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I’m sitting here in my study looking at my reference library on dealing with fear and anxiety.  It is a pretty impressive collection of thoughts and tools for dealing with fear.  I have authors like Susan Jeffers, Albert Ellis, David Burns, Melody Beattie, Scott Peck, T.I. Rubin, Martin Seligman and Robert Sapolsky in that collection.  These lucid thinkers on fear, depression and anxiety have, in their various ways, come up with an equally lucid assembly of tools to help folks like you and I combat those life-draining issues.  It would seem that with any effort at all a person should be able to comb through that material and find what they need to get out of anxiety and fear in short order, given any effort and time to apply those tools.  At least, that’s what I used to think.  For a number of years I felt that I was somehow missing the boat, not getting something, or worse, that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.  What these authors wrote made sense – made a great deal of sense.  Why did I then seem to have such a hard time taking their tools and recommendations and running with them?

I believe now that the answer lies in the nature of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle that I’ve mapped in earlier blog posts here.  It is the nature of the vast majority of the tools developed to combat anxiety and fear that they are thinking tools – tools that require some thought, some effort and some time to see results.  These are really tools that could be called proactive tools.  Which is great, IF we’re in a place to process our fears and anxieties in that way.  And there’s no question that a number of people have taken up those tools and found help and usefulness in them!  The issue isn’t that the tools themselves are not useful – they are.  The issue is that the state we’re in can have an enormous impact on whether or not we’re able to use those tools.

If I’m in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, doing my what ifs and worrying about the future – if I’m living in some degree of fear of some Indefinite Negative Future that I’ve conjured out of my what ifs, and dealing with the fear and anxiety of that future – if I’m terrified of walking into a Comfort Zone boundary and challenging my fears and anxieties –  then I’m going to have a heck of a time doing anything as lucid and calm as trying to feel my fear and do it anyway, or look clearly at what specific kind of dysfunctional thinking I’m doing, or even do much with meditation.  All of these tools (a sample of what the authors above recommend) could help me, really help me – but I’m trying to either solve my fear NOW, in the way that Flight or Fight would drive me to solve it, or I’m avoiding it, running away from it, just like Flight or Fight would drive me to run away from it. 

In a very real sense it is crucial, if not central, to first make some move away from my reactive spin in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle before I have much hope of then using the tools that these brilliant authors have listed out for my use.  The various treatments for panic attacks often attempt this with activities like deep breathing and distraction, all good steps in calming down from our most anxious moments.  But just getting some distance often isn’t enough.  Distance is the first step.  But what is needed next is the capacity to then face our fears and anxieties, whatever they are, dealing with the surge of feelings and physical sensations that usually accompany those fears and anxieties, and then work to unpack what it is that’s scaring us, translating it back from a crisis into a problem.  Almost ANY effort in that direction will begin to move us into a proactive state – and that’s where the collection of tools from these gifted thinkers and researchers can really begin to help us.

Of course you’ll probably need more than one try at the triad of Fear Mastery to see movement – but that’s to be expected.  As I’ve said in other posts here this is a small collection of skills, and will take a bit of time and practice.  But again, even a little work can go a long ways, and the bottom line is that we who battle fear and anxiety need to get a sense that we can survive that rush of feelings and sensations, that we’re really not in immediate danger, and that we can begin to access a problem-solving, lucid frame of mind to address what is scaring us.  I believe this practice by itself can go an enormous ways in getting us a great deal of freedom to think and problem-solve.

Next up in this blog – some more discussion about some basic distance-gaining practices to help you do the triad effectively and get more comfortable facing into fear and anxiety.

How are you, my fellow Fear-Busters?  It’s my hope that you’re taking some useful information away from this blog and my discussion of the basics of the Fear Mastery map I’ve developed in the last year.  I know from my own brutal experience with anxiety and fear just how life-draining doing battle with these issues can be, and my whole goal with this writing and work is to make those tools as accessible and useful as possible.

Because make no mistake, if a person’s fears/worries have reached the Comfort Zone it is going to be something of a battle to deal with them.  I had the opportunity to discuss this work around Fear Mastery with a class group I teach last week, and some very specific terms surfaced in that discussion:

Constrictive:  The Comfort Zone is always driving us to more safety.  So, metaphorically speaking, it tends to want to keep pushing you away from danger.  As a result your personal zone of safety tends to shrink.  Yikes!  Every person on the planet has experienced this in one way or another.  We were comfortable doing something two years ago, but we’ve been away from it for a while, and it was a little unnerving when we used to do it, so now it’s become downright uncomfortable during the time gap.  We find reasons not to go back to it, whatever it was, and the Comfort Zone continues its slow constriction.  A classic example is when an elderly person falls and breaks a bone.  What seemed OK before now seems scary, and the great temptation is to avoid that behavior that got us hurt in the first place – and the Comfort Zone constricts.  We even have a cultural expression for pushing back on that constriction – “get back on the horse.”  Most of us however don’t, and so something that was once not risky now seems so.  And of course we get REALLY good at explaining the constriction, to ourselves and others.  And while not all of our reasons are bad, the end result often is – we have a decreased range of motion in our lives.  Which in turn makes the Comfort Zone:

Restrictive:  The Comfort Zone will literally wall us off from activities, options for choice, movement, you name it.  As I mentioned in the last post the Comfort Zone is much like a series of machine-gun emplacements, and you’re on the wrong side of the guns!  You can often “see” the thing you’d like to do, or feel you need to do, just beyond the barrier of the Comfort Zone, but you don’t feel like you can engage that behavior or do that thing you’d like to do.  Your options have shrunk, and you might even report to other people that you can’t do this, or you’re unable to do that.  When, of course, you CAN – you just don’t feel safe doing it.

Evasive:  As I mentioned in the last post here the Comfort Zone works very hard to keep you from confronting your fears, and so you are easily distracted/pulled away when you consider confronting your Comfort Zone boundaries.  In a very real sense the Comfort Zone is evading your thinking – trying to fade from view so you don’t feel anxious or fearful.  Think of how effective, and how insidious, such a protective mechanism is!  I have sat through a dozen conversations in the last 3 weeks alone where someone one day sees something they’d like to challenge in their Comfort Zone restrictions, only to, often only days later, decide not to, or forget to, or explain why they can’t.  It’s impressive, and a little scary.  As I’ve said before, challenging the Comfort Zone takes some energy and effort – and often repeated attempts to change the boundaries we’ve worked so hard to create.

None of this sounds like very good news, I know.  A number of people I’m working with and talking with at the moment express very similar frustrations with the restricted, constricted feeling they have around specific fears in their lives, and they want their freedom.  It is in fact this sense of constriction and lack of freedom that I believe leads directly to Panic Attacks and depression both.  How long can hope be sustained in the face of feeling trapped?  And what person wants to be trapped?   This isn’t a small thing to think about.  We have entire industries that are focused on attempting to relieve people’s anxiety and depression, mostly through medication, when what people need more than any other single thing is a sense of agency in the face of their fears.  Medication is highly useful, no question about that – but its use is around giving people breathing space, a chance to step away from the crushing physical and emotional drain of anxiety and depression, so they can in turn face into their fears and move past them.  Medication by itself won’t address or solve the problems that created anxiety and depression in the first place; it won’t change the thinking that generates those feelings. 

So how about some good news to counteract all these Comfort Zone issues?  I’ll expand on this exact topic in my next posts, but here’s a piece to get started – the Comfort Zone, in addition to the characteristics listed above, is also:

Responsive!  The Comfort Zone will definitely respond to efforts to move the walls back.  You have to face into the barrage of scary thoughts and feelings, and you have to push through them – but in a surprisingly short time your Comfort Zone will get the message and adjust to your new instructions.  Because we don’t want to forget that WE are the builders of the Comfort Zone, and WE are the ones who get to decide where the boundaries should be.  Is it easy?  Usually no.  Will it often suck to face into the work?  You bet.  Is it worth it?  No question.  After all, many people suffer every day under the suffocating restrictions of their Comfort Zone without hope of things easing up on their own.  Which is better – some temporary fear and discomfort that results in decreased fear and restriction overall, or ongoing fear and anxiety? 

Next post – more on what we can do about breaking the Chronic Anxiety Cycle and shaking free of our Comfort Zone…

I promised last post that I would start into a detailed discussion of the Comfort Zone, which, in the Fear Mastery map I’ve developed, is the final stage of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.  In the work of the last few weeks I’ve begun to realize just how remarkable the Comfort Zone is, and how much it can influence our thinking.  With this post I am starting what will turn into a short series of posts on the Comfort Zone, how it develops, how it restricts our behavior and thinking, and then I will turn to some of the tools that we can use to shake free/reshape our Comfort Zone boundaries.

I don’t know who the first person was who coined the term “The Comfort Zone” to describe the perimeter of rules and boundaries that we create around ourselves for protection.  My first clearly cited reference came from Peter McWilliam’s excellent book “Do It!”, which I first read back in the middle 1990’s.  The bottom line is that the Comfort Zone outlines what we each learn is safe and is not safe as we make our way through the world.  As little kids we learn to look both ways before we cross the street, not touch hot stoves (a particularly powerful Comfort Zone boundary in my experience), not stick screwdrivers in wall sockets, etc.  This is the Comfort Zone in one of its most useful functions – protecting us from real, physical danger.  And it is a pretty powerful protection too.  I once tested this by attempting to (at 2 in the morning, when there wasn’t a car for miles) cross a small residential street without looking both ways.  It was not only difficult, but also extremely uncomfortable.  I had warning bells going off the entire time, and found myself surprised at the energy it took to NOT look left or right as I did it.  Good thing, yes?  This is a natural extension of the Flight or Fight Response, this developing of rules for physical safety. 

But the Comfort Zone doesn’t limit us to physical safety issues.  We also learn what is mentally and emotionally risky as we grow and develop, and those dangers also get built into our Comfort Zone.  One of the classic examples is most people’s fear of speaking to a group.  I’ve been teaching Public Speaking for years and years (starting in graduate school as a TA) and I can tell you first-hand that most people carry this fear.  It ranges from mild discomfort to outright terror (and this is only the sample of people actually willing to take the class!) but it is fear, whatever the intensity.  Now I suspect most people know that they can’t actually get physically injured talking to a group of people, however scary it might feel.  That doesn’t make much difference – all they know is that speaking to a group is frightening.  Another example is cultural taboos – rules we learned early on about what topics are safe or not safe to think about out loud (examples might include sexual behavior, bathroom functions, or political beliefs.)

In a very real sense the Comfort Zone is the final home of our most serious fears.  If you’ve been following the blog so far you’ve learned that we start acquiring fears when we turn a problem into a crisis – when we activate our Flight or Fight Response over something that we can’t resolve immediately.  We start generating “what if?” scenarios that scare us, (The Worry Engine), then latch onto one of those scary scenarios and begin treating it as real (The Indefinite Negative Future), then in our efforts to avoid that frightening future we start avoiding thinking and feeling around the topic (Anticipatory Anxiety.)   If we don’t identify this path and convert the issue back into a problem or problems to solve, as opposed to a crisis that is frightening us in the now and must be resolved immediately, we will wind up walling that fear away – taking the behavior we develop during Anticipatory Anxiety and creating a Comfort Zone boundary. 

And it when it reaches that stage it is going to take some real work to undo.  By the time a concern or fear reaches this point we’ve probably been stressing about it for a fair amount of time, and it has been scaring us all along the way.  We’re weary of being scared and worried, we just want it to stop, and when we build a Comfort Zone boundary around it we can (to some extent, since it hasn’t gone away) take a break from the “tiger” we’ve created in our thinking.  We stop thinking about it (mostly), we reflexively shut down and move away from the topic or fear when it is presented to us, and we (most importantly) usually stop then trying to solve the issue.  And, in addition to the topic itself being frightening, we’re also now pretty strongly conditioned to avoid the emotions and physical sensations that accompany the scary topic for us – a process which also begins back in the Indefinite Negative Future stage, but now has become just about as scary as the topic itself.

It is an elegant solution – you’re afraid, you build a boundary to protect yourself, and you (mostly) then stop being afraid, since you’re no longer thinking about or experiencing the feelings/sensations associated with the issue.  It is also the exact opposite thing from what we need to do.  Because, unlike a hot stove or crossing the street, the topic we’ve walled off is a problem we almost certainly need to address, to think through and resolve.  And we’re not going to do that unless we’re thinking about it!  Not thinking about it in crisis mode (holy crap, what am I going to do, this is really bad, this will be a disaster, etc.) thinking, but problem-solving thinking (what are my options, who can help me, what plans do I have to make, etc.)

This is easy to say – but it is much harder to do when a fear or anxiety reaches this stage in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.  That doesn’t mean we can’t do it – not by a long shot.  But it will take some work and energy!  And there are other issues to contend with in the Comfort Zone that need to be taken into account as we approach that work.  More on that in my next post…

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