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Flight or Fight is a sneaky thing. The name we give to this ancient self-protection mechanism sounds like it might focused on getting us moving – and indeed, if we’re faced down with real danger, that’s exactly what it often does.

But Flight or Fight might be sometimes more accurately labeled Flight or Fight… or Freeze. You know about baby deer when they feel danger, right? They freeze in place, hoping their little white spots keep them from whatever predator is hunting them. Well, it happens to us humans too. We can freeze in place.

That might not be a big deal if we didn’t STAY frozen. But as anxiety creeps into and begins to take over our lives we can stay more and more frozen – and that’s a problem if we want to get free of anxiety. We need to develop a focus for taking action – in multiple directions.

And I’m not just talking to chronic anxiety fighters. ANY area of our lives where we’ve developed the habit of freezing/hiding from what scares us will stay frozen – if we don’t shake free of that habit, that tendency to not make a move and deal with our fears.

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The Temptation to Freeze – and stay Frozen

It really comes down to this: we FEEL safer, too often, if we flinch back from our fears. We feel safer for two reasons and at two levels. First, if we flinch away and hide from the thinking that scares us (by avoiding the situation, by avoiding the conversation, by refusing to examine our own assumptions/beliefs/training, etc.)

Then we can, for a while, avoid the discomfort of challenging that anxious thinking. Second, if we run away from what Flight or Fight is doing in our bodies and feelings, then again, for a while, we feel less anxious – or even not anxious at all.

If the human race really, really understood this we’d be all but invincible! So much of what we run from isn’t dangerous, can’t hurt us – not unless we keep running. Worse, the damage that running does is SLOW – taking years and even decades to accumulate in our lives. We don’t see that we’re trading away our lives in the long term by running away from anxiety and discomfort in the short term.

This is the reason people’s lives get so small when they fight anxiety. Not seeing the answer is to face down the scary thinking and the reactive twitches of Flight or Fight they retreat, and keep retreating.

For a lot of people that means they don’t take on the challenges they need to get the lives they want. They explain it away. They say they didn’t really want the better job, the place they really wanted to live, the romance they had always hoped for, the LIFE they wanted to live. Maybe they only lock off that fear, and their lives are still decent, even good a lot of ways.

But they don’t get where they want to go. Worse, when the next thing that comes up that scares them, they run again. And again. Ever notice how often older people seem to be more and more anxious, more and more frightened, more and more unwilling to try new things or even risk discomfort?

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With those of us who fight chronic anxiety it’s simply more global, consuming more of our lives – and it probably started earlier for us. It isn’t one thing for us, it’s a lot of things, and we’ve turned running away into a lifestyle. More accurately we’ve turned FREEZING into a lifestyle. Rather than risk feeling anxiety we freeze.

If we freeze long enough guess what? We become agoraphobic. Agoraphobia is just an end-stage condition of chronic, unaddressed anxiety. This is GOOD news. Why the hell is this good news? Because it isn’t a permanent condition. No way Jose – this is a temporary situation brought on by – freezing. Running. Hiding.

Time to Climb out of the Freezer

If you’re fighting anxiety, whatever stage of anxiety you’re in (you’ve locked off one area of life, you’re avoiding just a couple of things, you’re fighting chronic anxiety, you’re utterly housebound and can’t even go into the garage) you can change your game. You have to develop a bias for action.

Let me be clear: a bias for action doesn’t look like the following things:

1) Running from treatment to treatment, doctor to doctor, program to program: Flight or Fight is a very all-or-nothing kinda creature. The opposite of freezing isn’t frenetic, frantic, flailing action. The opposite of freezing is turning to face our fears, developing some skill at it and learning that we are NOT in danger – however we feel.

But Flight or Fight says solve this fear NOW. And this opens the door to a lot of people racing from potential answer to potential answer, not finding what they want quickly enough, and then racing on to the next hopeful cure.

This is also why so many people find meds that work, to one degree or another, and then don’t do anything except keep taking those meds. No blame and no fault to them! It is SO much more interesting and much less scary to have a med that takes away our anxiety and our discomfort than it is to wade in and engage the work of correcting our anxious thinking in the first place.

This leads us to say things like “I’ve tried everything, but nothing works. My anxiety must be different, or special, or unique.” Ugh. Not true. But it FEELS true – it SEEMS true. But it isn’t. It’s just that we’re creating the right, useful bias for action that we need to beat this thing called anxiety.

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2) Bursts of anxious action, then running away again. Plenty of us get sick of anxiety, pick up the bat and start swinging, then decide that we “can’t do this” and put that bat right back down.

I know people that have been doing this for years and years. They are deeply frustrated, angry and shut down, and they just want it to be DONE. This is a nasty route because it can lead to despair, the conviction that there is no more fight left in us. Ugh again. Not good.

Because in fact there is fight left in us, any of us, if we’re still on the planet. Life wants us to LIVE.

So then what IS the right bias to action?

The Skinny on Not Freezing

1) Get clean and clear on the what if thinking that you’re freezing about/hiding from. Until you do you’re the prisoner of your reactive running away. This means that you have to stand still long enough to write, discuss and think about your specific fears.

No fun. Tedious as crap. Likely to drive you crazy for a while. But it is utterly essential in the work of breaking the habit of freezing. You need a clear, bullet-point statement of your specific fear(s).

It can’t be “I’m afraid of failure.” All anxiety is fear of failure, as Susan Jeffers pointed out decades ago. Too vague. It can’t be “I’m just scared all the time.” Thanks for playing, but when we say that we’re describing a symptom of our fearful thinking (Flight or Fight’s reactions) not the fearful thought itself.

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As you begin this work it might start with “I’m scared of being alone.” Good start. Then it might get clarified further into “I’m scared of being such a bad/selfish/evil person that nobody COULD love me.” And that might sharpen further into “I’m scared of ever saying no to anyone because they will hate me and I will wind up alone.”

2) The MOMENT we start to get some clarity on our specific fears we can begin to wrench them out of the habit of treating them like crises and start treating them as problems. (For examples see this post HERE.) Yeah, that’s scary too. That means that we have to continue to look at our fears long enough to see past the habit of freaking over them –

And instead see them as an issue to address, rather than a crisis to hide from. The fear of rejection is not solved by treating all rejection as the kiss of death. The fear of rejection is solved when we see rejection as, at worst, a problem to deal with, an experience that might be difficult, even hard, but not life or death.

Yes, Erik, you might say, but what about diabetes and cancer and car wrecks and housefires and charging elephants and economic problems and somebody stealing my car? Here’s my answer: did it kill you? Not does it FEEL like it’s killing, not maybe one day it MIGHT kill you – but did it kill you?

If the answer is no then it’s a problem. It might be a scary ass-problem, but it’s a problem. And here’s the really important part: if you keep treating this problem like a crisis then you’re going to keep running, keep freezing, and you’re going to get exactly nowhere in the mission of getting free of anxiety.

I often hear people who are wrestling with anxiety marvel at seeing people with chronic illness or injury or huge economic problems COPING with their situations. “How do they do that???” they ask in amazement, seeing such handling as nothing short of miraculous in the face of their own huge fears.

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The answer is those people are seeing their situations as problems, and they are treating them as problems. That doesn’t mean they are not afraid, not worried, not having doubts, not having bad days. But their fundamental orientation is one of problem-solving, not crisis fleeing/freezing.

3) We have to start aggressively discounting the frightened reactions of Flight or Fight, twitching in response to our fearful thinking. It’s very easy to treat those weird physical reactions and emotional storms as something serious. They are not.

This is the second nasty habit we have to break, and again, it means standing our ground in the face of those sensations and feelings. YES IT IS HARD. YES IT DOESN’T ALL GET DONE IN ONE PUSH. And yes, we’ll be more afraid one day and less afraid another. It’s a bumpy, anything-but-smooth-progression process.

Stop Freezing

Anxiety really, really tempts us to inaction. We need a bias for action. We need a HABIT of taking action. Not JUST action – thoughtful, fear-facing, standing our ground action, action that involves both mental work and physical work.

Feel free to break some dishes, or shout at the computer, or be mad and pout for a while. That’s OK too. None of this work means we shouldn’t feel things. We will feel – a lot, and sometimes overwhelmingly. That’s all legal. Those are just feelings.

Stop freezing. You can stop today. Your life, whatever you’ve locked away from yourself because of your what if thinking, is waiting just beyond your Comfort Zone.

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(This post is meant to be read in combination with the last post, HERE.)

So there you are, wrestling with Flight or Fight sensations and feelings scaring the living crap out of you. Or maybe just making you profoundly uncomfortable. Or maybe you’re flinching away from things and just starting to realize that you’re letting your life be limited by your largely-unconscious reactions to Flight or Fight’s warning signals.

If you’ve been reading this blog or doing other study in your efforts to break the hold of anxiety in your life then you’ve heard the notion that Flight or Fight cannot, CANNOT hurt you, no matter how much it has come to scare you, no matter how urgent or “real” or frightening it feels. You know that, but when it comes time to actually face down some of your scary thinking, or confront a situation that you’ve been scared away from by Flight or Fight, you find yourself VERY reluctant to endure those reactions again…

I get it. It isn’t like eating cake or having a birthday party, that’s for sure. But it is absolutely essential in getting free of the tyranny of anxiety. And by NOT confronting those frightening warning signals (up to and including panic attacks – just one more manifestation of Flight or Fight) we only feed and strengthen the habit of flinching back, limiting our life and feeding our fears.

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We have to break the habit of retreating from Flight or Fight. We have to turn and see it for what it is, change the meanings that we’ve given it, expose the “monster under the bed” for what it really is – nothing of importance or danger.

Because it really is a habit. It is both a habit of behavior and a habit of thought. We’ve scared ourselves on a regular basis, not understanding what Flight or Fight was, just a reaction to the thinking that frightened us in the first place (whatever those thoughts were or are about.) And habits only change when we exert the effort to change them.

Sure, Erik, Easy for YOU to Say…

Don’t think I didn’t run like hell from this work for a LONG time, including even after I began to understand that there was really nothing to be afraid of in the first place. And don’t think that MOST people don’t avoid this work – most of us do.

But my fear wasn’t going anyplace just by doing the unpacking and changing crises back to problems. I also had to teach myself, behaviorally, that there was nothing to fear. Therapists call this desensitization. It’s a very powerful tool IF we also do the work of cleaning up the thinking that is scaring us in the first place.

So HOW does one go about that work?

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1) Make sure that you are doing the identifying and unpacking of the fearful thinking that is the primary source of your anxiety in the first place. (More on that HERE.) This work is essential.

2) Make a plan for small moves. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you won’t shake free of your fears of Flight or Fight in one push. Steady, regular practice.

3) Get clear that however Flight or Fight FEELS it is ONLY a reaction to anxious thinking. You don’t have to be aware of that specific thinking to have Flight or Fight fire up! Repeating: you don’t have to consciously know the thinking that is scaring you to have Flight or Fight fire up.

4) If Flight or Fight is ONLY a reaction then it cannot, cannot hurt you. Get clear that this automatic defense mechanism is, in the case of anxiety, misfiring – it is not telling us anything useful except that we are afraid of one or more thoughts.

That includes the fears we’ve built up around Flight or Fight. This is very much monsters in the closet thinking. We become anxious/scared/terrified of something, we start to avoid it, we avoid it for years – then we face it down and discover there was never anything of real danger to begin with. Ugh!

5) We have to expect that we’ll have up and down days – more progress here, less progress there, etc. Some days we’ll have more energy. Some days we’ll have a bunch of our fears try to surface and demand attention, each of them firing up Flight or Fight.

Those are GOOD days, believe it or not. Flight or Fight can HELP us – specifically by helping drag those fearful thoughts to consciousness where we can do something about them.

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6) Expect what I call “aftershocks” (more about those HERE) – a kind of reaction to pushing on your Comfort Zone/Flight or Fight fears. They can come minutes or hours after this work, and they can SEEM to come out of nowhere – but of course they don’t, they are just reactions to your brave work.

They don’t MEAN anything, but they can seem freaky if we don’t anticipate them/plan for them. And they themselves are good opportunities to practice reminding ourselves that Flight or Fight can’t hurt us, and we are only scaring ourselves around Flight or Fight because of our fears that there is something wrong or that it is dangerous, somehow.

An Example of Pushing Back on Flight or Fight

Let’s talk about Marcus. (Not his real name – but he’d love it that I was calling him Marcus.) Marcus is a 44 year old guy who has been fighting anxiety since the end of high school. He’s been housebound for 12 years, able really only to go out into his backyard garden, and not always then. His big Flight or Fight fears are an overwhelming feeling of dread and hopelessness (that really freaks him out) and he gets terrible nausea – like he wants to throw up, right NOW.

Marcus had a tough personal thing happen (the loss of an old friend) and because he was too afraid to leave his house he didn’t go to the funeral and gathering of friends and family. He was pretty mad about that, and decided he needed to start fighting back.

He decided he was going to start with a hard push – get across the street to the little park that is opposite his house. He loved that park (when he was still fighting a retreating action, heading to housebound but not quite there yet), and wanted it back in his operating territory.

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The problem was of course that while he was at his kitchen table making big plans Flight or Fight warned him not to get too uppity, but didn’t give him any real grief since he wasn’t doing anything crazy like trying to walk out the front door. The next afternoon, however, when he steeled himself to make the march, he immediately began experiencing Flight or Fight.

Before he headed out for his Comfort Zone push he returned to his journal work around his fearful thinking (something he had been avoiding for months) and reviewed with himself the fears that had made him housebound in the first place. In Marcus’ case it was very much about his fears of being unable to support himself financially or relationally (never mind that he had earned the money before he became housebound to buy and support a house, or that he had a cadre of people that loved and admired him.)

He spent some time unpacking/challenging that thinking (and came to realize he had been avoiding this work because of Flight or Fight firing up when he was working on it, like it did again that afternoon.)

That started again as he got his shoes on. First there was a heave in his stomach. Those heaves frighten him, so he sat for a few minutes, hoping it would calm down. They did, some, but when he got up to head out of the house (literally the first time in years) he suddenly felt that terrible sense of hopelessness, what he describes as the world going dark. He just wanted to RUN back to his couch –

And in fact he did. The gloom didn’t easy right away (and in fact he got pretty anxious – his stomach started to seriously churn given how much the gloom scares him) but after sitting for a couple of minutes he decided to get up anyway and try again. He pushed all the way out of the house, down through his front yard and got to the gate.

That was as far as he got that day. But even though Flight or Fight really freaked out that day (giving him an upset stomach all that afternoon, and doom and gloom hitting him hard) he focused on the fact that he had never been in danger, that there WAS no danger, just his fears of leaving the house amplified by Flight or Fight.

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So he tried again that night. And the next morning. And the next afternoon. By day 3 he reached the sidewalk and even got part-way across the street. That day he was making dinner and suddenly had the despair show up – seemingly out of nowhere. It freaked him out until he remembered that he was likely to have “aftershocks” doing this work. He powered through his meal, his fears trying very hard to find something to worry about because of his nausea and his gloom/doom feelings.

Those feelings didn’t go away – he was after all challenging the fearful thinking and reacting of years and years, and NOT backing off – but when he got up the next morning he realized that he was caring less about them – even though they still upset him. So he stayed with it.

It was three weeks before he reached the park. Oddly enough (he said ironically) he found that once he reached the park he could continue all the way to the store another block down the street!

Let’s Review

Flight or Fight isn’t dangerous. But we are both freaked out about it when it fires up because it FEELS like something scary is happening, and because we didn’t understand what was happening when this began we taught ourselves to back away, flee from the messages of Flight or Fight.

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We HAVE to stop fleeing. We’re running away from fire alarms when there is no fire. We’re reacting to the habits of years. Yes, it FEELS scary. It IS hard, especially at the beginning. But the work is done in small steps, and the work happens across time, and the only way out is through –

As some wise people have said we have to learn to get comfortable (to some extent) with being uncomfortable. Discomfort is one of the keys to breaking free of anxiety. Comfort hasn’t been helping us – it has in fact been busy building the walls of our self-constructed prison.

Tired of being a prisoner? You just have to start knocking down some Flight or Fight walls…

Fear sucks. It has a terrible way of taking over our lives, despite our best efforts. We try taking medications, doing meditations, exercising, seeking out yet another possible physical cause, diverting our thinking, working with therapists, eating smarter, taking various homeopathic treatments, doing yoga – and it still seems to take over more and more of our attention, thinking and energy.

Some of us are new to this anxiety work – we didn’t really realize we were dealing with anxiety as an issue in our lives until recently. Some of us have been at war with our fears for years, even decades, and feel like we SHOULD be further along, be less fearful now, as some indication of all the work we’ve done.

Still others among us have fought fear on and off – perhaps finding relief with medications for a while, or mysteriously (and wonderfully, we think) the anxiety has eased off – only to have it come back full force again.

Wherever we are in the struggle it is nothing short of debilitating to think that we are doomed to fight anxiety for the rest of our lives – that there will NEVER be any relief from this awful loss of freedom and real living.

But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We are NOT doomed to fight anxiety. Anxiety is an acquired condition – something we learned along the path of figuring out how to deal with the world we lived in. We almost certainly learned it early. We also learned without realizing we HAD learned – which makes the work a little more challenging.

Here’s a hopeful truth: anything we learn we can learn differently. We can change how we think – which is the heart of dealing with anxiety.

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There is, However, One Fence We Have to Get Over –

And that’s the fence that seriously amplifies our reluctance to tackle our fearful thinking – the metaphoric walls of what Peter McWilliams calls the Comfort Zone. Those walls are the creation of years of flinching back from the reactions of Flight or Fight to our anxious thoughts.

One of the things that we learned early is that when anxiety/fear/worry reared its ugly head we also experienced some very uncomfortable sensations and emotions. Those sensations and emotions were strong, and seemed to signal that we were in serious trouble – even danger. Not knowing any better we sought a way to make those sensations and feelings go away.

The moment we found a way to do that a Comfort Zone wall was born for us. Unaware of the lesson we were teaching ourselves we quickly began getting away from those feelings and sensations whenever they occurred. In practice that meant two basic things: 1) avoiding the anxious thinking that caused Flight or Fight to fire up in the first place and 2) avoiding situations or contexts where we had experienced Flight or Fight.

And this is how chronic anxiety creeps into our lives, day by day, month by month, year by year, until we find ourselves, gradually or suddenly, realizing that we have been flinching back from our life experiences for a long time – and that we’re in trouble. We start to realize that the behavior that had kept us from feeling uncomfortable is now starting to strangle our lives.

Just in case it isn’t clear so far, the Comfort Zone isn’t a real, physical world thing – it is a learned response to the reactions of Flight or Fight. Having said that it has VERY real power in our lives!

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Part of that power is the sheer habit of moving away from things that make us uncomfortable. (More about that later.) Part of that power is the strength of Flight or Fight – the urgency and the “realness” of how Flight or Fight feels when it is activated.

And part of that power is our ignorance of the entire mechanism of Flight or Fight. We didn’t know what was going on when we first began retreating – we just retreated.

Flight or Fight scared us (just like our anxious, largely or totally unconscious anxious thinking scared us) so we backed off. That retreating, coupled with our desperation to get away from the fear and worry in our thinking, pushed all of our reaction out of conscious awareness as well.

So let’s riff for a moment on all the ways that Flight or Fight activates in our bodies and brains, with the goal of seeing ALL of Flight or Fight’s variety as simply one thing: an alarm system that is activating in response to scared thinking, and nothing more.

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All the Flavors of Flight or Fight

This is probably review for a number of you, but it’s worth discussing again, both for those of you who are new to this work and for those of us who are very, very tempted to find something scary or “true” in a new or unfamiliar Flight or Fight sensation. First are the physical reactions:

Increased heartbeat/slowed heartbeat
Heart skipping a beat, repeatedly skipping beats
Heart beating more intensely
Blood pressure goes up/goes way up/blood pressure drops
Shallow breathing/rapid breathing
Tightness in chest/chest feels squeezed
Hard to take a deep breath/feel unable to do so
Ringing in ears
Nausea/upset stomach/butterflies in stomach/vomiting
Dry or “cotton” mouth/difficulty swallowing
Sweating/cold sweat
Feeling “shocky”/feeling chilled/very cold
Tingling in fingers or toes
Numbness, partial or whole body
Blushing/flush response/face feeling warm
Muscle tightness/muscle soreness
Fainting/feeling about to faint
Hyper-sensitive to light, sounds, noise
Edgy/hyper/ants in pants/feeling the need to flee

Next up are the various emotional responses to anxiety, which of course includes:

Despair/sense of doom/depression
Nervous laughter

And, finally, we have a host of mental reactions to anxiety:

Feeling detached from our bodies/dissociation
Difficulty remembering
Difficulty organizing conversation
Difficulty focusing in general
Hyper-awareness/constant vigilance for danger
Obsessive thinking and behavior

Holy crap – that’s a lot of stuff that happens when we activate Flight or Fight. In addition it’s important to know that we’re usually not conscious of ALL of these happening when we’re anxious, even though some or all may in fact BE happening.

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The real question is which ones have we focused on, which ones scare us, which ones hold us back or frighten us away from challenging our anxious thinking and changing our behavior? One of the 4 basic steps of this Fear Mastery approach is getting clear on both which Flight or Fight reactions really trouble or scare us, then deliberately beginning to retrain ourselves on just how meaningless and NNO dangerous they really are.

I wrote a post in January of this year HERE about how Flight or Fight (when we’re dealing with problems, not real danger) is very much like a malfunctioning fire alarm. When someone pulls a fire alarm and there is no fire, well, then we’re not in danger. But we learn early and hard that when we hear a fire alarm is MUST mean danger, so we have a hard time just dismissing the alarm and going about our business.

Ramp that up two or three orders of magnitude and it is the exact same thing when it comes to Flight or Fight reacting to our thinking…

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Putting it Together

So I’ve said in this post so far that we, if we want to break anxiety’s hold in our lives, have to confront the thinking that is the source of our anxiety in the first place.

That means confronting the Comfort Zone walls we’ve created to keep us away from the scary thinking that frightens us in the first place, and THAT includes confronting the foundation of those walls, the Flight or Fight reactions that fire up in response to that thinking (and which has come to be scary to us as well.)

That means this work comes down to getting OK, to some extent, with being uncomfortable – even very uncomfortable – as we do this work. We have a couple of layers of discomfort to face down and move through: 1) the Comfort Zone boundaries we’ve been busy creating, and 2) confronting the original thinking that made us anxious in the first place.

Wait a second – didn’t I just say the same thing twice? Yes – but I did so because it is really two layers of fear that we must be clear are driving our anxiety. It isn’t enough to JUST confront our Comfort Zone walls.

We can do that all day long – but if we are not also addressing the anxious thinking that created and sustains those walls, well, it’s like walking into an electric fence again and again – you might be trying very bravely to face your fears, but you won’t change much about the “zaps” you’re getting as you do so…

And, of course, if you confront that thinking but don’t unlearn your fears of your Comfort Zone boundaries, well, it’s going to be hard, even damn hard, to stand and deal with that thinking (unpack it, get it converted back from the crisis we’ve made it to the problem, or less than a problem even, that it actually is) long enough to be effective.

In my next post I’m going to give very specific examples of how this work looks. In the meantime , if you haven’t already, work to get very clear on where Flight or Fight rules your life (what specific sensations and feelings make you flinch back) and, if you haven’t already, start your own list of potential fearful thoughts that keep you anxious. (Those will but are NOT limited to fearful thoughts about Flight or Fight never stopping, always making your life miserable, etc. They are contributors, no doubt – but they didn’t start this spiral.)

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Anxiety sucks. I’m guessing that isn’t news to most of my readers. 🙂 This is on my mind today because of some reading I’m doing in a completely brilliant book that I wish someone had given me 30 years ago. The title is “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow”, by Marsha Sinetar. And no, this book isn’t about how to make a zillion dollars by weaving baskets or creating your own start-up company. It is however very much about a little thing called self-confidence…

And that’s why I say that anxiety sucks. Because nothing is quite so self-confidence draining as anxiety. I don’t have many things I’m angry about in my past anymore (after a lot of work over a lot of time), but I can still conjure some real frustration at how much of my life was spent second-guessing and doubting myself. And most of that self-doubt came from my fiercely anxious thinking.

It is my conviction that as we work to overcome anxiety’s grip in our lives we have to learn to start trusting ourselves. That’s very much easier said than done, but it is an essential part of the work. We have to start learning to listen to ourselves, care for ourselves, take some thoughtful risks about living our lives and begin to take ourselves and our abilities/capacities seriously.

The Corrosive Nature of Anxiety on Our Self-Confidence

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Ms. Sinetar, the author of the book I mentioned above, talks about some very interesting things around this notion of self-confidence. One thing that strikes me is how one element of self-confidence is the ability to take smart, measured risks in the direction of our self-care/chasing down what we want from our lives.

If I had read that sentence 18 years ago I would have laughed out loud! I can tell you that back when I was 35 the LAST thing I was going to do was take any risks. The world seemed scary enough already. I was all but house-bound, trapped (I thought) in a double-wide trailer in one of the less-than-attractive parts of Reno, Nevada, cut off from most of my friends (again, my doing), making just enough to make ends meet, convinced my world would never be any bigger than it was and terrified of even that much of a world shrinking further still…

But one of the first lessons I HAD to learn in those early days of facing into my fears was that I had to do precisely what my Comfort Zone was screaming at me NOT to do – namely, take some small risks. I had to learn to push back on the walls of my safety if I was to have any hope of breaking free of them. I had to start taking some chances on ME –

More about that in a minute. What I didn’t get at the time was that I was profoundly self-doubting, profoundly unsure of myself or my abilities, and that self-doubt only fed my anxiety further. How do we get to such an ugly place?

That’s simple. We learned, early on (we who fight anxiety) to step back rather than step forward. We learned to flinch away from anything that seemed risky or scary to us, instead of taking a breath, looking clearly at the issue in front of us, and then exploring ways to face it down and deal with it. I know I had learned to automatically aim for safety, the known and the secure, and to steer like mad away from doing anything uncomfortable or new.

So, oddly enough, my self-confidence withered, and I found myself back against the wall of a double-wide trailer in one of the less-than-attractive parts of Reno, Nevada…

I Was Stronger, Smarter and More Capable Than I Knew

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So there I was, 35, terrified, flinching away from anything that would make me dizzy, or induce numbness in my hands and arms, or make me the least bit uncomfortable. And I was ANGRY – mad as hell for the walls I had erected around myself. (By this point I had done just enough work to know that it was my own damn fault, these walls.) I KNEW I had to make a move, but I was scared to death to make any moves…

Finally I decided I didn’t have much to lose. Life couldn’t get a whole lot smaller, and I was deeply afraid of my life staying stuck. So I started with some small moves (which, by the way, Ms. Sinetar loves – the taking of small steps in the direction of strengthening self-confidence.) I started taking walks down by the river I lived near and worked near, even though I HATED the tightness in my chest that started (brand-new symptom, thank you Flight or Fight!) from the very first day of those walks.

I kept at those walks, partly because I started to learn that for brief moments I would get distracted and the tightness in my chest would EASE… hmmm. It was infuriating that it didn’t just go away, but I was learning something from my risky river walks. I also liked how I felt physically at the end of those walks, even though I still just wanted to go back to my tiny trailer and sit in my safe chair.

I didn’t get better fast enough (for me). Let’s say that for the official record. It seemed to take forever. I had bad days, terrible days where I second and third-guessed myself. I FELT like I was a failure, and that all my work was just a waste of time.

But that wasn’t the whole truth. Because as I continued slogging down to the river, and began to take other small risks (like going back to the store where I had my big shopping panic attack, or back to the gym where I had a panic attack in the middle of a workout) I began to also have better days. Not the whole day, mind you – but parts of the day were better.

I was beginning to realize that I HAD to take some small chances – and I was beginning to realize that I was slowly building my self-confidence.

The Comfort Zone is WRONG

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I also learned that I couldn’t tackle everything at once. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post, but the summary statement here is that I wanted ALL of my fears to go away right now. I wanted my life back RIGHT NOW. I wanted to not feel like a failure all the time, like everyone else was getting to live interesting lives and happy lives that I was incapable of having…

Except that I was wrong. More importantly my fearful thinking, the Comfort Zone walls I had built across decades (all unknowing) were wrong. I wasn’t a failure all the time. I was actually a pretty capable, smart, caring, hard-working guy. I wasn’t living a terrible life, even though anxiety was trying to suck the life out of me. I had good friends (people who, once I came clean with them, really did want to help and support me.) I had skills, and abilities, and stubbornness, and a will of iron when I wanted to…

In other words, my fears (and the attendant Flight or Fight reactions that helped amplify those fears) were bullshit. I wasn’t trapped, I was able to get up and make my life happen, and although it wasn’t easy or instant, it was within my reach.

And that begin to do a LOT for building my self-confidence.

One of the risks of listening too much to our Comfort Zone is that we’ll find ourselves assuming that it is always telling us the truth. And while our evolutionary capacity to deal with danger, Flight or Fight, is a GREAT system when it comes to actual real danger, it is a terrible guide, teacher and advisor when it comes to anything else.

The Comfort Zone really doesn’t know what to do with problems. It evolved for crises. Which means that when we make a problem into a crisis in our thinking we’re actively under-cutting our ability to deal with it well.

Self-Confidence is a Muscle We Can All Make Bigger

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When I look back across the years since my overcoming chronic anxiety (now 1995, still amazing to me) I see how long I, ever after getting free of panic attacks and depression, still lived my life tentatively, nervously, was still afraid of pushing back too hard on my Comfort Zone/fears.

I wish someone had said “hey Erik: you are more capable than you let yourself believe. You have demonstrated how tough and determined you are. You have torn a hole in the old belief that anxiety is something to run away from. So lean in a little harder. Take some chances. Try new things. Go do some things that are somewhat scary to you. Keep expanding those Comfort Zone walls. You are not trapped, whatever your fears tell you.”

Nobody did. But I can say it to myself now – and I can say it to you. All that traps us the belief that we are trapped (with a little help from our Flight or Fight responses.) So please, reread that last paragraph. Your self-confidence is something YOU can build up and strengthen. And that in turn will help you do more, be less afraid, get more of your life back.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how anxiety, fear and depression make us feel. One of the things we feel when we fight all of these is SUCKED DRY. We feel like doing NOTHING.

The days can turn to grey, our energy seems like it is taking a long vacation someplace, and even when our rational mind says we should be up and trying to do something, our bodies seem to take control, and we stay in the chair, on the couch, in the bed, feeling stuck and tired and defeated.

I know that feeling. It dogged me for years and years, took away time that I am sorry I lost, made me think of myself as lazy, weak and helpless. That’s a crappy way to feel, as I suspect you already know –

One immediate thing to say is that this can be a big clue that you are fighting depression. And depression springs from anxiety that has begun to give up (or has given up.) But it isn’t sufficient to stop at depression. Depression is, at least at the start, a RESPONSE to our anxiety.

Which means we need to sort out why we are giving up, feeling like it is all pointless. Understanding what is behind that feeling of who cares, and identifying what we can do about it, can be a good set of weapons against the gray sense of feeling defeated.

We Don’t Get What Feelings MEAN

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The first thing to get a handle on is the nature of feelings. I know I’ve beaten this drum a LOT on this blog, but it’s worth some more discussion, given how poorly most of us understand what drives emotions.

Say it with me: feelings spring from thinking. We learn, somehow, that feelings are these mysterious, rootless, out-of-the-blue creatures that sweep through our life. We learn also that we don’t really have any control of them, these mysterious creatures, and so all we can do is ride them out, endure them, and hope that they get better/happier.

But that isn’t true. Our feelings come from our thinking. Remember that it doesn’t have to be conscious thinking! And it can be a fast and vagrant thought – something triggered from a smell, or something someone says, or even just the time of day.

Feelings are NOT mysterious. They may be, in this present moment, not clearly linked to a specific thought yet in your mind, but they don’t just fall out of the sky. So if they are generated from thoughts then we really do have some control over them – in fact we have a lot more control over them then we commonly understand.

So now let’s make those thoughts fearful thoughts about the future, imagining dark scenarios of what could happen, what disasters are waiting for us out there someplace, or a sense of being trapped. What kinds of feelings will show up? No mystery there, right? We FEEL anxious because we are having anxious thoughts.

Which means when we FEEL like something is pointless it is because we have been making assumptions in our thinking that things are pointless. Here’s the million-dollar question – is our thinking accurate? Because our feelings can only be as accurate as our thinking.

So, for instance, if we have assumed that an activity is pointless then it will FEEL pointless to do it. If we believe that something won’t work for us then we will FEEL that it isn’t useful to us. Just because we are not aware of our thinking, or that it isn’t in the front of our skulls right now, doesn’t change the truth that our feelings are springing from our thinking.

We Are Mammals!

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There’s a second piece about our lethargy that’s insanely simple, yet most of us don’t get it. We’re mammals. Why does that matter? Because adult mammals are creatures that tend to conserve energy whenever they are not working for their survival.

Do you have a zoo near you? Or own a cat or dog? What those adult mammals manage their day. What do they do when they are not eating, or taking care of baby mammals, or amusing you with funny animal tricks? THEY ARE TAKING IT EASY. Dozing, sleeping, sitting down, not doing anything. That’s because mammal biology says save your energy for when you need it.

What happens when you get home from work and you don’t HAVE to do something? Isn’t it often tempting just to plant your butt on the couch or in a chair and stare at the TV? Sure, you’ve passed it off as lazy, selfish, unambitious, whatever – but what you’re are is just being human.

Combine that with depressed or anxious thinking and now it gets VERY easy to just do nothing. For long periods of time. We’re already tired, we don’t really FEEL like doing it, so we (too often) don’t. Except that even small amounts of work on our anxious thinking begins to pay off in large ways in terms of our renewed interest and energy in our lives…

We Carry Insanely High Expectations of Ourselves

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Yet another energy suck that pulls at us down is our absurdly high expectations of ourselves and what we’re supposed to be able to do, manage, accomplish, etc. in our lives on any given day. It seems to be one of the traits of anxiety-fighters to set incredible personal standards of best and good enough, and then be deeply frustrated with ourselves when we don’t measure up to those crazy standards.

(In fact I’ll bet right now a lot of you are living with insane personal standards and feeling badly for even questioning whether or not your personal bars of success are set a smidge too high. Am I right?)

Standards are good. Setting milestones for measuring progress is a great idea. But there’s also a lot of room for setting pragmatic, achievable, rational standards for personal success. And there’s a lot of room for making sure that we are setting standards that work/make sense for US – as opposed to what we think other people want from us.

It is savagely discouraging to consistently fail at our own standards. It becomes very easy to just give up. What’s the point if we can’t get there in the first place? Talk about setting ourselves up to fail!

I still wrestle with this, 16 years on after getting over chronic anxiety and panic attacks, but I’m slowly getting better at this work. Motivation and willingness to try, even when we don’t feel much like it, comes more easily when the goals are at least somewhat possible to attain –

We Can Make a Start – Every Day

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OK, so these are the vampires of our energy when we fight anxiety and depression. What then to do about them?

1) Get clear on what specific thinking is making you anxious in the first place. Do that unpacking work I keep talking about in this blog. Until you’re clear what specific issues you’ve turned into crises in your thinking all the effort and energy in the world to manage your anxiety won’t do you much good.

2) Take small steps. Sorting out anxious thinking just won’t get done in one push (as you’ve heard me say here before.) Do 2 or 3 10-minute sessions a day with your journal or laptop, addressing one or maybe two specific “what if?” thoughts that are generating anxiety for you. Do a little work discounting your Flight or Fight responses when you do that unpacking. Then get on with other parts of your day.

Expect it to take time. You’re acquiring new skillsets, and practice over time will do you a lot more good than a 3-day marathon effort, most of the time.

3) Practice doing #2 above especially when you DON’T feel like doing the work – but only push back for that 10-15 minutes. Don’t plan to spend 45 minutes when you can barely focus for 10. In other words, be both patient and kind with yourself.

4) Enlist the support of other people in the work when you can. Some of us have to fight this fight essentially alone. (And if that’s one of you then by all means send me an email – I’m happy to help and encourage you that way.) But if you have someone who can play cheerleader and encourager, then by all means do so.

It might be as simple as just asking them to check in with you daily to see if you’ve done your anxiety work for the day. It might be someone to go get kudos from when you have done the work. It might be someone to remind you when you just can’t muster any interest in the work why you want to do this work in the first place.

The Price of Liberty is WORK

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That doesn’t mean 24/7/365. It mean steady, patient, consistent work, even when we don’t really feel like it. In a sense we have to take our lives back from our tired, anxious, worried, drained feelings. We have to not let feelings be our only driver – or even slavemaster.

Anxiety isn’t invincible. It’s actually pretty vulnerable to patient work, increasingly clear thinking and a determination to take our lives back from fear and worry. You don’t have to stay drained and tired and defeated – not with a little work.

So this post is a little late for Halloween, but after a couple of coaching conversations around this subject I thought I’d revisit this discussion. It’s time to once again pull the sheet off the scary Comfort Zone and expose it for what it really is –

Here’s the thing: our Comfort Zones will stop at nothing, NOTHING to get us to step back from our fears WHEN we are anxious about them. It can take on (when we’re seeing it through our calm and rational minds) almost comic proportions. There is no blow too low, no thought too wacky, that the Comfort Zone won’t pull it out and throw it at us if it has any chance of getting us to flinch away from facing our fears.

Ooohhh – Scary!

It goes like this: you decide that you want to face into an anxiety/fear that has been holding you back. Let’s say that you’ve been wanting to take on your fear of driving on the highway (a pretty common fear for us anxiety-fighters.) You miss your freedom, you’ve been reading the blog, you realize that you’ve been afraid of what MIGHT happen on the freeway, but you’re ready now to stop letting your fear get in your way.

Bravo! You rock! You make a plan to just get on the freeway for one entry-to-exit trip – just a test drive. You get your car keys, you adjust your sunglasses, you’ve picked a great, slow time of day for freeway traffic, you’re patting yourself on the back for pushing back on your anxiety, and –

Suddenly you hear the voices in your head say “what if THIS time you blow out a tire on the freeway? You’ve worried about this in the past – what if it happens now?”

You feel that little (or big) jolt of adrenaline course through your body, and suddenly you have Flight or Fight responses – heart speeds up, you get sweaty, you get butterflies in your stomach, you pick the responses – and now freeway driving doesn’t sound so smart.

Of course reading this you know what happened – you asked that crazy “what if?” question, and your mind went immediately to the worst possible outcome. You didn’t just blow out a tire on the freeway – you blew out a tire, the car careened completely out of control, you spun three or four times, and you finally ended in a fireball that consumed most of the downtown core of your city. 🙂

Except, of course, that it is highly unlikely that you’re going to blow out a tire on the freeway (unless you’re driving on bald tires – might want to check those first.)

What is most likely is you’ll get up on the freeway, heart pounding, drive to the next exit, get off the highway, and presto! You’ll have confronted a fear. You’ll be a little rattled, you’ll be a little agitated, and you’ll also have just done some nice expansion work on your Comfort Zone restrictions.

That Didn’t Work? OK, How About THIS Scary Thought?

So let’s say you worked through the blown tire scenario. You shook your head, you took a deep breath, and you said “forget blown tires. My tires are fine. I’m getting on that freeway.” You climb in the car, start the engine, put your seatbelt on, and you notice it is getting cloudy.

Suddenly you hear your brain shout “hey! What if starts to rain when we’re on the freeway? THAT can’t be good! Let’s go back inside and wait until the sky is completely cloud-free, THEN we’ll try driving on that nutty freeway.”

That sounds like great advice in that moment, since your heart is pounding again and you’re getting that warm feeling in your face and hands and… wait a minute. It isn’t even raining yet.

And who says that the freeway will become a death trap if it starts to sprinkle? Sure, if the heavens open and it’s raining an inch of water a minute you might be smart to pull off, but…

And once again the Comfort Zone shows it has NO shame whatsoever, desperate to keep you safe from that nightmare – wait, correction, no big deal – freeway. Of course it has no shame. It has the single mission of keeping you away from whatever scares you. Except that the fear of freeways is nothing we developed in nature –

Are you REALLY Sure You Want to Do This?

OK. You’ve muscled your way past two Comfort Zone pushbacks, you’re pulling out of the driveway, and while you’re feeling somewhat anxious (or even a lot anxious) you’re reminding yourself that those reactions are natural, you’re just experiencing Flight or Fight responses and they don’t mean anything.

You get down the street, you make the light, you’re heading towards the freeway, and then it hits you – you didn’t call your boss back this morning like you said. Or you forgot to feed the dog. Or you might have left the iron on, or the stove on, or the milk out of the fridge… and you feel the overwhelming desire to go home RIGHT NOW.

Only now you’re getting a little suspicious. Why can’t any of these things wait 5 minutes? You’re only zipping up and off the freeway for a little anti-anxiety practice.

Nobody is going to die, right? But your Comfort Zone is shouting at you that you really SHOULD go home first, feed the dog, call your boss, make SURE that iron is off – THEN you can do this crazy/dangerous/foolhardy freeway thing.

Isn’t it remarkable? We can find almost any reason to not take on our fears. You shake your head again – you’re almost at the freeway on-ramp – and you decide you’re going for it. One last burst of adrenaline hits you, you head up that ramp, and voila! You’re on the freeway!

Whoo-hooo! You cruise along and before you know it you’re at the next exit. You cruise off that freeway, and your Comfort Zone is strangely quiet –

For about a minute. Then it starts with “well, that went OK I guess – good thing nothing bad happened THIS time. We shouldn’t do too much of that though – what if something bad DID happen…”

Fear Does Not Have to Run Our Lives

Any of this seem familiar to you? Of course it does. We anxiety fighters hear this stuff in our heads every day. That’s why it is important to remember that your Comfort Zone, your history of being afraid, will work very hard to keep you from pushing your own boundaries – as long as you’re afraid of something, the Comfort Zone will work to keep you away from it.

This is why confronting our fears is so useful to us. The moment you move through a fearful experience and manage it, whatever happens, that’s the moment your Comfort Zone starts to get that this thing isn’t as scary as you were thinking. It will probably take more than one exposure or practice session (although sometimes just one confrontation is enough to make this work.)

What fear could you confront today, even in a small way? What would you like to do that you’re not feeling comfortable doing? What dire warnings is the Comfort Zone shouting at you right now as you read this? All of that is useful information to knowing what you need to do next.

Wrestling tigers naked – probably a bad idea. Listen to your Comfort Zone if you’re thinking about doing this. 🙂 Driving on the freeway for the purpose of getting your freedom back – that’s a good idea, if those tires are looking OK. Go for it. You have nothing to lose but your fear…

Hope you’re not getting tired of this methodical discussion of when we turn problems into crises. I’m very determined to help communicate both how often we do this and in all the different ways we can do this…

Let’s see – we’ve discussed tires, earthquakes, lentils – what are the other possibilities?

We Have a Wide Variety of Choices…

Here are a series of questions to prompt your own thinking of where you might turn a problem into a crisis. It is key here to remember that NONE of these are crises in the Flight or Fight sense – none of them can eat your face off or destroy you immediately. These are problems, and will usually only get solved if they are treated AS problems:

Partners/Spouses/Significant Others: What if I make them upset? What if I disappoint them? What if they don’t like what I’m doing? What if they disapprove of what I’m doing, or even thinking of doing? What if I wind up alone/lose my partner?

On the other side of this coin – what if I never find anyone? What if I’m alone for the rest of my life? What if I can never have a family? What if I’m not pretty/handsome/thin/tall/etc. enough for someone else to find me attractive?

Work: What if I lose my job? What if I piss off my boss? What if a co-worker doesn’t like me? What if a client/vendor/customer gets mad at me? What if I make a mistake? What if I make a BIG mistake?

What if I can’t find another job/what if this is the only job anyone will EVER hire me for? What if I’m too old to get another job? What if I’m too young/too inexperienced to get another job? What if I’ll never have interesting work?

Money: What if I run out of money? (See work above.) What if I can’t support myself? What if I wind up on the streets/homeless/trapped? (See Partners/etc. above.) What if I have to live on welfare/the support of family and friends?

What if I can never buy a house/nicer car/go on vacation someplace exotic? What if I can’t afford to buy classy clothes? What if I’m JUST NOT COOL if I don’t have the money to buy/have/own this or that?

Success: What if I never reach my career goals? What if I’m stuck in a job I hate? (See work above.) What if my friends see me as a failure? What if I see myself as a failure? What if I never get that degree in school? What if I fail the expectations of my parents/significant other/co-workers/total strangers?

We Need to Re-think Our Thinking

Re-program is another great term for this discussion. The basic premise of this model of fear and anxiety is that the problem lies in our THINKING. This runs counter to how it FEELS, but that’s the origin of our embedded fears and worries, and that is where the effective work to unplug fear gets done.

This work means TAKING ON YOUR FEARS. In case you hadn’t noticed this can be a serious piece of work! We spend years, even decades, telling ourselves (and programming our Comfort Zones) that this or that problem-converted-to-crisis is just TOO scary or hard to face.

It is to be expected that when we make the decision, even flirt with that decision, that our Comfort Zones will flare up and make it clear that this isn’t anything you want to do, EVER. That’s alright. It’s just doing its job of trying to keep us safe…

In my last post I talked about the practice of seeing thinking as the root of anxiety and fear – something most of us either never learned, or have a hard time believing even when we hear it. It is crucial that we get that piece in place – everything else that needs to get done depends on this understanding.

Bring Us to DEFCON 5!

One more thing before I leave these examples behind. Flight or Fight runs deep in us – all it takes is for us to think a fearful thought (i.e., something we’ve told ourselves is scary or frightening) and we’ll activate that response system to some degree.

When you start examining your problems-converted-to-crises you’re bound to make your Comfort Zone scratchy – and activate Flight or Fight. Expect it. Prepare for it. Use the tools for relaxing and powering down I’ve described in this blog. Expect pushback from your Comfort Zone. Expect to be anywhere from uncomfortable to really anxious.

And allow this process to take a little time. You didn’t embed these fears overnight, and (as I seem to repeat here on a regular basis) it WILL take time to sort out and unpack.

One last thing to remember: because you’ll be bumping up against your Comfort Zone you’ll suddenly find all kinds of reasons to delay or stall or avoid this work. The room will need dusting, the laundry really wants your attention, you could just watch a little TV and do this later… etc. You know the drill.

By all means, take care of yourself. Just remember that taking care of yourself, ultimately, in this context, means unpacking the problems you’ve converted to crises – and converting them back to problems.

Next Up

I’m pressing on in the next several blog posts to the next skill needed to deal with anxiety effectively – learning to “discount” the physical and emotional responses of Flight or Fight that can scare us and shut us down. This for many of us is at least as scary as the problems-made-crises in our thinking.

Here’s the great news: this isn’t nearly as hard as our fears would have us believe. Don’t take my word for that (in fact don’t take my word for ANY of this material – try it out for yourself and find out!) The work itself will demonstrate what works…

So how is that Comfort Zone construction work coming along? 🙂 Got some great emails and a couple of comments in the last week – thank you all. Kudos to the Fear-Buster here who two weeks ago faced into her fear of writing query letters for articles she wants to write – that was a real victory because it scared the crap out of her!

And kudos to the Fear-Buster who did some fear-unplugging and finds herself leaving the house for the first time in 9 months. Can’t say it enough – well done. I know you’re not feeling out of the woods yet, but you’re doing the exact right work to get there, and already you know enough that your anxiety can’t run the show anymore.

These successes come at a great time for me as I work on these blog posts. I’m talking today about how, however much our Flight or Fight Response wants to scare the snot out of us when we challenge our Comfort Zone boundaries, it just can’t hurt us…

The Comfort Zone Isn’t Dangerous!

I wish in some respects I could just end the post with that sentence! The truth is however most of us have learned to have a way-more-than-healthy respect for our Comfort Zone walls. But here’s the bottom line: our Comfort Zones can’t hurt us. Stronger: our Comfort Zones WON’T hurt us.

Yes, those boundaries scare us. No doubt about that. But fix this in your thinking to get free of your anxiety: we can’t get hurt, however much our bodies and feelings scare us, by challenging our THINKING.

And that’s all this work is about, really. Sure, that can entail eventually DOING something physical that worries or scares us – leaving the house, for instance, when we’ve been afraid to go out, or going to the store when we had a big panic attack there once.

But here’s the big news – we only HAD that being-housebound problem or that panic attack in the store BECAUSE of our thinking.

You And This Thinking Thing!

If you’ve been reading this blog you know this is the center of all this work – identifying what is rattling our cages in our thoughts and assumptions, then facing into those thoughts and converting them back to problems (issues you can address and solve over time) from crises (holy crap, this is terrible, I have to run NOW).

Combine that with two things – first, as I said in my last post, the Comfort Zone needs some serious persuading before it will back away, and second, that the Comfort Zone tends to spasm or convulse when we push on it – and there’s no doubt that the work is hard, unnerving, something we’d rather not do.

But that’s just the point: we’ve spent years, even decades telling ourselves this or that topic is just too scary to face down or deal with. Why in the world would our Comfort Zones just step aside and say “sure Chief! Whatever you say!” We have fed so much energy and concern to our boundaries that it WILL TAKE SOME WORK AND TIME to get them moved.

And Speaking of Spasms…

The other issue we need to get comfortable with in this challenging of our fears is the spasm-like response our Comfort Zones seem to have when we push on them. This is one of the things I REALLY wish someone had been able to tell me when I was doing my own confronting of my anxiety –

In case it isn’t clear from my writing here, I was a MESS in the winter/spring of 1995. I was deeply anxious and afraid – so much so that when I first met with a therapist I told him frankly that I was ready to end my life – I just couldn’t do any more of this fear thing.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog he gave me some very basic, temporary tools to help give me a little breathing space, and I’ve discussed those tools here in the blog as well. But when we began the trial-and-error work of taking on my fearful thinking I was completely unprepared for how much my Comfort Zone would convulse after I had done some of that confronting work.

I would be sitting watching TV, or playing a computer game, or taking a walk, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with anxiety… All of my Worry Engine and Indefinite Negative Future thinking would crash in on my brain… I would feel dizzy, my heart would start to race, and all I wanted to do was MAKE IT STOP. And I wasn’t even doing any fear confronting in that moment!

Muscles Get Sore When You Use Them

It would have helped so much if someone had simply said “hey Erik – this is normal. You are challenging your fearful thinking, and the boundaries that have mostly kept that from your thinking are shook up (metaphorically) that you’re taking them on. They’re giving you grief. It’s OK. Just means you’re moving in the right direction.”

It would have helped because it would have made it much less mysterious. The mystery had me thinking maybe I couldn’t do this work, maybe I was doing it wrong, maybe something terrible WOULD happen if I kept at this… you know the thinking, right?

Our bodies ache when we use them. And they REALLY ache when we haven’t used them in a while. We even get cramps and spasms, yes? Good metaphor to use when we push on our Comfort Zones.

Steady As She Goes…

I know it gets tedious, scary, exhausting sometimes when we wrestle with our fears. Hell, it happens most of the time. But we can either be exhausted and scared and not do anything (because our fears and worries are still with us) or we can be exhausted and scared and know we’re getting someplace.

What would you prefer? Dumb question, right? (Remember, I’m asking YOU – not your Comfort Zone. We know what THAT would prefer…)

Next up here at the blog – a clean, concise list of the basics you need to bust out of your fear, or the skill set needed to do the Fear-Busting work (what I call Triad Work) effectively.

In the meantime, all the patience, stamina and self-care in the world to you as you think about or engage in confronting and unplugging your fears and anxieties. May today find you taking excellent care of yourself, and being very patient with yourself.

Here’s the simple focus of this blog post: our Comfort Zones are really our servants, not our masters. More specifically, our Comfort Zones respond to pressure – from the INSIDE, not just the outside.

This is the part of the blog post where you should be up dancing for joy, cheering and throwing confetti. Really! Most of us have given away WAY too much lifespan to letting our Comfort Zone (our fears and worries) call the shots in our lives. Yes?

We don’t have to do that anymore. We have the Comfort Zone’s number now – we get how it works, and we get why we run away from our fears. We have the tools and the power to take our lives back from the Comfort Zone.

And besides – the Comfort Zone isn’t to blame anyway. WE told it that this or that problem was really a crisis, and that it was way too scary to have to face. So it just did what it evolved to do – it started being the sheepdog for us, keeping us away from the wolf of our fears.

Thank you Comfort Zone. Job well done. But there isn’t really a wolf out there, you see. No tigers here. In our fear we’ve let you get WAY too small, and WAY to constrictive. We’re tired of being jerked around like puppets because we’re not conscious of our fears and worries. We want control back in our hands.

Pushing Back on The Comfort Zone – A Construction Project

Here’s an example from my own life. I may have mentioned that when people began telling me that it would be smart to start doing video blog posts I was a little leery of the whole idea. I’m not exactly Brad Pitt or anything, I often talk too fast when I get enthusiastic, and I don’t have access to a film studio or anything…

Hear the Comfort Zone already making its move? The truth was I was anxious about the idea of making videos of myself, so my defense went up and I just avoided the whole thing.

I was also very unsure of myself around video equipment – thought I’d have to learn a lot of technical stuff about light and sound and stuff, and wasn’t confident I could do that well enough to do good work.

But people continued to mention this, and as I read about other blogs and what worked for different kinds of readers I knew I needed to face this little monster down.

The funny thing about this subject is that I’m REALLY interested in learning how to make/create movies. Can’t really be afraid of cameras and do that, right? And I mean who cares if I’m not Brad Pitt? Even Brad Pitt has bad hair days! 🙂

So I started goofing around with the flipcam I’ve had for almost a year. And guess what? It was pretty remarkable. Just making one video proved to challenge my Comfort Zone, and the next time I got in front of the camera it was easier.

The Comfort Zone Needs Persuading…

That isn’t to say that my Comfort Zone just stepped aside and said “whatever you say boss – you’re in charge.” Hardly! Nope, I created that first video and thought I was becoming Cecile B. DeMille, but when I made my second video I was still pretty raw in the lighting department, and people told me hey Erik, nice video and everything, but it would be good if we could SEE you. 🙂

Immediately my Comfort Zone said “you see? You’re not very good at this, and you’ve already upset some people. Let’s just go back to that nice safe writing stuff – MUCH better, and you’re less likely to be criticized.” Amazing, isn’t it?

So I had to keep pushing. You probably know the way this works. I would plan to take the flipcam downstairs to the TV room or the kitchen – maybe right after lunch. Then I’d finish lunch and I’d find myself listing reasons why today wasn’t the best day to make a video.

I need to wash this particular shirt first
I should probably finish my invoices for my consulting work first – money is more important
I’d be more relaxed if I hit the gym first – yeah, let’s do the gym, THEN the video
Maybe I should just skip the video this time…

My Comfort Zone wasn’t persuaded – not yet.

So I Just Went Ahead and Made The Stinkin’ Video!

And I kept at it. I shake my head (now with a dozen or so videos under my belt and me about to hit Fry’s to look for the next generation Flipcam) how much I fought this. But that’s the way the Comfort Zone rolls – it needs to be SURE you really want to face this scary thing. One push wasn’t going to be enough – I was going to have to push and push again.

But the pushing doesn’t take forever. In fact I moved through this relatively small to mid-sized worry in about 3 weeks – and that might have been 6-7 hours of work over that time. Not much to have gained this particular amount of freedom in my life/thinking/behavior.

Where would You like to push back on your Comfort Zone? Where would you like to stop being afraid of your Flight or Fight Responses, or at least diminish your fear of those warning signals?

Remember – the energy cost to maintain the Comfort Zone walls isn’t any greater than it is to challenge them and move them back – and in fact in a short amount of time you’ll be spending WAY less energy challenging them than in maintaining them.

To review: The Comfort Zone, however much it is trying to shut down or restrict your life at the moment, will respond to pressure to move back. Looking for a little extra room? Here’s the great part – you can be your own contractor – you can move that wall yourself.

This takes time, energy and a willingness to look under the bed for the monster you’re afraid might be there – but you are more than a match for all of that. Yes, you can expect some pushback in the form of Flight or Fight Responses, and we all know those can be scary.

But that’s precisely the point of this discussion. It’s only scary because we’re AFRAID of it – not because there is necessarily anything actually dangerous going on. The Comfort Zone is in our heads – and we can confront it and push it back there as well.

I have been listing out over the last few weeks the various qualities of the Comfort Zone that make it very difficult, energy-draining and time-consuming (as a general rule) to face into and unplug the fears that trouble us. The Comfort Zone is restrictive, constrictive, mostly unconscious on our part and is evasive as hell when we try to come to grips with it.

There is one more tedious challenge with our Comfort Zone fears. It is expensive (i.e., it takes a LOT of energy) to maintain those walls we create to defend ourselves against the fears and worries we seek to block from our thinking!

It’s Like Having a Hole in Your Checking Account…

Perhaps the hardest thing to get people to understand about the price we pay for running from the things that scare us is the sheer physical, mental and emotional cost that we pay in that running.

Part of the challenge is that it isn’t immediately apparent that we’re paying any price at all. At the start it really feels safer, smarter and less challenging to just avoid the issues that frighten or worry us.

But as the days turn into weeks, and months, and even years, we begin to feel the drain. It takes real physical energy to keep those fears at bay, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

It is one thing to drive a topic or problem (that we’ve turned into a crisis in our thinking) from our CONSCIOUS thought. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not still dealing with it, in some way, somewhere in our brains.

Let me say that again: we can, to some extent, wall away our fears. Everyone reading this blog has had practice and some success doing that!

But that practice and success comes at a price – an energy price. And just like running the heat in your house during the winter costs you every minute you do it, you are paying a steady cost in physical and mental energy maintaining those Comfort Zone walls.

And It Isn’t Like We Live In a Cave or Anything…

We are not the only problem with this maintaining our Comfort Zone walls. We can’t escape the world, right?

We run the risk of having someone or something or some situation remind us of the challenge or issue we’re avoiding, and then we have to work hard and energetically to get that thing buried again, out of our conscious attention.

If you’ll remember the example of my friend’s Dad from the last blog post, the guy who was working 24/7 to avoid seeing or even thinking about seeing his doctor, the confrontation with his daughter about his health was a good example of this Comfort Zone issue.

When my friend, his daughter, asked about his next doctor visit it was a four-alarm fire in his skull! He had to work hard and energetically to shut down that conversation.

How often during the regular day are any of us having to divert energy to keeping our fears at bay?

What Is The Definition of Insanity Again?

There are days I wish we had a meter stuck to our foreheads that showed the minute-to-minute energy drain of supporting our Comfort Zone. I think most of us would be horrified. We are suffering an on-going energy suck, a drain on our physical and mental resources, every moment we wall away a fear.

It is like someone is constantly making withdrawals on our personal checking account – we think we have enough money, only to hit the ATM and discover we’re way under-funded.

And it just keeps happening… (thankfully that’s only a hypothetical example for myself – I have always been an excellent money manager… no, really…)

Of course nobody does any of this deliberately. We don’t set out to bleed ourselves dry by avoiding our fears, anymore than we seek to restrict our freedom or shut down our lives.

No, we do this all in the name of avoiding fear. It is just that most of us don’t realize the horrific price we’re paying for that avoidance until the damage gets serious…

I Know You’re Going To Tell Us Erik – What Can a Body DO About This Energy Suck?

Well, folks, I’ve already answered that, by writing the four previous posts on the Comfort Zone. The answer is we have to challenge those walls.

Because here’s the news I’ve been writing this post to tell you: the energy cost to FACE your fears isn’t any greater than the energy cost to keep your fears away from you. In fact (and please don’t take my word for this) the energy cost is LESS to face your fears than to wall them away.

Let me testify to that again! It takes less to face our fears (energy-wise) than it does to maintain the barriers between us and our anxiety. Yes, it’s SCARIER, initially, to face your fears than to keep running from them – but that’s a temporary situation, and one that steadily diminishes the longer you face into your fears.

Remember – the monster in the closet isn’t really there, or if there is something to be concerned about, it is usually much less scary once we turn and face it than when we’re running from it.

OK – Done With The Bad News

I’m done listing out the qualities of the Comfort Zone that can derail us from living our lives as healthy people. Now I get to talk about the qualities of our Comfort Zone that make all these qualities small potatoes.

Here’s a preview: however much our Comfort Zones want to constrict, restrict, stay out of our conscious thinking and avoid detection, our Comfort Zones are also willing to step back – if we’ll confront them.

We don’t have to live small lives, lives filled with fear (or even just limited by our fears) if we don’t want to…

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