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

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

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How it All Gets Started

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anger – Anxiety’s Cousin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So What’s The Answer to this Crap?

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

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

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

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

Anger. Our modern world seems to have a love-hate relationship with anger. On one hand anger seems to be everywhere – angry people shouting on the news, angry terrorists blowing things up, angry mobs protesting for civil rights (or even waging civil wars) – there is a lot of anger out there, and it doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of good.

On the other hand we as a culture seem by and large to be very uncomfortable with anger. We, many of us, learn to keep our anger inside, internalized. We think it is very wrong, very selfish, to express or release our anger in any way (except maybe in passive-aggressive comments just under our breath, or in the occasional slamming of a door.)

There are reasons for that which I will discuss in this blog post, but my main point is this: in our fight with anxiety we MUST develop the capacity to feel and allow for our feelings – including anger. There is a connection between the suppression of our feelings and the anxiety we suffer from, and it is time to deal with, in particular, our anger.

Anger Is Dangerous

Well, at least that’s what a lot of people think – I know I did for much of my life. I grew up in a house that didn’t allow anger to be expressed. The exception to that rule was my Dad – he was allowed to get as angry as he liked. One reason I believed anger was dangerous was how unpredictable my Dad’s behavior could be when he was angry.

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Fortunately I wasn’t subjected to regular physical abuse as a result of anger, but the emotional and psychological toll was pretty high at times in my family home. I learned to see anger as dangerous (what would Dad do when he was mad this time?) and I developed my own fund of anger. I often turned that anger on ME – got angry with myself for failing or messing up or just because I didn’t know what else to do with it.

But the one thing I COULDN’T do, I believed, was actually FEEL my anger. I began to think that if I really felt my feelings, really allowed my anger, that I could do something dangerous myself – hit someone, break something, get myself in real trouble. So I just kept squishing that anger down…

What I didn’t know then was that my anger didn’t go anyplace. The thinking that made me angry was still in my skull, and it was still generating an angry emotional response in me. I didn’t know something else about anger – that anger is always, always the second response we have. What’s the first response? Anxiety.

Anger Springs from Anxiety

Think about this for a minute. What do we get angry about? Anger springs from the sense that we are threatened – threatened with the loss of something, threatened with physical harm, etc. You might say that anger is the “fight” side of Flight or Fight.

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If you have a dog or cat you know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s Fluffy, or Stinky, or Harry, or whatever you call your dog or cat, minding their own business, purring or watching you with that interested look, and you give them something to eat. You then, stupidly, decide that you want them to eat someplace else. As you reach for the bowl what do they do? They growl, or hiss, because they think you’re trying to take their food away. They are angry, and they are angry because they are anxious.

What was I angry about when I was growing up? I was angry about my Dad’s unpredictability – I thought I and my siblings and my Mom were at risk for reactive verbal abuse. I was angry about the feeling of my safety being conditional on my Dad’s mood.

I was angry at what I saw as unfairness on his part. I was angry because I wasn’t allowed to express my own feelings. I was angry because I felt trapped.

Only I didn’t have permission to growl or hiss – even that might bring on more anger, more anxiety for me. I was getting angry, all right (anxiety with no-place to run – the fight part of Flight or Fight.) Yikes…

Here’s the next thing to think about: if anger is a response to anxiety then we’re obviously firing up Flight or Fight when we get angry. And if that’s the case then the chemicals of anxiety, adrenaline and cortisol, are still getting pumped into our bodies. And those chemicals evolved to DO something, not to quietly get packed away because we’re uncomfortable with how we feel.

People get angry. We can pretend, we can try to squish those feelings, we can put a happy face on if we want, but we are STILL going to be angry when we feel anxious and think we’re trapped. Is it any wonder that people pull out guns on freeways and shoot at other drivers, or walk into their office buildings and shoot co-workers?

We get angry, we don’t understand that we’re actually dealing with serious anxiety, we don’t know what to do with our anger, we think that anger is wrong or evil or bad, and we finally wind up dealing with our anger very poorly – or even fatally.

But it doesn’t have to be as extreme as shooting people! It is also when our kid asks us for the 80th time that morning for a cookie and we shout at them. It is when we blow up at a colleague at work, or our spouse for the seemingly tiny thing that they did that was the final straw for us. It is when we are savagely angry at ourselves for mistakes.

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Anger isn’t something we can stick in a box. It will find a way out, either internally or externally. We have to be able to acknowledge our anger, identify what is generating it, because anger is the result of anxious thinking.

Anger Has Things to Tell Us

When we feel anxious (as you know from reading this blog) we are experiencing anxious thoughts. Those thoughts are about the future, and some dark consequence of that future. We’re worried that something bad will happen. We want very much to avoid that bad thing, and so we start trying to avoid that situation and that thinking.

Anger has the exact same source, except we believe when we’re angry that can’t avoid that dark consequence or danger. We feel backed against a wall, with no-where to go, and surprise! We get angry!

This can seem very innocuous to an outside observer. We might be watching a Mom or Dad with their kids in a park on a sunny day, and all seems peaceful, until one of the kids starts shouting at his brother or sister, clearly very angry. Brother or sister has taken their toy, and in that kid’s mind he or she feels helpless, trapped, unable to do anything about the stolen toy. It isn’t a mystery why they are angry.

Or maybe it is the person taking care of the elderly parent, by all accounts a harmless soul. Out of the blue (it might seem to us) that caregiver suddenly hits the elderly parent, clearly enraged. What in the hell could have caused that kind of anger?

Maybe the caregiver was feeling the walls close in on their life, watching their days trickle away, trapped by this elderly parent’s care needs, and they finally lashed out. Maybe today was the day that they shifted from anxious (what if I lose my life caring for Mom or Dad?) to anger (I’m never going to have a life caring for Mom or Dad!)

I’m NOT excusing the behavior that anger can generate from us. In fact that is part of the problem of NOT feeling our anger, NOT identifying what is making us angry in the first place. It is when we hide our anger from ourselves, squish it down, that we run the risk of a violent physical or verbal explosion.

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Anger is trying to help us get free of the “trap” – whatever that is for us, just like anxiety is trying to warn us about imminent danger – real or perceived.

So You’re Saying I Should Let Myself Be Angry?

That’s exactly what I’m saying! I’m not saying take a machete and start hacking at your co-workers, or feel free to unload your rage on the person next to you verbally. I’m saying in the same way that we need to identify the thinking that makes us anxious we need to identify the thinking that makes us angry.

So – what IS making you angry? What is your anger trying to tell you? What terrible things are you afraid will happen if you identify and talk directly to your anger? Maybe it is as simple as sitting down with your computer or your Ipad or your paper and pen and having a conversation with yourself about your anger/rage and see what you have to say to yourself.

Or maybe you already have a good idea what you’re angry about. Maybe what you need to do is start thinking through what you need to do about what you’re angry/anxious about – what next steps are honestly necessary for you to take to address what is making you angry.

That may not mean you’re actually ABLE to do much yet. It might take some planning. It might take rethinking how you’re approaching your life at the moment. It might mean a fiercely honest conversation with someone close to you. (Sometimes it can help enormously to just TALK about your anger, get it said out loud, and have someone else listen to it without trying to fix anything for you.)

It might mean making a long-term plan, or getting some help from someone, or even changing the situation you’re in. But whatever it is that you decide to do with your anger, it is probably time to pull it out of the closet and be honest with yourself about it and its origins – the thinking that is driving your anger.

Peter McWilliams, in his Excellent Book “Do It!”, talks about angry as the energy for change. That’s a great description of the physiological nature of anger. Maybe it’s time for you to consider taking that energy and using it to help you stop being angry, and start doing something about your anger.

The last two posts here have been about what I call the triad of elements that are necessary to disrupt and unplug the fears and anxieties that we acquire, and which we shield ourselves from with the Comfort Zone.  What follows in this post are some specific examples of the use of those triad elements, along with suggestions on how to start such work with yourself.  

As I said at the end of the last blog post I am VERY, very clear that this is often anything but easy to even think about, let alone do.  Having a clear and articulate map of the nature of fear and anxiety is one thing, facing into those fears is something else – something often frightening, even terrifying.  I believe this is why so many of us (including myself) find the idea of a medication or technique that can take away the fear, or quickly and painlessly “fix” our fears, very attractive.  Many  of us have lived with various levels of fear and anxiety for so long that we can’t imagine deliberately stirring it up, even with the goal of shutting down the causes of that fear and finding our freedom as a result.  It is much more attractive to let sleeping dogs lie, leave those fears where they are, out beyond our Comfort Zone walls, and keep things status quo – however much we limit our lives as a result.

And, of course, our fears activate that part of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle I call the Indefinite Negative Future when we consider challenging the Comfort Zone.  What if I feel this way forever?  What if this doesn’t work?  What if I do this work and all that happens is I can’t stop being even more afraid than I am now?  Etc.  I know that for some people reading the last couple of sentences  has made them a little anxious.  Ugh! 

Let me repeat myself from an earlier blog post: the way out is through.  And moving through the Comfort Zone walls we’ve created does not need to entail years of work or endless hours of fear and anxiety.  Like any set of skills it will take a little practice and a little time.  You probably won’t do it perfectly the first 2-3-4-5 times you do it.  Who cares?  Nobody masters bike-riding in a single session, nobody learns to type in an hour, and nobody will be perfectly adept at facing and moving through Comfort Zone fears out of the gate.  Resolve that you’re going to experience a learning curve, pick a fear you’d like to unplug, and give it a first try…

An example of facing a fear with this triad of elements in mind is something I did this past winter.  In case you don’t know I do communication skills consulting for work, and yet I have never been very comfortable (read: very UN-comfortable) soliciting new clients.  As I worked on the Fear Mastery framework and writing this last 12 months I realized that this was a great opportunity to practice what I was preaching.  I resolved to spend some time every day during the week (an hour, no more) reaching out to people I had worked with in the past, and soliciting from them potential leads for new business.  Even making this decision made me anxious – what if nobody said yes?  What if people implied (or said outright) that I really didn’t have anything they could refer to colleagues and friends?  (This with 7 years of repeated statements from clients about how my work had helped their team, how they were using the material I had brought them years after the training I had done, etc.)  What if… and so on. 

I first needed to move this out of the mostly crisis frame I had this fear wrapped in (what if I don’t get any more consulting business?  What if I run out of money?  What if I have to work at Starbuck’s?)  and decide that it was actually a series of problems to solve.  That immediately generated some serious anxious feelings and physical responses.  It took some effort just to sit at my desk and calendar the time to do this for that first week the weekend prior.  I began finding reasons why I needed to wait just one more week, began to think of all the things I could do rather than chase down new business, etc.  Isn’t it impressive how the Comfort Zone can quickly steer us away from even considering a fear challenge?

During that process I had some pretty interesting, even unnerving, bursts of fear – all of a sudden I’d think “this is pointless!  Nobody is going to refer me!  I’m crazy for even trying!” and similar highly useful thoughts.  And of course I’d start to feel anxious and restless as a result.  As Dr. Albert Ellis, the Father of Rational-Emotive thinking, said, “feelings come from thinking.”  And they do.  And they did!   In the first couple of days I had to take breaks, start slow, remind myself that nothing dangerous or bad was happening, and that in the worst case (outright rejection, which of course in this context never happened) I could step away and start again the following day.

As the initial anxieties crested and eased I created a list of things to do for this work: develop a contact list, create a schedule for following up with those contacts, develop a method for tracking referrals as they came in,  set up a calendar for contact dates and follow-up with people after a reasonable period of time, etc.  Just that exercise helped shift my thinking – not much, but enough to start the ball rolling.   The first few emails were scary.  The next few emails were less so (with bursts of concern and worry still poking through as I continued this work.)  Yet by that Thursday, of the very first week I was doing this work, I came to my desk and discovered that my worry was significantly less than it had been the previous Saturday, when I first started preparing to take on this project.  By the middle of the following week I was finding it to be more comfortable than I had ever experienced, and (oddly enough) began to generate some new business.

Another example comes from an old and excellent friend who, for a variety of reasons, found himself seriously in debt to the IRS.  (I know, just reading those 3 letters in sequence can be scary!)  He had accumulated quite a debt to that agency, and had dithered (for over 9 years!) about addressing it.  What if they threw him in jail?  What if they took his house?  What if he had to work four jobs and never, ever get to see a movie or have any fun ever again?  He had himself really worked up over this, and attempted a number of things to shield himself from this fear, including some very serious drinking.  He was completely terrified of having to call the IRS and deal with his debt.

Through a series of bumps and bangs that convinced him that he HAD to do something he faced into his fear and called the IRS.  He reports that he was barely able to talk to the agent on the phone, but that when he finally finished his story the agent simply said “sir, please, just file your taxes.  We’ll figure this out once you’ve done that.”  He said his chief emotion when he got off the phone was anger – not at the IRS, but at himself, for having 1) taken so long to face this fear, and 2) all the time and energy he’d burned avoiding the problem.

And that’s EXACTLY the point, isn’t it?  That in our (mostly unthinking, highly reactive) avoidance of what we’re afraid of we wind up giving up time, energy, freedom and room to live our lives, when (compared to what we spend in that avoidance) the facing through and dealing with our fears will take much less time and energy?  It is unfair and unnecessary that we let our anxiety and fear rob us the way they can do.  Next up – more examples, and further suggestions for tools that can assist you in using the triad.

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