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One of the great things about being an anxiety fighter in these modern days of 2015 is that there has been some great thinking and study done around what anxiety is and how it rolls. When I set out to create this Fear Mastery model it was in large part to simply organize the best of that thinking into something that people could access and use effectively.

Some of that work comes from Dr. Martin Seligman and research he and his colleagues did in the 60’s and 70’s. I have described these experiments elsewhere in this blog, but I want in today’s post to really drill down into what this research means for us anxiety fighters, and what we need to take away from that study and use fiercely in our own fight with anxiety.

The experiments sounds terrible, and I apologize in advance to the dog lovers in the audience. I was also rattled when I first read about the way this research was done. But don’t fear – the dogs that were subjected to these experiences were taken care of, and in their suffering we came to learn something exceptionally important and useful.

Dogs in Cages

What happened is this: Dr. Seligman’s team put some dogs in situations where they were unable to escape. Under these conditions the dogs could be given a shock, again and again. (This wasn’t excruciating levels of shock – just damn uncomfortable.)

You can imagine the dog’s responses. They barked, they yelped, and they wanted to get away from those shocks. They tried HARD to get free. They couldn’t, of course, and so the first of three very interesting things happened. They gave up.

When I say give up I mean they just lay down on the floor and whined, but stopped trying to escape – even when they continued to receive shocks. (I warned you, this isn’t a very pleasant story so far. But hang on – it gets better.)

Cage 2

The researchers were operating under a theory. They theorized that once the dogs had given up they could set those dogs free and the dogs would bolt to freedom. But that isn’t what happened. What happened was that the dogs still acted like they were trapped. What the hell?

The researchers showed the dogs they were free. They offered the dogs rewards to get up and move. They demonstrated how other dogs were free. They even used threats of punishment. None of that worked for these poor dogs.

And that’s when the second interesting thing happened –

Practicing Freedom Behavior

The people doing this study had to literally pick the dog up and move it through the motions of escaping – make it practice the efforts of getting free – before the dog began to do it on its own. They had to do this multiple times! So, for example, if the dog had to jump over a low barrier to get to freedom the researcher had to move the dog through the motions of jumping, more than once, before the dog understood it was actually free.
(So those dogs didn’t STAY trapped – see, those researchers were not such monsters after all.) 

You see the implications, yes? Because this isn’t just about dogs. It’s about us as well. We, too, become trapped, get shocked again and again and again by our fearful thinking and the reactions of Flight or Fight to that thinking – and we, too, can take away the lesson that because we couldn’t escape from those shocks/traumas/frightening experiences for some part of our lives means we will NEVER escape them.

Cage 3

That’s huge. We like to think of ourselves as smart, self-aware, conscious-of-what-we-are-thinking-and-assuming kinds of people – but in fact we are much more the unwilling slaves of old thinking and learning than we usually understand. We don’t see that we’re trapped in a cage of our thinking, and that, even with open door in front of us to get free of our fears, we will stay trapped, convinced that we have nowhere to go.

And to come to understand THAT is a giant key in getting free of anxiety. Because there is that third interesting thing that came from this research.

Specific vs. General

Lots of people (maybe even most people) have something they think they are trapped by, limited by or shut down by in their lives. You can have a very successful sports star who is terrified of intimate relationships. You can have a business tycoon who avoids the gym because he or she is certain they look stupid. You can have a confident mother of 4 kids who would never dream of taking a part-time job for fear they would fail at it.

Those folks are dealing with anxiety, but they are dealing with anxiety in limited/specific areas. There is however another scenario, one where two or three areas of anxiety wind up teaching a person that EVERYTHING is scary, that the world in general is dangerous and risky, that they can’t trust their bodies or their thinking, etc.

CAge 4

And presto – you wind up with a chronic anxiety fighter. And one of the key components of that chronic anxiety is this thinking that you can’t really escape from your fears and worries. You see yourself as helpless, unable to manage or cope. You develop what I’m starting to call the surrender reflex.

Who wouldn’t be tempted to just lie down, like those poor dogs, in the face of ongoing and relentless anxiety? Our brains are racing to try to find some “solution” to all our various fears, even as we’re running away from them. Our bodies, buffeted by Flight or Fight (firing up in response to all that anxious thinking) are beaten flat by nausea, dizziness, heart speeding up or skipping beats, the shakes, a mysteriously dry mouth, shallow/rapid breathing, and a host of emotional surges…

We have learned/been taught by our experience that there is no way out of our “cage”, and so we learn to give up. I wish they hadn’t needed to make those dogs suffer to understand this, but they helped those dogs learn they weren’t helpless or trapped. It’s time for us to do the same…

There is No Cage

Here’s the exceptional news: the cage exists only in our thinking. Yes, it doesn’t FEEL that way – just like those dogs didn’t feel like they had any way out. But the dogs were wrong, and so are we when we think we’re trapped by anxiety.

I’m going to say it again: the only “trap” we’re in is our thinking. We come to tell ourselves that things are hopeless, that we are helpless, that things will never change, etc. We have been “shocked” again and again as anxiety has filled up our lives (or even just convinced us in one or another part of our lives that we can’t manage that part), so we stop trying.

Cage 1

So who the heck is going to show us how to get out? Well, we’re not dogs (at least I’m assuming my readers are not canines – if one of you is a dog please email me so I can apologize!) and we can use the same brains that have convinced us that we’re trapped and helpless to learn new thinking and behaviors.

1) We need to take this notion that anxiety is thinking-based very, very seriously. It is so tempting to say “I’m just an anxious person” or “there must be some mysterious biological cause to my anxiety”. The most current research gives us nothing conclusive at ALL about anxiety being physically inherited, and while we’re free to spend a lot of time and money searching for exotic illnesses/physical problems we’re at LEAST as well-served to clean up our thinking and get “out of the cage” of our fears at the same time – or even first.

2) We have to identify that thinking. (Starting points: HERE and HERE.) We need to understand the stories that we’ve been telling ourselves for years and decades – how we fail, why we are not good enough, why we can’t trust our thinking or our bodies, how we can never have what we want, etc. Time to staunch the wounds, splint the broken bones of our assumptions, and build new habits of thought.

3) We have to move beyond analysis to action. This doesn’t mean that we just grimly face into our fearful thinking and reactions and hope things change. It means that we both stop flinching back from what scares us AND do the work I’ve mentioned in #1 and #2 above. Action without tackling our anxious thinking will eventually, usually just drive us back into hiding – into our “cages.”

Cage 6

4) We do need help! A competent therapist is a great start and ally in this work. Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a psychologist who will listen and not immediately relegate you to a course of medications – these are all good resources. Shop for someone you connect with, feel good about, and then dive in. Even a good personal coach could go a long ways to helping you clean up your anxious thinking.

5) We also need to relearn what Flight or Fight IS – all those anxious physical and emotional reactions we’re having – and see them as simply efforts to escape the terrible box we’ve built for ourselves. They are not the problem – the box is, and the box is in our thinking.

6) We need useful support from our friends and families, however much we can muster. That’s going to vary from person to person, but we need them to help us focus on the real issues – our anxious thinking, our flinching back, our terrible self-stories of helplessness and hopelessness. They can love us and support us – but we don’t need them to feed those stories or our flinching back. Hand-holding, cookie-baking and cheering on – that’s what we need. (Yes, cookies are vital in this work.)

One more Thing you can do

You can holler at me if you want someone to help you with this work. I’ve been doing this kind of coaching for 5 years now and would be more than happy to talk with you and help you get moving in the right direction. Hit me here at the blog.

One more time: there is no cage, except the one we’ve built in our heads. There is no mystery – we’re wrestling with long-practice anxious thinking. There is a way out.

(For more on this topic reference my blog post HERE.)

Cage 5

When I was taking high school English (way back at the beginning of human history – after they invented fire but before we had the wheel) there were several standard ways to start your essay for class. One of the popular ones was opening with a definition from the dictionary as a way to introduce your topic. I’m going to pull a page from history and do that now:

Practice verb \’prak-tes\

1 a: Carry out, apply
b: To do or perform often, customarily, or habitually
2 a: To perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient
b: To train by repeated exercises

Here in year four of this blog I’m coming to understand one crucial thing about most of us that are engaged in the fight with anxiety: we don’t really get right away (as we start this fight) that what this is about is PRACTICE. So today is all about practicing the skills to beat anxiety, break its power in our lives and make anxiety a tool and helper rather than a brutal taskmaster in our lives.

Mom, Do I GOTTA Go to Practice?

Let’s start with that 1a definition above: “Carry out, apply.” Practice starts with, more than anything else, DOING something. It is in the very nature of anxiety to try and get us to freeze in place or run away – anything but moving forward into our fears. And that’s where the trouble begins.

It starts there because we are driven by the powerful responses of Flight or Fight, in our body and feelings, to get AWAY from what is making us anxious. We are all but unconscious that we are stepping back.

Practice 2

All we really know is that we FEEL better for not engaging our fears – at least for a little while. So we don’t “carry out, apply”, because it means engaging our fears. And that feels bad, scary, dangerous.

Mastering our fears means engaging them – sorting out where we’ve turned an issue or challenge into a life-or-death crisis. But we can’t do that if we won’t first look the scary thing in the eye.

This doesn’t mean we spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week constantly confronting our fears! 🙂 Nobody can do that. It means doing the work in practice sessions – just like going to baseball practice, or practicing a piano, or doing yoga. Nobody is doing yoga 24 hours a day.

It also means brief moments of practice when anxiety comes yammering at your door, demanding that you worry about something RIGHT NOW. It means briefly and firmly reminding yourself that this isn’t a crisis, however it FEELS, and that your mission is to focus on being here, in the present moment, not up in some future scary scenario.

Notice I said “briefly and firmly.” That doesn’t necessarily mean you divert 45 minutes to an exhaustive unpacking session. It often means just that – remind yourself that your mission is to be here, in the present, not up in the future worrying about scary scenarios, discount what Flight or Fight is trying to tell you, and then GET ON with your life/day/whatever you’re doing.

That takes practice. Practice takes time. I wish it didn’t. I would summon heaven and Earth to make anxiety vanish from everyone’s life, if I had the power. But it doesn’t work that way!

It DOES, however, work to make the effort at the steady practice of unpacking and unplugging anxiety…

How Much Practice Is Enough?

“1 b: To do or perform often, customarily, or habitually”. When we are engaged in fighting anxiety we are SICK of it! Most of the folks reading this blog didn’t have anxiety come out of the sky blue yesterday afternoon. Nope, we’ve been fighting it for months and months, or more likely years and years. We are DONE, DONE, DONE with having anxiety run our lives.

Practice 1

So we’re not exactly in a place of being cool with being told “hey, this is going to take some time and practice.” What we want is “hey, this will make you better RIGHT NOW.” I’m not speaking hypothetically – this was exactly me when I finally found the first faint signs of good information on how to beat this thing called anxiety.

I got mad – mad and frustrated. I yelled and got pissed off and shouted at the heavens about it. (Literally – I stood outside one afternoon in the depths of a bad anxiety period and demanded to know why me? Guess I was lucky the neighbors didn’t call the police or the hospital…) Didn’t make any difference.

What DID make a difference was the steady reframing of my thinking by challenging my anxious thinking, discounting my Flight or Fight responses and repeatedly facing into my fears. It had to be regular and it had to be often enough to start to really change my thinking.

It sucked some days! 🙂 You know what I mean! Some days it seemed pointless, stupid, a grand waste of time, even counter-productive. It wasn’t – I was learning and getting better at it the whole time – but it sure FELT that way.

Steady practice. Daily practice – actually several times a day practice – coupled with the brief confronting of anxious thinking as it occurs, then moving on. That’s what reprograms our thinking, changes our responding to our Flight or Fight responses from fearful to unconcerned, sets us free from the hamster wheel of anxiety.

There comes a day when you discover that you’re in fact seeing progress. When you face a fear and you realize you’re not as scared. When you have a Flight or Fight response and smile at it instead of freak out about it. That’s when you discover you work is starting to pay off.

So what is enough? Well, are you free of chronic anxiety yet? If not, you’ve got some more work to do. Believe me, it’s worth it. (Or, don’t believe me. That’s OK. TRY IT ANYWAY. What have you got to lose?)

Practice 4

Practice Makes Perfect

That’s really a silly phrase – nothing is perfect, except maybe snowflakes (briefly) and hanging at the beach in San Diego (until you REALLY have to get out of the sun.) But practice does make you SKILLFUL – and that’s your mission.

“2 a: To perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient
b: To train by repeated exercises”

Practice means time – doing something again and again over time. We get impatient with that. We forget that we’ve given years or decades to building up some pretty fierce Comfort Zone walls, some pretty powerful fears that we’ve fed a LOT of energy and worry. We want anxiety to be done the way a light is off when you flip a switch.

We get frustrated with the time it takes to get free of anxiety. But tell me, what’s a handful of months of steady work against the years of your life that you’ve been pommeled by anxiety? If you started right now, today, doing this work consistently and patiently, even when you didn’t FEEL like doing it, well, you’d be a long ways down the road by the start of summer? Doesn’t that sound good?

“To perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient.” That’s our goal, that’s our mission. Expect to not be very good at this in the beginning! Practice assumes that you’re NOT skillful at the start, yes? And we who fight anxiety are so good at self-abuse if we don’t figure something out instantly. Not useful…

Practice. Patient, steady, regular. Even when you don’t feel like it. That’s your ticket out of chronic anxiety. Even when the day doesn’t feel right, or your back aches, or there’s a NCIS marathon on TV, or… anything that gets in the way of your practice.

If you’re new to the blog and you’re not sure what we’re talking about when it comes to unpacking anxious thinking and unplugging your fears about your emotional and physical reactions to anxiety, read the blog posts from 11/20/11 through 8/8/12. That will give you a solid grounding and get you moving. Still have questions? Hit me by email! I’m all about questions!

Practice. Now. Don’t wait. The way out is through practice.

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