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Sometimes, in my zeal to write about all the issues that can surround this work to overcome the hold of anxiety in our lives, I forget how much the basics matter. But this work is all about the basics, and so I’m going to make some time today to pound on the most basic concept of all for anxiety – the temptation/training/too-often unconscious act of converting a problem into a crisis.

THIS is the central issue in both generating and overcoming anxiety. Everything else I talk about in this blog points back to this idea, supports this work and is aimed at getting to us to CUT THIS OUT. Whatever else we do doesn’t do much to ease our anxiety – but if we’re doing this, whatever else we’re doing, we are on the road out.

So bear with me while I go “old school” about Anxiety 101 –


Two little words: problem and crisis. We confuse these words all the time in our talk about anxiety, but clarity is crucial, so listen up:

Crisis-Problem 1

Crisis Thinking: anything that we think is about to kill or seriously injure us, and when I say about I mean in just a matter of moments. That’s a crisis when it comes to how our brains think, and that’s the trigger for the flaring up of Flight or Fight – our natural way to deal with crisis.

Notice how I said “we think” in my definition. It’s essential to understand that it doesn’t have to BE an actual crisis – all it has to be is a crisis in our thinking’s perception. Notice that I didn’t say when we FEEL that something is a crisis – because thinking has to come first, however unconsciously, however quickly. We think, and then we feel.

90% of the fight with anxiety is captured in the above two paragraphs. As long as we’re running a crisis story in our thinking about anything, regardless of it actually being or not being a crisis, it is enough to drive anxiety – anxious thinking, which generates anxious responding in Flight or Fight, which starts us (too often) on a hamster wheel of treating our Flight or Fight reactions as PROOF that we’re in a crisis, when we’re just reacting to our thinking.

Yes, I know, the word “just.” It sure as hell feels like something a lot more serious than “just” reacting to thinking. But that’s precisely the point, because if we’re NOT in an actual crisis – if we’re not on the brink of fierce injury or our own death – then we’re NOT dealing with a crisis, at least not in the way the brain and body understands crisis, and we are earnestly feeding a nasty habit of increasing anxiey.

Crisis-Problem 2

Here’s the wacky part: JUST because we think something is a crisis doesn’t mean it is. Here another wacky part: if something is actually a crisis it isn’t hard to figure out! From my very earliest days writing about this stuff I’ve been saying this statement: if we have time to even ask the question “hey, is this a problem or a crisis?” then it HAS to be a problem.

How do I know that? Because if it is a crisis WE ARE ALREADY DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT. If we hear a child scream in pain we are on our feet and moving before our brains are even clear that we’re in motion – yes? If we hear an explosion near us we duck – yes? If we see a drunk driver start to swerve in front of WE TAKE ACTION NOW – yes?

So – there is crisis thinking and an actual crisis. But the food for anxiety comes from treating something that isn’t a crisis in this moment AS a crisis – crisis thinking. If we’re not facing down imminent death or njury we’re not dealing with a crisis, but a

Problem Thinking:

Problem are not crises. Problems 99% of the time can’t be solved by running or fighting – the way Flight or Fight would have us roll.

See my blog post HERE for an in-depth discussion of problems, what they are and what to do with them. The thing that’s most important for this conversation is the definition of a problem. A problem takes TIME to solve – anywhere from 5 minutes to years, depending on the size, complexity and information/skill needed to solve the problem.


This is the biggest reason we can’t solve a problem like we resolve a crisis (actual crisis.) But there’s something else that’s very important to understand here: problem thinking is a rational, look-at-the-options, think-it-through way of dealing with an issue. We think better in problem thinking than we do in crisis thinking. And we DON’T crank up our anxiety meter when we’re treating something as a problem.

Confusion sets in for most of us when we start saying to ourselves “hey, THIS thing I’m afraid of IS actually a crisis – or at least I sure FEEL like it’s a crisis!” It isn’t feelings that decide whether something is a crisis or not.

Let me say that again. Feelings can’t be our guides in deciding if something IS actually a crisis. You have the definition of crisis in this blog post. It either IS about to eat your face off or it isn’t. A problem is not a crisis.

Feelings depend so much on the story we tell ourselves (largely, if not mostly unconsciously) about an issue or challenge or situation. One person sees a leaky water heater and says oh my Gosh, this is the worst thing ever, this will wreck my savings, infuriate my Significant Other, waste my whole day getting fixed and it probably won’t even get done right! Help! This is a crisis!

Another person has the exact same issue and says well, this sucks, I don’t really want to spend that money, why did this have to happen today, Significant Other could well be cheesed off, but we’ll figure it out and hell, the new water heater will probably be energy-efficient and save us money in the long run. Talk about two different stories…

One generates a crisis reaction. Heaven only knows what happens next… we spend a fortune to get the water-heater fixed NOW. We completely avoid the problem and pretend it hasn’t happened (good luck with that.) We freak out, call 30 friends and burn lifespan regaling them with our horrible lives. We flail, thrash and make ourselves crazy and anxious…

Crisis-Problem 6

One generates some thoughtful phone calls to trusted thinkers who know stuff about plumbing, a visit to Angie’s List or similar vendor referral website, a phone call to the Significant Other to get the finance thing figured out, then a call to the vendor we like to get our water heater PROBLEM sorted out.

Anxiety Fighters are Amazing at Converting Problems to Crises

And we know we are! We have an amazing gift honed over years and decades. We can take almost any sunny day and conjure a rainstorm. We don’t have to keep doing that. Let’s start with the basics in this blog post:

Where are we converting problems to crises? Here are some hints –

1) If we have time to ask this question it’s a problem. It might BE a crisis soon if we don’t do something, or it might not be – but right now it’s a problem, and we’re going to both avoid a lot of unnecessary anxiety AND probably come up with a better answer if we treat this thing as a problem.

2) Is there a what if question present? We don’t have to always identify that question – just the presence of Flight or Fight feelings and reactions (surging emotions, physical stuff that makes us crazy, you know the drill) can answer this question (and assuming you’re not facing down an angry bison.) If you are doing what if questions it’s a lock that you’re making yourself anxious. Time to stand down from that story. Easier to say than do – but it’s a skill we get better at with practice and time.

Crisis-Problem 5

3) Standing down looks a lot like this: how is this actually a problem, and not a crisis? One answer is you’re not about to die – HOWEVER you feel at the moment. Another answer is what are some of the options that might exist to deal with this? If you find yourself nuking every answer that comes up because you can’t do it in the next 30 seconds that a flag on the field as well.

4) Ask someone else what they think. Don’t sit there shouting how terrible this is – simply ask their opinion. (Make it someone you trust and respect, please.) If THEY treat it like a problem, then, well, hmmm – maybe you can too? 🙂 At least in theory for the moment?

I have lots more to say about this elsewhere in this blog. Here are some places to start: HERE, HERE, HERE. In the meantime, try tackling one of your scary what if stories the way I’ve outlined here today. Start identifying where you’re making problems into crises. You’ll be amazed at the real power and strength this thinking skill can, with time and practice, bring you…

So, we all clear on this basic concept? 🙂 There will be a test soon…

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

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

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

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

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

Running 1

I’ll do ANYTHING to Make This Anxiety Stop…

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

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

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

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

Quick Fix 1

Sit with Our Anxiety, Instead of Running Away from It

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Fix 3

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

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

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

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

The Way Out is Through

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

Quick Fix 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the way out.

Problems 6

What to DO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Fix 2

Crisis vs. problem.  The more time I give to thinking about and working with this idea (and the more I review it with other people) the more I see how central this is to fear and anxiety.  Tiger = crisis.  That’s easy.  But when we are NOT facing immediate risk for injury or death, well, then you have a problem, NOT a crisis – even if it feels scary as hell.  An example:

I have a buddy (friends for 30 years last August, holy crap!) who was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer a year ago November.  Happy Thanksgiving… she and her husband of course freaked.  They were told “hey, take that cruise, you’re pretty much toast, so make the most of the time you have left.”  (Sure FEELS like a crisis!)  They went off and spent a week wrestling with how to best “do the time remaining” thing, in between some serious bouts of grieving.  And who wouldn’t? 

Except she woke up on a Sunday morning, about a week after the grim word was delivered to her, and she found herself thinking “wait a minute – how do I really KNOW this is it?  Shouldn’t I at least get a second opinion?”  She made an appointment, went with her heart in her hands, and to her surprise was told that in fact no, she didn’t actually have an “expiration date” that anyone could identify with certainty, and that she needed to start exploring treatment options immediately. 

Now, 15 months later, she has been through 2 major surgeries (and 1 minor surgery), she has been back to her beloved Hawaii, she has celebrated birthdays and Christmas-times and 2 more anniversaries with her husband (they are closing in on 30 years together), and what made the crucial difference?  She decided that she wasn’t facing (yet) a crisis, but instead a complex and important problem.  Because she could have sat in her house, worrying about her illness, afraid to talk to the doctor for fear of what they might tell her,  terrified at the thought of her life coming to an abrupt ending, sad for all the missed opportunities, etc.  All of which would keep her actively in Flight or Fight, with all the resulting limitations and paralysis. 

Instead she started educating herself on her illness, consulted doctors and websites, took an aggressive approach to her surgeries and chemotherapy, modified her diet, sought a therapist to help her manage her thinking and her stress… in other words, she tackled the problem.  Has she had dark moments?  You bet.  Has she found herself caught in chronic anxiety, worrying the day away, unable to leave the couch?  Absolutely.  Does she stay there?  No. 

Which, I would argue, is why she is still here, and in fact is healthier (by her own account) than she has been in years, in better shape physically and mentally, more in the present moment and with greater capacity to both continue her own care and enjoy where she is in that present moment.  All of which would be MUCH harder is she was approaching this cancer as a crisis…

 Next up – more examples, and the next stage of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle – creating the Indefinite Negative Future.

I’ve received some great feedback on my blog so far – my thanks to everyone who has had things to say either here or by email.  It is pretty great to hear that people are getting traction from the idea that turning problems into crisis is NOT the way to solve problems!  I’ve got a LOT more to say about this… (see my last post about the details of this notion.)

Because it has become my conviction that once a person shifts into crisis mode to deal with a problem they begin a process I’m calling the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.  Or, as my friend Dale calls it, Perpetual Flight.  This process begins from one of the elements of the natural Flight or Fight Response we have to deal with crisis.  When we perceive danger, real or imagined, part of that response is to comb our memories (VERY quickly) for relevant information we have from past experience in dealing with this crisis.  I’m looking at a tiger, for example, so my brain rapidly sorts past tiger experiences to get the best approach to running or fighting.  Great tool in that context, no question!  In addition we rapidly generate scenarios with what we know in order to escape the tiger – we essentially start asking ourselves “what if?” questions.  Again, highly useful in the advent of a crisis…

But when you do this with a problem (something that can’t be solved, most likely, right in the moment, and it will take some time and work to resolve) then this trying to recall earlier dangers becomes a liability.  I call it the Negative Thinking Mechanism, or the “Worry Engine.”  We begin to start thinking “what if”, and the slant is always towards the negative – what happens if this bad thing occurs?  What are the expected outcomes?  We very rarely start projecting sunny and hopeful outcomes – we instead extrapolate negative outcomes.  Makes sense – running into tigers rarely results in happy outcomes.  That makes us more worried, so we do it again, and that increases our worry, so we do it again, etc. 

One of the ironic outcomes of all this projecting is that we step out of the present – we are either reliving previous negative experiences or focused on frightening or unnerving future scenarios.  We are NOT being where we are, right now.  Yet our bodies really only get right now – so regardless of what is upsetting you, your body will continue to generate flight or fight responses – more adrenaline, more preparing to fight or run, more physical and emotional responses designed to gear you up for whatever this danger is.  Only there IS, in this moment, no danger.  There IS a problem or problems to solve, but we are in crisis mode. 

As I said in my last blog post we are not in our most useful problem-solving condition when we are in crisis mode.  Which doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes solve the problem with our crisis response.  Sometimes it works.  And a great deal of the time it doesn’t work.  Whether it works or not the stress on our bodies and minds is much greater than if we don’t approach a problem as a crisis.  And even if we do resolve the problem via crisis mode we almost certainly haven’t accessed our best information, resources, or thinking to do so. 

And, of course, many times the problem continues to grow and get larger (in our thinking), so we worry some more about the problem and the scenarios we are creating around potential outcomes.  If we keep it up long enough we move on further into the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, which in turn takes more energy and increases the drain on our brains and bodies.  If we don’t disrupt this cycle here we begin to set ourselves up for long-term anxiety (i.e., chronic anxiety) and the resulting problems that creates for us.  More about that in the next couple of weeks.  In my next posting I will give you some examples from my own and other people’s experiences around this crisis-problem discussion, and what happens when we start feeding the Worry Engine.

In my last post I outlined the basics of Flight or Fight, both what it is supposed to do, and how it makes you feel and think.  And it is crucial to understand this because all of what we wind up turning into anxiety and stress springs from this source.  How does that work?

 It is remarkably simple.  Nature gave us a remarkable “first-alert” response system for dealing with danger.  It is, however, a system that is supremely suited for acute danger – i.e., danger that is real and present RIGHT NOW.  It is a system that works best for what I call a crisis.  Crisis, in this definition, has the following requirements:

There is real, immediate risk for injury or death

You have to do something about it right now

It has to be resolved quickly

 Now I’m clear that a lot of us (most of us, probably) have felt we’ve been in crisis for a lot of our lives.  Certainly in this current recession it feels like crisis is a part of daily life.  But it is very important to be clear on what really can be called a crisis and what is, instead of a crisis, a problem to solve.  This is hugely important because how we see/feel the difference in the two is what either triggers the flight or fight response in us, and what instead triggers clear thinking and strong problem-solving skills.   So what is the definition of a problem?  It looks like this:

There is NO immediate risk for injury or death

You CAN’T (in all likelihood) fix it right this moment

It will take some time, energy and thinking to be resolved

Compare the two – crisis and problem.  One does NOT have a lot of time for problem-solving and rational thought, and in fact the flight or fight response tends to close down most of that rational thinking stuff – you don’t need it to run from the tiger or find a rock big enough to defend yourself.  If you don’t do something NOW you’re going to be the main course for dinner (remember, immediate risk for injury or death is one of the elements of it really being a crisis.)  Don’t really need your brain to head for the hills or club something! 

On the other hand, problems don’t resolve the way crises do.  Problems require strategic thinking, some use of logic, accessing good information/doing some research, time to ponder different solutions, etc.  The conditions that make for great crisis resolution do not lend themselves to great problem-solving…

This leads me to the first (and one of the most important) keys to shutting down debilitating anxiety and fear.  If you are treating a crisis like a crisis, you’re doing the exact right thing.  If you’re treating a problem like you’re a problem again you’re right on the money.  But most of us tend to treat some (or many) of the problems in our life like a crisis – and THAT’S where we get into trouble.  The heart of this work, and everything I’m going to discuss from here out, will consist of exactly that – refusing to treat problems like crises.  Because good crisis responses rarely make for good problem-solving, but do make amazingly fertile ground for chronic anxiety, stress, and depression. 

Next post – how we build and maintain chronic anxiety/stress.

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