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Last blog post I used an example of a good friend’s fight to get into a career path that really interested her, and the fears she had around taking that path/taking that chance, as an example of what unpacking anxiety thinking looks like. This post I’m going to kick things up a notch and talk about family illness and some of the fears and worries that go with that territory.

I just lost my Mom this past June, so this friend’s experience is particularly intense to me. I get how anxiety can really take you sideways as you work to manage the experience of chronically sick or dying parent. And this is true for any chronic illness or death.

Notice the use of the word “manage” in the previous paragraph. The sadness and challenge of illness and death are one thing, but we can still deal with our anxiety in the midst of that turmoil more or less effectively. The issues are the same in this situation as in any other where anxiety is involved.

The central issue is are the “what if?” questions we’re asking ourselves – what do we need to unpack in order to change the focus of our thinking from crisis back to problem, and so deal with this difficult situation as well and as usefully as possible?

What We Expect Impacts our Anxiety Level…

My friend Carl, a great guy who is working through a serious illness with his Dad, is my next example of unpacking anxiety. His father is fighting a variety of old-age ailments, but is still very much in the game (for the moment.)

Carl has a lot of fears around his Dad and the relationship with his Dad, but he wasn’t clear on that right away. Our conversations began when he realized that his anxiety would often spike when he was over at his Father’s house helping with his Dad’s physical care. Sometimes he could barely breathe when he was there – he was that anxious. It frankly pissed him off!

When we first began talking Carl was very puzzled at how much he was feeling anxious when he was with his Dad. He describes his Dad as old, frail, gentle and often concerned about the time and energy his care takes from Carl.

He had decided to talk to me about what he was calling “feeling agitated” when he was at his Dad’s house, since it didn’t seem to make any sense. Dad was anything but a burden…

As we talked about potential fears he first told me that he was a little worried that he wasn’t managing his Dad’s care very well. He said he had offered to help pay for in-home health care for his Dad, but Dad had said he wasn’t comfortable with strangers in the house, and besides, that was a waste of money when Carl was already local and willing to help.

I thought this was an interesting contrast in Carl’s thinking – that with one breath he said that his Dad was concerned about the time it took from Carl’s life to provide care for him, but then in the next breath he insisted that Carl was the one who should be caring for him.

When I said that to my friend he was surprised, and initially firmly told me that it was no big deal to care for his Dad – he loved him and wanted to help any way he could.

We Sometimes Don’t Know the Thing that is Bugging Us Right Away…

I asked Carl to start a journal of what he was experiencing in his thinking and reactions when he visited his Dad. I suggested that he just take 4-5 minutes after every visit and make some notes of whatever came to his mind about that visit. This was a recommendation given to me when I was first sorting out my anxiety, and it can be a very effective way of seeing what thinking might be lurking behind our anxious physical and emotional reactions.

When I saw Carl again he told me he had made a surprising but not wholly unexpected discovery in that journal. He had found himself writing that he was afraid he’d make a mistake in his Dad’s care. Maybe he wouldn’t catch something that a home health care professional might see. Maybe he’d do something wrong – move his Dad wrong, or mix up his meds one day.

That by itself both made him get immediately anxious AND also made him feel like his anxiety was starting to make sense. Almost immediately he found himself getting anxious over this concern of his – what was he going to do about it? The first answer was do what he had wanted to do at the start – get a professional in the house to help care for his Dad.

But that generated ANOTHER anxiety, one he realized he had been avoiding for a while. What if his Dad said no?

Those Damn “What If?” Questions!

When we uncover our “what if?” questions we are a LONG ways in the right direction of sorting out our anxiety. When Carl figured out that he had been both anxious about somehow messing up caring for his Dad and that he was anxious about confronting his Dad for the need for professional care he was in a great place to start seeing this pair of anxieties as a problem to solve, not a crisis that needed fixing this second.

He decided he needed to have the hard conversation with his Dad and he did the end of the second week we talked. It actually was a couple of conversations, since his Dad really pushed back on Carl’s first attempt to talk this issue through, and it made Carl pretty defensive and upset. And this was when he made a third discovery about his anxiety around his Dad –

It came when, in the middle of that first difficult conversation, his Dad said “I don’t want a stranger in the house. I have family that can care for me. Don’t you want to help me?” THAT little comment went right to his soul.

And then he realized that he was really, strongly concerned that he was not being a good enough son (Carl is 44, btw) to his Dad. He said he found himself writing that after that conversation, and almost immediately felt a spike in his anxiety.

He further told me that he also realized that he was often waiting for criticism or correction from his Dad when he was at his Dad’s place. He further told me that he had always been defensive and expecting this kind of feedback for as long as he could remember.

Some of that came from a younger version of his Dad – a man who was pretty critical of Carl’s career and personal life choices. Part of it came from wanting to please and impress his father. All of this made his anxiety make a whole lot of sense.

Unpacking Anxiety Isn’t Always Comfortable… but the Outcomes Sure are Nice

All of these realizations didn’t make the 2nd conversation with his Dad about professional care any easier, but it did help Carl figure out why he had been fighting anxiety when he was with his Dad. He told me he realized that he had been anxious around his Dad for years, decades, and with his new understanding actually felt calmer and smarter talking to his Father than he ever remembered.

And talk to his Dad he did. He corralled a sister to help him (she called in for the conversation) and together they stood their ground about the need for a professional to help out with Dad’s care. Carl said that one of the interesting and useful outcomes of unpacking his anxiety was the realization that he didn’t actually mind doing some of the care for his Dad –

But that he also KNEW that both he and his Dad needed outside support. And that’s what he finally negotiated with his Dad, a set-up where a home-care nurse came in three days a week and Carl came by two days a week. He found that he began to relax around his Dad, as well as push back on his Dad when the man became critical of something Carl thought or felt.

And that in turn has seemed to improve the relationship Carl has with his Dad. They treat more as equals and peers now than they ever have in the past. Carl says it hasn’t been easy, and the old anxieties are still sometimes on his back – but he’s getting better and better at sifting through them and dismissing them.

Alright – that’s example #2. I’ll have more of these later on. Hit me back with your own stories about unpacking, what’s working and what makes it challenging – I’d love to share your stories (if you want!) here as well.

Now go unpack your fears!

In these next few posts I’m all about some quick examples of what I mean when I use the word “unpacking” – making the effort to sort out and deal with our anxious thinking.

I use that word because this work of dealing with anxiety and fear is very much about opening up the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place – a lot like opening up a suitcase, or cleaning out a messy closet.

So hang on to your hats – here we go. Remember that the names have been changed to protect the anxious… 🙂

Applying For a New Job/Changing Careers

An old friend and co-worker, Martha, has been wanting to change jobs for the last 5 years. She really wants to chase down a new kind of work experience, something much closer to what actually interests her about work.

She loves to cook. She has taken cooking classes, she follows the Food Network like an addict and she is constantly experimenting in the kitchen (just ask her husband.) But she’s afraid of making the jump…

We have sat and talked several times about this, attempting to unpack her anxiety about this move she wanted to make. At the start all she was clear about her fears was that she wasn’t confident that she could make a living as a chef.

She makes pretty good money doing what she does now (accounting work, manager). So her first clear worry was that she’d take a big hit financially, and that fear alone had stopped her cold from making any change.

So we talked about that fear. She admitted that she really hadn’t done any research about what chefs can make at the start, or how long it can take to make even better money as they get some experience.

She realized that even thinking about seriously looking at cooking for a career was scary, so scary it had made her run away from any good data-gathering. She was (say it with me) seeing it as a crisis, rather than as a puzzle and a challenge to better understand.

The next time we talked she done some of that research, and discovered that she stood a good chance of making something close to what she was currently making. She’d take a small hit, but in a couple of years could definitely be back up to where she is now – and she would be enjoying her work a whole lot more than she does now.

One Fear Down – Wait, Here’s Another

But as she was getting this information she found herself, after some initial loss of anxiety, getting anxious again. Now she was confused – why was she still anxious?

As luck would have it she was talking to a co-worker, and the co-worker said nervously that she’d NEVER risk anything as scary as cooking for someone else – what if she made a mistake? What if she really blew it?

My friend Martha realized that she was also afraid of that, and that in fact she had been afraid of this potential for failure all along. So there was another fear in her head, and as she sorted out the making-enough-money fear this second fear pushed its way to the front of the line.

She wondered aloud to me in our second conversation if this wasn’t the most serious fear of the two – and I suspect she was right.

We brain-stormed the actual seriousness of her failing at cooking. She had already demonstrated she was pretty dang good at her interest/craft, having done it for years and years.

She knew from her work experience that she would make mistakes in her new job, but that she would also learn and get better at her work.

She said she was sure there would be bad days and good days on the learning curve, but the more she thought about it the less scary it seemed to make some mistakes on the way to a much more interesting work life.

She finally decided to throw a party at her house and cook for the whole thing – something, interestingly enough, she had never done. The next time we talked she was pretty pleased with herself – she had made dinner for 15 people, including dessert, and it came off great.

She said she freaked herself out all day about making a mistake, only to forget as she got down to cooking, and the next thing she knew the party was over!

She said it had definitely helped to understand that she was afraid of taking the chance of failing, and that the baby step of cooking for friends had been a good first move for her facing her fear

Alright – Nice – But Wait, There’s More Fear

About two weeks later she called and told me she was seriously freaking out. She had been getting very excited about really deciding to make a move, and had been talking about it with her husband.

He had been supportive of her interests and research, but now that she was actually talking about becoming a cook for a job it rattled it some of his own fears (in his case, money and her having a different work schedule.) This in turn sparked one of her fears – what if he was unhappy with her for making this move?

The good news is that even as we talked she was starting to unpack it on her own. She told me that she wanted to still give it a try, and that she would talk it through with him – she wasn’t going to let her fear, or his fear, stop her from seeing if this was a thing she really wanted to do. She realized that she had never really discussed the specifics of what she could make as a chef with him.

She also realized that just because he was afraid didn’t mean she should decide FOR him that it was too scary for him to deal with. HE needed to let her know that, and she was willing to take the time to let him sort out his fears about her making this career change.

She wasn’t precisely sure how that would work, but she was becoming more confident that things would work out as she kept facing her anxiety.

Open Up That Suitcase!

This is all pretty interesting to me. She had three specific fears around this major decision, and she needed to move through all of them to be free to make her move.

In each case it was converting the crisis of her anxiety (what if she didn’t make enough money, what if she failed as a chef, what if her husband got angry with her?) to the problem each of them actually was for her.

In other words she directly challenged her “what if?” thinking, and each time it helped sort more of her anxiety out in her thinking.

I hope you see in this first example how we can have layers of anxious thoughts that make us fearful, and that often we’ll sort out one anxious worry, only to have the next in line start to try and make us crazy.

All of that is to be expected, and we don’t need to make it a big deal. We’ll feel anxious, sure – even panicky and terrified sometimes. We can expect some of that as we sort out what is scaring us. That is unpacking.

OK, there’s an example for you to chew on (and maybe apply to your own situation.) Next up – another example of unplugging anxiety in our thinking.

Anxiety starts in our thinking. Old news to those of you who are faithfully tracking this blog, yes? If we identify what thoughts/thought habits are making us anxious we are well on our way to being able to clean up that thinking – convert the crisis in our thinking back into a problem. Some of us don’t have much of a problem identifying that thinking when we begin this work.

Sometimes, however, it isn’t that easy to sort out what that anxious thinking might be. That might be because it scares the crap out of us! That might be because our personal beliefs or rules make it very challenging to be honest about the thinking that is scaring us.

Whatever the reason there is a tool that can help us get (with some patience and work) down to the thinking that is making us crazy. That tool is, ironically, also at the heart of what is making us crazy in the first place.

When Thinking Goes Bad

When we begin to do that anxious thinking thing we start worrying about what MIGHT happen in the future. We begin to turn a problem into a crisis. And when we do that we very often ask ourselves this question: “What if?”

For instance: I am suddenly confronted with my boss being Grumpy Guy. He was fine yesterday, and now he’s in a foul and tedious mood. He’s already snapped at me once, and now a co-worker reports that he’s unhappy with the report I just finished. What do I do? I begin asking myself what if questions.

What if he’s really mad at me? What if he stops talking to me? What if he tells other people that I’m a loser/failure/dolt/you name it? What if he FIRES me? What if I can’t get another job?

And now, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves spiraling down into anxious thinking.

The Magic Power of What If Thinking

It is nothing short of amazing the power our thinking has in our bodies and behavior. We could be having a brilliant day, feeling loose and confident, calm, centered, happy, you name it. Then we run a scenario like the one I just described through our heads, and holy crap! The day goes into the toilet!

One of the things that makes that thinking so strong is the Flight or Fight Response’s natural tendency to look for the dangerous, the bad and the scary in whatever we’re thinking about (when we’re anxious.) There is nothing mysterious about that – we are, in the natural world, looking to QUICKLY figure out which way to safety is the best, and that means doing risk assessment, FAST.

The only problem is we’re not escaping any real danger when we’re worried that our boss is mad at us. But we’re STILL responding to that worry as if it was real danger. And now we’re caught up in finding a way out of a danger that isn’t a danger at all – just a problem.

“Wait, Erik, you haven’t met my boss yet!” No, I haven’t. But I have been in that place, and I’ve talked with an enormous number of people, and most of the time, the minute we start pulling apart the fearful thinking that we’re spiraling down into, I and those other people start realizing that this is only a crisis of the moment, not the end of the world.

In other words we are letting our thinking run away with us – literally. We are creating terrible potential futures and then acting as if they were true. All based on that simple question “what if?”
So – Where Are You Making “Dark Magic” in Your Thinking?

We hear it all the time. Think positive. Be happy. Don’t be sad. Cheer up. Stop worrying. And that could all be good advice, IF we were clear that the source of our worry and our joy both is inside our heads – in our thinking.

The root question of this Fear Mastery work is where are each of us scaring ourselves in our thinking? When we begin to identify where we are asking the question, consciously or otherwise, “what if?”, then we can begin to pull apart the fear and anxiety that we’re busily generating in our thinking and in our bodies.

“What if?” One tool to help us take on the monster of anxiety and take it DOWN. We have the capacity to be much better masters of our thinking. We don’t have to let anxious thinking control us, drive us, make us miserable. Where are you asking yourself “what if?” in your own thinking?

When you’re battling anxiety, depression and panic the last thing you want someone to tell you is “just be patient – this work takes time.” I know that I had no interest in spending any longer than absolutely necessary to get free of anxiety and the way it was crippling my life.

But, as I spent the last few months outlining in excruciating detail here at this blog, one of the difficult truths about overcoming anxiety is that it takes time, work and patience. The problem is that it can be easy to pay lip service to this idea, but still (in our anxiety-weary souls) we just want it to be DONE.

That’s why I wanted to emphasize a point I’ve already made in this blog before: we will in all likelihood not dispel the anxiety and fear we’re generating in our thinking in one session or single push. We need to embrace this understanding both to not make ourselves crazy in the effort, and to do the work more effectively.

It’s a War, Not a Battle

My Dad is a military historian in his free time, and he taught me something very early in my life. If you want to win a war you have to see it as a series of battles. And if you are seeing that war as a series of battles you have to have a strategy to help you win those battles and that war. The fight with anxiety isn’t one battle – it is a war.

What that means for us in this work is that we have to pace ourselves. It is the nature of anxiety and fear that we want to deal with danger (real or in our thinking) NOW. Real danger doesn’t have any time for us to patiently, methodically figure out a winning strategy.

But anxiety (fear generated in our thinking) requires EXACTLY that – a methodical, steady approach that will give us the skills we need to succeed at this work.

For instance, part of the skills we need to practice is the work of “unpacking” our anxious/fearful thinking – i.e., converting the crisis in our thinking back into a problem. At the beginning of this work that is usually easier said than done.

If we have reached a place (as most of us have) where we are battling chronic/on-going anxiety then we have given that anxious thinking a lot of energy over some period of time. Many of us have been doing that worrying and anxious thinking for years or even decades.

Which means that we’re not just going to just stop that thinking in its tracks. No, it is going to take some practice and effort, some patience and time. I wish that wasn’t the case!

Take a Load Off

What this means practically is that we have do this work in steady steps. We have to practice improving the skills required to stop the cycle of anxious thinking in our heads. That means we have to do some work, then take a break, then do some more work, then take a break, etc.

What that looks like precisely is going to vary from person to person. When we’re just starting out that might mean we’re doing great to get to that practice 2-3 times a day.

As many of you reading this already understand it can be exhausting/scary just to get ourselves in a chair, deliberately, and begin to identify the thinking that is scaring us. (See my last post for some very specific steps to start that process.) We’re very tempted to put it off, delay a while longer, wait until we’re feeling better… etc.

It’s kind of like having to fight your way onto the soccer field before you can even start playing soccer, or running two miles before you can reach the starting line for the 10K! This work (as I know I say a lot here) takes energy – a lot of energy. We just can’t get it all done in one single push.

Take it in steps. Practice means doing something again and again across time, with the goal of getting more skillful. That’s a perfect description of what it means to deal with anxiety effectively.

It Isn’t Just About Energy

Another reason to get this straight is that we can be so stinkin’ HARD on ourselves if we don’t get this done fast enough. We can start worrying that we’re doing it wrong, or that it won’t work for us, or that we don’t have what it takes to go the distance. All of that thinking is what we’re already doing to ourselves – it is anxious/fearful thinking.

Ever see the movie “Groundhog Day”? In case you haven’t it is the story of a man (Bill Murray) who gets caught in a kind of loop – he is doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he sorts out his life. From the perspective of everyone else he just lives one day. But from his viewpoint he is doing the same thing again and again.

One of the ironies of this story is that, because he really can’t go anyplace else (even forward in his own life), he finally surrenders to the inevitable and begins to practice a number of things. He learns to play the piano, do ice sculpture, and even become more adept at being a good communicator and human being. To everyone else he transforms literally overnight – but for him it takes months and months to build those skills.

We who battle anxiety don’t have to wait that long. But in a very real sense we are living with our own version of Groundhog Day.

Slow and Steady

Nobody wants to have to wait to see the serious relief of anxiety. Anxiety, however, didn’t happen overnight for any of us, and while it won’t take nearly as long to sort out and unpack as it did to create it in the first place, it will take some work and time.

Please, let me know how the work is going for you. I’ve heard from a number of people in the last two weeks, and it is very encouraging/exciting to get updates from you. Send them to the blog or email me directly – and keep at it – slow and steady.

In the discussion of the last few weeks on this blog my goal is to continue constructing the small list of skills that fear-busting requires. The first is knowing that our fear is IN OUR HEAD – that we have, usually without intending to, converted a problem into a crisis. Period. That doesn’t make us crazy, weak or silly – this is something most of us human beings can do.

The second skill is learning to “discount” the feelings and physical sensations that Flight or Fight generates us in response to our fear, and which we learn to be afraid of.

A HUGE number of us get very twisted up/freaked out by those feelings and sensations, and it is a distinct skill, this deliberately NOT investing those Flight or Fight reactions with their own burden of fear, worry and even terror.

We FEEL it in our bodies and emotions – really, our bodies and feelings react to our fear – but the fear starts in our thinking. Getting ahold of just these two very basic principles is gigantic, highly useful to anyone who is dealing with anxiety and fear.

Let me make that stronger: I have the strong suspicion that without these two skills most of us are at risk for floundering for years, decades, our whole lives, lost both in our fearful thinking and fear of the reactions in our bodies and emotions that our thinking generates. YIKES…

Of Moths and Men (Or, In This Case, Women)

Armed with these two necessary tools we can do the next thing – convert that crisis in our thinking back into a problem. Quick review here – a crisis is a real, physical, life-threatening problem, something we have to respond to immediately or risk injury and/or death.

But a problem isn’t anything like a crisis – however we feel about it, however we think about it. And the funny part (if there’s humor in this at all!) is that EVERY ONE OF US KNOWS THE DIFFERENCE.

Try this one: I have a very old and close friend who is uber-smart. I’m saying that this woman has serious intelligence – rational, cool-thinking, logical, practical. In the midst of the storm she is the rock, the one other people turn to when things are going to hell, and she is the calm voice, bringing order from chaos.

That is, she’s like that until she sees a moth. Really, a moth. Now I’m no big fan of insects (definitely not crazy about spiders, although they don’t scare me anymore) but you have probably never seen a person go crazy like my friend does when she sees a moth.

Let me say now for the record that moths can’t hurt you. The worst thing they can do is land on you and flap their wings gently. There are no poisonous moths, and they don’t transmit deadly diseases. I’m pretty sure that we are WAY more dangerous to them than they are to us!

Doesn’t matter to my friend. Normally the very soul of logic and sweet reason, she is instead reduced to screaming and shouting when she sees a moth in the house – or on the front-porch screen – or really anyplace.

Why tell you this story? Because she has taken a problem (and in her case, a pretty minor problem) – in this case, of her discomfort with moths – and converted it into a crisis. All that intelligence vanishes in the face of her fear/terror…

Drumroll Please…

This may seem like a silly or trivial example of converting a problem into a crisis. Except that it is a perfect example of ANY time we convert a problem into a crisis. Whatever her reasons for being afraid she is taking something that cannot possibly hurt her THIS moment and treating it like life and death.

As a result she is in the grip of Flight or Fight, causing both a serious decay in her critical thinking skills and all the classic physical and emotional responses of Flight or Fight.

Now I have heard her say that she knows in her head (when there are no moths around, and it is purely hypothetical) that her fear doesn’t make much sense. She KNOWS that doesn’t need to react the way she does.

She has skill #1 down cold – she has identified that she has converted a problem into a crisis. What she hasn’t done yet is moved to either #2 or #3 – she still lets her feelings and physical reactions (in this case, racing heart/sweating all over, plus sheer panic) carry WAY too much significance – and she has yet to seriously convert this crisis back into a problem.

Why Would She Do That?

Part of the challenge, as I’ve discussed in the last couple of blog posts, is that it FEELS so real – that terror and fear and worry. It FEELS like we should be afraid. So we do the afraid thing. We wouldn’t feel this way if it wasn’t scary, right?

WRONG! And thank God for that! This is a great example of how these skills are a set – that we need the collection to make it work well. It often isn’t enough to mentally know that something shouldn’t be considered a crisis – we have to actively practice “discounting” our feelings and physical responses as well.

It is important to remember that those feelings we experience when we’re afraid evolved to GET US MOVING in the face of real danger (and moving could also mean freezing in place so we don’t get seen, or even fighting our way clear – WHATEVER it takes to get away from life-threatening danger.) They work GREAT when you’re suddenly in a bar fight or dealing with a charging elephant.

But they don’t work so well when it comes to paying your taxes (tell me THAT doesn’t scare a bunch of people!) or are dealing with “irrational” fears like my friends’ fear of moths. They really do turn molehills into mountains, and problems into crises. Not so useful.

The same thing applies when we fall into the habit of being anxious or afraid of the physical responses of the Flight or Fight Response. All those wacky physical responses are completely normal as Flight or Fight comes online to help us deal with this terrible danger. Except there IS no danger. There IS a problem. There is NOT a crisis.

Treating a Problem LIKE a Problem Takes Practice…

This is a great place to talk about one of the great stumbling blocks in fear and anxiety work. By the time most of us reach the place where we seek help of any kind we’re already sick and tired of anxiety in the first place. WE JUST WANT IT TO STOP.

And it can stop. The hard news for many of us is that it probably won’t stop on a dime. The GREAT, excellent news is that it can stop for good, if we’re willing to be even a little patient in the work to master these skills.

It takes a little practice to figure out where we’re converting problems to crises, to identify how we’re scaring ourselves with our feelings and physical responses (as well as finding the courage to face those fears), and to begin to see our fears as problems rather than crises.

I’ve done it. Lots of other people have done it. Too many of us didn’t have the information we needed, and it took way longer than it needed to – but it has been done. And you can do it too.

Next up – examples of what this process looks like. In the meantime please, be kind to yourself – be patient with yourself and your feelings of frustration. This is a fight you can win…

OK, so I’ve talked now about two essential skills to be a Fear Master (kind of like a Jedi Master, only real.) One skill is the capacity to sort out when we’ve turned a problem into a crisis – when we’ve taken an issue that can’t immediately hurt or injure us and transformed it into a life-or-death monster that scares the crap out of us.

The other skill is the conscious “discounting” of Flight or Fight Response physical reactions and feelings, i.e., understanding that there is nothing wrong with us when have those sensations and feelings. We are simply experiencing Flight or Fight, it is completely normal, and however we feel physically or emotionally we are not having a heart attack, losing our mind or sliding into eternal darkness.

The only word I can think of to accurately describe these abilities is (for those of us who are or have wrestled with chronic or acute anxiety, panic attacks and/or depression) is the word vital. If we want to get free of anxiety and get our lives back we need these skills.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes (or, Better, Don’t!)

Some of us, however (actually entirely too many of us) have been fighting this whole fear/anxiety/worry thing for a LONG time – years, even decades. We have had a kind of vampire at our throats, sucking the literal life out of us.

We acquired that vampire because we have lived with our fear for so long, lived with the constant pulse of anxiety and worry and stress, that we are conditioned to flinch away from both our Comfort Zone (which is only trying to keep us safe!) and the feelings and physical sensations that scare us. We hate it, we hate how our lives have been shut down and limited, but we don’t know what else to do.

That leaves us, if we’ve been at this long enough, feeling hopeless.

Dog In A Cage

I have mentioned before in this blog a series of experiments conducted at the University of Pittsburgh back in the 1960’s. Martin Seligman, a research psychologist and the author of books like “Authentic Happiness”, describes the following experiment( which is VERY relevant to this work at overcoming anxiety and fear):

A dog is put into a wire cage. The bottom of the cage is electrified – i.e., the person running the experiment can run an electric shock through the cage bottom. The dog is secured in the cage, then is shocked again and again.

(I know this sounds like the worst sort of sadistic torture, and I’m not crazy about the whole thing in the first place, but believe me, not only did it teach us something hugely important, but the dogs were not hurt long-term.)

Then the cage door was opened and the dog was shocked again. In addition there was food or a treat outside the cage, and the assumption was made that the dog, both seeing his/her freedom and smelling the food/treat, would take the first opportunity to leave the cage.

To the researcher’s surprise (and our great gain in understanding) the dog DIDN’T leave the cage!

Why? The door was open, it really could leave, so what was the problem? The problem, as it turned out, was that the dog had TRIED to escape, a lot, earlier in the experiment. Of course it did – it was getting shocked! But after trying a number of times and failing it gave up – just laid down and suffered through more shocks.

We’re Not Dogs, But…

There is a happy ending to this story. The dogs were taught they could leave the cage, and leave they did. Another good piece of news is that we learned something about living creatures in general, including human beings. We learned that we could literally learn to give up – what is now called learned helplessness.

We can take enough injury/setbacks/anxiety to teach us that there is no point in trying. So we stop trying. As bad as things are we assume they can’t get better. We’ve tried before, tried and tried, but nothing worked. So we learn to expect that nothing WILL work – that there isn’t any point – that we should just give up.

But we don’t have to stay there. I can try to break a padlock all I want – but unless I have a big steel hammer I’m unlikely to succeed. Or there is one other option – I could find the key.

Anxiety is a great deal like that padlock. We can want to open the lock – we can shout and batter and bruise ourselves trying to open it – but in the end it really is about finding a useful key.

Or, in this case, a small handful of skills, two of which you already know.

Hope – It Is a Really Good Thing

So this blog post is really about feelings, again – in this case, questioning that feeling of hopelessness that comes to those of us who fight anxiety, depression, panic attacks and fear. Just because we feel that way doesn’t mean we’re right. Just because we haven’t succeeded so far doesn’t mean we can’t succeed in the future – and more so if we have effective tools to help us succeed.

Bottom-line: question what your feelings tell you. Question your reactions to your body. Fear and anxiety can make you crazy, worried, even feeling helpless – but question it. See what thinking lies behind it. And know that it is possible to shake free of fear and worry – possible to unplug the thinking that generates those feelings in the first place.

Next up – skill #3 in our short series on the essentials of Fear Mastery.

Alright, time for a pop quiz:

1) What is the first skill needed to be an effective un-packer of anxiety?
2) What is the second skill?

Heck, you know this! If you’ve been reading this blog you know:

1) The first skill is identifying where in our thinking we are converting problems to crises, and
2) The second skill is learning to “discount” the physical and emotional reactions generated by Flight or Fight when you start worrying/being anxious over those crises you’re creating in your thinking

Today I’m all about examples – examples of people I’ve met, known, and worked with who fight the same challenges you and I fight or have fought around anxiety, fear, panic and depression, and specifically the emotions that fear and anxiety generate in our bodies and brains.

When Feelings Go Bad/The Conviction About Feelings

I mentioned in my last post my own battle with sadness – overwhelming, life-draining sorrow about my fears. I shake my head when I look back now, remembering how I could give away the entire day, very easily, to sitting in front of a TV or staring at the ceiling in my bedroom, consumed by that sad feeling.

Of COURSE I was sad – I was grieving all the imagined outcomes of my fearful thinking. Even when I wasn’t directly conscious of my fears I was still living, physically and emotionally, in the terrible outcomes of my mental fears.

For example, as I mentioned last post, I was terribly worried that I would wind up alone. I’m sure most of you have never carried that fear… but it really rocked my world.

I could only see lonely nights in front of that stupid TV, or sitting at my dinner table alone, or always being the single guy at my friend’s parties and beach trips and… I’m pretty sure you get the picture.

To someone who had love to give and wanted someone to give it to it was a pretty dark future. Just one small problem with this massive focus on the potentially dark future – I actually had no certain knowledge about ANYTHING in my future. I FELT like this could happen, or even that it was all but a certainty – but I still didn’t know.

Earth To Erik – Come In Erik –

I’m probably hardest on myself about this loss of life and time and energy when I think on the clues I had that my thinking was sideways about my assumptions around feelings.

I could be in the grip of that dark sadness, for instance, and get a phone call out of the blue from an old friend, asking me out to dinner. While I might not feel like going in that moment, when I said yes, I would (weirdly enough) begin to feel better as I got up to get ready to meet them.

Hmmm… what did THAT mean? 🙂 I know now that what had happened was my thinking was pulled, however briefly, from my obsessing about my dark and lonely future (in my thinking), and when it was pulled I was suddenly feeling differently.

It worked in reverse, of course, too! I could be in a good space, happy and content, and suddenly I was confronted in my mind with some vision of my certain isolated future. Next thing I knew the day had gone grey, and everything felt pointless. Note the use of the word “felt”…

As I said, I had some clues. I just didn’t know how to put them together.

The Tragedy of Barry

I got lucky, in some respects. I got just enough tools and help to dig a way to the beginnings of a healthier life. Too many of us don’t. One story in particular still leaves me deeply sad – not the sadness of paralysis, but the sadness that brings a grim determination to make something happen.

I’ve written much earlier in this blog about my friend Barry. Barry was a gas – there is no other way to put it. He literally had never met a stranger, and could talk to anyone.

He loved to laugh, loved to dance (and was out at the clubs regularly, even as a man in his late 50’s.) He had had some hard breaks as a younger man, including a pretty savage divorce and some very angry children, not to mention a job he hated.

But he loved to paint, and he loved to teach English to kids who didn’t speak the language. Barry was British, and as an EU citizen could live and work pretty much anywhere he chose in Europe. His dream was to move to coastal Spain or France, spend his days on the shore painting, and his evenings teaching kids to do that English-speaking thing.

Not a bad dream, yes?

Except that Barry had the same fears I did about his future – that he would wind up alone, spending his days without anyone to call lover/friend/partner/spouse. It made him feel terrible (no surprise), and he began to let those feelings predict his future. He fell deep and hard into that problem-turned-crisis thinking result I call the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, and it began to shut down his life.

When we talked his language centered more and more around how bad he felt. He also insisted that because he felt so bad, so sad, angry and afraid, that he couldn’t really do anything about it – that he needed to feel better before he took action to change things. Besides, it didn’t feel like there was any point to it anyway, so why try?

The awful ending of this story is that Barry took his own life in July of 2010.

And It REALLY Pisses Me Off!

Barry took his own life because it FELT like there was no point to continuing. That’s usually the story with suicide. Depression is the result of being certain there is no escape and no hope.

Except that we usually base that on our FEELINGS. And – say it with me – however real our feelings feel, they are only the weather-vanes of our thinking. They only indicate what’s on our mind.

They are not prophetic truths from the future, and they are often at odds with what is really true about our lives, our capacities, our strengths or our potential futures.

I probably can’t say that last sentence too often. Our feelings, however real they may feel, don’t have certain knowledge of the future. Heck, our thinking certainly doesn’t – so how could our feelings? No, we are not clairvoyant, whatever we’d like to tell ourselves when we’re angry, sad, blue, depressed or frightened.

It wasn’t fair to Barry, this assumption that feelings meant reality. And it wasn’t fair that he ended a life that should still be going on, someplace on a beach in France or Spain, painting and teaching ESL. And, I suspect, finding love –

It’s Time To Stop The Insanity

Our fearful, anxious feelings evolved for one reason – to get us DOING something in the face of real, physical, life-or-death danger. That might be freezing in place, or running like hell, or even fighting if we absolutely have to do so.

So let’s do something. Let’s agree that we’re going to start questioning our feelings, really questioning them, instead of assuming that we have certain knowledge or that our feelings are somehow invariably reflections of reality.

And while we’re doing THAT let’s go back a step and question what the heck thinking we’re doing, consciously or otherwise, that is generating those feelings in the first place. And in doing both of those things we are practicing the first two skills that we need to be free of the tyranny of anxiety, fear, worry and depression.

Next up – the effects of long-term fear of physical sensations and emotions, and what we can do about it.

Back at the very beginning of this year I talked about the basics of Fear Mastery – i.e., the small handful of skills an individual needs to do fear-busting effectively. And while the term “fear-busting” may sound lighthearted it is highly accurate, because when we set out to overcome our fears and worries we need to break apart our thinking and automatic responses to that thinking.

We need to literally re-program our thinking.

Take note of that last couple of sentences. The work centers around figuring out the specific thoughts that are scaring us, and identifying how in our Flight or Fight Responses we have learned to be afraid of our bodies and feelings. It really is about re-learning how to think on a basic level.

That re-programming work needs some basic tools in your tool belt – a cluster of competencies that will make you skillful at unpacking fearful thinking and shake you free of on-going anxiety, fear and depression.

What’s Coming Next

My goal across the next few blog posts is to discuss this small handful of skills in the most concrete and coherent way possible. This process is intended to do two things: 1) clarify as specifically as I can what I mean when I describe “Triad Work” in Fear Mastery, and 2) help me get this explanation as tight as possible for the second draft of this book I’m writing! 🙂

It is essential in this discussion to remember that when I say SKILLS I mean exactly that. The definition of skills includes the notion that practice and time are basic ingredients of skill. What I am laying out in this email will take exactly that – practice and skill. This isn’t always something those of us who battle anxiety and fear really want to hear… I know it was true for me.

A Little About Me…

Just in case you haven’t read through this blog (and really, who wouldn’t want to, he asked with all due modesty) I spent the better part of 20+ years wrestling with anxiety and panic attacks. My battle began in mid-Junior High School, and continued all the way until my mid-30’s.

If somebody had said to me hey Erik, yes, you can definitely beat anxiety – but it will take some practice and time – I KNOW it wouldn’t have been something I was eager to hear.

But it would have been TRUE, and it would have been the right road out of my on-going fight with anxiety. What I wanted, essentially, was a pill.

Well, actually I DIDN’T want a pill, because even then I suspected (from other people’s experience and my own history with various medications, given my history with allergies and asthma) that medication couldn’t, by itself, beat this thing. But I DID want something that would be what medication was often promised to be – a quick, painless and mostly instant cure to my problem.

There may come a day when we have a simple tool or medication that will relieve anxiety, depression and fear in minutes. I don’t think it is impossible. I do however suspect that it is a long ways away, if it can be created. The reason I have my doubts is that our problem, while aggravated by the physical and emotional responses of the Flight or Fight Response, isn’t rooted there.

The problem is rooted in our thinking. Period. And it is mastering a small handful of skills around thinking that gives us the tools and capacity to knock down anxiety and fear.

Here’s the good news about this non-instant but actually effective approach to dealing with fear and anxiety:

1) Even a small degree of skill will begin to provide serious relief. And, as your skills improve, that relief can only increase.
2) The effects of that work will LAST – and you won’t have to continue to see a therapist or take medication to continue experiencing that relief.
3) You will, for the rest of your life, never experience anxiety or fear the same way again. These very natural responses will become the servants they evolved to be – not the tyrannical master of your life and wreaker of havoc on your soul.

Sound good? 🙂 I know it does to me, even after my years of being free of panic attacks and depression and chronic anxiety. It feels good because I remember (and I suspect always will) how small, frightened, cramped and unhappy my life had become in my anxiety days.

Something Else to Clear Up –

One last clarification, just for the record: medication and therapy are extremely valuable tools. Anyone that tells you differently is either ignorant or foolish. These are highly useful tools in the fight against anxiety, when deployed/used effectively.

Medication can be a serious break from the pounding pressure and torment of the Flight or Fight Responses that scare us so much, and can bring some mental room to breathe as we turn to unplug/unpack the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place.

Please don’t under-estimate the usefulness of that kind of tool. A LOT of us get a long ways down the rabbit hole of our fear and anxiety. Medication can help provide the support we might need to start the climb out of that hole.

However medication cannot, by itself, correct the thinking that makes us anxious, and unfortunately that is exactly what people tend to do with medication – attempt to make it, by itself, the cure. It isn’t fair to either themselves or to medication.

Therapy is another deeply useful tool in the fight with fear. One of the gifts of effective therapy is helping us unpack/sort out our thinking, which is the root and cause of our fear. Therapists are (at least the good ones) trained thinkers and listeners! Their whole JOB is to help you sort out your feelings and thinking. What’s bad about that?

Therapy can also provide real emotional and personal support in that fight. Too many of us become much too isolated in our war against anxiety. We feel that nobody understands, or even can understand, what we’re going through. A skillful therapist can help relieve that isolation.

Again, the problem isn’t therapy. The problem is using therapy as a stop-gap, a way to temporarily ease the anxiety without doing the actual work of dealing with our anxious/fearful thinking. Therapy is one more tool – but it can’t by itself fix anxiety.

That work lies with each of us. And it is work every one of us can do. I know, KNOW, that it can feel impossible, too much, a challenge that we don’t have the resources to meet. But that isn’t true. I’m going to say it one more time: our fear lies in our thinking.

And if it lies in our thinking, then we have enough control/capacity to start that work. If we have the energy to do fearful thinking, we have the energy to begin to unpack fearful thinking.

What Isaac Says!

One of the great therapeutic thinkers and writers, T. Isaac Ruben, has a great take on this issue. It is his conviction (and now mine) that all of us naturally want to be healthy and peaceful. He takes this one step further – he argues that our natural desire to be healthy and at peace is stronger than any learned fear or anxiety.

He’s right. Nobody wants to live in fear. If you understand the simple truth that we are spending enormous amounts of energy just to stay semi-even in the midst of serious anxiety, depression and fear, See the blog post on 1/25/12 then you understand that you can begin to divert that energy to knocking anxiety back to something that serves you, instead of terrorizing you.

So are you ready? It’s OK if you’re not – just read on and get a handle on the basics of mastering your fears. We all start when we’re ready. In the meantime, just consider what I’m saying here, and know that you’re not the first (or last) person to fight this fight.

Others have been here and have seen the light of day again. You can too. Don’t take my word for it – please don’t take my word for anything I write here. Try it out for yourself…

May I Have the Envelope Please –

So – here’s the short list of skills we each need to be fear-breakers:
• Identifying when you have turned a problem into a crisis – i.e., what specific thoughts you’re scaring yourself with, how you’re making an issue into a life-or-death crisis
• “Dis-counting” the emotional and physical responses to that facing your fear/confronting the Comfort Zone
• Converting your crisis thinking (what is scaring you) back into a problem
• Taking care of yourself throughout the work – being self-caring as you build your skills

That’s it. That’s the entire list. One of the great things about fear (as crazy as that sounds) is that this isn’t a complicated process. It is usually draining, scary, exhausting and not easy at the beginning – but it isn’t complicated.

It will take work – just like any reconstruction project, just like re-writing something you’ve already written once. That’s better than good – it is the laying of a real, healthy foundation for thinking and dealing with anxiety in an effective way.

Next post – identifying where we turn a problem into a crisis – Skill #1.

Pop Quiz Time: What are the qualities that make the Comfort Zone so stinkin’ challenging to get around in our work to diminish our fear and worry?

Answer: The Comfort Zone is constrictive (wants to get smaller, all in the name of your safety), restrictive (as a result you find yourself surrendering more and more of your freedom of motion, watching your life get smaller and more cramped) and unconscious (we’re not even aware of what’s happening – we just keep stepping back.)

But wait, there’s more – the Comfort Zone is evasive. It will do just about anything, anything at all to distract you from actually confronting your fears. It knows no shame, it has no scruples, it has only a single mission – TO KEEP YOU SAFE. That includes keeping you away from thoughts or issues that scare you.

An Example (How The Comfort Zone Keeps Us From Looking At Our Fears)

One of my oldest friends in the world has a Dad who is getting up there in years – he’s almost 80. He is like many men his age in that he is very uncomfortable around doctors.

I’ve never really understood this, but it seems to be part “bearer of bad news” (a natural outcome when you only see the doctor when you’re sick) and part an admission of weakness somehow to visit a doctor – as if a person should “man up” rather than seek the help of a physician.

Whatever the reasons, my friend’s Dad HATES to see the doctor. This might be OK if he 1) wasn’t almost 80, 2) fighting several health issues, including a recent heart attack and at least one minor stroke, and 3) could manage to eat in a semi-healthy way. But all of these issues are factors in his needing to be on better terms with his doctor.

Why tell you all this? Because this summer provided a perfect example of how the Comfort Zone will literally keep us at arm’s length from our fear – evading any possibility of having us confront our fears.

My friend was talking to her Dad, and she asked how he was feeling. He answered that he wasn’t feeling great, but he’d get by. She innocently asked if he had been to see his doctor.

The answer is fascinating in light of the Comfort Zone. He immediately responded with “I’ll be fine sweetheart.” When she asked again, now a little irritated at his quick and rather dismissive answer, he came back with “he’s just going to tell me I’m getting old.”

Now, actively bugged, my friend (this man’s only daughter) said she would really like him to see his doctor, if only for her peace of mind. His somewhat snappish response back to her was “you don’t always see your doctor when you don’t feel well.”

Notice that in none of his three responses to the request to see his doctor (something he is clearly afraid of doing) does he offer anything like a lucid reason NOT to see his doctor. He is simply reacting – and, I would argue, reacting out of his Comfort Zone’s mostly-unconscious and immediate priority to keep him away from what is, for him, the scary subject of seeing his doctor.

This fourth quality of the Comfort Zone is strongly exampled in the last comment of my friend’s Dad in the paragraph before last.

Not only is the Comfort Zone working to deflect our thinking (and other people’s efforts, deliberate or not, to potentially put us in contact with what scares us) but it is also working to divert attention from the scary topic to ANYTHING else…

How Do We Tackle This Whole Evasive Thing?

The answer to this question is simple – not easy, especially not at the beginning of this work, but definitely simple. This is the first step in what I call the Triad work of Fear Mastery – making the deliberate decision to look at directly at your fears (or, more accurately, one fear at a time.)

This assumes that you have SOME idea that you have fears and anxiety to face, of course. 🙂 There may be people that don’t have that problem – but they are, in my experience, few and far between.

The interesting part to me about this topic is how, 99% of the time, we have turned a problem not just into a crisis, but into the monster under the bed (or, for me as a little kid, the monster in the closet.)

And, as you already know, the answer to the monster under the bed or in the closet is to LOOK UNDER THE BED or OPEN THE CLOSET!

Because there isn’t a monster there. There is a lot of fear and worry, but there isn’t a monster.

There are actual scary things in the world – don’t get me wrong. The doctor COULD tell my friend’s Dad something bad is about to happen, or that he is in trouble. But that is STILL a problem, and the vast majority of problems can be solved or at least managed more effectively IF we take direct action to do something about them.

And best of all, in dealing with the problem AS a problem, we deflate the fear that we’ve been carrying around, unplug the anxiety we’ve been generating, and whatever the problem we’re facing, we think better, feel calmer, and are definitely more in control of the situation.

Comfort Zone, We Love You –

I hope you’re finding this review of the qualities of the Comfort Zone useful! I have one more of those qualities to cover in my next post – the tremendous energy suck of maintaining our Comfort Zone walls – and then I’m going to talk about the qualities of the Comfort Zone that can render all the bad/not-so-useful qualities moot.

We are bigger than our Comfort Zones – we are definitely stronger than our Comfort Zones – and we’re for sure smarter than our Comfort Zones. They need to serve US – not the other way around…

This blog post is mostly about the video blog today. I am in the midst of refining the specific ways I’m working the tool set of Fear Mastery, and this video blog post is another step in that direction.

(BTW, I say at the start of this video that I’m putting two video posts up today – but in fact I put up one video with my blog entry at the start of this week, and this video is #2.)

But I also wanted to quickly let you my faithful readers know that I’m kicking it up a notch with the blog. Here are my New Year Resolutions for Fear Mastery:

1) I’m really, truly ramping up the blog entries to two times a week. Today’s post is the first installment in that commitment. It will probably vary in form from week to week, but what I’m thinking right now is I’ll do a written post and video post, then later in the week do another video post.

2) I will make the written posts shorter, I swear it! 🙂 It is very tempting to try and completely cover a blog topic in a single post (at least it is for me), but it can also make for long and sometimes cumbersome reading. So I’m committing in 2012 to keeping the posts to no longer than about 1100-1200 words. (I have been averaging 2000 – holy crap!)

A Couple of Questions for You, the Readers

Lastly, for this entry, I have some things I’m wondering about, and I’m hoping you’ll let me know what you think, either here at the blog or by email:

1) Would it be useful to anyone here if I created a Twitter Account and posted some quick Fear Mastery thoughts/reminders/suggestions, 3-4 times a week?

2) Would a Facebook Page be something that would interest you folks? It could be a place where we can trade notes about personal challenges, progress, places we’re stuck, and shared experience. I am in the midst of designing a website where there will be forums for that same purpose (including by mid-summer live chat for folks to have real-time conversations) but this might be a test run/intermediate step.

Next Up

As promised last post my next several blog posts will cover the specific issues we face when we confront our Comfort Zone fears – those fears we’ve been carting around for (usually) years, or even decades – the fears that are usually the most resistant to us taking them on and pulling them apart.

Have a good weekend Fear-Busters – remember, we have (literally) nothing to fear but fear itself – and with a little work, we don’t even have to be afraid of that.

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