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Boundaries. There’s a word I literally never heard in my life until I reached college, at least if we’re talking about setting personal boundaries. I had no idea of how little this was allowed in my life in my family, and I had no CLUE how important this skill would be to getting free of chronic anxiety.

The word isn’t something a lot of us are familiar with as a regular practice in our lives. Boundary-drawing is something too many people learn to equate with being selfish, or being cruel, or being way too dangerous a thing to do because it will mean the end of relationships that we really, really NEED (to stay safe, to survive).

The irony of that last assumption is that relationships NEED a certain amount of boundary-drawing in order to be healthy and high-functioning. More about that later. My mission today is to talk about why both our fear of drawing healthy boundaries in our lives is so scary to us, and how at the same time we’re feeding our anxiety by NOT drawing the boundaries we need.

About Boundaries and Bathrooms

Let me start with a weird and uncomfortable example from my own experience. In my family’s house in Las Vegas we grew up with a very specific kind of a missing boundary: we were not allowed to lock our bathroom door. I thought this was standard – didn’t everyone leave the bathroom door unlocked?

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This meant that anyone, anytime, could walk into the bathroom, whoever else was in there and whatever else they were doing! Happened all the time in our house. The worst offender was our Mom, who, I now suspect, was the reason the bathroom door couldn’t be locked in our house in the first place. I learned that I had to constantly be on guard in the bathroom, doing bathroom things, because you never knew when someone was going to charge in the door in, well, mid-activity.

I think about it now as an adult and it makes me shake my head. I think about the lessons it taught me and my siblings about what was OK and not OK to do when it comes to asking for respect around our needs and wants. I think of how often we were embarrassed by one person or another walking in on our bathroom activities.

Perhaps the most powerful metaphor is that we were too often naked (literally) without being ASKED by someone for permission to be seen naked. Get the metaphor? That’s a great one for all kinds of NOT drawing boundaries in our lives – that we are constantly having people barge in our door, one way or another, without our permission, and making us crazy, allowing ourselves to be made vulnerable without people respecting our most basic rights.

We need to start, metaphorically and literally, deciding when and with who we’re going to “lock the bathroom door” – start deciding when it is and isn’t OK for someone to “see us naked”.

Yes, Erik, That Sounds Great – but What if I Make Someone Mad/Upset/Hurt?

One time at the Kieser House I was feeling a little rebellious (I was in early High School, and I was sick of people charging into the damn bathroom!) So, this one time, I heard Mom coming down the hall, and I simply blocked the bathroom door with my foot (I was shaving.)

Yikes! She insisted that I open the door, demanding to know what I was doing. I shouted back that I was shaving and that I’d be out in a minute. She was PISSED OFF. Which of course, once I wasn’t feeling so rebellious, ramped up my anxiety. Gee Mom, I’m really sorry, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I hope you’ll forgive me…

WHAT? What exactly had I done wrong? But that was my training. If someone else wanted something, even something really as unreasonable as walking into the bathroom I was using without knocking, then that had to be OK, or I’D be the bad guy.

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Sound familiar? Did you also learn that what you wanted didn’t matter if someone else wanted something different? Did you come to believe that it was selfish and wrong to put your needs and wants in any position but LAST when it came to living with, working with and dealing with other people?

And did/does that go double for the important people in your life?

This might not be as big a deal if we were all zebras or lemmings or some other kind of herd animal, creatures that expected to be jostled and crowded and having a minimum of personal space. But we’re not zebras or lemmings. We’re human, and humans have a real need for boundaries.

One of the outcomes of NOT having solid personal boundaries is anxiety. I’ll bet that sounds familiar too…

Boundaries and Territory

There is a really, really important connection between functional, respectful personal boundaries and what is called in the social sciences personal territory. The notion is that each of us has physical, emotional and mental territory that we regard as OURS – belonging to us and important to us.

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The physical territory stuff is easy to understand. Don’t drive my car unless you get permission from me first. Don’t charge into the bathroom unless you knock (assuming there is no lock.) Don’t eat the last of the cookies without asking first. (That’s a BIG rule in my house.)

But that also means things like personal space (how close someone can be to you before it makes you uncomfortable) and when it is OK and NOT OK for someone to touch you. All these physical territory issues can make us feel comfortable/safe OR make us feel vulnerable and anxious.

And of course it is difficult (read: impossible) to talk about physical territory without talking about the boundaries of that territory. And boundaries by definition are things that must be enforced, to some extent, or they are meaningless. Let me say that again: if we don’t enforce boundaries they have NO meaning.

SO, if we’re not comfortable or feel safe alerting people to their crossing of our boundaries (hey, buddy, you’re standing pretty close – can you back up a foot or so?) then people will (as you know!) breeze into your territory whenever they feel like doing so.

Any of this sound familiar?

But it isn’t really the physical boundaries I’m concerned with in this blog post (although they are very important and must be considered – just ask anyone who has dealt with sexual or physical abuse.) It is the mental and emotional boundaries that really interest me in this discussion. It is all the ways we trample our OWN boundaries because of our fears and worries that can massively feed anxiety within us.

Don’t Come In Here – Oh, OK, Come In…

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Let’s say we have a belief that says something like “I must always be happy in front of other people” based on a what if fear like “what if someone thinks less of me or doesn’t like me because I’m not always cheerful?” Then let’s say that we are having a REALLY crappy day but have to go see family or friends that same day.

What do we do? Do we go as we are, dealing with our feelings, just being in the place we happen to be? Do we allow ourselves to be human? I don’t mean we have to dump our feelings all over the place and work to make others miserable! I simply mean allow ourselves to actually have our feelings, respecting where we are as we sort ourselves out?

We DON’T do that with the “what if?” belief I mentioned above. Nope, we go, we struggle to put on a happy face, we let other people dump on US, we pretend to be in a good mood, we give away time and energy we don’t have – all because we’re afraid to draw healthy boundaries for ourselves.

That might be as simple as telling those friends and family “you know what? I’m not in the best frame of mind today. I’m going to take a rain-check on this visit and see you all later.” Or it might be going anyway and not pretending. Like I said that doesn’t have to mean you rain on everyone else’s parade – but it might mean not being Susie Sunshine either, not if that’s not you right now.

That’s just one example of drawing boundaries. Another might be “I can never say no to a request from another person” based on a what if belief like “what if someone rejects me because I say no?” or “what if I’m a bad person if I ever say no?” So when people ask us for what we either don’t want to give (remember, boundaries include the stuff that we believe belongs to US) or can’t give away right now, but we give it away anyway, then we trample our own boundaries by letting others walk across them.

Ugh! Not useful to us! And notice how we permit people to walk across our boundaries BECAUSE WE ARE ANXIOUS ABOUT ENFORCING THOSE BOUNDARIES.

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Good Fences Really Do Make Good Neighbors…

So what I’m really saying is that to become a good self-carer we have to face our anxious thinking. People can blat to us all they want about how we need to respect ourselves and respect our personal boundaries, but we won’t do a damn thing about this until we look for the fears and worries that drive us to let people cross those boundaries in the first place.

In my next blog post I’m going to talk a little about a style of boundary-drawing that I call “boundaried but unguarded.” I’m going to do some examples of what drawing healthy boundaries might look like as well.

This post is a follow-up to my last post on practicing a little thing called The Compound Effect. Today’s discussion is one of the specific reasons we need to see our work sorting out anxiety as a marathon rather than as a sprint…

So there you are, working hard on your Fear Mastery skills, and you’ve experienced some solid success in challenging one of your fears. Let’s say that you have been anxious about driving over a bridge or on the highway (a pretty common fear, let me tell you.) You’ve spent years being scared to do this, but you decided a few weeks ago that enough was enough.

You’ve done all the right things. You’ve identified the problem (driving on busy highways and/or over bridges) as something you historically turned into a crisis (this is really dangerous, it will kill you, you’ll fall off the bridge, etc.) You did both some time writing in a journal about this particular fear, and you’ve done some talking with your significant other or best friend as well.

You’ve also figured out that those scary feelings and physical responses you have when you are either actually driving these places or even just thinking about it are really nothing more than the Flight or Fight Response, trying hard to help you get away from your scary thinking.

You’re pretty proud of yourself! You’re learning to be less fearful thinking about it, you’re less startled and scared when Flight or Fight does power up with you, and you’ve even taken the amazing step of driving, briefly, on the highway (chanting the whole time “this isn’t a crisis, this isn’t a crisis…)

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You lived to tell the tale, and now you’re feeling pretty good about this work. And why shouldn’t you? You’ve faced down one of your big fears and you’re starting to feel a little breathing room there in the cramped confines of your Comfort Zone.

Then Your Anxiety Gets Uppity With You…

Maybe it’s the evening of your infamous drive/bridge transit. Maybe you’re just sitting home minding your own business, quietly reveling in your victory. Suddenly your heart leaps in your chest, you get short of breath, your stomach clenches, you feel terrible and frightened, and all you can think of is HOW SCARY IT IS TO DRIVE ON A HIGHWAY OR OVER A BRIDGE. It’s like you never did any work in the first place!

What the hell is going on? You were doing so well! Why are you so scared now? Well, that’s easy. You did a brave and strong thing, taking on your Comfort Zone. It was an excellent start. But you’re not done just yet.

Our Comfort Zones need a little persuading. In fact some of our Comfort Zone boundaries need a SERIOUS amount of persuading. That, combined with our REAL desire to get the crap of anxiety out of our lives, can make us freak out/get worried that we’re failing somehow when the Comfort Zone throws our fears back in our face.

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You might almost say that your Comfort Zone has had a kind of spasm, a reactive twitch or surge in the aftermath of your brave effort. Yes, you pushed out past your fearful boundaries. Yes, it went well. Yes you demonstrated that you actually can do that scary thing and not have it kill you. That doesn’t mean that you’re over your fears with that single stroke –

Sometimes this is referred to as an “aftershock.” It’s a great metaphor, this reference to what happens after a major earthquake. The Earth will rattle for hours or days afterwards, and it makes sense that it would – there has been a major adjustment to the lay of the land. Same thing with this brave pushing on your Comfort Zone – things are, metaphorically at least, readjusting in your thinking.

We need to entertain the notion that one effort is probably not going to be enough to convince your Comfort Zone. Or, more accurately, it probably won’t be enough to convince your years or decades of fearful thinking to just stop from this one pushback. No, you’re going to have to keep pushing to really reprogram your thinking/convince yourself that your fears have been just that – fears.

Years of Personal Fear Nurturing Don’t Just Go Away!

First let’s be clear: you’re not doomed to be forever afraid of highways or bridges or whatever is scaring you right now. It can FEEL that way, but that doesn’t make it so. Remember, our feelings are the brain’s ancient way of telling you to GET THE HELL AWAY from whatever is scaring you. Not so useful when you’re working to overcome a fear of highways or bridges…

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Secondly, practice resisting the temptation of having a 2-hour FearFest party in your brain, i.e., dwelling on JUST how scary that whole bridge/highway thing COULD be for you. You know what I’m talking about, right? The “aftershock” begins, you’re sitting in your chair in your living room, and now you’re pouring over the sheer terror, the madness, the fear… etc.

Not so useful. In fact “aftershocks” can be a great time to practice that whole unpacking thing – i.e., driving on a highway isn’t a crisis, it is at most a problem, and one that millions of people do every day without a hitch. It is also a great time to practice unplugging your fears of your Flight or Fight reactions – i.e., yes, my heart is racing here in my chair, but it is JUST reacting to my fearful thinking, nothing more. No special message, I’m not in danger, etc.

You’ve watered and cared for your fears for a long, long time. Just because you’re now spraying weed-killer on those fears and shutting down the water supply doesn’t mean they’ll just meekly curl up and die…

Aftershocks Stop Over Time

There is some good news in this discussion of aftershocks and Comfort Zone pushback. It doesn’t go on forever. In fact you’d be surprised how quickly, with continued work and patient effort, your thinking will begin to reframe what is scary and what is merely a problem.

Some more good news: aftershocks mean you’re DOING THE WORK. All of us who fight or have fought anxiety have lost a lot of lifespan avoiding the fight with our fears. Aftershocks and the accompanying discomfort are good indications of the serious work you’re doing.

Expect your Comfort Zone to push back. It is only doing its job, trying to get you away from danger – real or only perceived. You’ve trained your brain with a long history of being afraid of certain situations, problems or challenges. It will take some time to retrain that brain of yours. Stand your ground. Stay with the work.

Because as you do the work you’ll gain momentum. You will find the work less scary, less exhausting. Your range of motion, physically and emotionally, will increase. The aftershocks and discomfort will begin to decrease around the fears you’re working on, and your self-confidence will increase.

One effort on pushing back your fears is pretty unlikely to banish those fears. But the steady work, even with the pushback you’ll get from your Comfort Zone thinking, will be way, way worth the energy cost and the discomfort…

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In my last post I pushed hard on the issue of confronting our fears of our Flight or Fight responses, physical and emotional. In this post I’m going to discuss some examples of how this work looks, both from my experience and from some of my coaching client’s experiences.

Remember a couple of things as you read these examples:

1) Everyone seems to have a particular combination of Flight or Fight responses that rock their world. You may not see your exact issues in these few examples (i.e., one person is freaked out by a racing heart and nausea, another person can’t stand when they break into a sweat and feel guilty), but it’s a pretty safe guess that if you’re fighting anxiety then you’re dealing with one or more Flight or Fight responses that at least trouble you, whatever those happen to be for you.

So don’t get too caught up in these precise examples. See them as samples of how the work looks as you work through confronting the mix of Flight or Fight reactions that trouble YOU.

2) I’m a big believer in doing that check-with-the-doctor thing if you have doubts. This is vague advice at one level because Flight or Fight isn’t the only thing that can make you have various physical reactions, obviously.

At the same time some people wind up going to the doctor again and again and again, spending tons of money and lots of time, but never quite reaching the place where they’ll at least consider that those wacky reactions they’re experiencing are rooted in anxiety.

So by all means, if you think you’re fighting something serious go to the doctor! You don’t get points for not covering your bases or “being strong.” 🙂

But if you’ve seen the doc and you get the “I don’t see anything wrong with you, you’re healthy as a horse” speech (or worse, you keep going back and getting that same response) then it might be time to look at the possibility that what you’re really fighting is the outcome of anxious thinking.

OK, let’s do some examples of the work.

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The Trouble With Mariah

I happen to know a lovely lady named Mariah (name changed to protect the anxious.) Mariah is in her 50’s, and she had been fighting chronic anxiety for over 15 years when we started working together.

She has raised 3 kids, is very bright (one of the traits of anxiety-fighters, even though we tend to be pretty self-deprecating), hasn’t by any means given up yet, but was growing very, very tired of being afraid of her body.

So when we started the work she said she was READY to face down her fears of her physical and emotional reactions. One of the Flight or Fight responses that she really hated was the sense of the world going dark (what one of my clients calls “perception darkness”, a term I like very much – very descriptive.)
It is that sense that things are fading to gray, losing their color, or as I used to describe it, that the light is being leached from the room.

Another was muscle tightness, especially in her back and legs. The third symptom of anxiety she loathed was a profound hopelessness that swept over her and left her sitting in a chair or lying in bed for hours.

It never seemed to last more than a morning, but she dreaded it. Everything seemed pointless when she felt that way, and she would lose a whole day (or days in a row) trying to pick up the pieces of those attacks and their aftermath.

She made good progress on unpacking her anxious thinking in our first couple of sessions, but got increasingly irritated at how stubborn her Flight or Fight responses seemed to be. She said several times that maybe she was doing something wrong in her work, because she’d get a couple of days of relief from her physical and emotional anxiety reactions, and then WHAM, they’d be making her crazy again.

Then she told me that her progress had slowed to a crawl with her anxiety work, in part because she wasn’t “getting better” with her fear about her Flight or Fight reactions. She said if anything she seemed MORE scared of those physical and emotional bogey-men, and was worried she was just making them worse.

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Monsters, Closets, Etc.

As I have said before the reactions of Flight or Fight exist for one reason: to get us away from danger. Those reactions are deep, primal, hard-wired into our brains and bodies. They are going to FEEL important, FEEL urgent, even FEEL LIKE IT IS LIFE OR DEATH to get away from those sensations and whatever is causing them.

People who don’t fight chronic anxiety usually don’t get this. They are puzzled by our frightened, anxious responses to something as innocuous as a tight muscle or a racing heart. But in those moments they are not in OUR bodies – they are not feeling the rush of adrenaline and cortisol, they are not dealing with an overwhelming sense of panicky need to get the hell out of here NOW.

That’s what Flight or Fight is SUPPOSED to do to us. It isn’t JUST the tight muscle or the racing heart (or whatever your favorite responses happen to be.) No, it is the combination of physical and emotional and mental events taking place that make those responses so unnerving to us.

And, of course, we’ve also learned to associate those responses with some pretty dark hours of fear and worry. Many of us have all but frozen in place during those times, unable to move, feeling trapped, and having the terrible suspicion that things will always be like this…

So when Mariah (and anyone else who doesn’t yet understand what’s actually going on) was in the grip of her particular Flight or Fight reactions to her anxious thinking she just wanted them to STOP. They were bad, they were scary, they all but shut her life down, and so she wanted them to GO AWAY. As long as they were happening it MUST have meant that she wasn’t getting better, wasn’t overcoming anxiety.

In other words she kept assigning meaning to those reactions. She was having Flight or Fight responses, so there MUST be something wrong. Which in turn scared her more, which in turn generated more Flight or Fight responses…

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Get Me Off This Merry-Go-Round!

The key to this part of the work is to understand, very clearly, that none, NONE of those Flight or Fight responses, carry any meaning except this: you’re afraid. You’re afraid of the future. You’re afraid these responses signal some terrible truth about the future. You’re going to always be anxious. You’re going to have a heart attack.

You’re going to faint and keep on fainting. You’re going to never NOT have stomach nausea. You’ll NEVER be able to leave your house, or go out with friends, or leave this job, or end this relationship, or start that new relationship, or do anything you really want to do.

Except of course none of that is true. None of it! Even in our darkest hours and days we are not constantly having panic attacks. We may have a string of them across hours or days, but then they stop. The body can’t sustain it. We don’t have an endless supply of adrenaline and cortisol. We eventually fall asleep. We eventually get distracted…

And there is the huge, giant, crucial key. The minute our attention is diverted from our fear and anxious thinking our bodies gear down, even if only a little. Because it isn’t really the Flight or Fight responses we’re afraid of – it is the MEANING we’ve assigned to those responses.

In Mariah’s case, even after she had begun to make headway with unpacking her anxious thinking (i.e., figuring out where she had taken a small collection of problems/concerns and transformed them into crises, life-or-death in her thinking) she was still assigning terrible meaning to her Flight or Fight reactions.

Tensing muscles meant that she was going to lose another whole day or two to anxiety. The room going dark meant there was a panic attack on the way. Feeling hopeless meant that there WAS no hope for her future – she would always be like this.

And of course she had never been clear on all these meanings and assumptions she had been making about her physical and emotional reactions! She didn’t realize she was spinning up that Merry-Go-Round herself. She was desperate for it to stop even as she kept doggedly pushing it around and around…

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Step Off the Merry-Go-Round

After we had the conversation I just wrote here she started challenging her assumptions about what her body and emotions were telling her (or, more accurately, what she was telling herself about her body and emotions.) The first couple of times were HARD. She had pretty well trained herself to do ANYTHING to NOT think about those responses, so staying in the room (metaphorically) for the conversation was the first step.

Then she just let her body have its reactions. She began to connect that her Flight or Fight response was firing up in reaction, 90% of the time, to some well-worn and increasingly transparent fears she had about the future, her career and her family. And as she began to reframe what those reactions meant she began to, oddly enough, both be less afraid of them AND have them occur less frequently.

Make no mistake. She had tougher and easier days. About 3 weeks after this pivotal coaching session she got herself good and tired from a long day of work and kids, began to come down with a flu bug and skipped breakfast and lunch. All of a sudden the world went dark, her legs got very tight and sore, and she felt like everything had gone gray and pointless.

That went on for about 10 minutes (so she tells the story) and then she found herself saying out loud “hey, what the hell? I was fine 10 minutes ago and now I’m in full Flight or Fight. This doesn’t mean anything – it’s just some anxious thinking that hit me hard because I’m tired and hungry.” And to her surprise the lights began to come back up, her tension eased and she felt better.

Nothing miraculous here. Just the result of patient work – unpacking anxious thinking and unplugging fear of the meaning of Flight or Fight reactions.

Next post – more examples. Flight or Fight is NOT the enemy. It is our thinking, our expectations, that are the problem… a problem we can address, sort out and conquer.

In the framework for overcoming anxiety I articulate here in this blog I talk about “unpacking” and “unplugging” work. Unpacking is figuring out where we have let a problem or issue transform into a crisis in our thinking – what we have made into anxious thinking.

Unplugging is the deliberate discounting of the physical and emotional Flight or Fight responses we have to our anxious thinking.

Today’s post is all about clarifying more precisely what unplugging looks like and what it will do for us when we begin to get skillful at it. If you’re anything like I was (in the heart of my anxiety fight) even the thought of looking directly at the physical and emotional reactions of Flight or Fight could make you worry about Flight or Fight…

And that’s exactly the problem. When we start doing anxious thinking we are very likely going to trigger Flight or Fight in our bodies. And over time we begin to associate our anxious thoughts WITH those Flight or Fight responses, so we develop, essentially, a second source of fear – the fear of those responses. You might almost say that we learn to be afraid of being afraid.

We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself… (Yeah, Right!)

People who haven’t fought anxiety can have a very hard time understanding this piece of the work that we have to do to get free of anxiety. They are often baffled at our anxious, worried, frightened responses to our bodies, and they can sadly be pretty dismissive of how we feel.

But if you’ve been fighting anxiety for any length of time then you know exactly what I’m talking about, this reacting with fear and worry to what our bodies do when we are in the grip of anxious thinking. We have learned to be afraid of our fearful reactions. And that’s a merry-go-round we really, really want to get off of as soon as we can…

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If you’ve been reading this blog you know that the reactions we have when we’re afraid evolved to help us get away from physical, life-or-death danger in the natural world. Intellectually you get that ALL that is actually happening in our bodies and emotions is a highly effective system response to help us deal with danger NOW – either run (really good idea, no injuries, no fighting, just some sweat and a chance for a quick cardio workout) or, if we have to, fight until the danger stops or until we CAN run.

Let’s say it one more time for the cheap seats: the Flight or Fight response has only one mission – to get us the hell out of here if we are in danger. It is deeply wired into our brains and bodies, and good thing too, because it’s one of the big reasons you and I are here today – it got our ancestors MOVING when they were hanging out with cuddly things like sabertooth tigers and dire wolves.

But our problem, we who fight anxiety, isn’t tigers and wolves. Our problem is our anxious thinking. We scare ourselves with dark scenarios of the future, “what if?” questions that invariably lead to those dark scenarios (everything will go to hell, I’m doomed, this is terrible, my fear will never end, etc.), and when we do that we wind up firing up Flight or Fight.

That brilliant survival system for the dangers of the natural world didn’t evolve for late mortgage payments, or your son failing his chemistry class, or that pretty girl saying no, she really doesn’t want to out with you, or your wife losing her job and you worried about family finances. All it knows is YOU’RE AFRAID!

And if you’re afraid you’ll fire up Flight or Fight to some degree. End of story.

Flight or Fight isn’t here to scare us. It is here to HELP us. But we’ve learned along the road of our anxiety to also be afraid of our Flight or Fight reactions because we’ve associated them WITH our anxious thinking, and then we scare ourselves both with our thinking and with our physical and emotional reactions. Ugh. A great 1-2 punch that we keep delivering to ourselves over and over again…

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The (Partial) List

Once Flight or Fight powers up all kinds of things happen in our bodies and emotions (as well you know.) Your body gears up for action. That includes but isn’t limited to the following:

• Heartbeat speeds up
• Breathing speeds up and gets more shallow
• We start to sweat (dumping heat for that sprint or fight we’re anticipating)
• Digestion shuts partially or completely down (don’t need breakfast right now!) – nausea, butterflies, etc.
• Vision narrows/goes gray at the edges (gotta look sharp at those escape routes and that damn tiger)
• We tense up/muscles go tight
• We become restless, agitated (good thing too – need that energy to deal with that danger)
• We get tingling or even go numb in our extremities (blood pulls out in case we get injured)
• We become light-headed/experience vertigo
• Sometimes we get shocky – i.e., blood pressure drops and we get chills, other shock symptoms
• Our head starts to pound/get a headache (all that adrenaline and cortisol coursing through us)
• Time seems to slow down/reactions times speed up
• We freeze in place (sometimes hiding is the best running in the natural world)

None of this is bad or dangerous in and of itself. They are just physical reactions to our Flight or Fight mechanism. The bad part is when we, unintentionally, assign these responses MEANING, when we decide (again, usually not consciously) that our racing heart MEANS something terrible is about to happen, or our tingling fingers and toes signal DISASTER is just around the corner.

We even learn to hate these responses, get angry at them, and make ourselves even crazier in our anxiety fight. We learn to dread these physical responses. We also associate them with specific places or events or activities, and so we learn to dread those events/places/activities as well.

And all the while we just get more anxious, more afraid, and all from a system that is only trying to do its job – get you away from whatever you’re afraid of in that moment. Except, as I’ve said here before, there’s no danger here. And you can’t really run away from your thoughts! You CAN, however, change them. You can stop scaring yourself.

Flight or Fight’s physical reactions are ½ of the puzzle. The other half is our emotional responses –

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Emotions are Not Decorations – Emotions Get Us MOVING

And let’s not forget all the emotional responses that we have to Flight or Fight activating in us. Those emotions serve a vital function in the natural world – they motivate us. Nothing quite so energizing (in the natural world) as sheer terror to get our little feet moving!  Speaking of which:

• Terror
• Sadness
• Worry
• Anger
• Anxiety
• Embarrassment
• Guilt
• Grief
• Irritable
• Rage
• Despair
• Hopelessness

We might have any or all of these when we’re wrestling with anxiety. Except of course that we’re not really in DANGER when we’re anxious, so while those feelings surge and crash inside us we don’t have much in the way of anything to DO with them – we just slosh around in our anxious feelings, making ourselves more anxious.

If we didn’t learn to be afraid of these physical and emotional responses in our body to fear we would often be in much better shape to deal with our anxious thinking in the first place. But we DO learn to be afraid of these F&F responses, and it makes our fight with our anxious thinking that much harder.

Thankfully we rarely learn to be afraid of ALL of them. We seem to latch on to some combination of F&F responses (probably because we associate those particular reactions with early or particularly intense experiences with our fearful thinking) and then start watching anxiously for any sign those reactions are presenting themselves.

Doesn’t this sound like a great game to play? We learn to turn a problem/issue/challenge into a crisis (anxious thinking), we learn to associate particular Flight or Fight responses with our anxious thinking and therefore be scared of those reactions as well, and we learn to be on guard for any sign of those responses (anticipatory anxiety), what I and others call hyper-vigilance (see my post on this 6/12/12.) Crap!

It is any wonder that people who fight anxiety are so incredibly tired, exhausted, beat up?

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You Know What I’m Talking About!

If you’re reading this blog then I’d bet cold cash that you know exactly what I what I’m describing here from your own experience. And I’d bet even more money that you’d do just about anything at all to NOT be so freaked out/worried about those physical and emotional responses.

So what do we do? I’m so glad you asked:

1) Get very clear in your mind that ALL of your physical and emotional reactions when you’re anxious/afraid (and you’re not being chased by an angry buffalo or something actually dangerous) are just that – reactions to your anxious thinking. They don’t mean anything – nothing – except that you’re currently processing (consciously or often unconsciously) worries about the future, what if questions that scare you.

There are two challenges to this first step: first, those reactions FEEL like something serious. They should, because they evolved for serious threats! They are all about keeping you SAFE. But that doesn’t mean that they are RIGHT when it comes to responding to anxious thinking.

I hear friends and clients say this all the time: “but Erik, it FEELS so bad, It FEELS so real”, etc. Sure. It does. Doesn’t make it real. This takes practice, just this understanding. That’s why in my blog posts on the essential skill sets to master anxiety I call this one thing, discounting anxiety’s Flight or Fight responses, a skill. It is a skill, and it will take a little time and practice.

The second challenge is that most of us learned a long time ago to run away from those physical reactions and feelings, precisely because they frightened us. It can be hard to admit that we’ve learned to be afraid of our bodies and feelings. We are not only fighting the fear but the all-but-unconscious force of habit when we start this practice.

Like I said – a skill.

2) The next thing to do is to deliberately confront those sensations and feelings. I discuss this in more depth in the blog posts dated 3/22/12, 3/27/12 and 4/1/12. It means creating a journal for both the unpacking work and the unplugging work and sorting out what thinking triggers Flight or Fight for us in the first place.

It means developing a few minutes several times a day to open the closet of our fearful thinking and deal with the feelings and reactions that closet brings on in our bodies. It means taking the thinking of step 1 above and holding that thinking while you ride out those Flight or Fight reactions. Not necessarily fun. Not something to do lightly. But it is essential to do –

Because when you do this you’re literally reprogramming your thinking and your reactions. I ran in terror (really, terror) from even the possibility of vertigo in my life for 2 decades. It was the first Flight or Fight response I learned to fear, and it was the last I faced down because I hated how it felt.

And I still remember both the elation of the moment when I realized I was just afraid of a temporary physical reaction to anxiety, and the real anger at all the things I had avoided, all the trips I didn’t take, all the life I could have lived if I had just understood and faced down this aspect of my fears sooner…

You’ll be scratchy when you do this – don’t be surprised at that. Some days it will feel like the worst and last thing you want to do. Expect that.

Don't Care 5

3) And this is why you really need to do this work in stages, short bursts, and not try to do it 24/7 until you’re free. It’s exhausting, for one thing. For another it is WAY too easy to start obsessing over whether you’re making progress or not, is it going away, WHY HASN’T IT STOPPED YET?  More hyper-vigilance.

Breath. Really. You’ll be making progress, it just won’t come as fast as we’d like (because we want it RIGHT NOW.) Repeating: do this work in pieces. Maybe a morning session, then maybe a few minutes at lunch (if you’re feeling like you’re up for it plus whatever else is going on in your day, work or kids or whatever), and definitely once in the evening, probably well before bed.

And that’s my last recommendation in this post: it becomes essential that as you move into this work you work extra hard to just live your life. You’ve got shallow breathing going on and it is scaring you? Get up and take a shower.

You don’t feel like it – I get that – but nothing’s wrong. Sitting still won’t do you any good. Remind yourself of what you know – there’s nothing wrong, just some scary thinking freaking you out –

You don’t feel like getting out of bed because you feel so blue and your chest is tight? Get up anyway. You won’t always succeed, especially as you start this work, but even the effort is worth the work. Fear says freeze in place. But there’s nothing dangerous here – just us reacting to Flight or Fight.

We Learned to Be Afraid of Our Bodies – We Can Unlearn That Fear

Flight or Fight isn’t the enemy. It can become a tremendous burden to endure our fears about how Flight or Fight reacts to our fears, but we don’t have to either be afraid of those reactions or let them shut down our lives.

You probably don’t feel like doing this. You’re tired, beat up, already at your limit. I understand. Did a lot of time there. But consider how close you are to your freedom if you’ll just start really understanding the meaning of and discounting the physical and emotional reactions you have to your fearful thinking. You don’t have to stay afraid.

I am currently reading a great little book called “You Are Not So Smart.” Just the title makes me grin. It is basically about the ways that people don’t think very clearly, as well how some of the ways we’re built genetically get in the way of us thinking effectively.

The reason I mention this book is that it triggered some thinking about a simple and essential-to-understand issue with our Flight or Fight Reflex when we’re dealing with anxiety and fear. I’m hoping that today’s blog post will give you another lever/tool in your Fear Mastery “toolbox.”

As you already know (if you’ve read much of this blog) Flight or Fight evolved for one reason: to get us away from life-threatening danger. It is an ancient and powerful mechanism, a system that developed to optimize our chances of survival in a physically dangerous world.

When I say ancient I mean REALLY OLD – literally hundreds of millions of years before we had anything like intelligence in the game. Literally. It is so old, and so much a part of our physical make-up, that it is hard-wired into our brains. It reacts all but instantly to the perception of danger near us – as I’m sure you already get from your own experience…

OK – So It’s Standard In This Model of Human – So What?

What makes this a topic for discussion is that there is a subtle and very powerful outcome when it comes to us dealing with our own anxieties/fears. Here it is: as long as we perceive danger, for whatever reason, Flight or Fight will be triggered again and again in our brains and bodies – which means WE will, if we’re not careful, keep trying to get away from the danger.

Which makes a heck of a lot of sense if we’re sitting near a King Cobra, or watching a lava flow come toward us, or can hear wolves howling down the street. Good survival mechanism in the natural world – no question.

But of course 99.99% of the “danger” our thinking reacts to isn’t danger at all – it is some problem, challenge or issue that is, to some degree, scaring us. We are behind on our credit card bills – or are becoming afraid we will get behind. We are fighting stomach pain and it isn’t going away even if we’re bathing in antacids. We had a fight with our boss and now we’re worried about the security of our job.

In other words we’re not dealing with a danger in the physical sense at all. We’re dealing with a danger that we’ve generated in our thinking. Sure, it might be important, even vital, that we deal with this issue, whatever it is.

But it isn’t going to kill us or maim us this instant. In fact we have time, and NEED time, to sort out what we’re going to do, then take some steps to do something about it.

But we’re afraid (and often not conscious much of our fear.) And that is ALL Flight or Fight cares about. It will fire up, to some degree, and it has only one mission – to get you to safety.

We feel restless, or annoyed, or frustrated – sure we do. Because we’re still activating Flight or Fight, still trickling (or pumping) adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies and brains, and our defense system is trying hard to get us away from the thing that is scaring us.

I’m Not Scared!

And this is where the notion of “you (all of us) are not so smart” comes in. We’re not really thinking when we react to Flight or Fight – we’re just reacting.

One reason is that much of that reacting is unconscious. I gotta say it again – we don’t have to be conscious of this process. The vast majority of us are NOT conscious of it. We are reacting, and we are mostly unaware that we are reacting.

We have one, or two, or eight, or fifteen concerns that have grown into worries and fears, and anytime any one of them crosses our mind (again, very often outside our awareness) then we trigger some degree of Flight or Fight.

And so without us even being aware of it WE KEEP TRYING TO GET TO SAFETY. We wouldn’t use that language, we might even dismiss the notion that we’re afraid at all. But the bottom line is that if we’re fearful at all we’re very likely to find ourselves in the middle of trying to stop being afraid – trying to get away from the danger we’re thinking about at that moment.

This is exactly how anxiety gets a foothold in our lives. Flight or Fight isn’t doing anything but responding to our perception of danger. If we think, consciously or otherwise, that there is some risk in our lives that is threatening danger to us, then Flight or Fight will keep trying to get us to safety. Period.

Then of course as time passes we get tired, feel defeated, bury our fears in our unconscious thinking even more (because we can’t really get away from this danger in our heads – we can only try to block our thinking about it in various ways.) And all because we are constantly firing up Flight or Fight, constantly preparing to flee something we can’t flee…

So What’s the Takeaway?

1) We need to be aware of how we are trying to escape the danger in our heads. We need to get conscious of the fact that we are firing up Flight or Fight.

How? Well, one clue is when we find ourselves medicating our anxiety. Don’t think I’m throwing rocks from my glass house – I spent many years medicating, in my case with food. (This is a technique I learned in my family.) Medicating is a way of trying to escape the thing we can’t escape – the anxious thoughts running through our skull and tormenting our bodies and emotions.

Many of us medicate pretty fiercely – alcohol, drugs, food abuse, hours of time in front of TV shows we don’t really care about, etc. It isn’t so much how we medicate as the fact that we are medicating that matters.

Sure, some medication efforts are more immediately destructive, but ALL of them are not serving us if they keep us from sorting out what is scaring us and doing something about it.

Another clue are, obviously, all the various ways Flight or Fight activates in our bodies (and in particular the reactions that make us even more anxious.)

When we find that we’re constantly dealing with a racing heart, or feeling sad out of the blue “for no reason”, or regularly having a hard time swallowing, or you pick the physical or emotional reaction to Flight or Fight, then it just might mean you’re busy avoiding dealing with a problem AS a problem, instead of as a crisis.

One of my clients at the moment describes “the lights going dim” in his world when his anxiety is pressing on him. Another person I’m working with notices her mouth going dry, and the back of her neck getting very tight/tense.

My personal warning signal was numbness in my fingers and hands. All of these are excellent clues that we’re having anxious thoughts chasing around in our heads – even if we’re not directly conscious of what those thoughts might be at the moment.

2) We HAVE to get clear on what is making us anxious – what I call unpacking our anxiety. The longer we let our fears remain in our backbrain the longer we suffer from the debilitating effects of constant Flight or Fight in our bodies and minds.

This can be difficult, especially at the beginning of the work. Just the effort to look squarely at what is making us anxious can, well, make us anxious! Which in turn fires up Flight or Fight, which in turn makes us more anxious… it is often tiring, scary and even exhausting in those first efforts.

It is also one excellent way to almost immediately make progress in dealing with our anxiety. Just the work to drag the anxious thinking out of the shadows and into the light of our awareness is a good way to diminish the power of those anxious thoughts.

In other words, expect to be anyplace from anxious to really freaked out. We can make a problem into a crisis for so long (or so intensely, depending on the experience) that even getting conscious of the problem-turned-crisis can scare the crap out of us.

Remember this thing – a thought cannot hurt us. It can scare us, it can really upset us, it can bring on violent emotional responses – but it can’t hurt us. It is only a thought. Easy to say – harder initially to stay clear on in the middle of our storm of anxiety – but still true.

And once it is in the light it is possible to actually DO something about it! We can begin to address the fear/anxiety, start making decisions about what we’re going to attempt in an effort to solve this problem or problems.

3) Often a particular situation or location or person can turn into something we avoid, and this can also be a clue about us fighting anxious thinking. One personally embarrassing but perfect example from my own life is how long I ran from dealing directly with my finances, as opposed to a hurried scan-my-bills-write-few-checks-avoid-looking-at-my-bank-balance behavior (that went on for literally decades.)

So anytime, anytime I got a letter in the mail that looked like a bill I was suddenly really interested in making dinner, or calling a friend, or EATING. Or if it got too close to the end of the month (like it did, on a monthly basis!) and I KNEW it was getting close to my being late on my bills, then I was oddly restless, irritable, scratchy…

I see this a lot in my coaching clients who are wrestling with their current jobs and who want to get on to something more interesting in the way of a career, something closer to what really interests them. They will have a crappy day at work, but then as we’re talking they will begin to veer away from looking at WHY the day was crappy, because that would mean thinking about what they really want –

Which in turn makes them anxious, because that would mean really thinking through what that would look like, and that would mean facing their fears of failure at trying the thing they want to do…

You Can Hide, But You Can’t Run

And now I can finally explain the title of this blog post. Our brains are trying to get us to safety when we’re afraid. In the natural world you’re either at risk for being eaten/killed, or you’re safe. One or the other. But in the world we humans live in we can have the sense of danger IN OUR HEADs – and all the efforts of our Flight or Fight Response to get us to safety won’t do anything for us.

There IS no way to get to safety – there is no such thing as safety when you’re afraid of your thoughts. You can’t run from your thoughts. You can try to bury them, you can medicate them, you can avoid the situations or triggers that might make you think those thoughts – but they are still with you.

But there IS a way out. You can turn and address them. You can stop trying to escape them and instead unpack them, deal with them, defuse their power to frighten you and make you anxious. I get that this sounds scary, even impossible at the moment. But it is do-able.

And it is damn nice (pardon my choice of words) to stop running and take control of our lives. It is the very definition of freedom.

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.

I’m one of those people who has always been more than a little suspicious of the notion of positive thinking. I was raised in a family that aimed a cynical eye at anything that sounded fluffy or forced, and a lot of my early exposure to positive thinking gurus and writing felt that way to me.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in positive/happy/cheerful thinking. It was just that I was doubtful that the deliberate practice of such thinking would do anything useful for me.

It felt artificial, contrived, phony (if I was being completely honest about it.) It felt like I was trying to perform magic or conjure something. And (in my ignorance) I thought my thoughts were my thoughts – no more controllable then the weather.

I was both right and wrong.

It’s Really About Thinking…

At the core of the challenge with Fear and Anxiety is how we THINK. Behind the reactions of our body to fear, behind the fears we develop in response to our bodily fears (physical and emotional), behind the ways we start avoiding this activity or that discussion, behind all of our fear, sits the thinking that makes us fearful in the first place.

This blog’s entire focus is to provide that framework of understanding anxiety, as well as the most effective tools possible in our work to master that anxiety. One set of tools that is essential to this work is developing what might best be called mental discipline.

Now I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you anytime that I hear the word discipline I get a little scratchy. Maybe it is because in my younger days discipline usually meant doing something I really didn’t want to do, like math homework or mowing the backyard. The notion of discipline seemed punishing or restrictive to me – at least that’s how I learned to think of it.

But when I say discipline in this conversation I mean something very different. Discipline can also be defined as a practice – doing something over and over again with the goal of getting skillful at it, and as a result reaping the benefits of that increasing skill.

As I’ve already outlined in this blog we NEED a small handful of basic skills to get free of the life-suck of anxiety. A tool to help us with that skill set is what might be called positive thinking.

Positive Thinking – What It ISN’T

Tools are just that – tools. People can use them correctly or incorrectly. They can also misunderstand what a tool should be used for in the first place.

Positive thinking is a tool, or more accurately a tool set. One of the ways that people have come to misunderstand this tool set (in my opinion) is giving it powers that it doesn’t possess.

Lots of us are looking for powerful tools to help us improve our life – including deal with anxiety. In that search for powerful tools we can get a little off-beacon. One example is expecting something magical/metaphysical to happen when we use positive thinking tools.

That isn’t to say that there is or isn’t something spiritual in the use of positive thinking. I believe there is such a quality to this work. But that is worlds away from “wishing away” our difficulties – like our anxious thinking, for instance. Positive thinking can’t by itself sort out our sideways, worried, anxious thoughts and rules.

And it can’t, by itself, make real problems go away. I can do positive thinking or affirmations all I want, but I will still owe the rent this month, or have to get the car fixed, or still deal with my angry and difficult romantic partner, or cope with my broken leg, or whatever the issue is for me.

Yes, it’s possible that something amazing will happen to help me cope with my problem, external to me. But positive thinking isn’t like a vending machine or Las Vegas slots – we don’t pull on a handle or drop positive thoughts into the world and automatically get something back.

Positive Thinking – What it IS

OK, so now that I’ve rained on the parade of what some people want to make positive thinking into, permit me to talk about what it CAN actually do for us. And let me be clear – it can do a great deal for us. It is a tool that most of us don’t employ skillfully or frequently enough.

First, remember that when we’re anxious/afraid we activate Flight or Fight. One of the responses of Flight or Fight in the presence of real or perceived danger is to start projecting possible outcomes to our thinking about what to do. (See the Fear Mastery blog posts on 12/15/11 and 1/2/12 for more about this topic.)

When our brain does that projecting of outcomes it is trying very hard to find the downside of whatever we’re thinking, in an effort to help us gauge/decide what is the smartest/safest way to run from or deal with this danger we’re experiencing (real or just in our thinking.) In other words it is doing some pretty negative thinking.

Which is GREAT if we’re rapidly computing whether to run backwards or dart sideways as the angry barking dog comes at us. It isn’t so useful if we’re trying to sort out how to get the IRS paid for back taxes or confront our kid about the cigarettes we found in their room.

SO – if we automatically go to the negative in our thinking when we’re anxious, then it follows that we’ll be thinking negative things as long as we’re anxious, yes? And if that’s the case if might be dang useful to a) be aware of that and b) make a deliberate effort to pull our thinking OUT of the negative and into something more constructive…

In other words, positive thinking is the intentional effort to confront our natural, Flight or Fight response of focusing on the negative, and instead get our brain working in a calmer, more rational, more problem-solving frame of mind.

Positive Doesn’t Mean Unrealistic

Part of the challenge of this discussion is that people really want to turn “positive” into “head in the clouds” or “not confronting reality.” Positive thinking from this view is just a way to avoid dealing with how things really are. There is a subtle and dangerous game here, and once again we have to look at Flight or Fight and the natural way we look at danger.

See it this way: it FEELS smarter to focus on the negative. Sure it does. Flight or Fight has only one mission – to get us away from danger. Danger that’s real, or danger we create by turning a problem into a crisis in our thinking.

So until we stop feeling anxious – until we get some traction in our thinking to ease off on the whole I’m-in-danger thing in our heads – Flight or Fight will keep trying to find an escape route.

And finding an escape route means looking at the potential pitfalls of each route. Except that we don’t just calmly examine pitfalls. No, we go to the worst-case scenario we can think of, scare ourselves silly, and one more time fire up Flight or Fight.

In addition a LOT of this thinking isn’t anything we’re doing consciously. That makes perfect sense, since in the natural world, when we’re confronted with danger, we just don’t have time usually for a calm, conscious assessment of what to do. We need to get moving NOW.

Except, again, that we’re NOT dealing with real danger when we’re usually fighting anxiety. We’re dealing with fears conjured by those worst-case scenarios in our thinking. Once we go there things can get black pretty fast – as you know from your own experience!

So when I talk about positive thinking it is important to clarify the word “positive”. It doesn’t mean sticking your head in the sand or running from a realistic assessment of the problem.

And THAT’S the problem – when we’re dealing with anxiety and Flight or Fight (around a problem-turned-crisis in our heads) we’re usually NOT being realistic – we’re assuming disaster and then acting on that assumption.

No, positive thinking means simply to deliberately focus on useful thinking.

Positive Thinking Is More Than “Everything Will Be Fine” Thinking

There are several useful ways to pull our thinking out of the negative focus that anxiety drives in our brain. One technique is something I’ve written about before here in this blog – affirmations. Affirmations are not magical incantations. Affirmations are simple statements of intention, purpose and refocusing.

Affirmations are ways to deliberately change what we’re thinking about at the moment. Let’s say you’re all twisted up with worry about seeing the doctor. (I have some folks in my universe that are worried about this or that medical issue right now.) Let’s say further that you’ve been having bad stomach pain and have been unable to sleep.

You know the drill – we are asking ourselves “what if” questions like crazy: what if this is bad news? What if they can’t help me? What if it is cancer? Etc. When we start asking those questions it is a HUGE clue that Flight or Fight is trying desperately to get us away from the danger in our thinking, and so it’s examining all the possible scenarios to figure out what to DO.

Except, of course, that the only intelligent/useful thing to do is GO SEE THE DOCTOR. It probably isn’t cancer – not impossible, but unlikely. It is probably treatable. And even if it IS something serious how can you possibly be helped by NOT seeing the doctor?

Sure, avoiding the doctor will in the short term help you avoid thinking about what might be wrong. Sure won’t help that stomach, and sure as hell won’t help anything if it IS something serious.

OK, you get all that. But you’re still focused on that negative thinking racing through your brain. How does positive thinking help?

Here’s one: “I am living in the present moment.” Just this deliberate reminder to come back out of the future of scary what if’s and back into the present is a way to practice shaking free of anxious thinking. Nothing magical about this. It is just pulling your focus away from the merry-go-round of Flight or Fight, Worry Engine thinking.

Or you could try this one: “The more I know the better I can deal with whatever happens.” Again, your only mission here is to think more clearly, more consciously, more deliberately, instead of letting your mind running down the negative potential outcomes road, dragging you along behind.

Or this could be useful: “I am embracing uncertainty and doing the best I can.” (I cribbed this one from Susan Jeffers and her excellent book “Embracing Uncertainty” – thank you Susan!)

Practice Makes Perfect

Of course this won’t do any of us much good with just doing an affirmation once or twice. This is very much an issue of practice. It isn’t anything magical about the sentences we use or create – it is about the practice of pulling our thinking away from our obsessive, Flight or Fight, Worry Engine thinking and back into something approaching a problem-solving point of view.

It is challenging the unconscious assumption that we MUST worry about this thing until our worry somehow solves the problem-turned-crisis. 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 will discuss this more in my next post.

For the moment focus on this thought: just because you FEEL like you should be focusing on worry “what if?” thinking doesn’t mean it’s useful to you. And one tool to help you shake free of that is positive thinking – in this case, practicing affirmations.

We do NOT have to be the prisoners of our fears, and one of the ways we can demonstrate that for ourselves is to begin the practice of taking charge of our own thinking.

Next up – more on the practice of mental discipline, positive thinking and specific tools to help you get skillful at this work.

I have been thinking hard on the most useful ways to apply this information I’ve worked to outline here in the Fear Mastery blog. I think I’ve hit upon one tool, and it is based on this simple thought: anxiety takes us to the end.

What I mean is that whenever we’re anxious about something we automatically project out to the end of whatever thing we’re afraid of in our thinking. We do not pass go, we do not collect $200, we simply race around the Monopoly Board of our thinking and head right to the worst-case scenario.

And the problem with the worst-case scenario in our thinking is that it often, even usually, scares the crap out of us. So we, instead of working to do something about the problem we’re turning into a crisis in our minds, run away, hide from it, and hope it will go away by itself.

That makes a hell of a lot of sense when you’re being stalked by lean, hungry-looking wolves. It doesn’t make much sense at all when you’re late on your car payment and need to call the bank, or are madly in love with that good-looking guy or gal at work but are terrified to ask them out.

The End – Even the Phrase is Scary

You who have been reading this blog are already familiar with what the Flight or Fight Response does to our thinking when we’re fearful. (See the blog posts at 12/15/11 and 1/2/12 for more on this subject.)

When faced with danger in the real, physical world one crucial ability we have is to quickly sort through the relevant information we have about our immediate situation and think through (quickly!) the best escape route.

One of the qualities of that ability is looking for risks along that escape route. Where does the danger lie? Fear does us a big favor in the natural world with this ability and makes us look for the worst-case scenario – tries to pick holes, if you will, in our escape routes.

It is important to remember that this examination of future escape routes is happening VERY quickly – too quickly to track consciously, at least in the first rush of adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies. It takes some work, very often, to figure out just where our brains have gone in our projecting negative potential outcomes in our future.

And on top of all of that our bodies are geared up for DANGER – something scary is happening and we are getting ready in a big way to run or fight. So in a very real sense we’re not only ready for bad things to happen (good, in the wolf scenario, not so useful in the car loan/asking someone out scenarios), but we’re FEELING like something bad is about to happen.

In other words we’re set up in our thinking and feelings to treat a potential negative outcome as SOMETHING REAL, as something that can actually happen, as opposed to the projections and estimations of a frightened mind and body.

Forget the Middle Buddy – It’s All About the End!

So, let’s summarize: we have a fearful thought, we start generating possible outcomes, we tend to expect the worst (when we’re afraid or anxious), our bodies are all cued up to get us running in a split second, and we start assuming our projections are accurate.

To be even more brief: we go to the end in our thinking. And the end is usually BAD. We just skip over all the intervening time and possibilities.

For example: Let’s say you’ve lost your job. (I’m hoping you haven’t, but some of us have, and it is a fierce source of anxiety – either losing your job or being afraid of losing your job.)

Let’s say you have enough money in your checking and savings account to keep you fed and housed for 8 months after the end of your job. That’s 8 months to sort out what you’re going to do next.

In theory the thing to do next is to sit down with your bank balance and a calendar (and probably a trusted advisor or two in your world) and start doing some serious planning about what to do with your time. We have, after all, 8 months to at the very least start doing some serious work in any number of directions – job-hunting, career-changing, relocating, working our contacts, posting to job boards, etc.

This won’t guarantee that we WILL get a new job – but it sure increases the possibilities that we will find something for work.

Except that, if we’re responding out of anxiety (crisis mode) rather than cool planning (problem mode) then we can, all too easily, find ourselves angsting/worrying over the end of the 8 months ahead of us – how bad it will be when we reach the end of that time, when we run out of money, when we have to live with our parents or move in with friends or even live on the street.

And now we’re up at the end, where things will be TERIBBLE, and it freaks us out so badly that we freeze up, and we start avoiding thinking about the whole situation/problem-turned-crisis. We are living at the end – instead of where we are, or anyplace BEFORE the end…

We’re Not AT the End Yet

I’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you. I know it’s familiar to me!

We don’t have to go to the end. It is tempting, it is natural when we’re anxious, it is the easy thing to do, but we don’t have to go there and stay there. But it isn’t useful to us.

Let me make that stronger: it is a BAD idea to go to the end in our thinking and reactions. It is bad because, as I stated just a moment ago, it tends to shut us down and make us run away from a problem that needs our attention.

Easy to say – but in the moment of our panic and anxiety hard to do. This takes deliberate effort and work to step away from that panicked response and start thinking lucidly. And it is absolutely the way that we’ll be able to actually DO something about whatever problem we’ve converted into a crisis.

Just because we FEEL like everything is going to hell and we’re doomed and isn’t this awful and what in the heck are we going to DO doesn’t mean ANY of that is helping us. We are not at the end yet!

This has to become a kind of matra or affirmation that we learn to use when we reach that panicky place. OK – let’s say you’ve lost your job, or there is real concern that you might lose your job soon. What does sitting and wringing your hands about it DOING for you?

Worse, what does avoiding the topic completely do for you? Nothing. Not a dang thing. It just creates the ugly self-serving prophecy of your fears coming true, because in all that worry and avoiding you were doing nothing (or very little) to address the problem in the first place.

Let Me Repeat Myself – We’re Not at the End Yet…

Anxiety begins in our thinking, and that’s where we can fight it and overcome it, shut it down. So what to DO when we find ourselves racing to the end in our thinking?

1) First, practice a little self-care. You’re in a panic about running out of money or being alone for the rest of your life? Do those basic practices we’ve discussed here in the blog – take a few minutes and breathe deeply, do some full-body stretching, take a walk, take a shower, pull your thinking and your body out of the future and back to something approaching the present.

2) Next, what IS the problem that you’ve converted into a crisis? Even in the midst of your terror about your projected negative outcome/indefinite negative future thinking, you probably have some capacity to see that it is still a problem. (If it isn’t you’re in a crisis – act accordingly – but for this conversation we’re assuming you still have a little time.)

3) Deliberately call your mind back from the habit of thinking about the end of things. You’ve got enough money for 8 months? What then will you do with month 1? Month 2? Month 3? You’ll feel the strong gravitational pull of month 8 out there, trying to scare you with thoughts of pushing a shopping cart or living on your parent’s couch…

But practice thinking (note the word – thinking) about what you can do here in month 1, or there in month 2, etc. Our fears and anxieties pick up on other people’s stories all the time about how somebody couldn’t find a job in 2 years, or 4 years, or something horrible like that… and sometimes that’s true.

However, way too often, what happened was that person made minor efforts to find new work, and instead spent a ton of time being afraid of what would happen when they ran out of money and didnt’ have a new job.

4) Start writing down your plans for month 1, month 2, etc. Get specific. What will you do in week 1? How will you spend your mornings? How can you economize while you’re looking? Is there part-time work you could do while you’re looking? Etc.

Come Back to the Present

Fear takes us to the end. That end in the natural world might be minutes or seconds away (in the presence of real, physical, life-or-death danger) but it is weeks, months or years away if the danger (IF there is a danger, instead of just a challenge, or a problem to solve) is in our thinking.

We need to practice coming back to the present. It is here, in the present, that we can start thinking about what to do about this concern/challenge/issue, and it is here that we can calm down enough to start taking action. Don’t go to the end. Come back here to the present. You’ll be amazed what’s possible if you don’t focus on the worst-case scenario and give away the time you have…

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