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So I’ve been doing a lot of discussion over the last few posts about how much of our big anxiety sources can be found in our foundational beliefs, and how, if we’re going to break the power of anxiety in our lives, it may mean that we have to take a solid, honest, challenging look at those foundational beliefs.

I write this post because there is a feature of this work that is very useful to know if we’re not going to have freak-outs and unnecessary anxiety as we take on this work. It often happens that when we get down into these foundational beliefs our most ancient fears/worries/obsessions come lurching up to make scary faces at us. (I have written about this before HERE.)

More accurately it is in these foundational beliefs that our most foundational fears find their origin and nourishment. I wrote in my last blog post about working to not flinch back when Flight or Fight starts warning us that we’re about to do something really scary (in our thinking.)

Nowhere is Flight or Fight more alert as when we start mucking around in our core beliefs in the effort to address the thinking that has been scaring us for so long.

What I want to focus on today is how, when we start mucking around in our core beliefs/thinking, we wind up trying to address one fear/worry/anxious thought, only to find three or four or ten others being yanked to the surface as well. And if we’re not a little aware of that risk we can quickly get freaked out, overwhelmed and shut down from continuing this work.

What am I Thinking?

In my checkered past as a Community College Instructor I had the good fortune to teach a class called Argumentation. And no, it isn’t a course on how to pick fights with people. 🙂 It is essentially basic debate skills, and part of the coursework is some basic critical thinking training. Critical thinking is another way of describing solid, basic thinking practices.

Why bring this up in this blog post? Because 90% of us never, ever make contact with any formal training in good basic thinking skills.

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We have plenty of capacity to THINK – don’t misunderstand me – given that we’re all working with that remarkable thinking machine, the human brain. But just because you have a powerful thinking machine doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to use that mighty machine skillfully…

The metaphor that works best for me is a computer. You can have the world’s most impressive desktop computer, with the biggest flat-screen monitor and hard drive known to man, but you also need good software if you want to make that computer functional. Crappy software in the world’s most impressive laptop equals a lot of crap…

The same is true for our brains. I would argue that 99.9% of the human race has amazing brains. I know, everyone wants to talk about Albert Einstein and how amazing his brain was. There have been whole books given over to old Al’s brain (I’m not making that up.) But what we don’t know very clearly is which came first – good thinking skills, or his amazing brain?

Some people (including me) think that he gained, early and well, some very solid abilities/thinking skills. And that in turn changed his brain – made it better, smarter, stronger.

Interesting theory, yes? Because it implies that any of us can improve our brains with better thinking practices. (There’s some very interesting research to back this thinking up, btw – our brains, unlike computers, seem to strengthen and improve the more we use them effectively.)

SO – if you’re going to start mucking around in the basement of your thinking, first to identify and then to perhaps challenge the assumptions that are generating some of your most basic fears, you’ll want to get clear on some basic rules of thinking. Ready?

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Rule 1: Thoughts are JUST thoughts, and They Can’t Hurt You

It is very easy for most people to confuse thinking with WHAT IS. There’s the world outside us, and then there’s what we think about the world. Thoughts are not reality. They are just thoughts. Just because we think something doesn’t make it so.

That may sound obvious, but PLENTY of us have this sneaking suspicion that if we think about something too much or too strongly it will somehow make that thing true, or make it happen. Not true.

Thoughts are just thoughts. It is ACTION that makes a thought into reality. I don’t care how much you like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. 🙂 You can’t govern the world or make something happen just by thinking about it.

You know the routine: someone says “I just learned that my good friend has cancer” and you immediately say “Oh, DON’T say that word!” As if saying “cancer” can GIVE someone cancer… isn’t true. Can’t be done.

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If we’re going to call this what it is then we should call it superstition. Like throwing salt over your shoulder when you spill it or refusing to walk under a ladder or asking for a room that isn’t on the 13th floor of a hotel – this is just the same.

(I can hear some of you right now saying “hey, I’m not taking any chances with that 13th floor thing man!” Well, knock yourself out. Just be clear that every time we default to the notion that thoughts, by themselves, can do good or bad things to the physical world, we’re deceiving ourselves AND making ourselves the prisoners of anxious thinking.)

So – when we start wading into the deep waters of our thinking we can expect to have some scary thoughts pop up. We have, after all, been keeping those suckers under water for a long time, precisely because they scared us. But they are, really, just thoughts. We don’t have to STAY scared of them.

This is huge. This is a giant, massive piece of this work. We have a real need to start regarding our thinking as JUST thinking. Not magical, not real, not by themselves. Just thoughts. You might need to start slow – I sure did.

You might need to take frequent breaks. You might want to practice some deep breathing, or do some calming writing to yourself. You might need to read these last couple of paragraphs about 100 times to really get the notion that thoughts, by themselves, can’t do any harm, can’t hurt us. Scare us – sure. Hurt us? No.

Rule 2: Just Because You Assume Something is True Doesn’t Make it So

This is a hard one. Precisely because we have so little formal training in thinking skills we can wind up believing that a lot of things are true just because we’ve always believed they are true.

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This is also big news to most of the human race. Just about everyone has assumptions, beliefs, “truths” that they’ve picked up along the way that they have never questioned, never really examined – just took them at face value and then began acting as if those things were gospel truth.

Here are some samples (and you might recognize these from a couple of earlier blog posts):

You should always put other people ahead of yourself
A person can never be angry with another person
Feelings reflect reality
I’m too old to do this or that, try this or that
Good/spiritual/moral people never get frustrated or irritated
It is terrible if other people have a bad opinion of me or what I do
Too many cookies are bad for you (OK, maybe this one IS true – I’m just doing some more checking…)

Get it? As we start excavating our core, foundational assumptions and beliefs we need to approach them with an open mind and with a lot of questions. Is this true? Is this STILL true, even if it was true for me at one time? Why do I think this true?

Is this useful for me to continue to believe this is true? What might happen if I decided this was not true, or at least not always true, anymore? WHY do I think this is true, if I decide to do so? What evidence or support or experience do I have to back that up?

Don’t think I don’t know that this can feel pretty dang scary. It can be scary because we are so unused to questioning foundation thinking.

It can literally feel like the earth is moving beneath our feet. It can feel like we’re questioning God himself – and for some our beliefs it might mean at least questioning things we were told in church or at home and with the stamp of religion or God on that thing.

(And God, btw, isn’t afraid of questions. He is most likely not afraid of anything, right? So you’re not going to get in trouble for asking questions and examining your beliefs. It isn’t questions that will get us in trouble.

It is in blindly assuming something is true and then letting that assumption run our life – which is so much of the root of anxious thinking. To paraphrase Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”, God gives us both a mind and a heart, and expects us to use both in his service. Good thinking, that.)

Be clear that this sort of self-examination can be unsettling. You might want to take this in pieces. You might want to do a little at a time. At the same time this work can be tremendously fruitful at helping to identify where very basic assumptions in your thinking might be driving anxiety.

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And, fyi, this isn’t work you can crank out in a couple of hours watching “Seinfield” and drinking diet coke. This takes some time, introspection, thinking and patience as you deal with your reactions to what you’re discovering/thinking about.

In addition a good therapist can be a gigantic asset to you as a coach/assistant in this processing of your assumptions. (One of the great reasons to chase down a therapist that works for you.)

Some Stuff to Think About…

OK, that’s probably enough for the moment about the nature of thinking. 🙂 My hope is that you’ll see these rules as the foundation for approaching your anxious thinking more usefully, more effectively.

Thinking is WORK. That may not seem “natural”, but skillful thinking is in fact a skill, one that takes practice and time and good information on how to do it right. These very basic understandings can be powerful weapons in our war against anxiety.

This is so important that I’m going to repeat myself: thinking is WORK. It takes energy, and time, and practice. It isn’t like breathing. We don’t have to learn to breathe. We WILL breathe. We do need to learn to think if we’re going to do it usefully and without making ourselves crazy with anxiety.

And, by way of reminder, this work can itself crank up our anxiety – which is why these rules can be so useful. We can start sorting out foundational thinking that makes us anxious, only to find ourselves getting very unnerved (read: scared!)

It is often overwhelming, especially when we first get started. It’s already an anxiety-raising proposition, this wading into the most basic thinking we have, questioning the assumptions we’ve taken for granted up to this point.

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So think of this as a step-by-step process. See it as something to do in pieces. As I mentioned earlier consider chasing down a good therapist for the work, (and I’ll talk more about therapy post after next.) Take your time. Expect to be uncomfortable. Expect to not be very good at it when you first start.

And whatever you do, have some cookies at hand. They can be very helpful. (One man’s opinion.) 🙂 Our minds are remarkable, incredible tools, brilliant and complex. They are also the source of 99% of our anxiety. We don’t have to live that way – we don’t have to continue to let our minds make us anxious all the time. All it takes, fundamentally, is some good, solid thinking skills.

To fight anxiety effectively we have to take stock of our thinking. Anxiety starts and ends there – end of story. To break the power of anxiety in our lives we have to sort out our thinking. If you’re reading this blog you get that, yes? 🙂

We can however do ourselves a heck of a lot of good in that work by taking a look at the environmental variables/issues that can “feed” our anxiety. If we’re dealing with chronic anxiety (and quite possibly depression) then it is really useful to assess what is helping – and what is making things harder in our fight to master anxiety.

Here are a couple of things to consider in your environment/situation for their impact on your thinking and your emotional capacity…

The News

I don’t know how much you follow the news, but I grew up in a family where the news was part of the background roar of our lives. We watched the news on TV every evening while I was growing up, and I kept that habit way into my adult life. I also learned to follow the news in the paper and on the radio, and when the Internet came along I dutifully began to follow news feeds there as well.

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I can say with a lot of confidence that I was pretty current on current events. 🙂 Some of it was very interesting to me – I like history and politics as subjects anyway. But an interesting thing happened to me during our last economic recession. I found myself really ramping up over the endless stream of bad economic news that came pouring out of the various news outlets –

You remember all that? The ceaseless bombardment of the economy tanking, and how bad the housing market was becoming, and how many people were losing their homes and jobs… it just seemed to go on and on. I had been free of panic attacks and chronic anxiety at that point for 12 years, so it was pretty interesting to feel anxiety working hard to re-establish itself in my life.

It didn’t help that my training business gigs (I do business communication consulting for work, in case you didn’t know) all but dried up at that same time (end of 2007, start of 2008.) I was getting really worked up about money and work and the future…

Until one day I was reading something that WASN’T the news and a writer offered an interesting notion: it might be helpful to take a “news holiday”. Just take a month off and skip the news. I was bugged at first. It seemed kind of irresponsible – didn’t adults, after all, track the news? That was my training, and I didn’t want to be a slacker or, worse, “running from reality” (a phrase I heard from a couple of people when I mentioned this idea to them.)

The writer however went on to ask this very useful question: what bad thing would happen if I DID take a news holiday? Would the world get any worse if I stopped tracking the news for a month? Would I miss something crucial to my own life in 30 days?

And the answer was (remarkably, to me at the time) no. Nobody would die, the world wouldn’t stop turning – it would be OK if I took a break.

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It was one of the best things I did for my mental health EVER. It was very hard, almost impossible some days at the start, to stay with my “news fast.” But I noticed (because these things interest me!) that my mood and energy almost immediately seemed to improve. In fact I felt so much better that I turned my month-long news fast into a YEAR.

(Why was it tough at first? I began to realize as my “fast” continued that I was up in the future worrying about what MIGHT happen if I didn’t track the news! Ugh! Why? I don’t have the power to shape the country’s or planet’s economics! Yikes!)

I track the news these days. I like checking in and seeing what’s shaking in the world around me. But, as Peter McWilliams in his brilliant book “Do It!” says, I can’t fix what’s happening in Russia or North Korea or even in Florida (I live in California.) Difficult, sad, scary things happen every day on this planet – 7 billion people, 24,000 miles around, a whole mess of different countries – stuff’s bound to happen, right?

But I check in now once a week, maybe less. It still surprises me how little has changed in some respects in the world news scene – except with me. I’m not nearly so invested in it, and the energy I gave away to all that news tracking is proving useful in other places in my life…

So here’s my first set of questions for this blog post: do you track the news? How does it make you feel? Does it leave you feeling drained and blue? How is that serving you? Is this something you NEED in your daily environment as you work to overcome anxiety? Or could you stand a “news holiday”?

If you follow the Farm Report you’re probably not stressing very much in your exposure to the news. But I’ve met and talked with too many people who fight regular bouts with anxiety and absorb a terrible amount of news about how bad things are in the world. It isn’t serving them. We can vote, we can lobby our congressperson, we can write letters, we can volunteer our time.

What we can’t do is change the world by worrying about it! What we CAN do is add to our anxiety and worry, increase the stress we’re putting on our bodies and minds – and how is that serving us in our fight with anxiety?

Negative People

The other “food” that feeds anxiety (and that I’m encouraging all of us to take a LONG diet from) is the input of the negative people in our life. When I use the word “negative” in this context I mean one thing: people who always have something downer, cynical, non-supportive, or dismissive to say.

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You know the folks I’m talking about, don’t you? These are the people that seem to think everything is stupid, or have something critical to say about anything we do, or are in one way or another reminding us of how we’ve failed, or what we do wrong (according to them.)

It is my experience that we anxiety-fighters are particularly susceptible to these people. We’re not really sure of ourselves, and these experts on everything seem to know just where to get past our emotional armor and hit us where we live.

I have written in earlier blog posts about how those of us who develop chronic anxiety often have a terrible time/lack of skill at drawing healthy boundaries for ourselves with other people. We can have an especially hard time, for some reason, with the energy-draining, joy-eroding people in our personal circle.

Maybe they are biological family. Maybe they are old friends. Maybe they are our husbands/wives/romantic partners/significant others. Maybe we feel guilty about saying something when they are supposed to be important to us.. Maybe they always couch it in terms of giving advice, or just a friendly observation – anything but a real, naked critical or negative statement.

Here’s the bottom-line: we don’t have the energy, time or capacity to both endure/deal with those negative people and their crap AND overcome anxiety. No, we have to in fact start with getting rid of the obvious, overt sources of anxiety-boosting energy in our lives.

You may not have to kick them out of the house. It may be as simple as just stopping the conversation when it starts down a negative track. That, by itself, is brilliant practice for drawing healthy boundaries and asserting yourself against unnecessary junk in your life or thinking.

Or it may be as simple as changing the topic. Or leaving the room when they won’t quit. It may even mean picking a brief fight and pointing out just how little they’re helping anything for you.

This is harder than doing a fast from the news. The news won’t yell at you if you won’t listen to it. 🙂 But that’s part of the work of overcoming anxiety, this deliberate deciding of what is useful and not useful to you in the road to health. It will be different for each of us, but all of us need to take better care of ourselves, and in particular what we allow to bombard us and our thinking.

So – Time for a Little Fasting?

It is amazing how hard it can be to diminish or shut down the flow of negative, life-draining influences in our lives. That doesn’t change the fact that it is a damn good idea. 🙂

I’m not saying the news is bad by itself. I’m not saying to divorce your husband or wife and kick them out of the house. I’m saying take stock, stop and think, consider what is sucking energy out of you and then start taking steps to DO something about it… anxiety takes enough from us. The work to re-program that thinking is taxing enough, without an endless stream of terrible news stories or the criticisms and put-downs of those close to us…

Love to hear your thoughts about this post (and any post you read here, btw.) Give this notion of getting away from unnecessary negative input a little thought. Better still, give the fasting idea a try. You might be surprised to find how good it will feel…

Unconscious 1

Feelings. I talk about them a lot in this blog. I often hear the word from my coaching clients, I see the word in the emails I receive, and yes, I have my own feelings. 🙂 Anxiety itself is a feeling, and it is often the seed of other feelings – anger, rage, sadness, depression, grief. To be afraid is to FEEL afraid, anxious, worried, scared. To be anxious is to be, too often, at the mercy of our feelings.

In this Fear Mastery work I say all the time that one of the skill sets we need to break free of anxiety is to “discount” the meaning of our feelings – specifically, the emotional (and physical) responses we have from Flight or Fight when we’re anxious. Some people have taken that to mean that they shouldn’t HAVE those feelings –that they should squish, bury and hide away those feelings from themselves.

Don’t do that. “Discounting” isn’t the same as shutting away. And shutting away our fears (and the thinking that generates those fears in the first place) is at the heart of why we’re anxious in the first place. No, our mission is to HAVE our feelings – let them surface, look them in the eye – but also dispute what they heck they seem to be saying to us.

HANG ON – You’re Saying it is GOOD to Feel Anxious?

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We anxiety-fighters don’t have a great relationship history with our feelings. It can, for many of us, seem like our feelings are petulant children or, worse, terrible slave-drivers, throwing us around the room, trashing our days, ruining our time with friends and family, making a mess of our lives. Our feelings can come to be unwanted house-guests that we just want to go away…

Part of the problem is we only poorly understand what the heck feelings ARE. Feelings are, among other things, ways to motivate us to take action. When we feel hungry we eat. (I know I do.) When we feel sleepy we find a flat surface and lie down. (Or, if you’re at work, put your head on your desk.) When we feel angry we want to DO something – break a dish, shout, take action in some way to deal with the thing that is making us angry.

All of that makes a ton of sense. Emotions/feelings are much older than conscious thought – way, way older. Like hundreds of millions of years older. Smart came very late in the game. Animals need to take action, and in the absence of clocks, calendars and appointment books feelings are what motivate them to take action in different situations.

So emotions are STRONG. They need to be. You can’t, if you’re a water buffalo, ignore those hunger pangs. Not eating is a bad idea! And this applies even more to immediate, physical danger. Living things need to be alert and responsive when their lives are threatened, yes?

Enter human beings and anxiety. We didn’t lose any of the feelings that helped our ancestors survive before humans had the bulging brains we have now – we just stacked those smarts on top of those feelings. That can be a tremendous strength, if we understand the relationship between feelings and thinking. It can also a key element of anxiety – which is why I’m writing and you’re reading this blog.

When we start to imagine/picture something bad happening in our future, and that bad thing scares us in our thinking, well, we’re going to have feelings. We’re going to have feelings because we’re triggering Flight or Fight. We’re hard-wired that way. As I keep saying here that’s a GOOD thing – we need that system to stay frosty in case of real danger.

So you are going to have feelings when you’re anxious! And they won’t be the happy, fuzzy feelings you have when you see a bunny or the face of someone you love. (Or, in my case, a container of Baskin-Robbins ice cream – Vanilla, please, or I’m also good with Cookie Dough.) Nope, they will be anxious, lets-get-the-hell-out-of-here kind of feelings – the feelings that would get you moving in the presence of real, physical, life-or-death danger.

Which means yes, you do need to feel your feelings, if only because you’re going to, whether you want to or not. And it won’t serve you at all to simply try and squish those feelings. It isn’t like you have a big box you can shove your feelings into and lock the lid. We’d like to THINK we can do that – but the end result of all that attempted squishing is, in fact, anxiety.

But I Don’t LIKE These Feelings!

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Yup – I hear that. Then again, those feelings really are not the problem. It is the thinking behind them that are the problem. Feelings are simply the messengers of your thinking or, more accurately, your mental responses to your environment. In non-self-aware creatures (like that mouse in your basement) that thinking is mostly learned experience. Don’t eat cheese sitting on wood platforms that smell of metal. Do chew open bags that smell like flour. Run away from large furry things that purr.

In us it is a much richer (and potentially more anxious) universe of mental activity. We can conjecture/speculate about the future – and in having that ability we open ourselves up to some serious worries, if we’re not clear on the difference between crisis and problem. All it takes for us is to think we’re in the middle of a crisis – life-or-death – and that’s enough to power up Flight or Fight.

Which means we’re going to have feelings! And their mission is to GET US MOVING – either running (best choice) or fighting (remove this scary thing from my life right now!) Like them, don’t like them, try to bury them, knock yourself out – you’re going to have feelings.

So it isn’t about liking or not liking our feelings, any more than it is about liking or not liking your eye color or your height. They just ARE. The real question is what do we DO with those feelings as we’re having them?

I have two answers for you –

Don’t Start the Wave / Ride the Wave

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The first answer is, of course, to avoid firing up Flight or Fight in the first place. And that’s the eventual goal of this work – to learn to NOT let our thoughts scare us the way they do now. As we get more and more skillful in our practice of converting crises back into problems in our thinking we will be less and less likely to get anxious in the first place.

Along the way, however (and essential to the work of reaching that end goal) we need to learn to ride the wave of our emotions once Flight or Fight is engaged. This is the perfect place for a surfing metaphor, so grab your board shorts…

Surfers understand that waves are NOT, by their nature and size, controllable. You don’t paddle out to surf with the expectation that you’re going to control ANYTHING but your reaction to the wave – period. When you’re starting out you pretty much suck at wave-riding. You get tossed around a lot, you feel helpless a lot of the time, and you’re convinced you’re never going to get it right.

But you do get better at it, with practice and determination, and part of what helps you get better is learning to just ride the wave rather than fight it. And that’s a great parallel with the feelings of Flight or Fight. Once we activate that mechanism, no matter HOW much we want to control it, it is going to do its thing.

And, as in surfing, the more we get freaked out by the wave of our feelings the worse we make it! Which, at the start, makes us even crazier. And even after we learn this crucial lesson about feeling our feelings, allowing them to just happen, we still have to practice discounting the meaning of those feelings.

That’s why discounting the MEANING of those feelings is so central to this work. Those intense feeling amplify our fear for two reasons: 1) we label them as bad, scary, evil, linking them to the thoughts that start those feelings in the first place, and 2) we’re afraid that they are never, ever going to stop/leave us alone.

ALL of that fear is about the future – yes? Every last bit of it. The future is the problem – not the feelings. The heart of all of this is the meaning we give our feelings. And meaning is a mental process, a learned process.

That doesn’t mean we set out to makes ourselves fearful, it just means that, with a combination of lack of understanding and worry about the future, we’ve learned to scare ourselves silly with our thinking and our physical and emotional reactions.

Here’s some really good news: you only need to get a little ways down the road of this work to see the results start to happen. That doesn’t mean you’ll turn a corner and suddenly it will be easy.

You have to do the work, and that means ups and downs, good days and bad days. What I mean is that you’ll begin to get it, begin to feel yourself NOT making it worse, begin to get skillful at both allowing your feelings and discounting their importance to you (when you’re anxious.)

Please don’t take my word for any of this! Nope, paddle out yourself and start the work. The waves are not good or bad – they just are. Your feelings are not good or bad – they just are. They are not prophets of doom, they don’t have certain knowledge of the future (any more than you or I do), and they can’t hurt you.

But they can scare you – until you begin to reframe what they MEAN. Then they start to become less and less frightening. There will be definite bumps – days or even weeks where the work seems endless and deeply frustrating. Which is to be expected. We, most of us, have spent a lot of time (years or decades) scaring ourselves witless with our thoughts AND our feelings.

Just don’t forget there will also be victories, and slow and steady progress, and you’ll reach a point where you’re aware that you just tried to scare yourself, and it didn’t really happen. You’ll have found that you’re starting to learn to ride the wave.

“What if?” This is the timeless question that, when we find ourselves becoming anxious, we have been asking ourselves in one form or another. I have been pounding on this particular theme in several recent blog posts. It is only when we start asking ourselves “what if?” that we can experience anxiety for any length of time.

Notice that I used the word “timeless” in that first sentence. I’m going to talk today about how this is the heart of what makes the “what if?” question so scary to us – the sense that, whatever we’re afraid of, that it will go on forever – literally.

And it is that quality of bad lasting forever that generates anxiety in us.

What If This Never Stops?

I have mentioned numerous times in this blog that one of the handful of physical Flight or Fight responses that was scary to me was the sense of numbness in my hands and arms. It was one of the symptoms that first hit me when I began my journey through anxiety back in Junior High, and it carried for a long time the power to really freak me out.

The other responses that terrified me (and that isn’t too strong a word for how I felt) were dizziness and nausea. Perhaps the darkest day of my entire experience with anxiety was the morning I woke up in the kitchen and found myself staring at the kitchen knives, and thinking calmly how I didn’t have to put up with being afraid like this any more – I could just end things right then and there.

You can imagine how much that rocked my world. I don’t even remember walking into the kitchen. Of course I hadn’t really slept in almost a week, having experienced panic attacks every night at bedtime, staring at the TV until the early hours of the morning, desperate to avoid feeling anxious and having any of the Flight or Fight responses I was so afraid of.

Exhausted and finally at the edge of my capacity to keep going on like I had been going, I didn’t have clue what to do next, except call it quits. Yikes…

In any event I called my doctor and got my ass down to his office. As luck would have it he was called into an emergency and I sat in his outer office for almost 3 hours. I experienced panic attack after panic attack, afraid to leave, afraid to stay, just praying he would have something he could do for me.

WHY was I so freakin’ scared? There were multiple things I was afraid of, but at the heart of it I was afraid that I would be fighting anxiety forever – that this intense fear and terror would never end.

Let’s Get More Specific

If that sounds terrible, well, it was. But the saddest part of all of it from this distance in time is that I really was Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” I had my own way out, if I’d only known I possessed it.

I was standing in that kitchen on that terrible day because I had been thinking, for years, that I was doomed to be anxious for the rest of my life. That may not sound very bad or horrible to someone who hasn’t fought chronic anxiety or panic attacks or depression.

But after 2 decades of being both afraid of the future in various ways AND being sick to death of my own body and feelings scaring me, I was DONE. Finished. I couldn’t take any more of the pulse of fear in my life, my body and my thinking.

What I didn’t get at the time was that I was scaring myself WITH MY THINKING. I didn’t understand that I was taking challenges in my life – my beliefs, my worries about my career, my concerns about who I was in relation to other people, etc. – and turning them into crises, life-and-death issues that I HAD to manage or avoid or deal with, RIGHT NOW…

I didn’t get that. I would have challenged that if someone had suggested it to me. I wasn’t aware that I had done that. I had never consciously done that. I had just, over the course of time (and starting very early in my life) had learned to take various issues and ramp them up into crises in my thinking.

And it had never occurred to me, nor had I ever learned, that my thinking was the source of my anxiety. More specifically I didn’t get that my fears of failure – at relationship, at career, at supporting myself, at dealing with family issues, all of that and more – were the wellspring for all of my anxious responses.

To complete the nightmare I was creating I didn’t realize that I was unconsciously assuming that this fear would never end. There was real terror (if I am being brutally honest I really was freaked out by my body’s responses, physically and emotionally, to my anxiety) at even the hint of either vertigo/dizziness or numbness in my hands and arms. I was DONE. Finished. I didn’t want to do that anymore.

Forever. It felt and seemed like it was going to go on forever.

Two Tiny Words Were the Problem…

When Dorothy is told by the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” that she could have gone home anytime she liked I was pretty pissed off (when I was a kid.) It seemed completely unfair to me that she had had to do all the crap she had to do, and put herself in the danger she had experienced, when she could have skipped it ALL with some heel-clicking!

So when I first began to get my mind around the understanding that my fear was specifically rooted in the various ways I had been asking myself “what if?” in my thinking I was equally pissed off. WHY had I had to suffer through the YEARS of anxiety if it really was this simple?

Two hard truths: 1) it WAS that simple, but 2) that didn’t make it easy. I had been asking myself (and scaring myself) with “what if?” questions for two decades – actually longer, since those questions began well before I actually become conscious of being anxious.

I had worn some pretty deep grooves in my thinking, created some very strong thinking habits, and they were not going to get reprogrammed and cleaned up in a day, or week, or even a month.

And there’s something else to consider in this conversation, something very important in our understanding of why we maintain anxious thoughts even after we’ve become aware of how they are crippling us: we started having those concerns/anxieties/fears in the first place because they seemed to be ways to keep us safe.

Fear As a Way of Protecting Ourselves

This is a larger topic for further blog posts, but for the moment the summary notion is that we don’t develop fear and worry because we have too much free time on our hands.

We start asking ourselves “what if?” questions because we’re trying very hard, for various reasons, to do things right, to stay safe, to meet other people’s expectations of us, to be moral or good or a good kid or the right husband or wife or whatever roles we’re living in our lives.

So there are two powerful forces at work conspiring to keep us asking those “what if?” questions even after we get clear that we’re doing it – the habit of long years and the sense that those fears are keeping us from even worse outcomes. Yuk! That’s a lot of crap to wade through.

It finally comes down to us making some grown-up choices about our lives and what is working and not working for us. It means deciding that we’ve had enough of anxiety and fear and worry. It means looking our fearful thinking in the eye, metaphorically, and deciding whether or not this belief or that rule or this worry is worth all the energy and time we’ve given away to it.

It means, really, making our fear conscious, so we can deal with it, master it, and put it behind us.

Thankfully the work doesn’t take nearly as long as the build-up! 🙂 There is definitely some work involved, don’t get me wrong. And the work is usually tiring, even exhausting, and you don’t get it done in a day or a week or even a month (although as I keep saying you’ll be surprised how quickly you can cover ground and get some progress made.)

The really hard part is confronting those “what if?” questions face on, and staying with it, even when your Comfort Zone is screaming at you to stop, even when you’re sick to death of your Flight or Fight reactions, even when you just want to STOP FEELING CRAPPY AND AFRAID.

Except of course you’ve BEEN feeling crappy and afraid, too much of your life, and all that is different between doing the work and not doing the work is actually facing your fears, rather than running from them.

So to bring this blog post full-circle the bottom line is no fear has to last forever. It has felt that way because we’ve been running from our fearful thinking, and we’ve also probably not had the tools we needed to deal with that fear and anxiety. But nothing is forever – not even fear. Better still we have the power now, today, to begin to take those fears face-on and get rid of them.

I have spent some time in the last few months talking here at the blog about those deadly “what if?” questions. These questions are the primary source of the vast majority of human anxiety. Yes, every once in a while we face a hurricane (the East Coast of the U.S. is pretty familiar with THAT scenario) or have a tire blow out on the freeway (yikes) or something actually physically dangerous.

But 99% of the time our fears come from our thinking, and specifically thinking about what might happen to us in the future. The Comfort Zone, that body of learned experience that we accumulate as we go through life that tells us what is safe and not safe, becomes very close friends with our “what if?” questions.

Today’s discussion is about that connection between our Comfort Zone and our “what if?” questions, and what that means for our fearful thinking and reactions.

(Don’t) Send in the Clowns!

It goes something like this: you have a thought about something that makes you anxious. Let’s say that you’re afraid of clowns. (Lots of people are – makes me wonder why they’re so popular at parties.) You’re minding your own business and you see a guy in a clown suit walking to his next gig. You immediately flash on one of your “what if?” questions about clowns.

(It is crucial to remember that those questions are very often outside of your conscious awareness. You can bring them to your awareness, but that doesn’t mean they START there.)

Maybe you think clowns are secretly axe-murderers. (Hey – I’ve heard folks say that.) Maybe clowns just look really freaky to you – they conjure memories of sleepless nights or scary dreams you’ve had. Doesn’t really make any difference. All that has to happen is for you to start those “what if?” questions in your head, like…

“what if I dream about clowns tonight? I hate those dreams! They freak me out, and I can’t sleep very well, and then I’m really foggy the next day at work. Hey, what if I KEEP dreaming about clowns? What if I can’t sleep for the next several nights? Then what if I can’t go to work because I’m too tired, and I get fired for missing work? And what if..”

You probably can take the story from here from your own experience. Yikes!

The point is you’ve asked yourself a “what if?” question, that in turn started some conjecturing about the future (a future that makes you anxious), and you’ve immediately tapped two things – your Flight or Fight Response, and as a result, your Comfort Zone.

La La La – I Can’t Hear Me…

The above line is something I heard once in a movie when someone didn’t want to listen to a friend and plugged their ears, saying that to themselves. Always makes me laugh when I think of it… but it isn’t bad as a way to describe what the Comfort Zone does when we start those scary “what if?” questions.

Remember, the MOMENT we get anxious we trigger, to some degree, Flight or Fight. And the moment that starts we begin to prepare to run (or, if we absolutely have to, fight).

In a sense we start stuffing our fingers in our ears and chanting “la, la, la, I can’t hear me” when we have those scary thoughts. We don’t WANT to be afraid. And so we step back.

We add another layer of experience to our Comfort Zone, teaching ourselves that these thoughts are too scary, too much too manage. The Comfort Zone says OK chief – you got it. This is WAY too scary, so I’m going to remind you the next time how scary these clowns are, and you’ll be sure to stay away…

And this isn’t just happening once or twice. Oh no – we’re doing this again and again and again, and most of the time we’re completely unaware of it. Our Comfort Zone, that body of learned experience about what makes us afraid, takes the wheel and says “nope, this scares you, makes you anxious, so we’re not going this way today.”

Step Back Folks – Nothing to See Here

Remember that the Comfort Zone develops in our thinking and lives for ONE reason: to keep us safe. That includes obviously keeping us FEELING safe. Notice I didn’t say that it develops to keep us ACTUALLY safe – not in the world we live in.

In the natural world, the world of watering holes and tigers and full-time grass-grazing, yes, it gets pretty close to being the same thing. But in our very human world the Comfort Zone develops to keep us feeling safe from ANYTHING we label as dangerous or scary in our thinking. FEELING safe doesn’t necessarily mean at all that we were actually facing any danger or that we ARE safe right now…

That last comment wasn’t meant to scare you! 🙂 It is simply that how we FEEL may not (often doesn’t) reflect either real danger or real safety in our lives. That’s because we’re busy being afraid in our thinking, not afraid in the world of real danger and risk and safety.

Let’s make this just a little more challenging. There is nowhere to go when we have scary thoughts. Wolves you can (usually) run away from. Scary thoughts – those are with you, in you, and all you can do is try and shut them out, push them down.

So What Does This Have to do With Clowns?

So you see a clown. You have been afraid of clowns for a long time. A clown triggers your anxious thinking (consciously or more likely out of your conscious awareness) – those lovely “what if?” questions that unnerve you.

Then you have Flight or Fight power up, to some extent, and now you’re feeling scratchy/worried/anxious, and you’re have hints of those uncomfortable physical reactions to Flight or Fight as well. So what do you do? Do you start examining your thinking and challenging your fears?

Nope. You stuff your fingers in your ears, you chant “la la la I can’t hear me!” and you get away from that clown (and the thought of that clown) as fast as you can. You’ve been doing it for a while, or maybe even a long time, and it has become all but a reflex.

The key lies in our unpacking our anxious thinking. The more we become conscious of our anxious thoughts – how we’ve turned, rarely intentionally, a problem or issue into a “what if?” crisis that scares us – and the more we work to convert that crisis BACK into a problem, the more power we have over our fear.

We have to stop shoving our fingers in our ears. We have to stop letting the bogeymen of our thinking (which I KNOW from my own experience can be damn scary, at least until we turn and face them) run our lives. We have to stop letting anxious drive us unconsciously and take conscious control over our thinking.

Scary – no question. Rather do it after dinner and a DVD – I get that. Couldn’t this wait until this coming Monday – probably. But remember that our Comfort Zones will ALWAYS find a way to have us stall, and wait, and put it off… la la la, I can’t hear me…

Most of us are so habituated to the reflexive worry about the future (aided by the natural tendencies of Flight or Fight) that we need the deliberate, intentional practice of changing our thinking.

I copied what I wrote in my last post above because it’s a perfect intro to this second (and for the moment last) post on positive thinking and anxiety work. It’s a four-dollar word, but it’s the exact right one for this discussion – habituated. We fall into really, REALLY bad habits of routine, unconscious, constant thinking. It is one of the core problems in the fight we have with anxiety.

Which brings me to the second use of positive thinking, and it is closer to how most of us think of positive thinking – actually making the effort to see the bright side.

Hey Man – It’s All Good

When I was teaching college one of the cool things to say among my students was “It’s all good!” I don’t hear that much since I’ve left the college scene, but the phrase has always stuck with me. I don’t know where it started, but it is a great verbal reminder of something those of us who battle anxiety can practice remembering.

If you wrestle with fear and anxiety life can get pretty black – it can definitely FEEL really black. We get so caught up in our fear, our worry, our sense that everything is going to hell, that our world is shrinking, that we feel like our lives our out of control, that our view of things gets pretty narrow.

Yet as I said in my last post a LOT of this comes down to Flight or Fight’s efforts in our brains and bodies to find a way out of the scary thoughts that are filling our heads. Just because we FEEL terrible, and just because we FEEL scared, doesn’t mean that we are in fact racing to our doom.

That’s easier to say than appreciate when we’re in the middle of our fears – believe me, I know. But in the same way that it is very, very useful to work to get our thinking back into rational, problem-solving mode when we’re anxious (as I discussed in my last post) it can be equally useful to “look at the bright side of things” when we’re awash in our worries.

So what does that look like?

What’s Working?

One way to approach this is to examine what IS working in our lives, even in the midst of our anxiety. Do we have food and clothing? Do we have reasonable shelter from the elements? Are we employed? Is there any money in the bank? Do we have our health, even with our fear and worry? Do we have friends who care for us? Someone who loves us? Family that thinks we should stick around?

This isn’t an effort to dismiss our anxiety as important or real – it is. We are fighting a serious and debilitating condition, regardless of the good things in our lives. The point of this is (as in the last post) deliberately wrenching our thinking out of the deep and repetitive groove that our worry carves in our brain, and focusing out away from our fears and back into what IS working.

Flight or Fight is obsessive, mono-focused, maniacal in its determination to get us away from the scary things in our thinking. All good – in the natural world. Not so useful when we’re worried about non-dangerous issues like a leaking roof or whether our boss likes us or not.

Which means we have to make a mental effort, develop a practice of identifying when we are lost in dark/fearful/anxious thinking, and then, along with the practice of getting our thinking back to practical problem-solving, focus on the truth that our lives are not categorically a dark cloud. It is the practice of avoiding all or nothing thinking.

Come Back to the Present

Another very practical tool for disconnecting our fearful thinking is to work at being where you are, when you are – to work at being in the present moment. I have discussed this in earlier blog posts, this notion that one powerful antidote to worrying about the future is to energetically get involved in the present.

The summer of the start of my journey out of chronic anxiety and panic attacks I was literally sitting on my hands most of the time I wasn’t working (and, frankly, was doing a lot of hand-sitting at work too.) I was very lost in my anxiety, trying the beginning steps of this unpacking of my thinking work, and one day a friend recommended that I find a way to occupy some of my weekend and/or evening time.

As luck would have it a friend had opened a flower shop up at Lake Tahoe, about 45 minutes from where I Iived, and he needed some part-time help. I had no real interest in flowers, but it meant interacting with people, making a drive through beautiful mountain scenery, and it was a chance to get away from my four walls.

I should state here for the record that I SUCK at flower-arranging – I’m really bad at it. And the first several shifts at the flower shop were pretty tough – I was anxious, I was tired, I just wanted to go home and sit on my hands again.

But it was also a great chance to practice being in the present moment – cleaning flowers, taking calls, talking to people, even just the drive up and back listening to the radio. It was NOT easy. It was a real drag at the beginning. But it was exactly what I needed to do to help start getting out of my head and to take a break from the confronting my anxious thinking work.

Focusing on the present has two uses: it drags us out of the future in our heads, and it can help us focus on what is good and productive and useful right now, where we are. Sure, my life sucked at that time – at least that’s how it felt.

But JUST the practice of trying to be in the present moment was a good practice, and the world seemed less dark and sad and pointless when I was focused on what I was doing in the moment.

I dearly wish that someone could have pointed this out to me at that time!

But It Feels Like I SHOULD Worry About the Future…

I wish someone had pointed that out to me because my fear and anxiety kept telling me to focus on my fears and anxieties – to keep trying to find a way out. And that wasn’t helping. The steady work of unpacking my fears and identifying what I was scaring myself about – that was useful.

Challenging what Flight or Fight reactions actually meant (nothing) would have been useful if I had known that. But constantly worrying about my worries, angsting over my fears – that wasn’t helping.

We get so hyper-vigilant, so attentive to every little change in our bodies and thinking, so focused on what MIGHT happen based on our fearful thinking scenarios, that we lose all the joy in our life. We don’t have to do that. We don’t have to be the prisoner of our fears – the prisoner of our fearful thinking.

We don’t have to worry about the future. We may need to think about it, prepare for it, develop a plan for it, work towards it, problem-solve around it – but worry? No. Not useful.

That’s where positive thinking comes in: 1) practicing turning crises BACK into problems – and as a result moving out of fearful thinking and into useful decision-making, work and problem-solving, and 2) looking at what’s working, what’s good in our lives, and working to come out of the future and back into the present. THOSE are useful activities, and mighty weapons against our fears.

Thank you for the great feedback on the last three blog posts. Sure makes my day when I see your kind words. Please allow me to encourage you to post your comments to the blog so other folks can see them, if you’re willing/comfortable with that (I know some folks are not!)

One of my BIG goals with this blog, and the website to follow, is to develop a community of people who are helping each other bust their fears and anxieties –

Today I’m all about outlining what happens when we make the easy-to-make mistake of turning a problem into a crisis. I call this the Chronic Anxiety Cycle. Please be clear that while I call out specific stages of this cycle for clarity and understanding, this is very much an organic process – you can move back and forth through this cycle, and different stages can happen at the same time, and at different speeds.

The point is that there are specific things we do when we turn a problem into a crisis in our thinking, and there are specific things we can do to disrupt that cycle and get our fear and anxiety back under control. So don’t get too lost in the stages! Do, however, please get clear on what’s happening in our thinking when we continue to worry over a problem as if it was a crisis…

The Descent

In my posts on the Flight or Fight Response I listed out some of the things that are happening in our bodies and brains when we activate Flight or Fight. The Chronic Anxiety Cycle is the result of that activation. In a very real sense it is simply the long-duration effort of Flight or Fight to get us away from the danger we perceive.

It starts like this: let’s pretend for a moment you’ve been asked by your manager to give a presentation at work. Let’s pretend further that you’d rather face down a pack of saber tooth tigers (I am really stuck on saber tooth tigers right now – can you imagine how scary THEY must have been?) than get up in front of an audience. (I know NONE of us are afraid to speak to an audience – but this is just hypothetical…)

Now you’re feeling afraid – and so Flight or Fight kicks in. Along with your favorite/preferred physical and emotional responses to Flight or Fight (maybe for you it is sweaty palms, a racing heart and an abiding, restless feeling of frustration and anxiety) you also find yourself trying very hard in your thinking to resolve this crisis.

How does that look?

The Worry Engine

This is the name I have given to this first stage of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle. You know the drill. We start asking ourselves all kinds of “what if?” questions, and NONE of them are hopeful, maybe-it-will-be-fine questions. Oh no. We’re asking ourselves SCARY questions –

Questions like “what if I make a mistake during the presentation?” or “what if I say something stupid?” Questions like “what if I stutter?” or “what if I can’t talk at all?” And of course every time we ask a question like that we continue to activate Flight or Fight (assuming these questions scare us.)

It’s a lot like revving an engine without engaging the clutch – you make a lot of noise and burn a lot of energy, but you don’t get anyplace. Except that you DO crank up your stress and anxiety and fear and worry – hence the name.

Those scenarios you’re spinning out? They’re efforts to escape – efforts to find the way out of the danger. Except there IS no danger – you can’t die from giving a presentation. (I can hear some folks now saying “sez YOU ERIK! It sure FEELS like dying!”)

Sure – But What IF Those Horrible Things I’m Worried About Actually Happen?

Just asking this question reveals how much our thinking can frighten us. Without exception when I’m talking to coaching clients they ask this question. Let’s go back to the work presentation example question “what if I say something stupid?”

When we’re doing Worry Engine obsessing we imagine all kinds of nightmare scenarios. We say something stupid and people laugh at us. We say something stupid and people shake their heads, get up and leave the room. Then our boss tells us we’re fired. Then we’re being evicted from our house. Then we’re living on the street… etc.

All of this stems from Flight or Fight trying desperately to 1) figure out a way to get away from the danger you’re perceiving/thinking (looking for what might happen, doing projections to help you quickly decide what to do next) and 2) get you moving as a fast as possible. Think of Flight or Fight trying to find an escape route, so it is sorting out which things to avoid doing…

Brilliant – if you’re facing down a saber tooth tiger! NOT so useful if you’re worrying about a presentation at work. In fact it is seriously NOT useful for the latter.

OK, Smart Guy – What Might Actually Happen If My Fears Come True?

I’m not saying something difficult, embarrassing or frustrating couldn’t happen. Those things do happen to all of us. I’m saying our Worry Engine Fears are way, way distorted from the actual likely outcomes.

Let’s say you do say something goofy during your work presentation. Let’s do one better and define goofy – let’s say you say a word wrong, pronouncing it incorrectly. OK. So what? People look at each other in puzzlement, maybe consider it for a second (assuming they even noticed, which they often don’t) and then they move on. Maybe someone gently corrects you privately after the presentation.

Heck, maybe someone teases you after the presentation! OK. So? You don’t get fired, you don’t have co-workers howling at you, you don’t wind up on the street.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that one of my professional skills is helping people become better presenters. I easily spend 40% of my time in that work just helping people get over their anxieties and very deep fears about failing at presenting.

Better still, you KNOW this already – when you’re not afraid. When you’re in your problem-solving, calm mind you already get this. But let’s not forget that Flight or Fight degrades or even largely closes down rational, critical thinking capacities – you don’t need those to escape tigers.

What to DO When We Start the Worry Engine?

Great question. Here are some suggestions:

1) Realize that you are firing up The Worry Engine! Just identifying the fact that you’re now racing into hypothetical, dark, unnerving future scenarios is a step in the right direction.

2) Along with that realization, remember that you’re busy scaring yourself every single time you conjure a scary future scenario – you are activating your own Flight or Fight Response, and so of course you’re also conjuring the frightening feelings and sensations that come with doing that.

3) Take a moment to physically calm down. Do some serious deep breathing – conscious, deliberate, controlled breathing, driving your focus into your breathing and away from your anxious thinking about the future. This works. It probably won’t shut down your fear permanently, but it is a great short-term relief technique.

Why? Because it to some extent shuts down Flight or Fight. The two responses can’t co-exist – you’re either panicking or you’re calming yourself down, physically.

4) Once you get a little less worried, start challenging your worst-case thinking. Lose my job? Really? Sure, it is scary to think about that – but then it is scary to think about LOTS of things. Does that mean you should sit around and WORRY about them?

The answer is no, you shouldn’t. Work, prepare, take sensible precautions (in the case of presenting; sort your data, create some sort of outline, practice a little), but then practice letting it GO. This runs counter to our very natural inclination to worry the concern to death in the vague hope that doing all that worrying will somehow create something useful or productive.

Time for a strong statement: worry does nothing for us. It FEELs like we’re doing something, but in reality we’re only making ourselves crazy, giving away energy that we can spend better in other ways.

Stop The Worry Engine, And You Stop the Chronic Anxiety Cycle

Here’s the funny thing: all of us, all the time, have topics or issues that might start us into Worry Engine/What If thinking – but then we stop it, get a grip and move on. All of us. Less funny but equally true, just about all of us have things that get our Worry Engine fired up, and off we go, heading merrily down the road to on-going anxiety and fretting and fear…

We have the capacity, the real power to stop this dance in its tracks. It is a great place to do this stopping, the stage I call the Worry Engine – in some respects it is the easiest place to stop this descent. It takes the least energy of any point in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, and we’re potentially the most aware (or most likely to be aware) that we’re driving into worry at this point.

Of course the best place of all to avoiding starting the cycle is to get skillful at not converting problems into crises in the first place. 🙂

Next up – the next stage in Chronic Anxiety – the Indefinite Negative Future

Sometimes we naturally, as I said earlier, stop at The Worry Engine stage of things, getting ahold of our thinking and remembering that we’re facing a problem, not a crisis. But sometimes we don’t – sometimes we continue to obsess over our frightening future projections –

which in turn often leads us to landing on one or two “what ifs?” that really scare us, and we begin to focus on them most of all. We begin to act as if we KNEW those things were going to happen. And that takes us to the next stage of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle – more on that next post.

This blog is approaching the two-year mark, and I thought it was time to do a quick review of the basics of Fear Mastery, both for ease of reference and for folks that are new or relatively new to the Fear Mastery Blog.

To start that review I’ve created a quick list of the major terms I use in the framework of Fear Mastery, along with a brief definition of each term.

Flight or Fight Response – the evolved physical and mental “emergency response system” every species on the planet has to deal with immediate physical danger, humans being no exception. It is hard-wired into our brains and bodies, and is a highly effective way to deal with life-or-death situations (situations where we are literally at risk for injury or death if we don’t act NOW.)

Crisis vs. Problem – this is the crux of the framework of Fear Mastery. We face two kinds of situations as human beings, unlike the rest of the natural world. We face crises – those life-or-death situations I just referenced under the Flight or Fight Response. We also face problems – challenges that do NOT immediately threaten us with physical harm, but that do need thinking, planning, effort and time to resolve.

The start of the vast majority of the fear and anxiety that we human beings face is when we turn a problem into a crisis. And the problem with being intelligent creatures that have the Flight or Fight Response is that we can turn just about ANY problem into a crisis, i.e., we can treat a non-immediate, non-lethal situation as if it was one. If left unchecked this is the start of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.

Chronic Anxiety Cycle – our brain’s attempt to solve a problem as if it were a crisis. We are trying to escape the danger we are creating in our thinking. The stages of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle are the Worry Engine, Indefinite Negative Futures, Anticipatory Anxiety and the Comfort Zone.

Two important characteristics of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle are 1) the further you progress in the cycle the less conscious you are of the fear you’re trying to run from, and 2) the further you progress in the cycle the more energy and work it will take to unplug that fear.

Worry Engine – this is the first stage of the brain’s efforts to solve the problem-turned-crisis in our thinking. We begin generating possible scenarios of what might happen if our worries come to pass, as well as potential outcomes of those scenarios. All of this is an effort to solve or escape the scary thing.

It is important to remember that every time we scare ourselves with these frightening future scenarios we once again activate Flight or Fight, which feeds back into our increasingly anxious efforts to escape this crisis in our thinking.

Indefinite Negative Future – this is the stage of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle where we latch on to one or two of the scenarios we’ve generated in the Worry Engine stage, and begin acting/responding to those scenarios AS IF they were foregone conclusions.

We almost always forecast negative outcomes, and that, when things go bad, they will stay bad – hence the term Indefinite Negative Future. We (metaphorically) create a tiger in the room (in our thinking). We are still (at this point in the Cycle) trying hard to escape this danger/end this crisis.

Anticipatory Anxiety – When we reach this stage we are growing weary of the constant struggle with the crisis we’ve (not deliberately, not consciously) created. As a result we begin to wall the issue away from us. Sick to death of being afraid and exhausted from the unrelenting pulse of fear and worry, we start to block it from our thinking.

This can include the use of self-medication (food, alcohol, drugs, endless TV watching, you name it) in that effort to escape our fear/anxiety. We are at this point very much in the Flight part of Flight or Fight.

Comfort Zone – The end result of our efforts to wall away our fears. We automatically flinch from possible exposure to the fearful thing, blocking it from our thinking. We experience the warning signals of Flight or Fight (physical, emotional and psychological) when we are (by our deliberate efforts, or by accident) moved towards a potential confrontation with that fear.

The Comfort Zone tends to shrink in response to our fear, always moving us to (perceived) greater safety. This sets the stage for both depression and panic attacks.

One of the most important understandings of this stage in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle is that the Comfort Zone is a result of OUR efforts to get away from our anxiety and fear. We build the walls, the defenses of the Comfort Zone, and the Comfort Zone’s ONLY mission is to keep you away from the scary thing in your thinking.

When we decide to expand our walls the Comfort Zone does not go quietly! We have learned/taught ourselves to be afraid, and it takes work, time and patience to confront that fear and push the walls of our Comfort Zone back.

Fear Mastery Toolbox – the set of techniques and approaches to dealing with and unplugging our fears. The heart of the toolbox is the conscious effort to convert the problem-turned-crisis in our thinking BACK into a problem again.

One of the key concepts of the toolbox is that thinking (dysfunctional, inaccurate thinking) is what gets us in trouble with fear in the first place, and it is thinking (healthy, accurate thinking) that sets us free, with practice and increasing skill. (Heavy emphasis, btw, on the practice and increasing skill part. It does take a little time, which can be VERY frustrating to those of us that wrestle with anxiety and worry!)

Part of the work at unplugging our fear and anxiety is understanding that we are usually fighting two levels of worry/fear. The first level is the thinking or issue that frightens us in the first place. The second is the fear we learn to feel in response to the Flight or Fight Responses we experience physically, emotionally and psychologically.

This is the principal reason this work can be so draining, and why we are so often prone to delaying or avoiding this work, however much we want to be free from our fears and worries.

What Do You Think?

Please let me know what you think of this little glossary/set of definitions. I have finished Draft I of the book for Fear Mastery, and every piece of feedback I get helps this writing process. Thank you!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably been bombarded with gloomy news about the economy. Worse, the bombardment has been going on to some degree since the end of 2007, right? The news has ranged from bad to horrible – people out of work, companies not hiring, stocks tanking, experts making dire predictions about two recessions or a depression. And it just seems to keep coming, relentlessly.

It seems like a LOT of people are scared . The headline on Yahoo! News (the day I started this post) said “Job Growth Grinds to Halt, Stokes Recession Fears”. It is easy to find anxiety in THAT headline. You can double or triple that anxiety if you’re one of the roughly 9% of the working population that isn’t working right now, and/or has been out of work for months or years.

It seems (from what I hear from the people in my life, and from my own experience) that it is very easy to get overwhelmed by the state of the economy these days. Even if you don’t wrestle with chronic anxiety, panic attacks or depression the economy can really rattle your cage (or even bring on panic attacks!) And if you are currently dealing with anxiety/fear/panic, well, it can feel like a tidal wave…

Let’s Clarify a Couple of Things First…

Steven Covey (Senior) wrote a book called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It is a very good book, and isn’t easily digested in one sitting. One of the best notions from his book is something he calls the Circle of Influence vs. the Circle of Concern.

The concept is simple. There are things you have direct control over (your feet, your car, your clothing choices, what you eat, etc.) and those things fall into your Circle of Influence. You have influence over those things in your life, which in this discussion really means you have control over them.

You don’t like the way your feet smell? No problem – YOU can wash them. You want new car seat covers and you have some extra cash? Excellent – YOU can buy them. You think you look dumb in that shirt? Easy – take it off and put a new one on. Etc.

There are also things that you have no control over (how other drivers are acting around you while you’re in your car, whether or not Target or Macy’s is out of your favorite shirt, the bad day the cook who made your lunch is having) and those things fall into your Circle of Concern. They may impact you (and they often do), but you don’t have control over them. You can be worried all you like, you can get upset, you can freak out if you want – but you STILL don’t have control over these things.

For example, I’m the kind of guy who historically got very upset at other drivers for how they were driving. I would shout, yell, flip people off (hate to admit that, but it happened), you probably know the drill. Guess what? It was a grand waste of time and energy.

I live in a suburban area of close to three million people, and I could have a stroke worrying about how everyone else is driving. I can’t control them. They are NOT in my Circle of Influence (except for maybe the honking or flipping them off behaviors) – they are part of my Circle of Concern.

I know you know where I’m going with this. The Economy falls into our Circle of Concern, NOT our Circle of Influence.

Feeling Helpless

Saying out loud that we don’t have control over the economy as individuals isn’t intended to bring despair! And it isn’t to say that there isn’t reason for concern. But that is where this links to Fear Mastery – because the economy is a PROBLEM (or more likely a set of problems) each of us as individuals has to deal with to some extent.

And that requires us to see the economy AS a problem, or set of problems, rather than as a crisis. I can put myself into a panic if I like about our current economic woes. I can get mad, shout at the TV, yell at the political commentator of my choice, you name it. I can hate President Obama, or Congress, or the folks that won’t hire me – I can do all that.

But what is that DOING for me? And what is in my control, my Circle of Influence? Treating this as a crisis (remember, the definition used in this work is a crisis an IMMEDIATE threat to us personally, and if we don’t take action THIS SECOND we will be injured or killed) isn’t taking any of us anyplace. It certainly doesn’t do much to help our problem-solving abilities which, as you know from reading this blog, decay and even shut down when we’re seriously anxious or afraid.

The economy is HUGE, a creature of inertia and time and whole countries of people. It is a great deal like my getting mad at the other drivers around me – I can throw all the energy I want into turning it into a crisis, and all of that energy is wasted in that effort.

Which opens the door to the other reaction we can have in the face of a problem-turned-crisis that we then can’t solve AS a crisis – we can feel helpless. We can give up.

I know when I was out of work back in the early 80’s (several recessions ago) that’s exactly what I did. I stopped looking for work, I didn’t have any energy, and everything seemed pointless. I was overwhelmed with my fears of the future, of not having any money, of feeling doomed.

And, as I’m sure you know from your own life, that helplessness tends to feed on itself. And all that can do in turn is feed our anxiety and our fear. We too often wind up sitting and worrying, or watching the news and getting even more afraid, or telling our friends that things are awful…

We Can Do Something More Useful Than Worry

The bottom line is that treating the economy as a crisis isn’t helping any of us. It is a problem, or even a set of problems, that each of us has to face directly, and treat AS a problem. It is different, obviously, for each of us.

Some of us have never been out of work, even for all our worry. Some of us have been out of work for months. Some of us have been out of work for years. Some of us are working but are worried about our future. For some of us it is more urgent financially than others.

But EACH of us, regardless of our current circumstances, need to relax, step away from our crisis response, and start using the best of our brains to treat it as a problem or problems to solve. If we don’t we run the all the risks of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle I’ve discussed in this blog.

We can get caught up in spinning out endless scary scenarios about potential futures (starting up our Worry Engine.) What if I lose my job? What if I can’t get a job? What if I run out of money? What if… endlessly.

We can latch on to one or more of those futures and begin acting as if it was certain to come true (creating an Indefinite Negative Future.) I KNOW I’m going to lose my job, and it will be horrible, it will destroy my life, and I’m CERTAIN it’s going to happen…

We can start developing avoidance responses to the problem we’ve turned into a crisis, pushing it away, when we NEED to be addressing it and taking concrete steps to make something happen (Anticipatory Anxiety). Now that I’m certain I’m going to lose my job I just avoid thinking about it all together, even if there really is something to be concerned with. Or if there’s nothing to be concerned about I’ve created a constant source of worry and anxiety that I won’t face down and unplug!

Worst of all, we can block it away completely, wall it from us outside our Comfort Zone, desperate to stop worrying, but also then not DOING much (or anything) to address the issue. None of this is helping anyone, starting with each of us, and extending up to the country as a whole. Our worry doesn’t help us. So what DO we do?

Somebody Get Me Some Paper and a Pen…

Not all problems have solutions. But it is amazing how many problems DO have solutions, IF we are not living in the scary future, but determined to start working on them in the present. What seems impossible as a whole is often very do-able broken up into pieces.

Let’s say you have a job right now (like 90% of working folk in the U.S. do at the moment, however dire the news is in today’s paper.) You have a job, but you’re worried that you may lose it. OK. That’s a problem. You are NOT out of work yet. You are NOT living on the street (although you’re scaring yourself silly that you MIGHT wind up living on the street – thank you Flight or Fight.) You’re not going hungry.

What are you going to DO about your fears? Is it time to start looking for a new job? Clean up the resume, work your contacts, take your courage in your hands and go to some interviews? Is it time to think about going back to school, finish a degree, get a new degree? Is it time for some new job training, or just a different job in your same company?

In other words, are you treating this as a problem to solve, or a crisis to run from? I’m betting that some folks that read the previous paragraph can make themselves anxious just reading statements like “interviews” or “going back to school.” At the same time, who are you helping by running from the question? And you won’t spend any more energy addressing the problem than you will by worrying about it and avoiding it…

To refer back to Mr. Covey and his two Circles, you can address what’s in your Circle of Influence (resumes, job hunts, interviews, school, contacts, etc.) or you can worry about what MIGHT happen in the future (Circle of Concern.) I know you’ll feel better for doing the first over the second.

Of course that might mean facing some other fears – fear of failing at the interview, fear of going back to school, fear of having someone tell you they can’t help you when you work your contact list, etc. But those are just more examples of turning to face your fears and deal with them, take them and unpack them, rather than running from them.

And you have the tools – they are right here in this blog. You KNOW now that you have the capacity to anticipate your Comfort Zone working to stop you from facing your fears. You know your various Flight or Fight responses that make you uncomfortable or scared. You know that you’re NOT dealing with a crisis, you’re dealing with a problem or problems, and that you have a much better shot at solving those problems if you’ll treat them AS problems.

Shrinking the Tiger

I’m not saying facing your fears is easy. It is often demanding, exhausting, tedious, and scary by itself. But it definitely beats the alternatives – living in fear and worry, letting anxiety run your life, and letting those fears and worries close down or restrict your life.

Take it slow. Start one day at a time with this work. Be kind to yourself. (More on that next blog post.) And remember how strong, smart and capable you are, WHEN you’re not reacting, but acting – when you treat problems (even problems like the bad economy) AS problems, rather than as crises.

If it isn’t clear by now from reading this blog, we as human beings evolved to do one thing above all others in the face of danger – RUN. Running is an optimal survival strategy in the face of most danger, because if you get away then you’re not only safe, but you’re uninjured.

The advantages are obvious in the natural world! You get to go on living without having to deal with debilitating injuries, and, if you’re doing that whole raising children thing, you’re going to be much better able to care for those children if you’re not dealing with injuries. Sometimes you don’t have any choice but to stand and fight – you can’t get away. We can fight if we have to.

But our very instincts, the hard-wired mechanism called the Flight or Fight Response, are based on the evolution of creatures that almost always fled danger rather than confronted it head-on – it was a better pay-off strategy in terms of survivability. It makes a lot of sense.

Sadly, like everything else that works so well in the realm of real danger (like the natural world most creatures live in) this aspect of Flight or Fight contributes to the dysfunction of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, our very human tendency to turn a problem into a crisis. In a very real sense we tend to try to make all fear wear the same one-size-fits-all garment – Flight or Fight.

More accurately we tend to REACT when we’re afraid, rather than THINK THROUGH AND ACT – and reaction is what the Flight or Fight Response is all about. And reacting is what we find ourselves doing more and more of as we move deeper into the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.

As I’ve discussed so far IN THIS BLOG it starts with a simple mistake – treating a problem like a crisis. We respond to an issue or issues that will NOT immediately harm us physically, but instead need thinking, planning, effort and time to resolve, as if it/they WERE in fact going to injure or kill us right now. We start generating possible outcomes to our problem-turned-crisis, most of which unnerve or scare us with how negative those outcomes look – i.e., we activate the Worry Engine.

If we don’t interrupt that process we often latch onto one or more of those hypothetical scenarios, and begin to treat that potential future as a reality – we turn it into an Indefinite Negative Future. Then we repeatedly scare ourselves with that scary future thinking, because we begin acting as if that scary future is REAL, instead of just a scenario. This in turn becomes exhausting, draining, and very, very tedious.

Behind it all is Flight or Fight, trying very hard to get us to flee, to run away from this thing that is scaring us (never mind that it is both entirely in our heads and NOT a current danger.) It is the most natural thing in the world to try and do exactly that, and that is what many of us do.

There is just one little problem with this effort to run away – we can’t. The scary thing is IN OUR HEADS, in our thinking, and so unlike an actual physical danger (like a snarling dog, or a person in front of you on the road swerving out of his lane) you can’t run away from it, not literally.

But you CAN start trying to avoid it, in the sense that you can try to avoid thinking about it. You can avoid situations where it is possible or likely that you’ll find yourself being compelled to think about it or interact with that issue. And we can develop what might be called an edge-of-awareness alert system in our thinking, a flinching away behavior, a reacting to that issue or fear that automatically steers us away from what makes us anxious or worried.

This is what I call Anticipatory Anxiety. Anticipatory Anxiety is the stage in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle where we begin to wall away the thing that scares us in our thinking, but we are not yet to the place of blocking it completely. We are beginning to reflexively avoid what unnerves us, and we are doing what we have learned to do to diminish the fear and distract ourselves from that fear.

Here’s an example: I have an old friend who is sick of her current job. She is good at it (she’s a manager at a big retail store), but it has never really interested her, and it seems to suck the life from her most days. She wants to go back to school and train in a (to her) brand-new field, social work. She has done a lot of reading about the field, she knows a couple of people that are professional social workers, she enjoys the stories of what they tell her their work life is like, and she is completely in love with the notion of going to work in order to help people.

So far so good. The problems begin when she actually thinks about going back to school. Her early college experiences were anything but great. She talks about how she struggled through basic math, had a crappy roommate, wrestled with financial challenges, and, maybe hardest of all, dealt with the lengthy illness of her Mom, long-distance, while slogging through her freshman year.

She wound up failing math, and as a result lost one of her scholarships. She became so worried about money that other classes suffered, and by the middle of her sophomore year she was so discouraged that she quit school. She (and, sadly, others in her life) labeled her a failure at college, and she went off to find work and lick her wounds.

The problem now is that, despite how much she wants to change careers, and how intriguing social work sounds to her, the thought of going back to school really rattles her cage. She is afraid of several things: afraid of failing if she tries, afraid of running out of money like last time (even though she’s done pretty well for herself in her current job and in saving money), and she is afraid of what people will say about her changing careers at her age (she is in her late 30’s.)

Just thinking about her fears/worries about school makes her anxious and stressed. For her the Flight or Fight Response tends to manifest physically with an upset stomach, a headache and tingling in her fingertips, all sensations that in turn make her even more anxious, as well as edgy and irritable. She becomes easily distracted, and then forgets things – where she has put something, when she was supposed to be someplace, etc.

She hates the physical and emotional sensations that her fears conjure in her body – they are scary all by themselves, and they have been happening for a long time. So of course she wants all this stuff to stop, (the stress, the forgetting, the physical and emotional reactions to her worry/Flight or Fight) and the fastest way (in her experience) to make that happen is to just avoid thinking about school altogether.

Except that’s challenging too, because she longs to go do that social work thing, and the only way she’s going to get there is if she goes back to school. So she tries to go back to that thinking, only to scare herself with the predictions of her Indefinite Negative Future thinking – what if she fails? What if she runs out of money? What if her friends tease her or make fun of her (or worse, dismiss her efforts) for trying to change careers?

The one that has become most frightening for her in particular is the one that says she’ll try and she’ll flunk out again. To her it all but confirms that it is a complete waste of time to even try – almost as if she DOES have certain knowledge she’ll fail.

She tells me that she is tired of being afraid of this, that it is exhausting to get on this personal mental merry-go-round and take a few spins. She is getting very touchy around the subject, she reports, and found herself recently biting a friend’s head off when she innocently asked how the whole debate about school was going.

She has begun to dismiss the entire notion, telling me and others that her current job isn’t so bad, and it would be risky to go back to school at her age anyway, and she’s sure she would never fit in with the younger college kids she’d be around, and…

In other words my friend is deep in the experience of Anticipatory Anxiety. She’s worried about being worried, anxious about feeling anxious. So what is she supposed to DO about this, to stop this merry-go-round in her head?

The answer is the same as anywhere else in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle – she has to convert this crisis back into what it is – a problem. She has (unintentionally, of course) let herself get a serious distance down the rabbit hole of her fear, and it is going to take some patience and work to confront this piece of fear. She’s going to have to face down her Comfort Zone, and the repeated triggering of her Flight or Fight Response when she does.

Which means it won’t be much fun. And it will be tiring. And it will be much, much easier to just run away, metaphorically, in her head. She won’t do it perfectly. She’ll have to do it some number of times, probably, before she gets that reflexive twitch calmed down, and is able to wrestle with the issues around going back to school without making herself afraid.

But here’s the kicker – she won’t burn any MORE energy turning to deal with her fears than she’s burning now, physically and mentally, than she’s doing fighting to NOT think about her fears. And it doesn’t have to take a long, long time. She can in fact begin to see some relief in a matter of a few days, or a week, if she’ll give this some regular (2-3 times a day, 10-15 minutes a session) effort.

Her Comfort Zone will give her hell for this – you can bank on that. And that’s precisely the point – her Comfort Zone, her boundaries of what are supposed to keep her safe, will just be trying to do what’s she’s been telling it for years – this is too scary, I can’t think about this. But it isn’t. It literally can’t hurt her. It can scare her, rock her world, make her very uncomfortable, freak her out – but it can’t hurt her.

More on Anticipatory Anxiety next time –

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