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If you deal with anxiety then I’m pretty confident you have one interest that stands out: you just want to NOT deal with anxiety. You want it to stop. You want a life like you see in the people around you – a chance to just be, for lack of a better word, normal.

You’re probably sick of feeling worried/stressed/nervous/scared all the time. You don’t like how your body seems to have a mind of its own, having weird reactions and sensations at the drop of a hat. You resent the energy it sucks out of you, the way it “grays” the world and diminishes the joy you’d like to feel. And I’ll bet you hate with a passion how it limits your life, however it’s doing that to YOU –

With that single goal in mind – getting rid of anxiety, NOW – it is very easy to treat anxiety like all the other things we do when we’re anxious – i.e., to treat anxiety like a crisis. It sure as hell FEELS like a crisis. We want to make it stop NOW.

I’m now going to say something that just about nobody wants to hear – but needs to hear if they want to break the power of anxiety in their lives. Anxiety is not a crisis.

I know – I’m a crazy person for saying that. But I know something else – that if you REALLY want anxiety to stop ruling your life, then you need to stop looking for the quick fix.

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I’ll do ANYTHING to Make This Anxiety Stop…

It’s amazing the lengths we’ll go to in our work to end anxiety in our lives. Some of us will go to the doctor again and again in an effort to get a solid diagnosis for all of our various physical and emotional and mental responses to anxiety. Some of us will try a long string of medications to find the one that ends anxiety once and for all.

Some of us will move heaven and earth to avoid both doctors AND meds, choosing instead to hide in our houses for years and decades, hoping somehow we can stay safe, praying fervently that anxiety just leaves us alone. Some of us will desperately try all the non-medical forms of medication – alcohol, food, obsessive shopping or gambling, you name it, we’ll bleed for it, seeking some way to escape the tyranny of our fears.

So we’ll do all of that (and more besides). The energy we’ll give to these efforts can only be called heroic, whatever we think of ourselves. One great quality of anxiety fighters is that we don’t seem to know when to give up. Excellent news. It’s a crucial trait to fight our way clear of anxiety –

What we’re not doing, too often, is the work that will actually get us free. We tell ourselves and those around us (if we feel safe telling anyone we’re fighting anxiety) that there’s nothing we wouldn’t do to have a regular, anxiety-free life. But there’s one thing we’re NOT really willing to do, and that’s

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Sit with Our Anxiety, Instead of Running Away from It

When I say that we’ll do just about anything to break the hold of anxiety I’m really saying that we’ll do anything that seems to promise quick, if not immediate, relief from anxiety. Medication, quick-fix techniques, distraction, some medical procedure – if it will just END anxiety NOW then we’re all in.

Makes sense. We are afraid of the physical and emotional sensations raging through us when we’re in the grip of panic attacks. We hate how we feel when we’re depressed. We despise our obsession with our fearful thinking even as we can’t seem to stop doing that thinking. We just want to STOP.

So when someone tells us that the way out of anxiety is to stop running, stop avoiding, sit down and look our anxious thinking and reacting squarely in the eye it is less than sexy to us. In fact it sounds like the definition of insanity! What lunatic would go LOOKING for more anxiety?

Here are some metaphors to help answer that question. If you’ve had kids or lived with kids then you know that young children (especially babies) cry or need attention in the middle of the night sometimes. And while you probably love those kids bunches I’m guessing it isn’t your first choice to get out of bed at 2am and see what the problem is that’s causing all the crying…

So – you can pull the covers up over your head, you can nag your spouse/significant other to get up and take care of things, you can stick earplugs in your ear or turn on the TV – but chances are you won’t stop that crying until you go see that kid. You don’t have to like it – but you do need to do it.

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I’ll up the ante a little: let’s say you’ve been avoiding balancing your checkbook. Thinking about money just makes you stressed and mad. You KNOW you need to pay some bills, you’re not sure you have enough to do so, but you hate the thought of going to look at that checkbook. I get it. That was me until my early 40’s. 🙂

So – you can go shopping on credit to comfort your anxious soul, you can avoid the pile of bills on the kitchen table, you can put a DVD on and try to forget the world – but the only way you’ll get the bills paid and know if you can afford that trip to the dentist is if you sit down and look at your finances.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it makes you anxious. Yes, it would be great if someone else would just come in and give you a lot of money. No argument there…

But by the same token the avoiding costs a lot too, yes? It’s remarkably painful and frustrating too, isn’t it? You can’t really buy anything without stressing, you can’t sleep well because you know you need to look at your checkbook and sort it out, you dread having any surprise expenses come up, etc. And all the while some part of your brain is spinning out terrible scenarios about what if you run out of money, what if you get in trouble with your credit card company, what if, what if, what if…

The Way Out is Through

Anxiety is the brain treating a problem like a crisis. Bottom-line. When we think something is a crisis, even if it isn’t, we’re going to keep reacting to it LIKE a crisis. Which means that we can hide from our fears, run away from our anxious thinking, bury our Flight or Fight reactions in medications and avoidance, but our brains and bodies STILL want to DO something about the crisis we’re sweating over in our thinking.

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Which means that what we have to do is turn and face our fears. We have to sort out where we have gotten off track in our thinking, where we have taken an issue, small, medium or huge, and turned it into an O-My-God-this-is-terrible thinking.

I have been over this ground a LOT in this blog. If it sounds like I’m repeating myself, well, I am. But I’m doing that today because it isn’t enough to understand the nature of anxiety. It isn’t enough to grasp what the problem is in the first place. We have to take that knowledge and DO something with it.

And doing in this case means gathering our resources and strength and then facing into our fears.

It is hard to start. I know. I was there. It is hard, especially at the beginning of the work, to even sit still long enough to spend any time working to identify that thinking. We have spent long years scaring ourselves silly over that anxious thinking, that anticipating of dark and terrible future outcomes, so to then calmly sit down and begin facing those scary stories is HARD.

It is energy-draining. OK, that’s an understatement. It is usually exhausting. It can also easily trigger those Flight or Fight reactions we’ve worked so hard to run away from and tamp down, with greater or lesser degrees of success. To deliberately court those reactions flaring up again makes us damn uncomfortable.

And, to make things even more challenging, we have taught ourselves that good or progress means Flight or Fight sensations diminishing or going away – when progress really means Flight or Fight firing up and us learning to not treat it as a crisis.

(Even just getting a handle on this is an enormous advantage in this work, and infinitely worth the frustration and repeated sessions of being scared by our bodies while we learn.)

This is not a quick fix. This is not a magical waving of a wand. It is the building of skills across time. It is literally rewriting our thinking around how to think – how to manage problems as problems instead of as crises. It is facing down old scary bogey-man fears and learning to not run away from them.

It is the way out.

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What to DO?

1) Look at the blog posts from 11/26/11 through 6/8/12. They articulate the first steps, which include starting a personal journal to help you track your anxious thinking identification and what is working well for you in this work, as well as talking about what good self-care looks like during this work. Here’s the first one HERE.

2) Speaking of self-care, gather whatever support you can muster. Family, friends, therapist, medications if there are any that help you, some sort of at least minimal physical activity to help bleed off some the stress and physical pressure that dealing with anxiety can generate. It’s not shameful to ask for help, and we can use all the encouragement we can get.

That will also mean being honest with one or more people in your support group. It is too often the case that we who fight anxiety keep it a big dark secret from the people we love. This isn’t so useful when we’re facing down our thought demons. And while there are definitely people we probably shouldn’t share our fight with (because they will make us feel bad or weak or stupid) there are probably other people that would like very much to help us, if they knew what you needed.

3) Expect this work to take some time! Remember (hard for adults to do sometimes) that learning curves start shallow for most new skills. We don’t get good instantly. We see improvement and then we get derailed or slowed down at points. We have great days and then crappy days. We get more self-confident and then we get freaked out and then we calm down again.

All of this is part of the process. We are each learning to rethink thinking, rethink reacting, rethink how we manage issues in our lives and our histories. It is all completely work that we can do – but it is not instant and it is definitely not comfortable. 🙂

The way out is through. Facing our anxiety, armed with good information, a sense of the process, the support we can muster around us and a willingness to really stay with the work are the weapons that will help us break the power of anxiety in our lives.

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So how goes your work to master your anxiety? I know that a number of people who follow this blog are feeling some real progress in their efforts to dethrone anxiety as the master of their lives. That’s pretty exciting news to me, since that’s the reason I’m doing this work. And of course it isn’t just me – it is all the people who are working to clarify and understand what anxiety is, and what the best practices might be for overcoming anxiety.

If you’re making progress, congratulations to you – I know it feels good. (And if you DON’T feel like you’re making any headway, well, send me an email – let’s see where you’re stuck and what you might be able to do about it.) At the same time I also know that if you’re like the standard-issue anxiety fighter then you’re also not seeing progress fast enough. You are impatient to break free of the chains of anxiety, stop feeling and being afraid, get your life back (or maybe get it for the first time.)

That goes double for the folks that are feeling stuck, yes?!?

I understand that. I gave away 20+ years to the life-suck that is anxiety, and I was already mad about that when I finally found some tools and started my climb. Things definitely did NOT happen fast enough to suit me, and sometimes my impatience threatened to overwhelm my work.

Why Is This Taking So Long???

How long have you been fighting anxiety in your life? I know one guy who fell into the vortex of regular, chronic anxiety less than a year ago. (He’s 33, btw.) I know one woman who is coming up on 51 years in this struggle. I’ve heard every number in between, and I’m sure I haven’t heard the record length…

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But then ANY time lost to anxiety is too much, right? And although the majority of people that I have communicated with that follow this blog are long-term, big-time anxiety fighters (i.e., either suffer from regular panic attacks and/or depression) literally hundreds of millions of people on the planet fight serious anxiety in one or more areas of their life, even though it doesn’t wreck their whole day. Even those folks resent the opportunities, peace of mind and TIME lost to anxiety…

That’s a LOT of anxiety floating around. (Is it any wonder people go postal or drive drunk or spend all their money on the Home Shopping Network?) And every last one of us dreams of a FAST, RIGHT NOW fix to this issue called anxiety.

I have some difficult (notice I didn’t say “bad”) news before I deliver the good news. No such creature exists. There are definitely, for some of us, quick temporary aids to quell the yelling of anxiety in our skulls – those of us who respond favorably to the various anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds that are out there.

And of course meditation, deep breathing routines, determined exercise and distraction can help most of us get some temporary relief. But none of those tools can just turn anxiety off like a switch.

WHY?

It’s In Your Operating System

The basic premise of this blog is that anxiety starts and ends in our thinking. It gets a lot of help along the way from our Flight or Fight Response, but the origin and the cure lie in our thinking. That sounds fairly straightforward, but the truth is our thinking isn’t just one thought at a time running through our neurons. We think a LOT – way more than most of us know.

As you sit here your brain is taking care of your body without having to bother you. Heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, muscles, eyeballs, fingers, etc., all working away while you take in this blog post. That’s one layer of thinking your brain is doing. (Can you imagine managing all of that consciously?)

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Another layer of activity is what your brain is doing with the information it is reading here – understanding the words grouped into sentences, linking up what you’re seeing here with other information about anxiety that you’ve learned, deciding what you think about this information (like it, don’t like it, not sure yet, etc.) It feels easy and natural, and it is – for us humans – but it take some thinking to do. And you’re almost always unaware of that processing while it is happening.

Those two layers of activity are happening at the same time, btw! But wait, there’s more. You’re also actively thinking – i.e., you’re consciously thinking about things (what will you have for dinner tonight, what did your husband or wife tell you they wanted from the store this afternoon, where should you go on vacation this fall, stuff like that.) Think of that as a kind of spotlight on the stage of your mind – it is where your focus is right now in your thinking.

And it seems that your brain is also able to in essence think about things out of the spotlight of your direct, conscious thinking – “back-burner” issues you’re trying to resolve or figure out, until it reaches some conclusion and then coughs politely to get your attention. (You know, that thing where you’re sitting there minding your own business and suddenly you know the answer to that test question from this morning, or what you wanted to say to your boss yesterday but couldn’t summon the words?)

So, although this is very much an artificial breaking out of your brain’s functioning, it is safe to say that you do a LOT of different kinds of thinking, and only a portion of it is going on in your conscious awareness. In fact 3 of the 4 layers of thinking I just described usually happen without you being in the least conscious of them.

Which is kind of wacky, when you think about it (no pun intended.) 🙂 We are thinking ALL THE TIME, and a lot of our thinking is just charging along whether we’re making any effort to think or not.

So what’s all this mean for our anxious thinking and getting that crap out of our brains? It means that you and I and everyone can very easily accumulate all kinds of thinking that starts running automatically in our skulls, and which can loop in our thinking again and again if we’re not doing anything about it.

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Worse still we can start acting and reacting to that thinking without even being conscious that we’re doing it, and, even after we start becoming aware that we’re thinking these thoughts, we’re STILL not necessarily going to just shut them down right away. We have literally written those thoughts into the software running in our computer-like brains, and it is going to take some re-writing to get a new program running…

Getting a Handle on Anxious Thinking

The tedious part of anxiety is that it isn’t really thinking that gets us in trouble. It is thinking about the future, worrying about the future, that’s the real problem. It becomes a problem when we start scaring ourselves with the possible negative outcomes in those futures we are imagining, those “dark scenarios” (as I like to call them these days) or what, when I’m feeling more technical, “indefinite negative futures.”

At the beginning of this work with anxiety most of us are not even aware of just how much we’re frightening ourselves with our thinking. We just know we’re scared and anxious and depressed and tired and feeling trapped. Then, as we start trying to figure out what thinking we’re scaring ourselves with, we begin to realize that we DO scare ourselves a LOT, and it has, for the most part, very little to do with where we are in the present moment, but instead the future and our fears about that future.

Then we have to live in the gap between KNOWING that we’re doing that and rewriting our thinking – learning to challenge, sort out, unpack and develop new thinking habits. That takes time and practice (I know, I say that a lot here.)

And it isn’t like we’re usually just dealing with one fear, one dysfunctional anxious thinking pattern in our thinking. Nope, we have a nice little collection running around in there, and worse, we’ve so conditioned ourselves to run away from them that it takes time to even get half-way tolerant of facing them down for any length of time – right? It is definitely going to take some time, effort and sweat – and definitely some living with being uncomfortable…

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Example: Let’s say I’ve been scaring myself for a long time with the fear “what if I run out of money?” This is a very, very common fear – billions of people I suspect run with this fear in their skulls.

This fear has bred some other fears – what if I lose my job, what if my bank account gets hacked, what if I’m robbed, what if they shut off my credit, what if I get sick and have big medical bills… on and on they go.

And, of COURSE, we’ve been activating Flight or Fight in our bodies for a while now (maybe a LONG while) and we’ve learned to be scared of even getting close to that set of anxious thoughts because it will mean dealing with the scary mess of our Flight or Fight responses (and the meaning we’ve attached to those) as well.

Ugh. Who in the heck WANTS to do that? 🙂 Well, truthfully, YOU. Because the way out is through.

It’s Not Exactly No Pain, No Gain – But It’s Close

It’s scary. There’s no question. We’ve spent years or decades running away from our fearful thinking and Flight or Fight reactions, and now some yokel (me) is telling you to face into them, stare them down, challenge them, and live with the discomfort and real fearful feelings while you convert those frightened crisis thoughts back to problem thoughts.

That’s going to take some work. It’s going to mean getting a journal of some kind, electronic or paper, and starting some deliberate thinking about your fears – how they are crisis thoughts, what your worst-case fears are, what you’re frightened of in Flight or Fight, and then converting those thoughts back into problems. It can feel overwhelming. You’re so used to running away that the reflex/habit is STRONG.

And Flight or Fight is saying “hey, you sure seem scared! Let’s get away from these thoughts! This is terrible! 🙂 Except of course that it isn’t really terrible – it is just how it feels to us from long years of running from the dark, horrible scenarios we’ve been creating for ourselves in our thinking IF all of our darkest fears came true…

And that’s crap. It is crap that has been draining the life out of us.

You’ll have to do this again and again, this challenging, confronting, converting and rewriting. This isn’t a miracle cure. It is the acquisition of a set of skills, and baby, that takes time. But it won’t take any MORE energy or time from you than the time you’re giving away right now to running away and hiding from your scary thoughts and reactions. And it holds out the promise that you don’t have to KEEP feeling anxious/scared/terrified, if you’ll face into this work…

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But Back to Impatience

So of course you’re going to be and feel impatient, right? That’s OK. Impatience can be a great motivator. Just don’t let impatience take you away from the work. Let impatience be what boosts you to doing something about all that anxiety you’re carting around. You’ve tried wishing it away, running away, hiding from your thoughts, maybe done some medicating of various kinds, but you’re still thinking the thinking that makes you anxious.

It’s time to let impatience make us ready to take on those thoughts and take our lives back.

Need help getting started? Go back to the blog post dated 11/20/11 – that’s a great place to begin to learn this information and skills. Or hit me at my email – erik.kieser@yahoo.com. I’ll help you get moving.

Today (the day I’m writing this post, that is) I learned some sad news. I was told that Susan Jeffers, the author of one of the seminal books on managing anxiety, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”, had passed away this past weekend.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Jeffers, and she was a remarkable woman. She was already ill when we first met, yet she was great and gracious enough to share an entire afternoon with me (along with her husband, a wonderful guy named Mark.)

Her book was one of the first I read when I was starting my climb out of the dark hole of my anxiety, and she has always been a kind of role model and mentor for me. She was encouraging, she had been there, she knew what it felt like to be afraid, and she clearly had actually faced some of her fears.

Today’s post is partly in honor of her memory, and partly to answer a question that a reader of the blog put to me this past week. The question is deceptively simple, yet I hear various versions of this question on a regular basis: is it possible to be work too hard at being positive?

Isn’t there some danger in being hopeful and optimistic and dismissing our fears? Is there in some real sense a danger that we’ll close our eyes to the risks of living if we work to hard at being positive thinkers?

We Were Born to Be Negative

Evolution has only one requirement for success in the natural world: survive. And survive means being able to assess dangers we face in our immediate environment and respond to them NOW, quickly, and in ways that maximize our chances for that survival. In nature we’re either facing danger or we’re not. Period.

And IF we’re facing danger then we need to (all creatures need to, in the natural world) take a pretty harsh view of the facts if we’re going to make the best decisions we can make to survive the danger we’re facing.

Can we escape this pack of wolves? Which way is the best way to do that? Up that hillside or tree? Straight back behind us? What are the risks of either direction?

This is one of the primary abilities of our Flight or Fight Reflex – to quickly assess danger, with the underlying assumption that we’re going to try and run FIRST, and only fight if we can’t run. We developed to assess risk quickly, in a matter of moments.

And we tend to take the pessimistic view of all of our options. That makes a TON of sense when it comes to real, immediate, physical danger in the natural world.

And it makes sense anytime we’re confronted by real, immediate danger here in our human world too – when we’re dealing with a drunk driver coming at us, or are confronted with angry barking dog, or whatever might potentially hurt us NOW, in the present moment.

In other words were literally born to be pessimists – when we’re afraid.

There are Kinds and Kinds of Danger…

As you hopefully already understand from this blog the dangers we evolved to face (and respond to with Flight or Fight) are natural world, immediate, at-risk-for-injury-or-death dangers. Being “negative” in this context makes a pile of good sense.

But we don’t develop chronic anxiety, panic attacks and depression by facing real-world dangers – at least, not when it’s happening. When an antelope in nature is faced by a tiger looking for dinner it gets scared as hell – then it runs away if it can, and 10 minutes after the tiger experience that antelope is back to looking for its own dinner (salad, please, to go.)

It isn’t worried about the next tiger attack, or reliving over and over again the previous tiger encounter…

It’s different for us humans. We have this wacky thing called a mind, including long-term memories, and we can (and too often do) either anticipate some crisis coming in the future, or relive crises past, over and over again.

Here’s the crucial part for this conversation: based on how we evolved to deal with danger, if we feel threatened (by real danger OR dangers we’ve got in our thinking) we will respond with some degree of Flight or Fight.

And Flight or Fight says GO NEGATIVE. Look for any flaws in the escape route, examine it again and again as quickly as you can, so you can run and take the best route for that running.

Except that worrying about why your career seems stalled isn’t facing a tiger. And worrying about next month’s rent (however much it rattles your cage) isn’t facing a tiger. And having to tell that co-worker that they’ve messed up your joint project isn’t facing a tiger (even though he kinda sounds like a tiger to you when he’s mad.)

Nope, those are all problems. Say it with me – PROBLEMS. They FEEL like crises when we have Flight or Fight activated, and worse still, we’re trying to solve them via Flight or Fight – but they are not going to hurt us. Not right now. Maybe not ever. They are problems, not crises.

Negative Is Helping Us Less Than We Like to Believe

So what does this mean for you, the fighter of anxiety? It means that however smart negative seems or feels it isn’t necessarily doing us any good at all.

Problems are not crises. I’ve said that 100 times in this blog if I’ve said it once. But sit with this notion a moment and really think about it: a problem is fundamentally different from a crisis.

A crisis, a real, honest, in-your-face crisis, is potentially LETHAL. Soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan are dealing with crises on a regular basis – real, physical risk to life and limb. The police face some of those same dangers.

But most of us, in our daily lives, are NOT facing crises. And if we’re not facing crises we’re facing, worst-case, problems. And it doesn’t serve us to start that work by assuming the very worst-case outcomes, consciously or unconsciously.

Get Clear on When You’re Getting Negative!

So recommendation one: check with yourself to see if you’re “going negative” on something that is making you worried. Are you responding to this issue as a crisis or a problem? One great way to tell is if you’re assuming that everything will go to hell in some form or another in your looking into the future.

Sure, it may FEEL smarter to assume the worst. And if you were working for FEMA, or planning for a nuclear war, you might be right. 🙂

But if you’re getting up the courage to change careers, or ask somebody out, or looking for a new apartment, or just thinking about trying something new in your life, I can pretty much guarantee that assuming the worst isn’t doing much for you in the taking chances and improving your life department.

Second recommendation: how often does the worst-case scenario actually happen, in your experience? Sure, sometimes bad things happen. But when you look at the average of your experience (i.e., take all those predictions and tell me how often that disaster actually happened) what do you find?

I’m going to bet that you, if you’re being honest, discover that most of the time the worst-case situation you were worried about never materialized. Hmmm. Isn’t that weird? And even when it DID I’m assuming it didn’t kill you or maim you for life. So again – how did assuming the worst serve you?

The way it usually “serves” us is that it gets us to back away, not try, not take the risk, stay with what we know, even if doing that makes us frustrated, stuck or unhappy.

Third recommendation: GO FOR IT. In my last post I mentioned an example of trying freeway driving in a small way as an example of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” (thank you Susan!)

Nothing is quite as useful in unpacking our fear as just facing into it. We can’t always do that. If we’re really afraid/anxious/terrified then it might sound like a completely crazy thing to do.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, with a good understanding of how fear works and what is happening when you’re afraid in your body and mind, confronting fear is the key to getting free of fear.

So find a place to begin with your fear and push on it. Expect pushback. Expect to be uncomfortable. That’s more than OK. It means you’re engaged in the work of taking your life back from your fear. Don’t expect it all to get done in one effort (although it would be sweet if it did.)

And don’t expect that you won’t have negative thoughts jump on your butt! Oh my gosh, this is terrible, this is going to be bad, blah blah blah… you know the litany of your anxiety…

Negative thoughts are with us. They are part of the mechanism that keeps us safe from real, physical dangers. But they don’t need to run our lives, and we don’t need to automatically assume they have the final word on truth or safety.

At several points in the misty past of this blog I have talked about what I think would have been useful to me back when I was first understanding and working to overcome panic attacks and chronic anxiety.

I have thought in the last few months that it might be useful (for me, if no-one else!) to try and list out what would have been immediately useful to me back in those dark and frustrating early days. So here I go –

There Was So Much I Didn’t Know!

It is amazing to me when I look back to the worst days of my anxiety, which were roughly the winter of 1990 through the summer of 1995. I had been fighting panic attacks off and on since Junior High School, (1974-75), and had experienced some ugly weeks and months, but everything went in the toilet for me that nasty winter of 1990.

Why amazing? Well, for several reasons, but at the core of it, I was largely unaware of how hard I was driving myself, and how much anxiety was chewing at my life.

I was going to graduate school and teaching part-time, and I was taking a full load of classes. I was feeling that I was “behind” for not having graduate school done yet (I was 30, and somehow I was a loser because I wasn’t in possession of an advanced degree.) There was very little conscious thought about this – just a sense that I was failing…

I was dealing with the beginning of the end of a relationship with someone I loved very much but knew, in my core, that we were not going to make it for the long haul. I was very afraid of winding up alone, because that would mean I was a failure, somehow, and I couldn’t be the guy to end the relationship, since that would have been mean, hurtful and selfish. Again this thing with failing…

I was a terrible money manager and that definitely added to my stress, because I never really felt confident or competent to sustain myself (although I had been doing that for almost 15 years at that point.) Yet I wasn’t making much money, and didn’t see a way I could work more and still get work of finishing college done at the same time. No stress here…

One of the things that strikes me about the three paragraphs I just wrote is how hard I was driving myself in my life, and all unaware that I was doing so. So many rules, so many unconscious assumptions, so much pressure in my own skull to achieve and produce and succeed, yet almost no conscious examination of what was driving me on so hard in the first place, or if any of it was something I really wanted.

The results of all that pressure had been affecting me for years at that point, but I didn’t get it. Some examples: I was already struggling hard to distract myself at bedtime, one of my most common (and worst) times for anxiety to coming knocking at my door. I often watched TV until I feel asleep, and then would wake up just long enough to click the TV off before quickly falling asleep again.

I was very, very afraid of NOT getting to sleep, although if you had confronted me about my TV watching behavior I would have denied having any fears at all about bedtime and lack of sleep. Was this stressful? Holy crap!

I was eating to medicate my anxiety, although again I couldn’t have told myself or anyone else that basic fact while I was doing it. As a result I had picked up a lot of weight in the proceeding 5 years, and that was causing back pain (and added stress.)

I was drinking 10-12-14 diet cokes a day, often because I was very sleepy from working three jobs (including one part-job at Barnes and Noble that often had me home after midnight.) And while there’s nothing wrong with the occasional or even regular 1 or 2 diet cokes, a couple of 6-packs of caffienated soda a day might be a little extreme –

There was one more piece to this puzzle. I was very afraid of the coming of winter. During the summer and fall I could cope with the nighttime stuff better – warm air and open windows helped that anxiety. But being in Reno meant cold winters, short days and long nights, snow, ice and bitter chill. I hated, literally hated the coming of winter, and dreaded the long months until spring returned and I could feel less trapped.

And, as I’ve discussed in recent blog posts, I was carting around one hell of a lot of personal rules that I was almost continuously failing at meeting – rules about who I should be, how I should act, what other people should and shouldn’t do – an impressive and life-sucking list.

Which, of course, (along with my rules about success and failure in career and relationship and money) was at the heart of why I was fighting anxiety in the first place!

So Why Tell You All This?

As I’ve already stated in this blog post one of the things that impresses me/saddens me about what I related about that younger Erik and how he was living is just how un-self-aware he was then. He was being driven by beliefs, personal programming (from family and friends and culture), rules and standards that he had never even considered examining or calling into question.

Another thing is how I was driving myself SO HARD – and that I wasn’t even clear why I was doing it. I was doing very little to care for myself – physically, mentally or emotionally – and worse, I didn’t know enough to even be concerned about self-care. I was literally making myself sick, but I had no clue that I was the cause.

The next 5 years would be hell because of it. Not every day, not without a break, but a steady slide to worse and worse bouts with anxiety and panic attacks would be the result, until I was just a little short of being totally agoraphobic (house-bound from anxiety.)

It never crossed my mind to talk to anyone about my anxiety, not for a very long time. Then, when I finally did, I talked to my M.D., a G.P. who was a great guy and doctor, but who knew very little about anxiety, other than being able to diagnose that I was fighting panic attacks.

Which is something else – I never even knew I was fighting panic attacks! I just knew I felt like crap and was pretty sure there was something wrong with me.

(In fact I worried for a long time that I was going crazy…)

This is important because my doctor told me two things: 1) I was fighting panic attacks (with no more explanation than that), and 2) there was nothing I could do about them except take medication.

Thanks Doc – I Think I’ll Just Walk Off a Cliff Now…

I want to be clear on this point: I know my doctor was offering the best advice he had at the time for me. (I’m also clear that he should have known more, and that way too many doctors who are diagnosing anxiety disorders don’t have the training or information they need to help their patients effectively.)

The end result of his news about panic attacks and my lack of options was the sense that I was doomed – literally. I was afraid of being chained to medications for the rest of my life, and was even more afraid that there would never be an end to my anxiety.

In fact (in my fearful thinking) I convinced myself that there wouldn’t be an end to my fear, and so despair and depression began to dominate my thinking.

No surprise there, right? Way too many of us that have battled with anxiety find it easy to be persuaded that the worst-case scenario is the likely one for US. Yes, other people may find help or relief, but we’re different – we’re the folks that the help won’t help. We’re wrong – but our feelings keep telling us that something really bad is going to happen to us…

Not that I wasn’t still trying – we who fight anxiety are nothing if not stubborn – but the boat appeared to be sinking, and I couldn’t see any way to get out of the water, and I sure as hell couldn’t bail the water out fast enough.

So What Do I Wish I Knew Then?

There are days I wish I had a time machine – some way to go back to that younger Erik and tell him how wrong he was, and how he didn’t have to stay anxious like he was in those days. I don’t have such a device, but if I did I would tell him these things:

1) Your anxiety has a cause – your thinking. You are making yourself anxious from what is running through your mind, conscious or otherwise (largely otherwise.)

2) Your anxiety stems from your fears of failing – failing across multiple beliefs and personal standards that you have automatically assumed are true and MUST be achieved.

3) You are NOT doomed to be anxious for the rest of your life! The truth is you need to do a serious review of your thinking, and start sorting out all the ways you’re making yourself anxious.

You need to identify where you’ve turned a problem or issue in your thinking into a crisis – and in doing that work you’ll find that you don’t have to be anxious and afraid all the time.

Such a simple thing, this idea that anxiety stems first from our thinking. But it would have literally changed my world if I had understood even a little of this concept.

Next up – more on the things that would helped me best, back in the day…

I have been using a couple of terms in the last year here at the Fear Mastery blog, and based on both some coaching sessions in the last few months and some direct questions about the difference between these two terms, I thought it was time for some clarification.

Unpacking

Briefly, when I use the term unpacking, I’m talking about identifying when a person has identified where they have turned a problem into a crisis in their thinking, and doing the work of converting it BACK into a problem/situation/thing to resolve.

This is very about how we are THINKING. We get ourselves in trouble in the first place when we decide that some issue, challenge or problem is in fact a life-or-death crisis that we have to somehow solve NOW.

Perhaps the hardest part of that sideways thinking is that we may not even be aware that we’re doing it. UGH! That’s why I break this out into two parts – first identifying clearly just what we’ve converted from a problem/issue/challenge into a crisis, and then sorting it back out into a problem – or “unpacking” that crisis back into what it really is.

Unplugging

When I use the term unplugging I’m discussing challenging the meaning of our Flight or Fight Reactions, and most specifically the ones that scare us. That can mean either physical responses (racing heart, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, nausea, you name it) or emotional responses (anger, terror, guilt, nervousness, sadness, fear, etc.)

This is very much about how we are FEELING. We can learn to have two things to be afraid of: 1) the scary thinking that we need to unpack, and 2) the Flight or Fight responses that are the natural outcome of us being afraid in the first place.

I call this “unplugging” because we need to climb off the merry-go-round of the ramping up of worry over what these responses mean. And what DO these responses mean? You already know if you’ve been reading this blog – NOTHING. They don’t mean anything, except that you’re afraid. End of story.

Think of your Flight or Fight responses as energy pouring into your body to deal with a real crisis in the natural world – someone attacking you, or your house catching on fire. Those responses evolved to GET YOU MOVING in the face of danger – either to run (preferable in the natural world) or fight (if you must.)

Here’s the thing: if your fear is in your thinking there is nothing to run from or fight. There is some definite need to get your thinking sorted out, and there may very well be a need to address a problem or challenge in your life. BUT IT ISN’T A CRISIS. And that rush of Flight or Fight responses (especially the ones we’ve learned to be particularly afraid of, the ones that freak us out) don’t have any significance other than to let us know that we’re afraid. Period.

Sometimes We Need to Unpack, and Sometimes We Need to Unplug

Unplugging is often what we need to do when we’re already ramped up/freaked out by our fears and Flight or Fight responses. We can barely think, let alone be rational. That’s a great time to remind yourself that, however you feel, there is no deep significance or meaning to that racing heart, sweaty palms, pit-in-your-stomach routine you’re doing.

Unplugging can also be crucial for when we’re ready to push our Comfort Zones, and even as we’re thinking about it Flight or Fight is powering up to make us stop before we do something crazy like challenge our fears. 🙂 Again, just a natural physical and emotional response to the thinking in our heads…

Unpacking is when we’re doing deliberate work, sitting down to take on the thinking that is scaring us in the first place, defuse the crisis we’ve creating (usually not deliberately, just from our assumptions, experience and training) and get our thinking clear.

Unpacking can also be useful when we’re suddenly confronted by a fearful or scary situation. This is usually more useful after we’ve had some practice, but heck, practice it when you get the opportunity, right?

What’s In a Name?

Hope this helps sort out any confusion on these two Fear Mastery terms. So how is YOUR unpacking and unplugging going? Is it more useful today, in this moment, to challenge what your thinking is telling you to be afraid of – or is it more to the point to redefine what those frightening Flight or Fight responses and what THEY mean to you?

Both are important. Both are useful. Together they are two of the most important tools we have in challenging the grip of anxiety in our lives.

There are days I wonder if any of us would wrestle with anxiety much if we were not so stinkin’ HARD on ourselves. We who have battled with anxiety tend to be pretty fiercely self-critical, self-evaluative – in a very real sense we are our own worst critics.

I know that it was a huge self-revelation in my history when I began to understand just how many rules I had in my thinking, and how often I failed myself in meeting the standards of those rules.

It is a little disturbing to look back on my thinking in those days, and it makes me wonder how I didn’t see the extent to which I was slamming myself, beating myself up for not measuring up to all my rules.

Let me suggest in today’s blog post that in taking on this work of challenging and sorting out our anxious thinking we have to be willing to examine our personal standards for success and failure. We also have to be willing to reassess them, call them into question, and make some very conscious decisions about what is useful about those rules, and what is only serving to make us anxious/afraid.

Who in the HELL Gave Me All These Rules?!?

We are definitely not born into the world with a massive rulebook. Little kids tend to be pretty easy-going, for the most part living in the moment. They seem in fact to be puzzled by all the rules that most adults carry around – one of their favorite questions when adults state (what seems to them to be) obvious truths or rules is “why?”

That’s a great question to ask. What we usually say back to that curious kid is “because”. But that’s not good enough when we reach adulthood, and that goes double for us anxiety-fighters.

A couple of posts from now I’m going to start a series on what would have been useful to me early in my fight with anxiety. One of the things I’m going to discuss is all the freakin’ rules I had in my life about who I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to accomplish, what is right and what is wrong, etc.

I will discuss some of the rules I identified in that early work in those posts, but what I want to focus on in this post is just how hard, how self-abusive we can be to ourselves when we fail to meet our own standards.

So here’s an example of one of my rules from the stressful, self-oblivious younger days: “I should always be cheerful and happy.” Not a bad rule, right? Shouldn’t everyone have this rule? And what’s so wrong with it anyway?

Well, for starters, who in the heck is happy or cheerful ALL the time, whatever they think they should be? Happy and cheerful are both emotional states, and emotions vary – they are never constant. The happiest person in the history of the world gets grumpy occasionally (just like even our blackest days with anxiety see occasional sunny spots.)

And for another the words happy and cheerful are hardly precise measurement descriptions! One person’s happy is another person’s content, and still another person’s just OK. Some of us bubble and babble when we’re happy.

Some of us just go about our business with a small smile on our faces. And still others don’t give much or even any external clues when we’re happy. Emotions are both variable AND subjective.

But wait – it gets worse. When we use terms like “always”, or “never”, or “invariably” we are setting ourselves up for failure. Which then means that we’ve failed, ANYTIME we are not happy or cheerful (according to our subjective measure of what the heck that means.)

And perhaps darkest of all is why the heck I would think that I HAVE to ALWAYS be happy and cheerful. What bad thing would happen if I DIDN’T? Because if I wasn’t afraid of something bad happening then why would I be concerned for this in the first place?

Nope, there had to be a concern/fear/worry here in the first place, and THIS is where our Internal Critic steps in and starts to wreak havoc on us…

Hey – You’re a Human Being – Not Superman

Without launching into a long discussion on this point it is important to remind ourselves that we learned most of the rules we learned from someone else – parents, friends, teachers, the culture in general that we live in. We learned those rules to cope with/live in the world we grew up in.

But in learning those rules for our survival we also created this creature I’m calling the Internal Critic. That Critic came into existence to keep us safe – to be our own personal policeman, reminding us of what we were SUPPOSED to be doing to stay on the straight and narrow.

The hard truths about the Internal Critic, however, are these:

1) However much we needed those rules in our growing up (safety from family ridicule or punishment, fitting in and not sticking out as weird or wrong, physical safety, you name it) a lot of those rules were only possible to keep all the time if we are Superman (or Superwoman.)

And certainly as kids we were not Superman or Superwoman – so we must have failed then as well. Which in turn helped grow that Critic in our minds…

2) We’re not kids anymore! We’re adults with our own minds and our own lives. What only made limited sense back when we were kids now almost certainly REALLY doesn’t make any sense – however much our fear and anxiety would like us to believe that they do. And heck, even they could or do help us now we still desperately need to throttle back our self-expectations to more human levels.

3) A lot of our anxiety – perhaps for some of us ALL of our anxiety – has roots in those rules and personal standards that our Critic is on our butt about, all the time.

I am not Superman/woman. Neither are you. A healthy, not-dominated-by-anxiety life is one where the Internal Critic is challenged, where we examine our rules and standards and start making adult decisions about which ones makes sense, and which ones need to be retooled – or dumped altogether.

And It Isn’t Like We Only Have One or Two Rules We’re Carting Around…

I have mentioned in other posts here that I when I began this process of self-review I had literally PAGES of rules that scrolled out of my thinking. Holy crap!

So it is important to remember that we who deal with anxiety often have a LOT of various beliefs/personal standards/measures of success or failure that are evaluating us ALL THE TIME.

Is it any surprise that when we first turn to face our fears that we can feel completely overwhelmed? And that this feeling can return again and again as we wade into the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place?

T. Isaac Rubin, therapist and thinker, has written a book I’ve referenced in this blog before, titled “Compassion and Self-Hate.” In that brilliant and essential book he outlines how most people have unconsciously absorbed the rules and standards of their family and culture. These rules are often, literally, inhuman – they can’t be maintained over the course of time.

He further discusses how we won’t, simply, allow ourselves to be HUMAN – to do better some days, to do worse other days, but still doing our best with what we have each day. We instead set a standard that, while we might achieve sometimes, or for a period of time, we can’t maintain over the long haul.

Let me reference you back to the rule from my earlier life about my thinking that I should always be cheerful and happy.

Who in the world can make such a commitment? And what potential, terrible self-abuse and self-rejecting thinking and feeling am I creating for myself when I believe such a rule?

I can tell you that I was pretty damn hard on myself. I was hard enough on myself to make myself physically ill with worry that I had wrecked someone’s day with my less-than-stellar cheer/happiness. I was afraid that I had offended and/or hurt people with my failure. I worried about friends and total strangers this way.

In other words I generated a ton of anxiety for myself with just this one failed standard for myself. NEVER MIND how stinkin’ cheerful and happy I was most of the time! Never mind how hard I worked to make other people cheerful and happy!

And, maybe worst of all, never mind how rarely anyone else even noticed I wasn’t being unfailingly cheerful and happy, and how rarely any of them cared if I wasn’t!

It’s Scary to Challenge Our Internal Critic

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing those of us attempting to review and assess those internal standards is the nagging suspicion that we’re somehow slacking off or giving up by doing that questioning. We have learned to be savagely self-critical of our own behavior, and we are afraid that if we stop that savage self-criticism we will fail, be found wanting, be seen as selfish or as slackers.

This might have been a great survival trait in our younger days, when failing to be a strong self-governor of our behavior might have gotten us into serious trouble. Now that we’re grown-ups that self-governing (translate: attempt to constantly measure up to impossibly high standards) can turn into self-destroying.

WE’RE ONLY HUMAN. That it is necessary to remind ourselves of that is just one indicator of how much we DON’T get this basic truth.

The bottom line is we MUST take on our Internal Critic. That mental policeman has had way too much control over our lives for too long. Taking him on will be scary at first – no question. He could be enough to stop the show by himself for a period of time.

But as Rubin says our healthy, natural selves are invariably stronger – stronger because self-care is what we want to do naturally – like any living creature on Earth. Self-care doesn’t mean self-absorbed or the standard definition of “selfish” – self-care means that you are AT LEAST as the other people around, you caring for yourself is anything but selfish.

More about that in later blog posts. For the moment, consider that Internal Critic (whom I sure has raised his voice a time or two during this blog post, yes) needs to be challenged on the way to getting free of the tyranny of anxiety and fear.

I have been working with a coaching client for the last couple of months, and it has been pretty exciting to watch the success she’s had in her work to sort out the thinking that has been making her anxious for the last 8 years. Her fears centered largely around her job, in particular some office problems that were making life hard for her and her co-workers, and her own fears about keeping her job.

She had a rocky start, but about week 5 of her work she found herself with increasing confidence, and took on a pretty scary thing for her (talking to her boss about some serious work problems) and did great.

She wrote me to tell me how much better she was feeling, and more so because her anxiety really acted up when she first started. She had some sleepless nights, felt tired and stressed during the day, especially in the first two weeks. We celebrated over the phone together, and planned to talk the same time the following week.

The very next morning she called again, and she was pretty upset. She had finished our phone call the previous day and not 10 minutes later learned that her company was letting two people go in her office, which would automatically mean a LOT more work for her and her remaining co-workers.

You know what happened next! She began asking herself “what if?” questions. What if she couldn’t get it all done? What if, after talking to her boss, SHE had been the reason these people had been laid off? What if she couldn’t keep up and SHE lost her job? You know the routine…

What Happened? I Was Doing So Well!

Part of what it means to face into and start unpacking our anxious thinking (as well as confronting our fears about our Flight or Fight Responses) is the inevitable “setback”. I put “setback” in quotes because it really isn’t anything of the kind, but for the moment we’ll use that word – mostly because, at least at the start, that’s exactly how it feels.

As I have said a number of times in the last six months on this blog we are, when we start doing the work of unpacking fear, beginning to acquire some competency in a small set of skills. We can’t possibly master those skills overnight. We will be awkward, tentative and unsure of ourselves at the beginning. We will have days when things go right and we feel like we’re getting it, and we’ll have days where nothing seems to work.

It can be very, very tempting to shout “what the HELL?” and decide that this work isn’t helping, or that we’ll never be able to do this, or that WE’RE different and so it can’t work for US, etc.

Part of the reason we react this way is because usually, after years or decades of wrestling with anxiety, we’re DONE with being anxious. So when we see some success with this anxiety work we start to think that maybe, just maybe, the worst days are behind us. We are starting to see the light of day, and the LAST thing we want is the gray to come back.

So it makes a lot of sense that when we’re hit with a difficult day we freak out a little (or a lot.) Part of the reason we react this way is we’re halfway-convinced that we really CAN’T get free of our anxiety, and so the first “setback” seems to confirm that yes, we were right, we really are doomed to a lifetime of anxious worrying, or panic attacks, or no life, or all of those.

And part of the reason we react this way is we have been having the Comfort Zone/Flight or Fight warn us that this is a BAD idea, that we’re risking making things worse (or, at the minimum, giving ourselves unnecessary grief) and what we really should be doing is running as far and as fast as we can from our anxiety.

When A “Setback” Isn’t Really A Setback

When I was doing that school thing there was one class activity that I hated – pop quizzes. I didn’t mind the tests so much, the ones that I knew were coming, but I really despised the “surprise! A quiz!” thing. I never felt ready, and even when I did well I still worried about the next one.

As we wade into the anxiety work (like how I worked the whole ocean metaphor from my last post into this post?) we should reasonably expect that there will be more than a few opportunities to test our beginning skills with mastering our fears. We will definitely have pop quizzes, whether we want them or not.

But a pop quiz isn’t a “setback”, even if we don’t do so well. How can I say that?

1) When we do this skill-building thing for learning to manage anxiety we need to PRACTICE. The moments that we call “setbacks” are really nothing more complicated than another chance to practice. Although we’d love it if anxiety just stopped we know in our guts that it will take time and practice to really shut down anxiety’s running our life.

2) These pop quiz/setbacks show us what’s working for us, as well as what we need to work on/get better at doing. Probably can’t overstate this piece. Practice has to include seeing where we’re getting it, and where we’re not (yet.)

It Is NEVER All Smooth Sailing

Life, in general, is an up-and-down affair. Some days we get up and we just don’t seem to get sorted out. Some days we get up and everything seems easy. Some days start strong and end crappy, some days start crappy and end great.

ALL of that is normal. We who have fought or are currently in the fight with anxiety can lose sight of that. Life isn’t like the movies, where everything resolves in 45 minutes or 2 hours. Life is messy, a lot of the time, and we’ll do better/stay calmer/get where we want to go faster if we’ll relax into that fact.

And here’s one great piece of news about those “setbacks”: you push past one or two and you’ll see for yourself just the kind of progress you’re making. Don’t take my word for it -see for yourself.

“Setbacks” are not really anything of the sort – they are just mile markers on the way to your health, peace of mind and freedom.

I don’t know if I’ve ever discussed this before, but I have for most of my life had a long-standing love affair with the ocean. My first memory of seeing the ocean (in my case, the Pacific Ocean) was when I was pretty young – junior high school – and it was love at first sight.

I’ve made several big life decisions based (to be honest) around this love affair. Isn’t that what you do sometimes when you’re in love? 🙂 I chose my first college in large part because it sat overlooking the ocean (go ahead, be jealous – you know you are!)

I also moved to San Diego after I first gained some traction with my own fight with anxiety, depression and panic attacks, in large part because I REALLY wanted a shot at living near the ocean. And one of my favorite things about living in California is just how much of it is beachfront property!

Why tell you all this in a blog about dealing with anxiety?

If You Wanna Swim You’re Gonna Have To Get Wet…

In my last post I suggested that the energy we spent resisting and running from anxiety could be better spent turning to face and unpack that anxiety. Maybe you’re ready to do that. Maybe you’re as sick of anxiety running your show as I was in the winter of 1995. Maybe, just maybe, you think you might be able to beat this thing.

We all get there in our own time. Having said that it can help to have some tools, like the ones I’ve outlined here in the blog. It can also help to have some idea of what you’re getting into when you start this work.

And maybe more important than anything else in knowing what you’re getting into is understanding that to stop being anxious you have to, well, face being anxious.

One of the things I learned early about being at the beach is that if you want to play in the water then you’re going to have to risk getting wet. That may sound obvious, but it is interesting when you go to the beach how many people will walk to the water’s edge, maybe dip their toes in, then back away hastily when the surf rolls up.

It’s like they like the IDEA of the ocean and the water, but they don’t really want to get wet doing it. Which doesn’t make much sense. Sure, they’ll stay dry – but they’ll also never experience the power and the joy and the sense of accomplishment you can experience by learning to manage getting in the water.

The same thing is true about anxiety. There probably isn’t anyone who deals with anxiety who doesn’t like the idea of making it stop. What too many of us are NOT crazy about doing is actually having to wade into our anxiety to make it stop. We want it to go away without having to actually confront it in the first place.

…And It’s Likely You’ll Get Sand In Your Pants

There are a lot of people who look to medication to make anxiety stop. Some of them find temporary relief – temporary meaning months to years of getting some breathing space.

But I’m pretty sure none of them have their anxiety magically go away. No, it’s still there, in their thinking, the place it has been since it began, and there is as yet no magic pill to make it go away.

They’re trying, unfortunately, to learn to swim in the ocean without getting wet. And it isn’t working.

The only difference between folks who want to play in the ocean and those of us who are dealing with anxiety is that we don’t get to choose whether or not we’re dealing with anxiety. By the time we reach the place where anxiety is messing with our lives anxiety has made itself at home in our brains, and if we want our life back we’re going to have to deal with that anxious thinking.

We have to, metaphorically, wade into the ocean. And, frankly, it scares us. We’ve been beaten up by anxiety for a long time. We really don’t like how it makes us feel. We don’t want to feel afraid, or scared, or shut down, or depressed, anymore. We look at other people and envy them their apparent calm, happiness, lack of anxiety.

I remember the first time I saw somebody swimming in the ocean. I was amazed at their skill, and I was sure I could never learn to do what they were doing. When I first tried I got a little beat up by the ocean. I got slapped into the sand again and again, I drank a lot of ocean water I wasn’t intending to drink, and I was usually exhausted when I pulled myself back to shore.

Yet I did learn how to swim in the ocean, and it didn’t take all that long. And the payoff was more than worth it. I won’t beat you over the head with the comparison to anxiety work – mostly because I suspect you already know how useful that work could be for you.

Surf’s Up

My most recent two posts have been a gentle effort to push you, my excellent readers, to consider making that decision to face down your anxiety and get your freedom back – your life back. If you’re like me you don’t like being pushed too hard, so I promise I’ll stop for the moment. 🙂

More than anything my goal is to help prod you into thinking why you might NOT be doing the work of unpacking your anxiety.

Anxiety says stay dry, stay up on the sand, don’t get in the ocean, you’ll just get hurt and be all wet. But the truth is you really do want to swim, metaphorically. You really do want to be free of anxiety.

Surf’s up…

Anxiety starts in our thinking. Old news to those of you who are faithfully tracking this blog, yes? If we identify what thoughts/thought habits are making us anxious we are well on our way to being able to clean up that thinking – convert the crisis in our thinking back into a problem. Some of us don’t have much of a problem identifying that thinking when we begin this work.

Sometimes, however, it isn’t that easy to sort out what that anxious thinking might be. That might be because it scares the crap out of us! That might be because our personal beliefs or rules make it very challenging to be honest about the thinking that is scaring us.

Whatever the reason there is a tool that can help us get (with some patience and work) down to the thinking that is making us crazy. That tool is, ironically, also at the heart of what is making us crazy in the first place.

When Thinking Goes Bad

When we begin to do that anxious thinking thing we start worrying about what MIGHT happen in the future. We begin to turn a problem into a crisis. And when we do that we very often ask ourselves this question: “What if?”

For instance: I am suddenly confronted with my boss being Grumpy Guy. He was fine yesterday, and now he’s in a foul and tedious mood. He’s already snapped at me once, and now a co-worker reports that he’s unhappy with the report I just finished. What do I do? I begin asking myself what if questions.

What if he’s really mad at me? What if he stops talking to me? What if he tells other people that I’m a loser/failure/dolt/you name it? What if he FIRES me? What if I can’t get another job?

And now, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves spiraling down into anxious thinking.

The Magic Power of What If Thinking

It is nothing short of amazing the power our thinking has in our bodies and behavior. We could be having a brilliant day, feeling loose and confident, calm, centered, happy, you name it. Then we run a scenario like the one I just described through our heads, and holy crap! The day goes into the toilet!

One of the things that makes that thinking so strong is the Flight or Fight Response’s natural tendency to look for the dangerous, the bad and the scary in whatever we’re thinking about (when we’re anxious.) There is nothing mysterious about that – we are, in the natural world, looking to QUICKLY figure out which way to safety is the best, and that means doing risk assessment, FAST.

The only problem is we’re not escaping any real danger when we’re worried that our boss is mad at us. But we’re STILL responding to that worry as if it was real danger. And now we’re caught up in finding a way out of a danger that isn’t a danger at all – just a problem.

“Wait, Erik, you haven’t met my boss yet!” No, I haven’t. But I have been in that place, and I’ve talked with an enormous number of people, and most of the time, the minute we start pulling apart the fearful thinking that we’re spiraling down into, I and those other people start realizing that this is only a crisis of the moment, not the end of the world.

In other words we are letting our thinking run away with us – literally. We are creating terrible potential futures and then acting as if they were true. All based on that simple question “what if?”
So – Where Are You Making “Dark Magic” in Your Thinking?

We hear it all the time. Think positive. Be happy. Don’t be sad. Cheer up. Stop worrying. And that could all be good advice, IF we were clear that the source of our worry and our joy both is inside our heads – in our thinking.

The root question of this Fear Mastery work is where are each of us scaring ourselves in our thinking? When we begin to identify where we are asking the question, consciously or otherwise, “what if?”, then we can begin to pull apart the fear and anxiety that we’re busily generating in our thinking and in our bodies.

“What if?” One tool to help us take on the monster of anxiety and take it DOWN. We have the capacity to be much better masters of our thinking. We don’t have to let anxious thinking control us, drive us, make us miserable. Where are you asking yourself “what if?” in your own thinking?

When you’re battling anxiety, depression and panic the last thing you want someone to tell you is “just be patient – this work takes time.” I know that I had no interest in spending any longer than absolutely necessary to get free of anxiety and the way it was crippling my life.

But, as I spent the last few months outlining in excruciating detail here at this blog, one of the difficult truths about overcoming anxiety is that it takes time, work and patience. The problem is that it can be easy to pay lip service to this idea, but still (in our anxiety-weary souls) we just want it to be DONE.

That’s why I wanted to emphasize a point I’ve already made in this blog before: we will in all likelihood not dispel the anxiety and fear we’re generating in our thinking in one session or single push. We need to embrace this understanding both to not make ourselves crazy in the effort, and to do the work more effectively.

It’s a War, Not a Battle

My Dad is a military historian in his free time, and he taught me something very early in my life. If you want to win a war you have to see it as a series of battles. And if you are seeing that war as a series of battles you have to have a strategy to help you win those battles and that war. The fight with anxiety isn’t one battle – it is a war.

What that means for us in this work is that we have to pace ourselves. It is the nature of anxiety and fear that we want to deal with danger (real or in our thinking) NOW. Real danger doesn’t have any time for us to patiently, methodically figure out a winning strategy.

But anxiety (fear generated in our thinking) requires EXACTLY that – a methodical, steady approach that will give us the skills we need to succeed at this work.

For instance, part of the skills we need to practice is the work of “unpacking” our anxious/fearful thinking – i.e., converting the crisis in our thinking back into a problem. At the beginning of this work that is usually easier said than done.

If we have reached a place (as most of us have) where we are battling chronic/on-going anxiety then we have given that anxious thinking a lot of energy over some period of time. Many of us have been doing that worrying and anxious thinking for years or even decades.

Which means that we’re not just going to just stop that thinking in its tracks. No, it is going to take some practice and effort, some patience and time. I wish that wasn’t the case!

Take a Load Off

What this means practically is that we have do this work in steady steps. We have to practice improving the skills required to stop the cycle of anxious thinking in our heads. That means we have to do some work, then take a break, then do some more work, then take a break, etc.

What that looks like precisely is going to vary from person to person. When we’re just starting out that might mean we’re doing great to get to that practice 2-3 times a day.

As many of you reading this already understand it can be exhausting/scary just to get ourselves in a chair, deliberately, and begin to identify the thinking that is scaring us. (See my last post for some very specific steps to start that process.) We’re very tempted to put it off, delay a while longer, wait until we’re feeling better… etc.

It’s kind of like having to fight your way onto the soccer field before you can even start playing soccer, or running two miles before you can reach the starting line for the 10K! This work (as I know I say a lot here) takes energy – a lot of energy. We just can’t get it all done in one single push.

Take it in steps. Practice means doing something again and again across time, with the goal of getting more skillful. That’s a perfect description of what it means to deal with anxiety effectively.

It Isn’t Just About Energy

Another reason to get this straight is that we can be so stinkin’ HARD on ourselves if we don’t get this done fast enough. We can start worrying that we’re doing it wrong, or that it won’t work for us, or that we don’t have what it takes to go the distance. All of that thinking is what we’re already doing to ourselves – it is anxious/fearful thinking.

Ever see the movie “Groundhog Day”? In case you haven’t it is the story of a man (Bill Murray) who gets caught in a kind of loop – he is doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he sorts out his life. From the perspective of everyone else he just lives one day. But from his viewpoint he is doing the same thing again and again.

One of the ironies of this story is that, because he really can’t go anyplace else (even forward in his own life), he finally surrenders to the inevitable and begins to practice a number of things. He learns to play the piano, do ice sculpture, and even become more adept at being a good communicator and human being. To everyone else he transforms literally overnight – but for him it takes months and months to build those skills.

We who battle anxiety don’t have to wait that long. But in a very real sense we are living with our own version of Groundhog Day.

Slow and Steady

Nobody wants to have to wait to see the serious relief of anxiety. Anxiety, however, didn’t happen overnight for any of us, and while it won’t take nearly as long to sort out and unpack as it did to create it in the first place, it will take some work and time.

Please, let me know how the work is going for you. I’ve heard from a number of people in the last two weeks, and it is very encouraging/exciting to get updates from you. Send them to the blog or email me directly – and keep at it – slow and steady.

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