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How many of you remember when you were in grade school and they had a fire drill? Do you remember that first rush of adrenaline that coursed through your body, that first rush along your nerves of “holy crap, that’s the fire alarm – I wonder if we really have a fire?” Remember the cascade of physical and emotional responses in your body and feelings?

If you were anything like me you were probably half-way out of your chair before you knew it. Yes, intellectually you knew that it probably wasn’t really a fire – I know for me it never was – but that really didn’t make any difference. That alarm signaled danger to you, and it meant get moving and get out of that building.

That alarm wasn’t about sitting around wondering if there was an actual fire. Even the way the alarm sounded made it urgent, a crisis – clanging, loud, insistent. That alarm told us that we needed to get our butts in gear and GET MOVING. And that makes sense, right? Responding to a false alarm was smarter, a better survival technique, then assuming that it was false and, well, getting caught in a fire…

That’s REALLY good logic when it comes to the dangers of the physical world. When real, physical danger threatens we do NOT need to sit around pondering anything – not most of the time. We need to get moving! We can do some re-evaluating once we’ve got some distance between us and the danger.

As I’ve said before that is something you see even in the big land predators like lions and tigers. Scare them (very loud noise, unexpected, for instance, will do the trick) and they are falling over themselves to get away. Only when they’ve already begun running do you see them THEN maybe slow down and look back to see what the heck made that awful noise.


That’s Flight or Fight. That’s the exact thing we need to do when we’re in danger, real, physical danger. Any other response, in the natural world, leaves a creature (or person) too exposed to the risk of injury or death – and (this just in) that’s not a great survival tactic…

But that’s also the source of a terrible amount of anxiety. In the fight/process of overcoming the power of anxiety in our lives we have to start learning to not run when we hear the alarm of Flight or Fight.

Learning to Fear the Alarm

When I was teaching college and helping students overcome their fear of public speaking I would describe a place I like to hike. They are some cliffs overlooking the Monterey Bay, and there are signs that say “stay back from cliff 50 yards.”

That’s good counsel, because baby, it’s a long fall and a big splash if you decide to get too close to that cliff edge. 🙂 The cliffs are crumbly, they are unstable and yet people persist in getting too close to the edge. So yes, stay back – no question about it.

But here’s where my story to my students becomes relevant, because while the CLIFF EDGE is dangerous, the signs are not. The signs are well in front of the cliff, and the signs themselves obviously present no danger to anyone. Yet people can get very, very agitated when people get too close to the SIGNS… “hey! Get back from there! It says the cliffs are dangerous! Get away from that sign!” I hear it all the time.

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Caution is a virtue when it comes to cliffs. But even caution can become excessive. And that’s exactly what happens when we start being afraid of the warning signs instead of the actual problem/issue (or even crisis) itself. I’ve watched people at the Santa Cruz cliffs stay back 30 or 40 feet from THE SIGNS because of their fear of the cliff edge.

But the signs can’t and won’t hurt us. They are there to alert us. But in the warning we learn to fear the alarm just as much as the thing it is trying to keep us safe from… and that’s where anxiety can get seriously amplified. Not to mention out of control in our lives…

It gets crazier. For fear of the cliff people will refuse to even walk the cliff trail – a completely safe activity. “I’m not going out there – those cliffs are dangerous!” Sure. The CLIFFS are dangerous. But the road along the cliff is beautiful, with spectacular views of the ocean and sky, and some of the cleanest air and most glorious solitude a person could ask for on a summer or fall day.

But, some folks say, it’s just too risky. What they’re really saying is that they have become afraid of the warning signals – that they are now afraid of the signs as well as the cliff, and the best answer is to just stay away from ANYTHING that makes them anxious.

Bad idea. That’s like being afraid of the fire alarm at school. The alarm can’t and won’t hurt us. It is there to warn us if something goes wrong, or even just help us remember what to do in case there’s a fire. But being afraid of the alarm only makes us anxious.

And that anxiety begins to haunt us. We start to restrict our lives, shut down our range of motion, all in a desperate effort to get away from the potential of experiencing the alarm…

Alarm 4

Alarms are Not Dangerous

Flight or Fight is an alarm system. When we become afraid of Flight or Fight – the physical or emotional responses of Flight or Fight – then we become afraid of an alarm. That in turn sets us up for anticipatory anxiety, that great torment of the anxiety fighter.

Anticipatory anxiety is that nervous watching over your shoulder thing, the constant edge of waiting for some sign that our Flight or Fight response system is going to scare us again. It is a terrible energy drain. It is a kind of constant self-torture. We don’t MEAN to do that, of course – but we’ve become so afraid of the alarm system that we have developed some terrible habits of avoidance.

To make matters worse most of us haven’t sorted out that fact – that we’re scaring ourselves over the alarm. And to add insult to injury the root thinking that scared us in the first place – the problem-converted-to-crisis thinking that started Flight or Fight up in the first place – is buried underneath our fears of the alarms of Flight or Fight.

So where do we wind up? We start avoiding the bridge because Flight or Fight fires up just thinking about driving towards the bridge. We stay off the highway because Flight or Fight makes us dizzy or nauseous or have a racing heart when we think of just the damn on-ramp. We stay away from the family gathering because we remember the last time we saw those crazy people and how much anxiety coursed through our body at the dinner table.

Worse STILL we can make ourselves anxious just thinking about our Flight or Fight responses – that’s how much we’ve learned to be afraid of the alarm system. So we’re just sitting at home, minding our own business, and suddenly we have a racing heart or numb fingers or overwhelming sadness, and it’s all because some small hint of Flight or Fight zipped through our bodies.

Alarm 5

Maybe it was just a normal body thing that felt like the start of Flight or Fight. Maybe you had a stray thought that made you anxious, something you were not conscious of in that moment. Doesn’t matter. We become so worried about hearing the fire alarm, and so freaked out when we do hear that alarm, that all we want to do is GET AWAY from it.

When this continues unabated guess where we wind up? One result is agoraphobia, that end-stage condition of chronic anxiety. Another result is chronic depression, in large part because we’re so sick and tired of being afraid (and also convinced that we’ll never be free of fear again).

Neither is necessary. We’re letting an alarm system run our lives. Yes, we have terribly anxious thinking, no question. Yes, it won’t be an instant cure. Yes, it will be uncomfortable. But we’re by no means doomed to be anxious for the rest of our lives. And we sure as hell don’t have to be afraid of an alarm!

It’s Time to Stop Running from the Alarm

Flight or Fight can’t hurt us – in the same way those cliff edge signs in Santa Cruz can’t hurt us. We can (and too many of us do) learn to be afraid of the signs and the alarm system. But what we learn we can unlearn and learn differently.

FIRST: we have to see Flight or Fight for what it is. It is a hard-wired defense system every living creature comes equipped with, and it isn’t something we can just turn on and off. That sounds BAD if we’re fighting chronic anxiety. But the problem isn’t the alarm – the problem is that we’re constantly pulling the alarm!

So we have to stop pulling the alarm – how do we do that?

SECOND: Two kinds of thinking pull it, but they are essentially the same thing: either you’re freaking out over what Flight or Fight means (what it implies for your life and the future, it is terrible, it will never stop, my life is hell with these sensations, etc.), or you’re freaking out over the scary stories you’re telling yourself about some problem/issue/challenge that you’ve morphed into a crisis.

Either way it is your thinking that is pulling the alarm. Don’t blame the alarm for going off when you’re doing the pulling! So you have to sort out that thinking. I know, I’ve said it a 1000 times in this blog. But it is so easy to get sidetracked by the damn alarm, isn’t it?

Alarm 3

I hear it all the time. “Erik, if I could just stop feeling so bad, or stop my heart from racing, or stop this terrible depression, then I could make some progress.”

Not true. Not true because it doesn’t work that way. If you pull the alarm it is going to go off. Stop pulling the alarm, no alarm.

Which leads me to –

THIRD: This is a process that takes TIME. The thinking that makes us anxious in the first place doesn’t just change presto – it takes time, work, introspection, thinking and effort. Yes, the damn alarm is scary and loud and we just want it OFF. I get it – been there, did that.

We are fighting strong, deeply grooved habits of thinking. Habits take time and effort to change. It’s a whole new skill set for most of us, this learning to examine, question, challenge and change our thinking. Anxiety doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t get fixed overnight.

The fixing, however, takes a heck of a lot less time than the time it took to get anxious in the first place. The key is getting started and staying with it…

Can Somebody PLEASE shut off That Alarm?

The answer is yes – you can. You’re also going to keep pulling the alarm for a while (assuming you’re in this work or just getting started.) So get some earplugs, and more importantly, start the practice of reminding yourself that the alarm, by itself, isn’t dangerous, can’t hurt you and doesn’t have to scare you the way it’s been scaring you.

That’s the bottom-line for this blog post: it’s time to start challenging the meaning of the alarm system that is Flight or Fight. It won’t happen overnight – but it is one huge piece of breaking the power of anxiety in our lives.

Alarm 6

I was supposed to start a discussion of the role of therapy in dealing with anxiety, but I decided this past week that there are several topics I want to get to first before I do that discussion. Please bear with me…

A couple of posts ago I talked about something I call hyper-vigilance. I applied this idea to something that we who wrestle with anxiety can start doing around our Flight or Fight responses – at least the ones that freak us out/scare us. We can start worrying about the next occurrence of those responses – in essence be anxious about feeling anxious.

This isn’t exactly a winning strategy for dealing with/unplugging anxiety… yet most of us have at one point or another fallen into this trap. It can become a terrible energy suck, not to mention making it even easier to just keep running from those anxious responses in the first place.

The thing we NEED to do is begin to discount the responses – start seeing them for their real worth, i.e., not much other than that they are telling us that we are scaring ourselves in our thinking.

It Doesn’t, Sadly, Stop at Feelings…

I want to extend that notion of hyper-vigilance to another issue – how we can find ourselves worrying about the next time we start scaring ourselves with our thinking. This is pretty insidious. The other term I have used for this idea is anticipatory anxiety, which I wrote about earlier in the year.

Why write about this again? Because, as I said above, it is one of the primary reasons we DON’T face into the work of deconstructing our anxiety. Fear Mastery is all about taking our anxiety on (with useful tools) and stopping anxiety from ruling (or even just diminishing) our lives.

But there’s this little problem with that goal – none of us are especially eager to seek out feeling anxious, even if we believe that deliberately taking on our anxiety will help set us free from anxiety. It is bad enough when our anxiety overwhelms us or derails our day without us making it happen on purpose. Why go looking for that?

Of course you already know the answer. The way out is through, and your thinking will continue to drive anxiety until you challenge it and clean it up the thinking that is causing it in the first place.

A Very Effective Closed System

Isn’t it maddening? Anxiety makes us want to run away from the thing that is scaring us (real danger or the fear that our thinking fires up), but the most effective way (maybe the only way) to stop anxiety from making us crazy is to turn and face it down. Anxiety as a set of responses is very effective at keeping us from dealing with our anxiety –

Unless we get a little more conscious of the cycle we’re trapped in and make some deliberate efforts to shake things up. And that’s the primary reason I’m writing this post: our mission is to get conscious about our anxiety, get clear on what is making us anxious, and consciously work to pull it apart.

Whether we are dancing away from the potential of Flight or Fight responses that make us uncomfortable (physical or emotional) or we’re shying back from the fears in our thinking, the one thing we’re NOT doing is engaging in the work of getting free of anxiety.

I believe this is at the heart of why so many people who deal with anxiety find it so hard to start, let alone continue on, with the work of breaking the power of fear and anxiety in their lives.

So What’s The Answer, Smarty-Pants?

The thing we need to do is stop running away. We need to relax our hyper-vigilant watching for potential anxiety moments (physical, emotional or mental) and instead let them come!

That doesn’t mean that we should be trying to do this work 24/7 (more about that in my next blog post.) It does mean that we need to drop our guard somewhat, and lean into the work.

Let’s do specific recommendations:

1) Start the deliberate practice of the 4 skills I just finished blogging about here. Start with Skill 1 – identifying where in your thinking you are (or have historically) converted a problem into a crisis. Just this work is a strong beginning to the pulling apart of the thinking that makes you anxious.

Do that with a journal, or a tape recorder, or whatever you like. Just give it 5-10 minutes to start. Practice, even briefly, not running away. Stick with one to start. One is plenty, especially at the start of this work.

Maybe you are worrying that you’re going to wind up alone for the rest of your life. Relationships just don’t seem to work out for you. You’ve taken a problem (long-term relationships) and turned it into a crisis in your thinking – you’ve talked yourself into believing that you’ll ALWAYS be single, that your life will be empty, that you will never find happiness… etc.

Being alone – a problem. It is when we turn it into a crisis in our thinking (by moving up into the future in our thinking, instead of being here in present), we start to seriously generate anxiety.

Expect some push back from your Comfort Zone as you start to identify your crisis thinking.. Expect Flight or Fight to fire right up. Those responses make my next recommendation useful –

2) Practice discounting your Flight or Fight Responses. Anxiety make you nauseous? I hate that too. But it doesn’t mean ANYTHING. Heart start racing when you begin to get fearful? That sucks. But it doesn’t mean ANYTHING – except that, of course, you’re scared. Doesn’t mean doom is on the horizon, doesn’t mean you’re heading into eternal darkness (although it might FEEL that way.)

Practice having that conversation with yourself. Practice, just briefly, not running away from those sensations. The discomfort may pretty intense. That’s OK. YOU ARE IN NO DANGER.

3) Expect this to take some time. You won’t do it all in one mighty push. More about that in my next blog post. But it is important to say this several times – you really can’t build Rome in a day, and you can’t unpack your anxious thinking in one session.

Anxiety will be mastered when we turn to face the things that frighten us. Each of us has the power to do that, however beaten, tired, defeated and weary we fell. And the first step is to stop running.

Anyone who is wrestling with anxiety and depression wants nothing more than to NOT be anxious. One of the notorious moments in our battle with anxiety is when we first have a serious anxiety episode, and we begin to learn to fear those Flight or Fight Responses that scare us.

The term I learned in the anxiety literature about this being afraid of those symptoms (or any exposure to anxious thinking) is anticipatory anxiety. That’s a great descriptor.

But I want to talk in this post about the particular thing we do with our Flight or Fight (physical or emotional) responses – that watching for any sign that we might be close to experiencing those responses – what I call hyper-vigilance.

The Monster in The Closet

I don’t know why we learn to fear specific Flight or Fight responses, and why we learn them differently from each other. For myself, as I’ve said here before, it was light-headedness/vertigo and extremity (fingers and hands) numbness. (I also had some trouble with nausea, but that didn’t rock my world to the same degree.)

By comparison one of my oldest friends (and a fellow anxiety-fighter) was dizzy all the time from anxiety, but that didn’t bother her. For her it was the racing heart and shortness of breath that really made her crazy.

Some of it might have to do with our first experience with acute anxiety – we’re freaked out by that first rush of anxiety (or even full-blown panic attack), and whatever responses Flight or Fight tosses at us that we notice in particular are the ones we learn to be afraid of. Not sure it makes any difference – the point is we’re afraid.

And because we’re afraid we start maintaining a kind of diligent watching for any sign that we might be experiencing those responses again. This may not start the first or second time we dip into an anxious spell – or it may. But sooner or later (since we’re still doing that anxious thinking thing, whether we’re conscious of doing it or not), we’ll have another burst, another anxiety burst, and then look out –

Look out, because we’ve become afraid of, literally, our bodies potential responses to anxiety, as well as whatever feelings might be conjured by Flight or Fight.

It becomes, for many of us, the monster in the closet. And we begin to look fearfully over our shoulders, start to avoid situations where we’ve had those responses in the past, and life begins to shrink…

Monster Repellant

By becoming hyper-vigilant we begin to feed our anxiety, not close it down. We begin to pull our Comfort Zone close in to us, eager, desperate even, to avoid having those sensations/feelings. We begin to let anxiety run our lives.

It takes different forms in each of us – maybe we stop going to movies in the theatre (because we had a panic attack there one day) – or we stop running (because we had a nasty brush with that racing heart/cold sweat thing during one run) -or maybe we avoid eating out because of that ugly claustrophobic evening with our friends and we suddenly couldn’t breathe so well…

but in all these cases we step back from our fears/anxious feelings/sensations. At the core of it is our thinking – our fearful thinking – but what we focus on is the Flight or Fight responses that scare us.

We need some monster repellant. We need to understand that THERE IS NO DANGER in those sensations and feelings. And the best monster repellant we can have comes from deliberately confronting those sensations and feelings.

Ready, Aim, Fire…

If you’ve been reading this blog you know it isn’t just confronting. It is using that confronting in tandem with pulling apart the thinking that causes those fearful responses in the first place. And that’s exactly right.

We need to get enough practice at what I’ve been calling “discounting” your Flight or Fight responses – deliberately experiencing those sensations/feelings and remembering that they are only messengers from your body telling you that you THINK something dangerous is about to happen.

Let me ramp up my language choices for this practice. “Discounting” is good, and works. But we can kick that up a notch and even call this work “disregarding.” We can say that because those responses don’t mean ANYTHING – except that we’re thinking scary thoughts (consciously or, more often, outside of our conscious awareness.)

As we do that “disregarding” in tandem with identifying where we’ve turned problems into crises we are giving ourselves real, powerful leverage to break the cycle of anxiety in our lives.

One Last Thought For This Blog Post

Some of us have a hard time initially figuring out what our anxious thinking IS. That’s common and legal. 🙂 Here’s one great clue – when you find yourself suddenly in the middle of those Flight or Fight Responses – physical or emotional – work to track back what thoughts were running through your mind just prior.

Sometimes it is this hyper-vigilance thing. And sometimes you had a scary thought – and now your anxiety has betrayed its hand.

You don’t have to be afraid of your body or your emotions any more. Flight or Fight does NOT have to be a monster to you. You have the weapons you need to bring it down.

Next up – the role of medication and therapy in the war against anxiety and fear.

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 –

If you haven’t read my last blog post please let me encourage you now to, before you read this post, go back and read “The Comfort Zone, Part I.”  What I’m discussing here builds upon that post. 

As I hope I made clear in my last post the Comfort Zone is nothing more than a set of defenses designed to wall off from our attention a problem-turned-crisis in our thinking.  We can’t tolerate the endless stress of the Flight or Fight response attempting to solve a problem morphed into a crisis (physically, emotionally or psychologically), so we drive the issue from our mind and set up warning signals to prevent it from coming back to our notice.  That doesn’t work perfectly of course – the world doesn’t usually cooperate with our boundary-drawing 100% of the time, and in addition we often find that we’d like to do something about the shielded issue, even if it scares us. Which is more than good – it is often the beginning of our attempts to re-engage the issue. 

At the same time the Comfort Zone is no easy thing to undo.  It really can be described as a powerful protective mechanism, and its only goal is to keep you SAFE.  It is not a discriminating protective mechanism either – if you’ve decided something is scary that’s enough for your Comfort Zone.  Are you afraid of barking dogs?  Your Comfort Zone is keeping you away from barking dogs.  You say you don’t like clowns?  The Comfort Zone is keeping you far away from clowns.   Are you anxious about losing your job?  The Comfort Zone will work very hard to keep you away from this subject and this thinking – it’s just too scary for you – even if the one thing you need to be thinking about is what might happen to you if you’re downsized.  Notice that I used the word “thinking” – NOT the words obsessing, worrying, panicking or pouring over potential frightening futures.

In an earlier post I discussed Anticipatory Anxiety – that stage of chronic worry where fatigue and stress drive us to avoid the problem as well as the attendant physical sensations and feelings.  We put a lot of energy into essentially running from the scary issue, and this energy goes directly into the Comfort Zone.  This results in some powerful and effective Comfort Zone defenses!  It has been an amazing journey of discovery in the last 5-6 months for me, talking to people about their fears, and realizing just how subtle and effective our Comfort Zones can be in diverting us from the thing that scares us.

These diversions can take many forms.  We can find ourselves distracted away from the scary issue from a number of directions.  We may begin to obsess over unnerving or painful physical issues.  We may get anxious, angry or sad, and focus on those feelings instead.  We may find it hard to focus or concentrate, or suddenly find ourselves tired and needing a nap.  We may get restless or edgy, and find ourselves engaging in frantic physical activity.  We can focus our attention on issues that are way, way too big and abstract for us to solve, and give our energy to worry and endless discussion about those issues.  We can rationalize ourselves away from the issue or fear, finding reasons to support our avoidance and then blaming circumstances, lack of resources or Implacable Fate as the limiting factor. 

Let me give you a metaphor for the Comfort Zone.  Think of it as a series of defensive positions (picture machine guns in bunkers) inside your head that make a circle around you.  These defensive positions are not aimed outward –they’re aimed in at YOU.  As long as you stay in your Comfort Zone you have no worries.  It is when you make a move towards your Comfort Zone boundaries that things get scary, because those defensive  positions open up on you!  The ironic part is you’re not at risk for really getting hurt – the Comfort Zone is all about your safety, after all – but it sure FEELS and SEEMS scary.  The minute you step back you’re OK.  But if you keep pressing forward the guns just keep firing over your shoulder, at your feet, determined (from your own efforts!) to get you to retreat.

Those guns may be your physical sensations (clenched stomach, sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, etc.)  Those guns may be your feelings (fear, anxiety, terror, anger, guilt, etc.)  Those guns may be the thoughts racing through your head (what am I doing, things aren’t that bad, this is crazy, etc.)  They can be all those things.  And when you’re in this situation almost any out looks good to you.  But facing the guns and running this gauntlet is infinitely worth it.  Because you’ll reach that metaphoric bunker in your head, and suddenly you’ll realize you’re not under fire any more.  Oh, you’ll still be shook up – no question – and the “aftershocks” (or Comfort Zone spasms as I call them) can last for hours or days afterwards.  But you’ll now be looking the scary thing in the eye, and, if you’ve engaged this process, you’ll realize that the scary monster was only in your head – nowhere else. 

And you’ll also realize just how cramped and how restricted in movement you’ve been until that moment.  In the next blog post I’m going to wrap up this discussion of the Comfort Zone and talk about both what happens when we refuse to engage our fears, and what’s possible when we do.

I’ve been eager to get to the blog this week.  I’ve had a number of conversations with both friends and coaching clients around the elements of the Fear Mastery map, and my thinking around how those elements interact and reinforce each other has seen some good progress.  Some of that thinking  has been about the Indefinite Negative Future.  It has been impressive and encouraging to hear how many people get traction on their racing thoughts and their anxiety with this single element of the map.  Nothing can suck the joy out of life quite so quickly or thoroughly as an unrelenting dark view of the future.  It gets worse when we’re mostly unaware that we’re generating such a view, and so we continue to live in that despairing, or even hopeless, state.

For example:  let’s say my buddy Max has just learned that he has been laid off from his job.  He is anxious, angry and frightened about the current job market, and so he moves into crisis mode.  He begins to worry about finding work.  His brain, responding to being on full alert (i.e., the flight or fight response) is both ruminating over past experiences where things have been bad/scary/worrisome, and projecting potential negative outcomes to his not finding a job right away (i.e., he is generating “what if” scenarios.)  He both narrows his remembering of the past to negative experiences, AND he imagines bad outcomes to his hunt for work. 

His options seem to narrow in his thinking, and he starts to focus on the worst/most frightening possibilities.  What if it takes months to find a job?  What if he runs out of savings?  What if he has to start tapping his 401k or retirement money?  What if he can’t pay his bills?  What if he can’t find a job at all?  What if he runs through all his money, including his retirement?  I suspect some of you reading here find your own anxiety rising as you read these sentences and begin your own cycle of worry and anxiety – easy to do these days!  Max begins to obsess over these indefinite negative futures he’s creating, and in turn he continues to scare himself, generate more flight or fight responses in his body (physical and emotional), continue to ruminate and worry, and as a result make himself more and more stressed and anxious.

Now it’s possible that Max finds a job the next day, or talks himself down with a good friend about how things are not that bad yet, or gets a grip himself because he remembers that the last time he was out of work new work showed up pretty quickly.  But it is just as possible (and probably more likely, for most people) that Max won’t stop obsessing over his indefinite negative future projections, and he will continue to be anxious and afraid as the days pass.  He will find himself exhausted and stressed beyond his capacity to sustain, and so he’ll begin moving to the next stage of the Fear Mastery map – anticipatory anxiety. 

At this point Max begins to push away the scary future he’s been conjuring for himself – he works to stop thinking about it.  In a very real sense he runs away from the scary future.  He might do a number of things – distract himself with other issues, avoid the topic in conversation, medicate himself (alcohol, hours of TV, video games, excessive exercise, you name it), and works to even avoid the physical and emotional sensations that he’s come to associate with that indefinite negative future.  He is desperate to do anything that will ease the constant pressure of the flight or fight response’s effort to resolve this crisis.  And this makes sense, since he’s trying to solve a problem like a crisis.  Remember that a crisis involves an IMMEDIATE risk for injury or death, you have to act on it NOW, and it has to be resolved QUICKLY.  Not a workable approach for someone out of a job, at least most of the time.  He’s physically, mentally and emotionally weary of being afraid/anxious, and so he starts to push it out of his mind, wall it away from his conscious thinking.  And he begins to anticipate feeling anxious, and in an effort to avoid that closes off the situations and discussions that might bring up the scary topic again.  He’s literally becoming anxious about becoming anxious.

This is a pretty ugly scenario.  And I believe this scenario is being played out by just about every member of the human race, on one subject or another.  So what will stop this madness?  The same thing that will stop it at any point in this Chronic Anxiety Cycle I’m describing – making the simple move from crisis thinking back to problem thinking.  I am NOT saying that will necessarily be easy!  Weeks, months and years of worry rarely unplug themselves in a few minutes.  By the same token we can begin to see immediate results if we’ll work to deliberately unplug the Flight or Fight Response in our bodies and minds.  In the very near future I will begin to outline the techniques that work best for different parts of this cycle.  But first I must outline how we get into the last stage of the cycle, the Comfort Zone.  This is the home of the strongest and most seemingly intractable fears we possess, and any discussion of what to do with fear and anxiety must include an understanding of the Comfort Zone and how it exerts control over our thinking and behavior.

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