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Anxiety and Depression can drive us VERY hard to search for safety. As we find reasons to be anxious our brains begin to cast about for some secure place to stand, some place to get away from the vague or specific dangers that are running through our thinking and driving our physical and emotional reactions.

Worst of all we don’t have to be conscious of this set of reactions. In fact lots and lots of us, frightened by our thinking, work hard to push away and bury any conscious thinking about our fears. So instead of us taking charge of our fears and working to do something about them we turn and run from them, seeking instead safety from our fears. Our fears take charge of our lives, whatever we tell ourselves or others.

In the midst of this running we can very easily decide that we have to stick with what we know well, what feels safe, and stay way away from anything that seems different or strange to us. We come to be very afraid of the unknown. You could say that all anxiety (that doesn’t get caused by real, immediate, physical danger) comes down to fear of the unknown, of what COULD happen in some hypothetical future out of our control.

Anxiety, fear and depression with this mindset become terrible taskmasters, scourges that refuse to leave us alone, driving us further and further back from anything that looks risky or scary or seems to fire up our Flight or Fight responses. The chant of “what if?” becomes constant and all but unconscious, and we come to crave certainty, safety, the known, hoping to at last stop running and find some secure place to ease our fears.

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Big Fears

What are some of the unknowns that scare us? That can be challenging for many of us, given how hard and how long we’ve pushed those fears away from conscious consideration.

There are however some classics that we can use to start this exploration. You might recognize some of these – the big, looming, seemingly-inevitable (to too many of us) fears that can become bogeymen we scare ourselves again and again with in our thinking.

One that many of us anxiety fighters focus on is the fear of physical illness. Maybe we’ve seen people we love become ill, even very ill. Words like cancer and Alzheimer’s and heart disease conjure visions of unending pain, expense, personal anguish and a terrible, lonely death. Lots to be afraid of here, yes?

Fear says GET AWAY FROM THIS SCARY THING. So maybe we work to equip ourselves with layers of health coverage and insurance. Maybe we start exercising like crazy. Maybe we quit smoking, or drinking, or eating this or that. Maybe we buy air purifiers, or take every vitamin and natural supplement we can lay our hands on, or become obsessive over the amount of sleep we get.

Or maybe we take the opposite course. Maybe we push down our fears of illness, and instead medicate in some way in a desperate effort to drive the thoughts from our conscious thinking. (See my blog post HERE for more about how medicating is one way we run from our fears.) That can be food, or drink, or drugs, or the Home Shopping Network, or almost anything that distracts us from our terrible fears of illness.

And that’s a kind of doing something, isn’t it? To our Flight or Fight thinking running away is a fine, fine option. That’s what sensible creatures DO when they’re threatened with danger, right? Except that of course there IS no immediate, right-now danger here, and we’re either making ourselves crazed with stress or we’re not being rational and self-caring in our management of our fears…

It isn’t just illness that sits in the big-league fears, of course. There are others, like financial fears. Nightmares of running out of money, or doing work we hate, or living on the edge of poverty stalk us when our guard comes down or we’d suddenly confronted with money needs.

Or maybe it is the fear of being alone, left by the side of the road, with no-one to care for us, love us or with which to share our days. We summon visions of growing old alone, or the sad shaking of heads from our friends at our obvious plight, or some picture of how pathetic it will be to be making dinner for one…

We can summarize these big-league fears with one word: death. Death can be defined as the actual ending of our lives, or it could be framed in terms of a lifeless life – i.e., being trapped, out of money, lonely, crippled by illness, etc. The opposite of living.

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Part of what makes all of this so scary is that we’re frightened by the visions we create of these dark scenarios, but we haven’t really thought THROUGH any of it much. Sure, we’re thought ABOUT it to death (no pun intended) – but we haven’t really pulled it apart – haven’t really (wait for it) looked at it as a problem, rather than a crisis…

Please don’t think I’m being dismissive or making light of any of these fears. These are big, soul-numbing, stop-the-show fears that can rock our worlds and wreak havoc on our peace of mind. And our fears are not just limited to the biggies…

Small Fears

It doesn’t demand big fears to get us trembling about the unknown. Sometimes it’s the little or medium-sized fears that suck the joy from our existence.

You have your own, right? Maybe it’s the fear of speaking in front of an audience. Maybe it’s the fear of looking stupid or uncool in front of friends. Maybe it is the fear of slowly growing older, losing youthful looks and energy. Maybe it is the fear of conflict with family or peers.

I have talked with people who are afraid to eat in public, for various reasons. I have others who can’t take trains, or airplanes, or travel across bridges. I know folks that are terrified to talk to strangers, or sit by themselves in a movie theatre, or go to the gym. Maybe it is a handful of these fears all pushing on you at once.

(And, btw, a LOT of people would challenge me on calling these small or medium-sized fears – for some people the fear of speaking in front of an audience is just shy of being asked to skydive naked without a parachute. In fact they’d prefer to skydive naked without a parachute if they could skip public speaking…)

What’s the common denominator? The unknown. Something bad MIGHT happen doing this new, unfamiliar thing. Taken far enough this unknown thing might mess up or end my life. Said that way it sounds a little silly, but that’s how it FEELS to us when we’re afraid.

Were you ever afraid of the monster in the closet, or underneath the bed? Did you ever lie there thinking holy crap, what IF there was something in there or under there? Just waiting for you to NOT pay attention, fall asleep, so it could get you? I sure did. That’s what ALL of these fears are – big and small. They are the monsters in the closet. We want to be rational about it, we want to not be scared, but what IF there really is some danger? What IF this terrible thing actually happened…

Because, like I’ve already said, at the bottom of ALL of this fear of the unknown is the fear of our own death.

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What to Do About the Monsters in the Closet?

This is a tricky one, because there is an answer that too many of us default to in our approach to closet monsters. We are tempted to leave the lights on. That sounds smart, doesn’t it – if the light is on the monster can’t get us… we all know monsters are afraid of the light.

But leaving the light on still assumes the existence of the monster, lurking out there beyond the light, beyond what we can clearly see and control. What we’re really doing is practicing a kind of hyper-vigilance. We teach ourselves to constantly be on guard for the monster – or, in this discussion, anything new or different or risky.

The more effective strategy is to get up and actually SEE if there’s a monster in there. Because once we do that we find hey, no monster. (This doesn’t mean you should start getting up every 10 minutes, like I did for a while – closet monsters can’t just come out of thin air!) 🙂

What we have to do is address the thinking that says there is a closet monster in the first place! Think about this: here we are, leaving lights on, pulling the sheets up tight to our chin, hoping against hope that the monster doesn’t come tonight… when the very premise of the monster is false. We’re burning a TON of time, energy and worry on a hypothetical, a fear we’ve conjured out of our conjectures of what might be, and then began treating it as if it was real.

Let me encourage you to go back and read that last paragraph again. We have to challenge our thinking. That’s the real start of dealing with the unknown – of the closet monsters in our brains.

ALL of our fears (that are not real, immediate, life-or-death dangers) can only be one of two kinds of problem:

1) It is a problem you can do something about/affect in some concrete way, or
2) It is a problem you have no power over and have to accept as part of life.

If it is a problem that we can do something about, well, we need to do something about it. That means converting the crisis in our thinking – the anxious thinking that we’re currently doing – back to what it is – a problem. (See my blog post HERE on effective strategies to dealing with problems.)

That doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easy, this problem or group of problems. It will probably take work, time, facing down your fears about the unknowns this problem could create, etc. But that’s what problems are about – at least problems in this category.

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The point is that we have to get up and DO something about this closet monster, because WE are the ones making this problem into a crisis. We are the ones sitting around worrying about the unknown, when what we need to do is face into the unknown.

Isn’t it interesting how often the things that scare us turn out to be no big deal at all? And, when they are anything other than a small thing, that we in fact manage them pretty well? Even some of the big things?

The other kind of problem is, well, very much a matter of breathing and accepting. Some problems we can’t do a dang thing about! We will all in fact get older, for example. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. We can burn a LOT of energy, fear, anger and time railing against it, but it is still going to happen.

With this kind of problem the only rational response is to GET OVER IT and get on with our lives! Sure, I wish we didn’t get older – I like having all my abilities and strength and energy and everything else that old age erodes a little at a time. So what? ANY energy we give to shouting at the rain is, any time or effort in this direction, is lost to us forever.

Life is HERE, now, in this present moment. Our mission is literally to seize the day and stop lamenting the future – for any reason. Working to improve it, that’s fine. But even that requires us to be living HERE and NOW…

If the thing you’re afraid of is out of your control it is time to see it as such and get back to living your life now. If it is something you can address then the answer is to get up and address it. Either way it is a problem, not a crisis.

The first step in that direction is to get clear on what you’re actually addressing. It isn’t the terrible hypothetical future that you’ve been trying to avoid or stop from happening. It is the thinking that generates that future in the first place.

The Primary Weapon to Deal Effectively with Closet Monsters

I am a big, big science-fiction fan. In the annuals of science-fiction there is a classic “B” sci-fi film called “Forbidden Planet.” In the story a scientist finds a planet where everyone has vanished, but there is still this giant machine with the power on – a machine that can create for you, instantly, anything you can think of. Food, clothes, cars, houses, any material possession that you can summon from imagination – POOF! There it is…

The only problem is that it can summon ANYTHING you can think of – including your darkest fears and worries. When a spaceship comes to check on the scientist the people on the ship are attacked by an invisible something that seems infinitely powerful – and when they can finally figure out a way to see it the thing is literally a scary, scary monster – a creature that CAN’T exist – but does in the mind of this scientist…

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What they figure out in the movie is that they have to stop the monster NOT out in the real world – because it doesn’t really exist – but in the mind of the scientist who is creating it with the help of this machine. And that’s a GREAT metaphor for anxiety fighters and the fears we summon into existence (in our fearful reactions.)

The primary weapon we have against anxiety, at the very core of this work, is identifying the thinking that is scaring us. That means looking clearly at the thinking that scares us. We have to break the habit of either hyper-vigilance or running away – however we do either or both.

Over the next several posts I’m going to talk about getting clear on some of the beliefs, attitudes and core assumptions that can be such fertile ground for anxious thinking. I’m focusing on this because so much of this, as I said earlier in this post, has been pushed away from our conscious thought/awareness. It can be hard, even challenging at the start of this work, to figure out just what thoughts are scaring us.

It can also mean challenging some cherished, deeply-held beliefs about who we are, who we should be and how we MUST act/live our lives. It can make us literally feel disoriented and confused. Most of us never, ever challenge our basic assumptions about the world and who we are. But buried in those foundation stones of thinking, too often, are the very thoughts that rock our world and scare the crap out of us.

This is the exact weapon that will banish forever the monster in the closet. We have to come to understand, deeply, that there IS no monster in there.

Sure, life has risks. Yes, there are real dangers in the world. But those are either crises that we have to address in the moment they are happening (small things like meteor impacts, or earthquakes, or your mother-in-law dropping by without calling first… OK, maybe the last one IS a crisis) or they are problems – issues that need some work, thought, potential solutions or even just acceptance that they are beyond your control.

In either case, not a monster in the closet.

So if you’re interested in banishing monsters, gird your loins – we’re getting up from the bed and daring to open that closet door in the next few posts here. You’ll want a journal of some kind, in case you don’t have one already – this is work that will require a little thought and time. It’s time to banish those monsters, once and for all…

Human beings have pretty impressive brains. (The elephants and dolphins might have something to say about that, but until we can chat with them I’m pretty comfortable making this claim.) You don’t have to take my word for it – if you’re reading this you have your own experience with how cool your brain is.

Think of all the things we can do with these brains! We can create art, manage complicated relationships, solve problems (more about THAT particular skill in my last blog post), juggle multiple priorities, master complex physical skills, remember stuff that happened years and years ago, build remarkable pieces of technology – lots of cool things. Perhaps, most importantly, we can make cookies – surely one of the highest expressions of human genius…

There are, however, some challenges with having these mighty brains. The one I want to talk about today is the risk we run of assuming that if we think it, well, then it must be true. In other words we tend to take our thinking way too often at face value, without calling into question the thinking we’re doing.

I’m going to talk a LOT more about this in upcoming blog posts, but all I want to do today is to get you started thinking about this: what are you taking for granted in your thinking? Do you question your assumptions, beliefs, attitudes even a little bit?

I Wouldn’t Think it if it Wasn’t True – Right?

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I know, that sounds silly. Most of us are able to acknowledge that just because we think something doesn’t mean it is automatically true. But the way we ACT is another thing altogether. We charge along, interacting with our world, making decisions, taking action (or avoiding taking action), evaluating information, trusting or distrusting situations or people, and doing most of it without really considering what we’re basing those decisions and actions on.

Why is this important? Because, as I find a way to say here almost every blog post, anxiety starts in our thinking. That includes in a giant way our expectations and assumptions about the world, our behavior, what is useful or not useful.

So if we’re going to be effective in our work to overcome and master our anxiety we’re going to have to become somewhat skillful at examining and questioning our thinking. We have to become skeptics – skeptics about what we take for granted in our thinking. We can’t really afford to continue just taking our thinking/assumptions at face value…

I Believe…

Two little words – so much power to control our thinking and behavior. Let’s see how I do coming up with examples –

Let’s say that you believe that being a good friend (or spouse, or parent, or you name it) means you can never, ever be angry with someone you love. You might have a host of reasons for believing that. You might have grown up in a house with a lot of shouting and fighting – or you might have grown up in a house where anger was strongly punished. Whatever the origins of that thinking you think any display or expression of anger is BAD.

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But while there are certainly less useful ways of expressing our anger (like attacking someone physically or kicking your small fuzzy dog) that doesn’t mean that anger is categorically evil. In fact (as I’ve argued before in this blog) we HAVE to be able to acknowledge and admit our feelings to ourselves – and that includes being angry.

That’s nice and all, but you might be reading this and going “sure, that’s fine for other people Erik, but I KNOW that anger is always wrong, or dangerous, or scary, or…” whatever you’re thinking to yourself. Here’s the rub: you’re wrong. It isn’t. Very few things in the natural world are right or wrong by themselves or in all circumstances. It is mistaken thinking – not useful to us.

Yet if we don’t call into question such a fundamental belief it will continue to drive all kinds of thinking and behavior that is also not useful to us. This is the kind of thinking, for example, that leads someone to endure selfish or ignorant behavior with a forced smile and silence until that ugly hour comes when we blow up at something tiny – because we’ve had ENOUGH and we’re PISSED AS HELL!

(You’ve never had that happen, right?) 🙂

So where are your beliefs getting YOU in trouble? What “bedrock truths” are in need of at least a pulling-off-the-shelf-and-dusting experience in your thinking? What do you believe that needs some review? They might be family articles of faith, or lessons you learned at work that you’ve taken too much to heart, or just the voices of your fears, steering you away (or towards) behaviors and thinking that promise safety…

Speaking of which, here’s another one –

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Good Work Means Perfection

This is a pretty insidious thought for us anxiety fighters. Good isn’t good enough – no sir. Nope, good is only good when it’s exactly right, or perfect, or completely free from errors or risk… like THAT ever happens! Again, there are a variety of possible origins for such a wacky thought, but that isn’t my interest here – my interest is in getting you to challenge that crazy thinking and get skeptical about the truth of such an assumption.

Sure, there are times and places where something akin to perfection is feasible and desirable. I like my brain surgeons to be pretty close to perfect, for instance. I like my pilots to be all but error-free when they land and take off.

But that’s not the same thing as saying EVERYTHING we attempt has to come off perfectly, or that we shouldn’t make mistakes with whatever we’re doing. I think this is one of the most dangerous thoughts a person can carry around in their skull.

So many smart risks, so many chances to face down fear and anxiety, so many opportunities to learn something new or shake free of old and destructive habits are shut down and passed by with this little virus of a thought. We HAVE to risk and even make mistakes to learn. We have to try experiments that we’re not certain of the outcome. I know, that’s crazy talk, right? Who in their right mind would take chances that they can’t control?

Anxiety fighters – that’s who. One of the life-sucking results of anxiety is that we get more and more risk-adverse. We become addicts to safety, listening to the siren song of our Flight or Fight reactions and the Comfort Zone those reactions are building. To win our freedom we have to be willing to push past our Comfort Zone walls, challenge our fears and take chances that might succeed or fail – THIS time.

And that’s another thing about seeking perfection or perfect safety – we need to take a longer view. We need to see that learning takes time, that getting skillful takes time – that we can only even hope for superior or close to error-free IF we’re willing to make mistakes, mess up, have good days and bad days (or even good hours and bad hours) if we’ll roll up our sleeves, be willing to get dirty and risk getting our knees skinned, metaphorically speaking…

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We All Need a Little More Science in Our Lives

One of the gifts that scientific thinking brought the world is the notion that it is GOOD to question our assumptions. Scientists make their living in large part by questioning why and how things happen. They look for clear root causes. They build theories about the world (or some small piece of it) and then, if they’re doing their jobs right, test those theories again and again to see how accurate those theories really are.

We need to do more of that with our thinking. We need to be better, skeptical thinkers. Here are some samples:

“I can’t do this.” Really? Why? Is that fear talking or is that something you already know? Are you basing that on past experience that may or may not be valid anymore? Were the circumstances under which you tried this the last time the same as this time? Do you know more now? Could you try it several times before you decide you really can’t do it?

“I’m going to fail.” So now you’re able to see the future? HOW do you know you’ll fail? You MIGHT fail – I’m not saying you’re guaranteed success by virtue of trying – but on the other hand, how the heck can you really know if you DON’T try? Probably some basing this on past experience, when you knew less or were not as capable as you are now…

“I know someone will feel this or that way if I do this or that.” Not only are we pretending to be fortune tellers, but we also act as if we were telepaths. Yes, history might tell us that a person could have a particular reaction. Again, are we basing our assumption on repeated experience or one ugly response? Has that person gotten any older or wiser? And just how dangerous IS that person’s response anyway – what makes it so scary in the first place? Heck, maybe it’s time to risk a less-than-super-happy-response anyway – maybe you BOTH need a little honesty and shaking up of your thinking…

We’re going to do a lot more of this kind of thinking here at the blog in the months to come. For now, just consider this notion: we all need to question our assumptions. It is difficult to do, especially when we’re just starting out. It is tiring. It is sometimes world-shaking. But it is also vitally important in the fight to beat anxiety.

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