us that ANY delay in our progress MUST mean we are doing something wrong, we’re screwing up, oh my gosh what am I going to do, etc.

But every ascent, every journey, is going to have slow times and plateaus. Every hiker knows that you can’t ALWAYS be heading uphill, ALWAYS making the steep ascent. Sometimes you have to walk level ground, or even go downhill a little ways, to continue the climb.

Same thing applies to any skill acquisition we’re doing. Skills need time to settle into our brains and bodies. Skills are, in some respects, collections of habits, and habits take time to acquire/get fixed in our behavior. And, as I’ve just discussed, old habits sometimes try to assert themselves. There’s practice time in dealing with securing new skills over old skills.

There’s also learning capacity too. Sometimes we just need some time given all we’re learning AND what’s happening in the rest of our lives.

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Sure, we’d like things to move faster. No question. But some processes can’t be rushed. Skill-building can be focused on and helped along, but for the most part it will take time, along with all that effort, to get where we want to go.

Setbacks, Stalls and Plateaus – part of the Work

Maybe the most important thing to take away from this blog post is that there is nothing to be afraid of when we find ourselves not making the forward progress we’re so impatient for every minute of the day. This, too, is not a crisis. It’s just part of the learning curve.

And these periods of less-than-rapid growth ARE helping us grow. You might even say these times are essential to help us really get this work in our bones.

I’ve had a slow-growing understanding creeping up on me over the last five years of writing this blog. I’m beginning to see the conjunction of anxiety and immature, childish thinking. Those are fighting words – but give me a chance to explain what I mean when I say immature and childish.

All I’m saying is that anxious “what if?” thinking at the core is thinking we acquired in our youth, thinking that was done from a child’s perspective, an immature perspective, and then frozen in place as we moved into adulthood. Because make no mistake – we ALL become grown-ups, living grown-up lives and doing grown-up things.

But in the midst of that grown-up life is lodged some unhealthy and life-draining childish thinking – anxious thinking. Today’s post starts a review of that child-like thinking, the major fears that grow out of that thinking and some discussion about what we can do to help “grow up” that thinking into healthy, adult ways of dealing with our world.

How Children Think

Kids are great. One of the things that will always make me grin or laugh is seeing children out in the world learning about the world. Kids are curious creatures – as in they are very curious about the world around them. They tend to explore, to ask a lot of questions, try things and make mistakes, fall down and get up again (sometimes after some tears.)

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Part of what it means to be a child is to NOT KNOW EVERYTHING YET. Sure, that seems obvious, but as adults we forget that we didn’t always think the way we think now. We forget that we had to LEARN to understand the world, make sense of how things worked. We also forget that it was often other people that were telling us this information.

Oops. There’s a little bit of a problem with that sometimes. Sometimes other people (parents, siblings, teachers, neighbors, peers) don’t always have the best take or information on the world around us. Sometimes they lead us astray. It doesn’t have to be deliberate. They themselves learned what they know from other people – who themselves didn’t really have the best information.

There’s another little problem with learning about the world. Sometimes, based on less-than-useful information, we take away the wrong lessons about the world. We draw the wrong conclusions, laying down in our thinking incorrect or crippling assumptions about the world based on those experiences.

Combine these two issues – not the best information/understanding about the world, and then basing our experiences in the world to some extent on that not great information, and guess what? We can develop a distorted view of ourselves and the world around us. And so anxiety is born…

One Example of Childish Thinking

(Notice that I use the world “childish” in the above sentence. I do that because I want to be clear that not all child-like thinking is necessarily bad or dysfunctional. I’ll use the phrase “child-like” to describe thinking that is young, hopeful, inquisitive – the best of childhood. I’ll use the phrase “childish” to describe the not-so-useful kind of thinking.)

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So how does childish thinking connect to anxious thinking? One example is the fear of being alone. There’s no way I can do justice to this topic in a single blog post, but in my experience one of the great chronic anxiety fighter fears is this one.

The what if questions around this fear are legion: what if I grow old alone? What if I never find love? What if my husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend die or leave me? What if other people think I’m pathetic for being alone? What if my being alone means there is something wrong with me? What if I’m fundamentally unlikeable, or even unlovable?

Isn’t it interesting to hear these questions as if a child is asking them? Children are naturally worried about being left alone. We are social creatures. We want to feel needed, loved, wanted. We also to some extent build our understanding of ourselves, how we see ourselves, through the eyes of other people.

If we learn that love is provisional – i.e., that love is based on being “good enough”, or following a host of rules, or even just managing some adult’s mood and temper to stay safe – then we can become very anxious about our ability to find and keep love, friendship, family.

We can also learn to be afraid of how we FEEL when we’re alone – whether we’re fighting anxiety responses like Flight or Fight, or just feeling sad or lost without other people around us. The bottom line is that we’ve made a CRISIS out of being alone, turning alone into terrible, and forever.

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Here’s the thing: alone isn’t a crisis. It isn’t always fun, but it isn’t the end and death. It is one condition, during times in our lives, of being human. Sometimes we have more people in our lives, and sometimes less. Sometimes friends leave, move away, die. Sometimes relationships come to an end. People change, situations change. All of that is just part of being alive.

But by the same token NEW people show up in our lives. We build new relationships. We go on to the next part of our lives.

And it isn’t just about having people around. There is a very adult need to learn to be comfortable with ourselves, by ourselves, in our own skin. We, as we grow mentally and emotionally, that we NEED time alone, time away from other people. We need time to think our thoughts, have our feelings, and NOT have to account for other people now and again.

Lots of people that will never be diagnosed as fighting chronic anxiety are petrified of being alone – because they, too, learned to be afraid of alone early in their experience. This is a pretty common fear.

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In a very real way our fear of being alone is the fear of a child, afraid that the parents are not coming back from the store, or from the trip away from home. It is thinking frozen in time from a much earlier time in our lives. It is however thinking that we can change, update, and in so doing stop scaring ourselves with bogey-man stories of the terror of being alone…

What if I can’t take care of myself?

Here’s another classic anxiety fighter fear, and one that is related to the fear of being alone. You’ll recognize the what ifs that show up in this thinking –

What if I can’t support myself? What if I run out of money? What if I can’t find more work? What if I get sick and never get better? What if I run into a situation I can’t handle? What if I fail at self-care?

There’s a LOT of solid psychological thinking around the issues that connect with children being left on their own too soon, or even if they are not abandoned but develop a sense that they can’t trust their caregivers – can’t depend on them for stable and consistent care.

As kids we NEED to have the sense that we can depend on those wacky adults to take care of us – we’re not ready yet. But here’s the rub: we’re not little kids anymore. We’re grown-ups. I didn’t say we’re perfectly competent or without concerns. At the same time we’re ALREADY managing our lives as grown-ups…

Because again and again I see people who are very quick to talk about their fears of winding up alone, being abandoned or unloved or afraid, or that they can’t manage their lives without help, who are at the same time raising children of their own, managing their own finances, working at part or full-time jobs, dealing with aging or sick parents, being the primary bread-winner, etc.

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What happened? I don’t think it’s complicated. We, at some point, learned that we couldn’t really trust ourselves to take care of ourselves. Ideally our parents and caregivers, teachers and mentors would have helped us to develop that trust by doing two things:

1) demonstrating that they were THERE when we needed them, so we had a solid foundation of trust in them. This is called attachment theory, and it seems to have an enormous impact on our self-trust. 2) letting us try things, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, all in an atmosphere of encouragement and growing self-reliance.

Happily we don’t have to throw up our hands and surrender if we didn’t get that kind of growing up experience. We can learn to do that for ourselves! We can start taking small risks, encouraging ourselves, getting support from other people as we face down our fears of being inadequate to the task of supporting ourselves.

In other words we can start mapping self-care, self-support as a problem, a set of skills to master, rather than as a scary monster crisis that we should run away from…

See the pattern here? This is a different, and very specific way, of seeing the crisis of anxiety in our thinking for what it is – fearful, less-than-lucid thinking that we can change into more mature and more problem-focused thinking. We won’t do it overnight – but we can begin, in small ways, from wherever we’re standing, and fight our way into healthier mental frameworks.

That’s enough Childish Fear for the day –

And I’ll come back in my next blog post with the rest of the list. In the meantime consider how you might best begin to see your fears as the voices of a young, frightened child – and how you can begin to comfort, support and encourage that child to see that there is no crisis. Start looking at the ways you fear alone, or fear your supposed inability to care for yourself. You may be fighting old, childish thinking – but you are not a child, and you are not alone, and you are more capable than your fears tell you.

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

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

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

The Movie

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

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

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

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

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

We anxiety fighters just take it to an extreme…

Examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What If – the Ultimate Movie Maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Leave the Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a New Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we change those routines?

Blowing up the Routine of Anxious Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for an example –

What if I Run out of Money?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Out the Routine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We Freak Out over Flight or Fight Reactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Away 2

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

We Don’t Stop this on a Dime

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

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

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

Courage 5

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

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

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

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

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

Guess what? It stopped being scary.

You can do this too.

emotions 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running 1

I’ll do ANYTHING to Make This Anxiety Stop…

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

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

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

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

Quick Fix 1

Sit with Our Anxiety, Instead of Running Away from It

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Fix 3

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

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

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

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

The Way Out is Through

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

Quick Fix 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the way out.

Problems 6

What to DO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Fix 2

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

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

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

It all Starts with Scary Movies in our Heads…

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

Solving the Future 1

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

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

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

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

Trying to Escape what isn’t there

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

Solving the Future 2

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

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

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

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

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

But it COULD happen that way!

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

Solving the Future 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Can’t Solve The Future

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

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

emotions 3

Ugh. Anxiety is fear about the future – fearful what if thinking about things that scare us. That’s the bottom line. To break anxiety’s hold we have to break the habit of the repeated what if dialogues in our heads.

One element that gets in our way in our thinking/fearful ruminating about the future are the things that we refuse to accept about life and the world we live in. We have set some issues up, usually through no fault of our own, into huge scary monsters that roar at us from their misty future location in our brains.

We can only defang those monsters if we’re willing to look them in the eye and see through them. In Malaysian cultures children are taught to face the monsters they find in their dreams – and to face down those monsters. That’s a huge gift to give children. Unfortunately here in the West we too often learn to run away from our monsters instead…

Refusing to Accept is a form of Running Away

Human have amazing imaginations. We can conjure things in our thinking that don’t exist (and may never exist) and imbue them with life, color and energy. That’s a remarkable ability. As smart as you think your dog is he or she doesn’t have anything like that kind of imagination. Imagination has been one of the key gifts in the building of our human world.

But the gift can be a curse when we turn anxiety loose on our imagination. It’s a natural sin, and one we have to be aware of to do much about. This is especially likely to happen when we begin think that we’re in danger – real or imagined.

Acceptance 1

Why? Well, one of the features of Flight or Fight works like this: when it fires up in our bodies and brains it starts estimating which route is safest/most likely to work in our efforts to get away from danger. (I.e., what will be most likely in getting me out of danger’s way?) This is very effective in dealing with an angry mob or lions looking for a snack…

It is not so effective, however, when it comes to imagining ways to escape the IRS bill you owe, the doctor you need to visit or the in-law you’d like to avoid. Flight or Fight evolved to deal with real, present-moment CRISES. That means dealing with immediately available facts and the situation right in front of us. But PROBLEMS (including the ones we inflate into crises) don’t usually consist of either immediately available facts OR are situations we have to solve this second.

Which means Flight or Fight isn’t nearly so useful to us in problem situations. So when Flight or Fight fires up it just starts to mess with us! We start imagining the worst-case scenarios – and our monsters are born. Flight or Fight is just trying to help us, chiefly by trying to help us figure out the worst-case scenario and then figure out a solution…

Only it’s operating on limited facts/information, and it really can’t solve a problem that’s still up in the future – not the way it can solve or largely solve an immediate, right-now situation. I’ll bet you know what I’m talking about.

A Scenario you Might Recognize

Let’s try that doctor thing. Say you are supposed to see the doc for a problem – a racing heart, maybe, or high blood pressure. You are afraid that something is wrong. Flight or Fight, trying to help you, starts imagining the worst-case scenarios in an effort to “figure a way out.” Great – except that you don’t know a lot of info yet. You don’t know your physical situation well enough to make any good evaluations. That’s why you’re going to the doctor!

Acceptance 2

But you have fears about where you are physically. So you conjure possible scenarios – and they scare you. What if the doc says your BP is too high? What if that means it’s straining your heart, or putting you at risk for stroke? What if the doc puts you on medication? What if that medication doesn’t work, or makes you dizzy, or makes you want to eat pizza? (OK, that last isn’t really scary.) What if you have to stop eating certain foods? What if you never get better? What if your brain explodes? Etc. Etc. Etc…

Sound familiar at all? Now you’re all freaked out. Your heart IS racing, or you’re feeling nausea, or you’re screaming no way I’m not going to the doctor, or whatever you’re doing in your anxiety and fear. So you refuse to go to the doctor. Great. You’ve managed to avoid the scary outcomes you’ve summoned –

Except that by running away, by refusing to accept the situation and find out what you can in order to do something helpful for yourself, you’ve only managed to 1) feed your fears more and 2) set yourself up to do more avoiding. That might not be bad today, or tomorrow – but that doesn’t mean you’ve done anything to really deal with the problem that might be there – or dispel your fears if it isn’t.

Not Accepting Doesn’t mean that Thing is not There

Running away feels good – for a while. Maybe for years. But, to keep playing with that doctor scenario, you have this little voice in the back of your head (the rational part, trying to shout over the anxious part of you) saying hey, sure would be nice to KNOW what’s happening with that blood pressure thing. If there’s a problem we could do something about it. But anxiety isn’t having it. NO, it shouts, it’s better if we just pretend that nothing’s wrong, or if we can’t pretend, just refuse to accept the possibility. We’ll feel safer that way.

Acceptance 4

But that doesn’t change anything – and we KNOW it. And of course it isn’t like anxiety contents itself with just worrying about blood pressure and doctor responses. Nope, it starts worming its way into other parts of our life – and it fact has been doing it the whole time. We develop a terrible habit of running away – and that habit only gets stronger the more we support it.

Crises, real-life crises, come and then get resolved, one way or another. You’re either in a life-or-death situation or you’re not! It’s either happening or it’s over! But problems don’t usually work that way. In fact they NEVER work out that way, because when it becomes life-or-death then it isn’t a problem any more – it’s a crisis.

Problems, even problems we inflate into crises in our thinking, have a way of not going away – until we do something about them.

Which means we have to start to challenge that nasty habit of avoiding, of not accepting the world we live in as it is right now. Sure, we’re scared. I get it. I was scared as hell of lots of things back in my fight with anxiety. I ran like a champion.

But all that did for me was slowly worsen problems I was avoiding, as well as made me MORE anxious. Because our brains are not really fooled. We can run, and we can refuse to accept, but we still KNOW down deep that the problems are still there, lurking in the shadows. We really do have to develop the skill and strength to open the closet door, look under the bed, and face down our scary monsters…

99% of our Monsters are not Monsters at all

One of the most wonderful, and often the most infuriating, things about those monsters we’re avoiding is when we discover they are not monsters at all. We go to the doc and… discover our BP is fine, or a little elevated. We call the IRS (gasp!) and learn that we can pay what we owe in installments – they just want their money. We face down the in-law and realize that while he or she is tedious, even annoying as crap, the visit doesn’t kill us.

Acceptance 3

Not accepting seems to automatically mean we make our problems-turned-to-crises larger and larger in our thinking. Small things get bigger, big things get huge, and we burn tremendous amounts of energy and lifespan running away, avoiding, not accepting the things we need to face down.

Flight or Fight is to blame for all of this. It’s trying so hard to help us “escape” our monsters – but it can’t. There’s nothing to escape. We have problems to address and solve, not crises to flee from, however it feels.

WE are the ones shouting “Oh my God this is terrible!” Flight or Fight obediently tries to help us escape the scary monster… which isn’t a monster at all. So even Flight or Fight is the helpless prisoner of our fearful thinking.

In other words we have to tackle the thinking that is scaring us if we are to deal with and overcome anxiety. It really all does come down to that.

Great, you say. That’s lovely. And you’re right Erik – I’m running away from problems I’ve made into monsters most of the time. But there are problems that I really can’t do a damn thing about –

What about the 1%?

Good point. There are problems we can do something about – the doctor visit, the IRS, the in-law – but there is a much smaller cluster of problems that we CAN’T resolve. We just have to accept them as part of our world, part of the world in general.

Acceptance 5

Aging is one of those problems. We’re all going to get older (or, in my case, GETTING older.) We can rave about it, we can go get cosmetic surgery, we can eat healthy and get lots of sleep and wear facial masks and we’re still going to age. OK. That’s still not a crisis, whatever we think about aging. It’s a problem that we can’t solve – but we can learn to accept it as part of life, and then get about the business of living.

There is a whole little class of problems that we can’t solve by OURSELVES. We might potentially solve them with the assistance of other people – world hunger, the Middle East Mess, etc. – but we won’t do it by ourselves. We can contribute – help out – try to make a difference –but we won’t solve it all by our lonesome. What can do then? Not make it into a crisis. It’s a problem that’s too big for us alone .

And of course there’s the little problem we call death. Yes, death sucks. Nobody really wants to die. (Think of all the cookies that won’t get eaten when I, for instance, pass from this world.) Guess what? We will die. I don’t like it any more than you do.

But we can’t solve it. We can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen! We HAVE to accept it and get about the business of living while we are here, now. If we don’t we run the risk of running away from death, start treating it like a crisis, and when we do that we feed anxiety – and slowly begin to lose the capacity to live our life in the here and now.

In other words we can live until we die, or we can shut down our joy and engagement and life by running like hell away from something that will happen anyway. Only one of those makes any damn sense, yes?

Stop Running – Start Facing and Accepting

Avoidance. Monsters. Problems we can solve (which are most of them, in one form or another of solution) and problems we can’t solve. None of these things have to rob us of our capacity to live. And none of these things need to take up much more time in our thinking, making us anxious and keeping us trapped in our fears.

It starts with accepting where we are. It starts with accepting that our fight with anxiety is a thinking problem, and not some mysterious illness or mental breakdown. It starts with accepting that we have to turn and face down our closet monsters, our (unintentionally) conjured scary future scenarios. And it starts with accepting that Flight or Fight really can’t hurt us (has no interest in hurting us).

We can face down our fears. We can convert crises, the crises we’ve made in our thinking, back into problems. We can get our life back. It’s scary. It means a new way of thinking. It also means that we can get our lives back from our fears. Anyone can do this work, with the right information and a little encouragement.

Acceptance 7

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