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A friend and coaching client of mine recently asked me to help him face down his fears around a life unlived, and in particular all the time and opportunity lost to his long fight with chronic anxiety. He is angry – very angry – and very, very sad. And, of course, he’s afraid.

(He isn’t the only person who has asked this question in the last few months in my world. He’s just the most recent example.)

He’s afraid that life has passed him by. He’s afraid that he can never have what he wanted in his life. And he’s afraid that whatever he does now it is too late and too little.

Any of that sound familiar to you? Because it sounds damn familiar to me. In the darkest days of my fight with anxiety (days that stretched across decades) I was certain that life had in fact passed me by. I watched friends who seemed to live in eternal sunlight – who found love, created families, started and sustained careers, traveled, LIVED – and felt like an eternal, looking-through-the-impenetrable glass outsider, doomed to only watch, and envy, and never have…

But I was wrong. Yes, I lost a lot of time to anxiety. Yes, there were a lot of sun-lit summer days and autumn afternoons filled with blazing colors that I missed. Yes, the fight was hard, even terrible sometimes, and there’s a lot I didn’t do that I could have done.

I was still wrong. This post is my explanation of why I was wrong – and why my friend is wrong – and why, unless you’ve only 5 minutes from your own life coming to an end, you’re wrong too. I’m going to argue in this post that a huge amount of this worry and anxiety around missing our lives is the very, very common fear of death. Yup, I said it out loud – we’re afraid of dying even though we feel we have yet to really LIVE…

death 1

And by the way, I’m very, very aware of just how scary and touchy this subject is for most of us. I don’t undertake this writing lightly. I also know that too many of us who are in the grip of relentless anxious thinking need a clearer vision of what is really happening to us – and part of that clarity is dealing with our fear of death and the trickled loss of life until that death.

Here we go –

Why I Was Wrong: Reason 1

OK, let’s get what might be for some of you the hardest part out of the way first. Bear with me – it really does get better after this next sentence. It’s even good news, although I’m pretty sure that you won’t see it that way right away. 🙂 Here it is:

We will all die. It’s hard news, I know. It was very hard news to me. I don’t know that anyone is OK with this at the beginning of this work. Maybe it’s just hard to embrace our own mortality in our own thinking.

But that’s exactly what I’m insisting in this blog post that we start to do. I use the word start because it isn’t anything that we can just casually do. It is a kind of journey. I have been forced into this work several times, beginning with my own climb out of anxiety. It was a journey I had to make again these last 2-1/2 years after the loss of my oldest and closest friend, Laura, to cancer, back in July of 2011.

Yet there is an amazing and even life-giving paradox in this acceptance. I’m stealing this next piece straight from the writings of Scott Peck, the guy who wrote “The Road Less Traveled” and “Further Along the Road Less Traveled.” In the second book Dr. Peck tells us that in order to really live – to really engage our lives, stop waiting for something to happen and get up and MAKE something happen – we have to embrace the reality of our own dying.

Death 2

He’s exactly right. I didn’t like it when I first heard it, and I still can’t claim that I’m dancing the dance of joy at the notion of no longer walking this fair planet one day. But I can say that it brings a remarkable sense of freedom. It is a freedom from, to some extent, anxiety. Because if we’re going to die (and we are, all of us, sooner or later) then we can start to put that fear DOWN and get on with the business of living.

Weird, isn’t it? But true. The journey towards embracing our own mortality starts to help us feel less like we’re supposed to hang on for dear life in the vain hope that we can avoid any injury or even death, and more like what we are – participants in the world, mortal, but here to do some living while we’re on the planet. We can’t hide from death, whatever our anxious thinking tells us.

Now if you’re anything like me you are in all likelihood experiencing quite a remarkable range of emotions right now. This could be absolutely terrifying – I get it. It could be anger generating. I get that too. Don’t run away from those emotions. Don’t try to bury them or pretend they’re not happening or make light of them.

Because those emotions are really just reactions to your thinking, and your thinking (I’m guessing) isn’t at all happy about the notion of dying. Makes sense. Like I said, this is a journey. Let it start for you, as and when you’re somewhat ready. (None of us is EVER really ready, right?)

OK, that’s reason #1 that I was wrong about my thinking around death. On to –

Why I Was Wrong: Reason 2

Realizing and even starting to face into the reality of my own demise one day (note the one day part – I’m still here and I’m still kicking, thank you very much) is first and possibly most important to this work. But I was wrong for another reason.

Life isn’t about how much life we might have left. It isn’t a savings account or a stack of gold coins on the desk. It is very much like a power supply, or maybe getting paid a gold coin a day that you HAVE to spend the same day. We have NO promise of how much life we’ll get – ever.

Sound scary? Sure was to me. I had somehow acquired the notion that I was spending from a big savings account of life, and every day I was losing a little more from that savings. WRONG. I was getting paid as I went. I didn’t (and don’t) have any more life saved up now than I did when I was 18 years old.

Death 3

Sure, in a big, abstract way I probably have less POTENTIAL lifespan now than I did at 18. But only the word potential makes that a viable notion. I could be smacked by a train this afternoon. I could keel over and fade from view after dinner tonight. I don’t like the notion, but if I can’t accept that truth then I’m fooling myself and I’m back to hiding in my room, hoping against hope that nothing shuts down my life too soon…

All we have is today. All we have – period. What that news should do for us is, like the first reason I was wrong, get us moving to engage life now, today, to the extent we’re able. We don’t get more life by sitting in a corner, and we don’t lose any life by engaging in our lives where we are.

This is Scary Talk Erik! Cut it Out!

I don’t mean to scare you. What makes me sad (and even a little angry) is how this thinking is something we don’t get exposed to much earlier in our lives. We learn to be cautious, tentative, risk-adverse. It might even be said that one of the sources of our maddening fight with anxiety is precisely that – we didn’t learn to get in and mix it up with our lives.

Instead we learned to back away. Ugh. Bad idea. I’m betting everyone that’s reading this blog wishes they were more engaged with their lives and less afraid of the big D…

Well, that’s a damn good idea. Some things to help you start facing down that fear of death crap that’s slowing you down:

1) There is never a perfect time to start. There is always, in the midst of being anxious, reasons to slow down, wait, prepare more, do more research, etc. Bullcrap. Whatever you can start, start. If I had ONLY learned this earlier I’m pretty sure I’d be in charge of some large country someplace…

Because I have been the King for too much of my life at sitting around and waiting until I was more ready, or had more courage, or had more money, or had better instructions, or SOMETHING. Don’t wait. Enough of waiting.

Death 4

2) You will make mistakes. Mistakes are not death (unless you’re driving at high speed or not checking your parachute before you jump.) Make them. Such a good idea. One of my favorite quotes is “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes I’m thinking of making a few more.” Go make some mistakes!

The weird part of this work is that when we do engage the world and make mistakes we learn that we’re a lot less fragile and death-prone than we thought. (Which will piss you off even more for a while – but that’s OK – you’ll be engaging your life.) Go make mistakes. Most mistakes are repairable – and even the ones that break the antique chair or mess up the party are things we can learn from in our work to be less afraid of death/engage our life –

(and don’t think I don’t know how crazy that sounds to many of you – just the THOUGHT of making a mistake scares the crap out of a lot of us. Which is precisely why we need to get out and make some mistakes – this is one of those vital-life-lesson things – mistakes are how we learn, and mistakes help us get on with the business of living.

It Isn’t About Dying – It is About LIVING

So really what this comes down to is focusing on living, rather than our (someday) death. And really, at the end of this discussion, it is treating death as a problem, rather than a crisis. Yes, even death is just a problem – and it is one of those problems that we cannot solve by treating it as a crisis, because we CAN’T run from death and we can’t fight death.

As I said earlier in this blog post this isn’t a one-shot deal. Accepting and even embracing our own mortality is a process. We can’t and won’t finish this in one 30-minute therapy session or by reading a book. We can and will do to it by getting involved in our own lives.

So – ready to start living? Or at least start living a lot more than you are right now? No better time than today. No better place to start from than imperfection. It’s OK to make mistakes. And it is infinitely, infinitely more useful to get up and live now than to worry about your someday death.

Time to live…

Present Moment 5

This blog spends a lot of time talking about not treating problems/issues/challenges in our lives as crises. And if you read this blog at all I’m pretty sure you have a good idea about what the definition of a crisis is to our brains and bodies – the threat of immediate physical danger that will likely result in injury or death.

That at least is the definition of a crisis as evolution defined it for us – the kind of thing that Flight or Fight evolved to deal with in the natural world. But how does that compare in detail to what a PROBLEM is – i.e., what most of us are afraid of and escalate to a crisis in our thinking? (And which is the primary cause of the fight with anxiety.)

My mission today is to lay out a clear definition and set of steps for what a problem looks like, in hopes of showing just how different it is from a crisis –

What Solving a Problem Looks Like

I wish someone had defined how a problem is actually managed and how we normally go about solving it a long time ago. It could have been stinkin’ useful at some points in my checkered past…

Problems 2

Here’s a start: a problem is anything that isn’t a crisis. Not so helpful? 🙂 Think of it this way: a crisis, a real-world crisis, does NOT allow time for anything but instant action, and what thinking we do we do in crisis mode – i.e., rapid assessment of danger, plotting routes of escape (or plans of attack if we must fight), whatever it takes to end the crisis NOW and get away from danger. This is usually taking place in seconds or at most minutes.

Problems, on the other hand, are anything else – any other issue, concern, challenge, etc. that isn’t going to hurt or kill us this second, but which present some need for us to resolve at some point. Problems are, relative to real-world crises, issues that will take time and thinking to resolve. It might BE a crisis in 10 minutes, or next week, or next year, if we don’t take action now, but right now it is still only a problem.

That of course doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t go about solving problems as crises – as I said earlier that’s the very heart of our fight with anxiety. That also however doesn’t mean that solving problems like crises is usually very effective, or even effective at all.

Let’s get specific about what solving a problem looks like operationally –

The Classic Steps to Problem-Solving

1. Identify the Problem. What is the challenge/issue/concern, precisely? What will not solving the problem potentially do to us? What WILL solving the problem look like?

2) What are some potential solutions to this problem? Which seem more or less likely to be helpful/effective?

Problems 3

3) What do I need to know to implement these solutions? I.e., what information do I need to gather, what research do I need to do, what resources will be necessary, who can help me with these solutions, etc.

4) Pick a solution.

5) Implement your solution.

6) Did it work? Great. Problem solved.

7) It didn’t work? OK. Let’s dance this dance again. That may be as simple as picking the next option on your list, or it may involve going back to the drawing board/ideas for solutions step.

As you have probably already considered this process could take 2 minutes (where are we going to lunch today?) to literally years (how will I afford to both eat bon-bons all day AND live at the beach?)

The thing to focus on here is that this is a PROCESS. It is a very different orientation to thinking about things than the mode that we get into when we’re dealing with Flight or Fight, i.e., when we’re treating a problem like a crisis.

There isn’t really a process when we’re under attack by danger. We first consider (at light speed) how to get away from danger or, if we can’t see a way to escape, how we can best take on this danger. Our brains have narrowed their focus, our bodies are geared to run or fight, and we need to do something NOW.

On the other hand problems have a much more analytical sense about them. Problem-solving is a very intellectual, abstract process, and it usually requires a cooler head and a calmer body. It takes time to follow the process, even if it is something as simple as deciding where to go to lunch.

Problems 4

Great, Erik, Thanks for Sharing – How Does This Help Me Fight Anxiety?

Glad you asked:

1) Flight or Fight can (and usually does) make it damn difficult to think rationally or clearly – i.e., be in problem-solving mode rather than crisis mode. So one thing to keep in mind is that when we’re in the middle of a firefight with anxiety – heart racing, emotions boiling over, panic in temporary command – we can practice reminding ourselves that we’re not, in fact, in any danger at the moment, however it feels. IF we were in actual danger we’d either be running or fighting right now.

Nope, we’re dealing with a problem that FEELS like a crisis. And FEELINGS are trying hard to rule the moment when we’re anxious. But the truth is our feelings are wrong – completely wrong – and they really CAN’T help us solve this problem.

Yes, the problem we’ve converted into a crisis may be important – even critically important. Yes, we need to take steps to solve it. But that’s going to require a different kind of thinking than the one we experience when we’re in Flight or Fight.

So our mission becomes FIRST calming down, to any degree – powering down Flight or Fight to the extent that we can in those moments – THEN start reframing this little dilemma we’re frightened about as a problem, not a crisis.

That can sound very detached and rational, and we’re usually anything but detached and rational when we’re in an anxiety fight. So just hang on to these two thoughts – I’m NOT in a crisis (or I’d be doing something about it!) and my mission is to gear down my Flight or Fight reactions, THEN start problem-solving, to the degree I can.

2) Focusing on problems AS problems takes practice, especially for us anxiety fighters. So one GREAT way to combat our anxiety is to very deliberately take one thing that frightens us (after we do a little prep, get as cool as possible, have some breathing techniques and distraction tools handy to help us de-escalate if we get rattled doing this next step) and then –

Problems 1

Treat that scary thing as a problem. Pull out a piece of paper or your laptop and follow the steps I listed in this blog post. YOU DON’T HAVE TO SOLVE IT IN ONE SITTING!  That’s part of the practice, after all – treating the problem as a problem, giving it some time, gathering some data, doing some research, considering your options, etc.

The first couple of times will be scary, I’m betting. I know they were for me! By the same token this is right in line with the four skills I argue are essential to mastering our fears – identifying where we’re treating problems as crises, actively discounting our Flight or Fight responses when we’re anxious, converting those problems-turned-crises (in our thinking) BACK into problems, and learning the art of good self-care.

Practice really does change how we think, and how we approach problems as well…

3) We can use this (as we get more skillful with our anxiety tools) to even stop thinking from escalating to crisis mode in the first place. Doesn’t that sound good? As we develop the habit of pulling problems apart as problems we can begin to approach with greater confidence problems in general, and treat them as problems before we start to make ourselves crazy with anxiety.

Start Small

You don’t need to pick your biggest fear to get this practice going. I recommend a smaller fear or worry first. 🙂 Maybe we save world peace or resolving the problems with your in-laws once you’re feeling a little skillful.

Last note: the irony of this conversation is that most of us already have some decent problem-solving skills in one or more areas of our lives – work, dealing with kids, managing money, etc. We’re all different, but 99.9% of us already DO this treating problems as problems in one or more arenas of our lives.

So – what problems are you dealing with as crises? And where will you practice first? Problems are problems. You’re smarter than you give yourself credit for – and you have access to a lot of good information and thinking via the Web, your friends and/or family, your local library, etc.

And feel free to post a problem you’re treating as a crisis here at the blog! I and the other fear fighters will be happy to help…

Problems 6

“What if?” This is the timeless question that, when we find ourselves becoming anxious, we have been asking ourselves in one form or another. I have been pounding on this particular theme in several recent blog posts. It is only when we start asking ourselves “what if?” that we can experience anxiety for any length of time.

Notice that I used the word “timeless” in that first sentence. I’m going to talk today about how this is the heart of what makes the “what if?” question so scary to us – the sense that, whatever we’re afraid of, that it will go on forever – literally.

And it is that quality of bad lasting forever that generates anxiety in us.

What If This Never Stops?

I have mentioned numerous times in this blog that one of the handful of physical Flight or Fight responses that was scary to me was the sense of numbness in my hands and arms. It was one of the symptoms that first hit me when I began my journey through anxiety back in Junior High, and it carried for a long time the power to really freak me out.

The other responses that terrified me (and that isn’t too strong a word for how I felt) were dizziness and nausea. Perhaps the darkest day of my entire experience with anxiety was the morning I woke up in the kitchen and found myself staring at the kitchen knives, and thinking calmly how I didn’t have to put up with being afraid like this any more – I could just end things right then and there.

You can imagine how much that rocked my world. I don’t even remember walking into the kitchen. Of course I hadn’t really slept in almost a week, having experienced panic attacks every night at bedtime, staring at the TV until the early hours of the morning, desperate to avoid feeling anxious and having any of the Flight or Fight responses I was so afraid of.

Exhausted and finally at the edge of my capacity to keep going on like I had been going, I didn’t have clue what to do next, except call it quits. Yikes…

In any event I called my doctor and got my ass down to his office. As luck would have it he was called into an emergency and I sat in his outer office for almost 3 hours. I experienced panic attack after panic attack, afraid to leave, afraid to stay, just praying he would have something he could do for me.

WHY was I so freakin’ scared? There were multiple things I was afraid of, but at the heart of it I was afraid that I would be fighting anxiety forever – that this intense fear and terror would never end.

Let’s Get More Specific

If that sounds terrible, well, it was. But the saddest part of all of it from this distance in time is that I really was Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” I had my own way out, if I’d only known I possessed it.

I was standing in that kitchen on that terrible day because I had been thinking, for years, that I was doomed to be anxious for the rest of my life. That may not sound very bad or horrible to someone who hasn’t fought chronic anxiety or panic attacks or depression.

But after 2 decades of being both afraid of the future in various ways AND being sick to death of my own body and feelings scaring me, I was DONE. Finished. I couldn’t take any more of the pulse of fear in my life, my body and my thinking.

What I didn’t get at the time was that I was scaring myself WITH MY THINKING. I didn’t understand that I was taking challenges in my life – my beliefs, my worries about my career, my concerns about who I was in relation to other people, etc. – and turning them into crises, life-and-death issues that I HAD to manage or avoid or deal with, RIGHT NOW…

I didn’t get that. I would have challenged that if someone had suggested it to me. I wasn’t aware that I had done that. I had never consciously done that. I had just, over the course of time (and starting very early in my life) had learned to take various issues and ramp them up into crises in my thinking.

And it had never occurred to me, nor had I ever learned, that my thinking was the source of my anxiety. More specifically I didn’t get that my fears of failure – at relationship, at career, at supporting myself, at dealing with family issues, all of that and more – were the wellspring for all of my anxious responses.

To complete the nightmare I was creating I didn’t realize that I was unconsciously assuming that this fear would never end. There was real terror (if I am being brutally honest I really was freaked out by my body’s responses, physically and emotionally, to my anxiety) at even the hint of either vertigo/dizziness or numbness in my hands and arms. I was DONE. Finished. I didn’t want to do that anymore.

Forever. It felt and seemed like it was going to go on forever.

Two Tiny Words Were the Problem…

When Dorothy is told by the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” that she could have gone home anytime she liked I was pretty pissed off (when I was a kid.) It seemed completely unfair to me that she had had to do all the crap she had to do, and put herself in the danger she had experienced, when she could have skipped it ALL with some heel-clicking!

So when I first began to get my mind around the understanding that my fear was specifically rooted in the various ways I had been asking myself “what if?” in my thinking I was equally pissed off. WHY had I had to suffer through the YEARS of anxiety if it really was this simple?

Two hard truths: 1) it WAS that simple, but 2) that didn’t make it easy. I had been asking myself (and scaring myself) with “what if?” questions for two decades – actually longer, since those questions began well before I actually become conscious of being anxious.

I had worn some pretty deep grooves in my thinking, created some very strong thinking habits, and they were not going to get reprogrammed and cleaned up in a day, or week, or even a month.

And there’s something else to consider in this conversation, something very important in our understanding of why we maintain anxious thoughts even after we’ve become aware of how they are crippling us: we started having those concerns/anxieties/fears in the first place because they seemed to be ways to keep us safe.

Fear As a Way of Protecting Ourselves

This is a larger topic for further blog posts, but for the moment the summary notion is that we don’t develop fear and worry because we have too much free time on our hands.

We start asking ourselves “what if?” questions because we’re trying very hard, for various reasons, to do things right, to stay safe, to meet other people’s expectations of us, to be moral or good or a good kid or the right husband or wife or whatever roles we’re living in our lives.

So there are two powerful forces at work conspiring to keep us asking those “what if?” questions even after we get clear that we’re doing it – the habit of long years and the sense that those fears are keeping us from even worse outcomes. Yuk! That’s a lot of crap to wade through.

It finally comes down to us making some grown-up choices about our lives and what is working and not working for us. It means deciding that we’ve had enough of anxiety and fear and worry. It means looking our fearful thinking in the eye, metaphorically, and deciding whether or not this belief or that rule or this worry is worth all the energy and time we’ve given away to it.

It means, really, making our fear conscious, so we can deal with it, master it, and put it behind us.

Thankfully the work doesn’t take nearly as long as the build-up! 🙂 There is definitely some work involved, don’t get me wrong. And the work is usually tiring, even exhausting, and you don’t get it done in a day or a week or even a month (although as I keep saying you’ll be surprised how quickly you can cover ground and get some progress made.)

The really hard part is confronting those “what if?” questions face on, and staying with it, even when your Comfort Zone is screaming at you to stop, even when you’re sick to death of your Flight or Fight reactions, even when you just want to STOP FEELING CRAPPY AND AFRAID.

Except of course you’ve BEEN feeling crappy and afraid, too much of your life, and all that is different between doing the work and not doing the work is actually facing your fears, rather than running from them.

So to bring this blog post full-circle the bottom line is no fear has to last forever. It has felt that way because we’ve been running from our fearful thinking, and we’ve also probably not had the tools we needed to deal with that fear and anxiety. But nothing is forever – not even fear. Better still we have the power now, today, to begin to take those fears face-on and get rid of them.

Problems. Crises. We so easily blur one into the other. If there is something that makes us anxious or afraid of an issue or situation we can, often without being aware of it, move from problem to crisis thinking.

And, as I’ve said about 100 times here in this blog, when we transmute a problem into a crisis, we can’t avoid but activate Flight or Fight – and the madness begins.

I covered two common problem-to-crisis topics in my last blog post – what if I lose my job, and what if someone gets mad/upset/angry with us. Note the use of the words “what if” – a huge clue that we are shifting, if we’re not careful, from problem to crisis thinking. Here’s another “what if” question a lot of us get lost in –

What If I Wind Up Alone/Unmarried/Un-partnered?

I lived a large part of my life with this fear on my shoulder. I remember very clearly the cold sadness in my chest when I considered the possibility of a life alone.

I turned my being alone of the moment, of where I was, into being alone forever. It seemed horrible, terrible, a fate that seemed worse than death. All I had to ask myself was “what if I DO wind up alone?” Things literally went gray for me.

Here’s the thing: I was out at the end in my thinking – way, way out in the future. I was treating the then-current problem of being alone like it had already happened – like I had already lived my life alone.

Which, of course, hadn’t happened yet… but which is exactly what fear/Flight or Fight does – the mission being to find you an escape route from this current dangerous thing…

Except of course there IS no danger. There is the challenge/problem of finding someone to hang with long-term. That work takes some time, for many of us. That’s OK. The point is that it ISN’T a crisis.

Perhaps more importantly it we make it into a crisis we are MUCH less effective at finding that Significant Other! And don’t we all already know that?

It is when we are relaxed, in our skin, NOT lost in our fears and anxieties, that we suddenly run into that person who thinks we’re pretty nifty? It isn’t a mystery. It is us being in the moment.

What If This Specific Physical or Emotional Response to My Fears Never Ends?

Almost everyone that is reading this blog has wrestled for some period of time with fears of this or that Flight or Fight reaction.

Maybe it is physical – chest pain, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, racing heart, dizziness, upset stomach, mysterious pain in this or that part of your body, you name it. Maybe it is emotional – rage, despair, panic, dread, guilt, sadness, helplessness.

This subject is one of the issues I address in email responses and phone coaching sessions almost every day. We can get ourselves really sideways with our fear/worry about these sensations/feelings.

This just in: they don’t mean anything. They are simply signaling to us that we’re thinking scary/worrisome things. End of story. We have those sensations and feelings and where do we go, usually unconsciously? The future.

We ask ourselves “what if this never stops? What if I have to live with this for the rest of my life? What if I can never sleep, or never be comfortable in my body, or…” the litany is all too familiar to most of us.

There’s another Zen-like paradox here: the more we practice “discounting” the meaning of those sensations and feelings the less they will make us anxious. This takes practice – all this work takes practice.

That’s OK. We’ve been practicing our fears for a long time, most of us – it isn’t surprising that it will take some work to get clear of all that effort.

What if I Wind Up With No Money?

This is in some respects a variation on the “What if I lose my job?” fear above. However we get here (job loss, injury, bank fraud, house burns down) some of us are petrified that we’ll be without resources.

And there is reason to be concerned about having enough of the green stuff, no question. The problem turns into a crisis however when, again, we go to the end of the scenarios in our thinking – what if I’m totally without money? What if I can’t pay my bills? What if I have to live with my insane brother? What if…” and again the litany starts.

Yet we do our best thinking NOT in crisis mode (not most of the time) but when we’re in problem-solving mode. Anxiety, as I’ve said here a number of times, isn’t conducive to good critical thinking and decision-making.

Most of us have been thin in the finance department. And, weirdly enough, it didn’t kill us (not if we’re reading this blog, anyway.)

When we’re concerned about money the last thing we need is to be paralyzed by fear and anxiety. We need to be able to pull apart the problem or problems that are keeping us from getting the money we need, and then start working for solutions.

Problem. Not a crisis. Repeat after me…

Enough with the Examples!

OK, that’s all I’m saying for this third Fear Mastery skill for the moment. I want to start with my next blog post on Skill 4 – taking care of ourselves while we’re working on the other three skills – something way too many of us fear/anxiety fighters are NOT very good at doing…

I promised examples of converting crises back to problems this blog post, and so it will be. 🙂 Several things to say before I go there:

First, this can be VERY challenging work when we are just getting started. It can be challenging for several reasons.

It is physically and emotionally demanding to do this work, and more so when we are at the beginning of tackling our fearful thinking directly. EVERYTHING in our Flight or Fight/anxious thinking is saying DON’T do this work, and we’re already damn tired of being anxious and afraid.

Second, it isn’t always a simple process to stay clear on what we’ve converted from a problem or challenge into a crisis. (In fact Flight or Fight can make this dang difficult, especially again when we’re just getting started.)

As you’ve already read here the first two steps in this work are getting clear what issues we’re turning into frightening future possibilities, and dealing with our Flight or Fight Response reactions.

So when we’re doing that work it can be very tempting to get lost in the “but man, this IS really a crisis, it will be horrible, I can’t stand it”, etc. thinking. We’ve been sliding down that slope in our thinking for a long time – some of us years and decades – and so “bumping out” of that groove in our brains will take some practice and energy.

In other words we’ve created a strong and easy-to-fall-into habit of worrying about this particular issue. And that leads me to a third challenge at this stage of the work – most of us are dealing with more than one fear at a time.

Let’s Talk About Karen

A good example of this is my friend Karen (not her real name.) Karen is in her early 40’s, she is married, has 4 kids who are already grown and mostly gone from the house, she is doing pretty good financially, and she likes her work (she’s a teacher.)

Things are weird at work because of the economy, her husband is a good guy but like her worries a lot, she isn’t certain what comes next in her life (role of Mom has faded and changed from the crazed pace of the last 21 years) –

So here are her worries as she has listed them for me:

1) She is afraid of being down-sized out of her teaching job
2) She is afraid her husband will be down-sized from his job
3) She is afraid that they don’t have enough money in their retirement account
4) She is afraid that she won’t have enough money to help her kids when they need it
5) She is afraid that her life isn’t as fulfilling or happy as it could be/that she is wasting her time

Man, that’s a LOT of fear and anxiety… and from my experience is pretty typical of the number and type of fears that a lot of us are carrying around.

She’s done good work on Skill 1, yes? She’s pretty clearly identified her fears. And she has worked pretty hard on Skill 2 – she is clear that for her nausea, blurred vision, jumbled thinking and a huge sense of embarrassment are the Flight or Fight responses that make her even more afraid. Nice work Karen! She reports that just knowing this much has made the monsters in her head less scary and way less mysterious.

It’s Getting Dark In Here…

So, as you might already know from your own experience, when Karen goes to tackle one of her fears (say, the fear about losing her job), working to convert that back into what it really is – not a life or death crisis (she still has her job and in fact has no indications she will actually lose her job anytime soon) but a concern of hers, well, guess what?

Suddenly her Comfort Zone shouts at her “yeah, OK, maybe this IS just a problem – but what if you AND your husband BOTH lose your jobs? Huh? THEN what will you do?!? That really COULD be a crisis!”

(You don’t recognize that voice at all, do you?)

Holy crap! Flight or Fight tries hard to power up, and now the future is looking pretty black. There they are, her and her husband, both out of work, finances dwindling, money feeling tighter and tighter, bills stacking up, maybe facing the possibility of losing their house…

WAIT A MINUTE! Hang on a second, for the love of Mike! She was just sitting there, minding her own business, trying to calmly unpack one of her big fears, and the minute she starts that work another fear demands an audience with her. Now she’s got two big fears yelling at her, and as you probably get from your own experience, it is scary…

LOTS of us, way too many of us, get so rattled by the multiple voices of multiple fears that we back away in a cold sweat (metaphorically and literally), unwilling and nervous about having to face into those voices.

But what has actually happened? Has the future gone black? Are they doomed to a life of poverty and homelessness? Of course not! NOTHING AT ALL has happened, except that her thinking has jumped into that worry groove and she has fired up Flight or Fight.

Gotta say that again: nothing’s wrong with Karen. Yes, the Indefinite Negative Futures she has have scared the crap out of her, again. Yes, her body and emotions are definitely reacting to those fearful thoughts. And yes, her fears have ganged up on her.

Defanging the Monsters in Her Head

What can Karen do?

1) She needs to keep in mind the central understanding that ALL of her fears are problems, not crises – however they feel.

2) Given that idea – that nothing in her fears can hurt or kill her this second, or even today – then she has the time to tackle her fears individually. She can get one fear unpacked, or start to unpack one fear, and defer her worries/work on another fear for that afternoon, or tomorrow morning, or even next week.

a) So she’s afraid of losing her job. OK, she decides to give herself 10 minutes after work one day to sit and unpack that fear. She looks at her specific fear – getting a pink slip one day in her mailbox at school – and then works to examine how likely that it.

It is hard at first, and for a while – just the thought of her losing her job can take her breath away (and make her stomach in knots.)

b) Maybe she writes to herself. Maybe she has a verbal conversation with herself. Maybe she calls a friend and they think it through together. Maybe she does all those things.

c) Her goal is to assess just how likely, really likely, her losing her job actually is. In Karen’s case it is very unlikely, even in her current economic situation in her school district. Just getting clear on that can help her. But let’s say she might actually be in a position to lose her job in the next 4-5-6 months. Then she is facing a PROBLEM – not a crisis.

And it makes sense for her to start thinking through next steps. She doesn’t (and probably can’t) solve this right this moment, the way her fears want her to do. That’s OK. The more she gets calmed down, the more she examines this AS a problem, the better she’ll be able to find solutions that work, or at the very least think through useful next steps on her way to a solution.

3) She has to patiently, steadily keep “discounting” the Flight or Fight reactions that she experiences in her body and feelings. That, at the start, can be a full piece of work by itself! That’s OK. Rome really wasn’t built in a day, and we won’t unpack and sort out our fearful thinking in one session either.

4) Journaling about her fears, even creating a “fear list” for handy reference, is a great way to focus on one fear, and remind herself that she can plan to tackle another fear next time.

One good metaphor is thinking of your fears as a tangle of power cords in the house or garage. At first glance it is a hopeless mess. But the way you sort it out is one knot at a time, yes?

5) Karen HAS to take this in stages. It is very tempting for those of us who do battle with anxiety and fear, to try and do this work in one massive push. Not useful, not for most of us. That means taking breaks, getting our energy up, taking care of ourselves. (More about that when we get to Skill 4, blog post after this one.)

6) Karen needs to practice, in her thinking and out loud both, refuting the scary shouting of her fears. That can be as simple as saying “hey, fears, I’m talking to you this afternoon. Nobody is going to die right now, so shut up.” Or “I know that things are going to be OK for a while, so I don’t need to let you idiots ruin my day. I’ll talk to you LATER.” May feel silly. WILL be very, very useful.

Slow and Steady Wins This Race

OK, that was one set of examples. More to come in the next blog post. Here’s hoping you’ll consider taking on one or more of those fears and worries that drain your brain and energy this week.

And thank all of you who have been writing me, at the blog and directly – excellent to hear from all of you. Peace, patience, stamina and a sense of humor to all of us this week as we tackle our fears!

(Video post at the end of the written post.)

I’ve been looking back over my oldest blog posts, and it seems like a good time to take a fresh stab at discussing the basics of the Fear Mastery framework and toolbox in depth. My goal is to make it clearer, more accessible and less academic-sounding than those early blog posts, as well as do some accompanying video blog posts.

With that goal in mind I’m starting with the basic premise of Fear Mastery: EVERY one of our fears, without exception, stems from one of two sources. It either starts with a real, physical danger we are suddenly confronted with, or it starts with something in our thinking that frightens us. End of story. Either we are reacting to a situation that can kill or injure us, or we are reacting to our thinking.

Let me say that again: fear has two and only two origins. Either we are dealing with something that can hurt us RIGHT NOW, or we are dealing with something we’re thinking about, some problem or issue that we’re facing, and we’re afraid of that problem or issue.

Crisis Vs. Problem

In other words you are either facing a crisis (real, immediate, physical danger) or you’re facing a problem (something that your brain finds scary or worrisome, but which isn’t immediate or physical, and can’t hurt or kill you here in the present moment.) Crisis vs. problem. These are the two sources of fear for us human beings.

That sounds deceptively simple. In truth it IS simple, and one of the great weapons we have to deal with fear and anxiety. Simple, however, doesn’t mean easy.

WHY isn’t it easy? It isn’t easy because the survival mechanism called Flight or Fight is a deep and ancient part of our physical, emotional and mental nature. It is powerful, and it evolved to GET US MOVING when threatened with danger (real, or perceived.)

When we are afraid Flight or Fight has one mission – to get us away from whatever scary thing is making us afraid.

Think about it: when you’re faced with a real danger – the brakes failing on your car, a menacing-looking person approaching you on a dark street, an angry barking dog off its leash, anything that could hurt you or even kill you – you don’t have TIME to sit and rationally think through what should happen next. You need to be in motion NOW – and Flight or Fight’s preferred direction of motion is AWAY from the danger.

None of that changes when we frighten ourselves in our thinking. We can be equally afraid of a roaring lion or the IRS wanting their back taxes from us. If we are afraid of it – i.e., if our brains go “holy crap that’s scary!” then Flight or Fight has only one mission – to get us AWAY from that scary thing.

Your Thinking CAN Scare You!

Let me say for the record at this point that I am NOT saying you are “making up your fears” or somehow failing for being afraid of your thinking. Everybody, and I mean everybody, has things they think of that frighten them.

No, the message here is that we can be JUST as afraid of a problem or issue that we’ve turned into a crisis as we can of an actual crisis (i.e., physical danger.)

A large part of the reason that our thinking can be just as scary as an actual physical danger is that Flight or Fight has a host of things it does in response to danger, real or perceived.

I will talk more about that in my next post, but for now be clear that a pair of powerful chemicals in your body, adrenaline and cortisol, get released the moment you are frightened, and they in turn make all kinds of things happen in our body and emotions and thinking.

In other words you are not just reacting to the scary thought, but you are also reacting to the intense responses of Flight or Fight. You gear up physically and emotionally to either RUN (preferred course) or FIGHT (if you have to because at the moment you can’t run, until you can get away or until the danger is over.)

I can’t overstate this part of the discussion. We are literally hard-wired to react with Flight or Fight if we perceive danger – and I mean hard-wired!

You know this yourself from your own experience. You can be frightened and be in motion before you’re even aware that you’re reacting, yes? We have all felt the surge of anxiety and energy and the physical rush of our bodies reacting to a scary thing.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that even our fears about the future, or fears of failing, or fears of getting in trouble, or whatever is scaring us in a particular moment in our thinking (be that conscious or unconscious), can be as unnerving, even panic-inducing, as such thoughts can be.

A Good Mechanism Gone Bad

We have a magnificent mechanism that every living creature on Earth evolved to deal with real, physical danger – the Flight or Fight Response. This mechanism fires up the SECOND you sense you’re in danger.

A finely-developed set of brain processes starts up, which in turn activates a host of responses in your body, and as a result you are doing one of two things – you are either running like hell from that danger, or you are turning to fight that danger UNTIL you can run, or until you’re out danger.

And that’s a GREAT thing! We literally don’t need to worry per se about that kind of danger. 500 million years of evolution have taken care of that for us. In a very sense you can relax about those dangers – you can only do so much to anticipate those dangers and prepare for them.

Otherwise, sit back and enjoy that episode of Seinfeld – you’ll react the way you need to when you’re faced with that danger, to the best of your ability.

No, it is the OTHER source of fear that gets us in trouble that takes us down the life-draining road of anxiety, chronic anxiety, panic attacks and depression. And THAT is what Fear Mastery is all about.

Because if you’re not facing down an angry dog or a blown tire on the freeway, but you are facing down something you have developed a fear about in your thinking, then you have turned a problem into a crisis.

And this is where that amazing mechanism for dealing with physical, immediate danger, so well-suited to handling that kind of danger, can take us REALLY sideways when dealing with problems. It is a great mechanism that is NOT helping us – a mechanism that is in fact making things much worse.

Why DO We Turn Problems Into Crises?

Well, it isn’t so much that we set out to create crisis out of problem. It is that we REACT to a problem that we’re afraid of – we respond to it as a crisis – and that in turn creates a feedback loop. We scare ourselves, our Flight or Fight Response fires up, and immediately we are trying to get away from the thing that scares us… and so the cycle begins.

As an example let’s take one of the classic fears, the fear of snakes. Lots of people like snakes – but some of us are terrified of them. We have all kinds of excuses for not liking snakes, but the bottom-line is that we avoid them because they make us anything from profoundly uncomfortable to panicky about being near them.

We could try to figure out WHY someone has become afraid of snakes, but that’s unnecessary. All we have to know is a person is now frightened of them. The more interesting question is why is another person NOT afraid of snakes… and of course the answer in both cases is what each person is thinking about snakes.

Snakes are by and large harmless creatures that are probably more afraid of you then you are of them. Most snakes like to stay hidden, especially from creatures as large as ourselves. Most snakes are NOT poisonous, and most snakes won’t bite.

But none of that makes any difference if we are afraid of them. It doesn’t matter because of what we are thinking about the snake. We are afraid that something bad WILL happen if we get too close to a snake.

And of course that bad potential thing that might happen scares us – maybe scares us badly. The thought frighten us, and in turn Flight or Fight fires up to some degree, and we are, usually unconsciously, already in motion away from (as much as possible) even the THOUGHT that we might get near a snake.

Another person doesn’t have the same scary thinking about snakes. They are NOT projecting disaster about meeting a snake or being near a snake. So they don’t turn the issue (or what we might call the problem) of meeting a snake into a crisis in their thinking.

Which means they don’t activate Flight or Fight, and they arn’t caught in the feedback loop of their fearful thinking and Flight or Fight responses to that thinking.

We Can Make ANYTHING scary (In Our Thinking)

It doesn’t have to be snakes. Regardless of how that fear started, as long as we are frightened of it, we can turn a problem or issue into a crisis IN OUR THINKING.

Let’s do another example. Let’s say you’re afraid of personal conflict (like lots and lots of people are.) Just the thought of getting in a fight with someone (verbal, not physical – that’s a whole different ballgame) makes you restless, edgy, anxious, worried. You find yourself moving away from even the thought of fighting with someone because it makes you so uncomfortable.

Yet you know people who seem to have no trouble at all mixing it up (verbally, not physically!) with the people they care about, and they seem none the worse for wear. You kind of envy them, really – you wish you could be as straightforward and direct as they are, and stand your ground the way they do.

In a very real sense you are assuming that any conflict will be a crisis – something scary, something that could really hurt you – so you avoid it, like any sensible creature would avoid danger. Here’s the thing – a verbal argument can’t hurt you. It can make you upset, it can make you angry and hurt and sad… or it can be very productive, clear the air, open up communication and improve honesty between two people.

NONE of those things are a physical danger than can injure or kill you. A verbal conflict, or the risk of having one, is a problem, not a crisis.

You Can’t Treat a Problem Like a Crisis

Well, OK, you can. And most of us do, way, way too often. What I really mean to say is that it is rarely useful or productive to treat a problem like a crisis.

The problem with treating a problem like a crisis is that problems need a very different approach. As I’ve already said in this post we are hard-wired for crises, thank you very much.

Problems need THINKING. When we are faced with a problem we need to spend a little time thinking through the nature of the problem, the elements of the problem, and sort out some possible solutions.

We probably need to do a little study or research to get good information (read, get on the Net, talk to people) and we probably need to give it a little time.

As I said, this is vastly different from run-for-the-hills-there’s-a-hungry-tiger-loose responding! But most of us are doing an enormous amount of responding to problems as if they were crises…

The Trouble With Crisis Thinking

When we do make the mistake of treating a problem like a crisis we start a crazed and energy-draining process I call the Chronic Anxiety Cycle. In short we continue to keep treating this problem as a crisis, trying hard to solve it the way we would solve any life-threatening danger.

The only problem is we usually CAN’T solve it that way. There is NOTHING to run from, and nothing to fight -because the crisis is in our thinking, not in the physical world. Ugh! Talk about crazy-making!

More on this in my next two posts. In the meantime here are the takeaways from this blog post:

1) We all have a brilliant, hard-wired system for dealing with real, immediate, physical danger – Flight or Fight.

2) If we are faced with real, immediate, physical danger Flight or Fight is usually our best bet for dealing with that danger.

3) We get into trouble with fear and anxiety when we use that same response to deal with a problem, because most problems require a different approach than Flight or Fight, crisis-based thinking.

Crisis vs. Problem. This is the heart of our battle with anxiety, fear and depression. This in combination with our learned-over-time fearful responses to our Flight or Fight responses – the physical, mental and emotional signals we get as Flight or Fight tries to get us to run away from the scary thing in our heads – is what drags us down into acute and chronic anxiety both, and their close cousins panic attacks and depression.

We don’t have to go there, and if we’re there, we definitely don’t have to stay there! More on that in my next post…

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