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This post is all about application of the notion that our anxiety springs from one central source – a nasty habit of asking ourselves scary “what if” questions about one or more topics. Today I’m going to demonstrate the process of unpacking those what if questions – finding them, seeing how we are making them into a crisis, and converting them back into what they are, at most – a problem.

Key points to remember in this discussion: 1) We don’t have to be conscious of what if thinking to have it scare the crap out of us. Very important to keep this in mind. We usually start this work rattling our own cages constantly but not really being clear on WHY – what the what if thinking is precisely. 2) It is in the nature of the Comfort Zone to resist this kind of examination. Each of us winds up saying “this stuff is too scary to think about” for a long time, consciously and unconsciously. It’s going to take some work and time to get clear on your what if thinking – and more time to get it converted back to what it is – a problem.

Let’s start with a brief summary of how we start scaring ourselves – how we get to what if questions driving us crazy…

Thinking plus Flight or Fight Equals What If – where the Trouble Starts

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I hear some variation of this what if just about every day. It makes a ton of sense. We get rattled by our fearful thinking – whatever it is – and we have Flight or Fight lurch out of the shadows and start shouting at us that something is WRONG!

And there is something wrong, in the sense that we are scaring ourselves silly. But for too many of us we’re not clear where the scaring begins or how much we’re letting both our fearful thinking and the reactions of Flight or Fight make us crazy.

Let’s be very clear – our anxiety started, at some point in our past, in our thinking. Whatever is happening at the moment, however crazed we feel we are right now, it can all be traced back to a moment when we learned/were taught (by circumstance or people around us) to see some issue, problem, challenge as a crisis – to see it as life or death.

That it wasn’t (or isn’t) life or death doesn’t matter. What matters is that we learned to SEE it that way. The moment we did that we who fight anxiety began to back away, flinch back, avoid that issue or challenge because we were seeing it as terrible, destructive, life or death.

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When we did that we engaged Flight or Fight, our natural defense system in the presence of life or death danger. And one of the most useful things Flight or Fight can do for us when we’re facing down actual life or death danger is figure out, RIGHT NOW, what might get us to safety.

If we’re backed against a cliff facing down a pride of lions this is damn useful. If we wake up and we smell smoke in the house this is brilliant. This mechanism does its thing at blinding speed, we’re thinking about how we get to safety and we’re already in motion, grabbing kids, finding a stick to fight off lions (or more likely scoping that thin path up the ledge to safety) –

In other words Flight or Fight is asking a fierce amount of “what if?” questions, all for the purpose of deciding which route to safety is the best, which course of action to take to get us away from whatever the danger is in front of us. All good – in real crisis.

But this amazing mechanism works exactly the same way the moment we THINK we’re in danger. It is here that we started to get stuck in the quicksand of anxious thinking, and it is here that we have to get our thinking cleaned up if we’re going to break free of anxiety.

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We Freak Out over Flight or Fight Reactions

One fiercely common example of what if thinking centers then around Flight or Fight reactions. LOTS of us get very caught up in this or that Flight or Fight response symptom, and then spin off into what if thinking about that symptom or symptoms. (For a list of the most common ones see the post HERE.)

Let’s try a common one – shallow breathing. There you are, Mr. or Ms. Anxiety Fighter, walking along or sitting at your computer, and BAM, you’re breathing is suddenly noticeable. You feel like you can’t get a deep breath. This scares you/freaks you out, so you start focusing on trying to breathe, or maybe you try distracting yourself, or you do whatever you do to comfort yourself or get away from this scary thing…

And you are what if thinking, right there, right now. What if this means something is wrong with me physically? What if I’m sick with something and don’t know it? What if this means I have cancer, or a brain tumor?

Another set of questions is simply what if this never stops? That’s scary to us precisely because we’ve made, all unintentionally, this symptom INTO something scary, and we spin that out into forever. Of course this anxious thinking opens the door to all of our other anxious thoughts – what if I can’t keep this job, what if my Mom dies soon, what if I never fall in love, you name it.

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Here’s the good news in this firestorm of anxious thinking: it’s all in our thinking. Every last bit of it. It isn’t Flight or Fight – shallow breathing, in this case – that’s the problem. It FEELS like the problem. It sure is the focus of our conscious thinking. But the problem is the thinking we’ve attached to this thing, not the thing itself.

Take “what if this never stops?” That seems scary as hell! But that thought isn’t anything in reality – it is simply and only our fear of what might happen. The truth is (and I fought this very hard when it first became clear to me) that we’re feeding and encouraging that shallow breathing by our thinking – in this case, by our what if this never stops thinking.

We have to disrupt, challenge and shut down that thinking. That’s hard at the start of this work. We FEEL like something terrible is happening with this shallow breathing. We want to make it stop by force of will. We want someone to turn it off for us. It’s too terrible to have to sit through, so we just want to run away – medicate with food, or some drug, or maybe just sit in our quiet corner and tremble, hoping it stops by itself.

But the way out is shutting down that what if thinking that is the problem in the first place. This applies to all of our Flight or Fight reactions. Feeling an overwhelming sadness? Sure you are. You are what if thinking about one or more (usually more) terrible fears about the future. What if this happens? What if this never gets better? What if I’m ALWAYS anxious? Etc. Who wouldn’t feel sad under the barrage of that kind of thinking?

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Feeling your heart race? Mouth suddenly so dry you can’t swallow? Dizzy as hell? Feeling mysterious and sudden anger? Does everything seem pointless? Guess what? Behind all of that is what if thinking, firing up Flight or Fight reactions.

We Don’t Stop this on a Dime

We have to go to the source of the problem to make this anxiety crap stop. That’s hard because we’re afraid to just “be” with our Flight or Fight reactions. That’s hard because we may not always be clear at the start of this work, or even well into this work, about which what if questions are scaring us – we’ve been pushing them away for a LONG time.

And this work is hard because we’ve gotten very, very good at avoiding our Flight or Fight reactions – we’ve learned to really scare ourselves with them. No question about any of that. But the work remains – identifying, tackling and changing that what if thinking.

I was, for two decades, terrified in my core of vertigo/dizziness/being lightheaded. Started for me in Junior High and haunted my days until my 35th birthday. I wept, raged, medicated with food and anything else that was at hand that also didn’t scare me, meditated, distracted myself, but the fear was always there.

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Then I met this whack job who said maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t my dizzy that was the real problem. Maybe it was what I was telling myself about the dizzy – and a whole lot of other things. I fought that tooth and claw for months and months. I tried to endure the days, endure the dizzy and the fear, but that didn’t change anything.

But I was learning to unpack my thinking. I was seeing how much I scared myself about a lot of things – my career, my relationships, who I was in the world, what failure looked like to me – I had a LOT of what ifs in my thinking. They were eating me alive, truth be told.

I identified those what if fears. I began to understand how they were problems. Some of them were serious problems. Some of them were only problems in my thinking. Some of them had never been problems at all. And as I got good at that I reluctantly realized that even my dizzy was just a what if question – what if this never stops, what if this goes on forever, what if I’m never free of anxiety?

I had been feeding and sustaining the dizzy for decades – and I had no idea. I was furious, I was scared, I wanted to do anything but face dizzy down. But face it down I did. I started refusing to engage in the what if thinking any more. It was hard. It was damn hard some days. I had been doing it for years and years.

And as I practiced that I began to scare myself less. Oh, you bet there were burps and backslides. I got confused, easily, but looking for NO dizzy as the mission, rather than seeing dizzy for what it was – a Flight or Fight response, something physical but not dangerous. I learned, and relearned, and relearned.

Guess what? It stopped being scary.

You can do this too.

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As I work to finish this book I’m reminded again and again how much we who fight or have fought anxiety just want to be DONE with being anxious. We’re sick of it, we’re over it, we hate how we feel and we want this to happen YESTERDAY. The problem with this thinking is that it makes us savagely impatient – with ourselves and with whatever approach we’re taking to the work of breaking anxiety’s hold in our lives.

This isn’t quick fix work. This is steady practice, skill-building, re-education and making mistakes in the process of learning along the way. It takes time, it takes energy and it is often frustrating/feels slow. On the other hand ANY skill-building takes time – and these are skills that literally transform our lives and our worlds as we learn them. And it is my argument that it doesn’t take any more energy to fight and overcome anxiety through this skill-building process than it does to constantly wrestle with anxiety’s life-suck every day – and THIS work actually takes us towards our freedom.

So, a little reminder from this post I put up last year. This isn’t quick-fix work – but it is life-changing and life-giving work.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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If there is one phrase I hear almost every day I do coaching around overcoming anxiety it’s this: “Yes, Erik, I know some things I should do – but I feel so helpless.” It is a feeling I remember too well. It was like the world was just out of reach, visible, but blocked by some invisible barrier. I didn’t believe I could change anything in my life, and I felt very, very helpless.

I was wrong. I took my feeling helpless as a fact, but it wasn’t. I was confused and ignorant of some important truths about helplessness, and I want to get those truths clarified today with this blog post. We don’t have to continue to be the prisoner of that sense of helplessness. We are not helpless. We are stronger than we know.

Truth: Helplessness is a CONCEPT – a Thought

We toss around the term “feeling” a lot, we who fight or have fought anxiety. We look to our feelings a great deal. We see them as signposts to our terrible condition, and proof that something is wrong with us, physically and mentally. And we say, way too often, that we feel helpless…

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But helpless isn’t a feeling – not really. Helpless is a belief, a conclusion that we reach based on old thinking, training and experience. We THINK we are helpless. We FEEL sad, trapped, despairing, scared, anxious – but we think we are helpless.

In other words we BELIEVE that we are helpless – and all too often, as a result, we then act helpless, and viola, we’re not doing anything. Action all too often follows belief (although it definitely works both ways), and so, believing we’re unable to help ourselves, or that our situation is too big for us, we do nothing.

We get set up early in our lives, most of us, trained to believe that because for some point in our lives we were unable to change things that scared us or made us feel trapped, we can NEVER change those things.

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We were, for a time, in a cage – a cage of family, or circumstance, or belief, and we learned to think that we had no recourse, no way to get away from situations that made us think we were helpless, unable to change anything about those situations.

But we’re wrong. We are not helpless, and we can do an enormous amount to be self-helping, self-caring in our lives. We can unlearn the belief that we are helpless.

An Example or Two

Where do we feel helpless? Heck, where to start?

Some of us feel helpless when it comes to finances. We learned early, in various ways, to see money as scary, or not having X amount of money as scary, or that earning money is hard, or undependable. We don’t learn to trust our own abilities to earn money, or earn it reliably. We come to see tracking money as punishing, or limiting spending to stay within our means (of the moment!) as punishing. In other words we feel helpless around money and money issues.

Some of us feel helpless about relationships. We learn to put other people’s needs and wants before ours because we feel that we can’t manage life on our own – that if we’re alone we’ll be unable to take care of ourselves, emotionally or physically or mentally or all of the above. We think that we can’t navigate the world by ourselves, even for some short period of time. We come to believe that we’re weak, or insufficient – i.e., that we’re helpless.

And because we think we’re helpless in relationships we live in terror of losing those relationships – spouses, or kids, or family members, or friends, or all of the above. So we become enablers, constantly allowing behavior towards us that we’d be horrified to see other people suffering – but all because we think we’re helpless and can’t do without that person, or SOMEONE, to help us take care of our lives.

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Some of us feel helpless in the face of big circumstances. We’re terrified of change in almost any form. We refuse to think of death, or illness, or taking chances to get a better life, because we think we’re unable to navigate the storm, the difficult times, until times get better again, until we learn to cope with the changed situation. We don’t trust ourselves. We think we are helpless.

(Notice btw that I keep using the word “think”. It is thinking that is the problem here.)

Flight or Fight Just Makes Helpless FEEL True

To add insult to injury when we think we’re helpless we scare ourselves – and Flight or Fight rises up to help us “get away from this danger.” I don’t know that any creature is completely comfortable with the sense that they can’t help themselves, but I DO know that we human beings are very squirrely when we think we can’t manage our worlds and our lives.

The problem with this Flight or Fight response is that too often it doesn’t do anything but enforce the belief that we’re helpless! Instead of propelling us to take action it simply magnifies our sense of helplessness – convincing us further that we can’t go it alone, or can’t do the things that we need to do to regain a sense of agency in our lives.

You know the drill, don’t you? You are wandering along, minding your own business, when suddenly you get a bill in the mail, and you’re forced to consider money. Money scares you, and you think you feel trapped (well, heck, you DO feel trapped – but that’s a result of your thinking, not of your feelings.)

In other words you’re treating money as a crisis – classic anxiety thinking – so Flight or Fight is simply responding to you thinking there IS a crisis – when there isn’t. Yes, I know, you don’t have enough money, you’re living on the margin, you’re poor, etc. – been there and did that. But we have to see clearly what we’re dealing with – and unless you’re about to die of starvation or exposure to the elements it isn’t a crisis – it’s a problem, or set of problems – and it needs to be treated as a problem.

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We have to learn to see through Flight or Fight, see around the feelings to the thinking that lies behind them, and then tackle that thinking. Because, unless you’re tied to your chair or are locked in a dungeon someplace, you are not helpless, however you feel. None of us are helpless. We just don’t get it – yet.

Time to Rediscover (or Maybe Discover for the First Time) our Real Power

We are stronger than we know. We are much, much more able than we believe we are. The minds that have us believing that we are helpless are the same minds that can help us discover our own strength and ability. A great deal of that learning has to do with taking action, even if we don’t think we can, even if we don’t FEEL like it. Let’s make that step #1:

1) Get up and take action – even when we don’t feel like it. One of the most powerful weapons in the fight against thinking we’re helpless is proving we’re NOT.

Afraid of your money? Then it’s time to a) identify the what if thinking that is scaring you in the first place, b) work to get that crisis thinking clear and back to problem thinking, and c) start treating it AS a problem – by taking action. Balance that checkbook, even if you’re crying the whole time. (I sure did!) Call the credit card company and get a payment deferred to next month while you sort out finances. Ask your Mom for the loan, or someone – and promise yourself no more loans. Do something – and keep at it.

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Which means not crumpling into a ball the first moment you feel helpless. Sounds simple – and it is. Scary. Helpless-feeling. But simple. It does however mean defying those feelings that say we can’t or are unable to…

2) Keep getting up – however “pointless” it FEELS. We have to keep at it. Helpless often takes us to “well, I tried, but nothing changed, so I decided there was no point in continuing.” That’s the very DEFINITION of helpless. This is practicing a new way of thinking and moving. We won’t get it sorted out overnight! And we will be tempted again and again to just sit down and give up.

Don’t. And when you do (and you will) get up again. Fail. Try again. Begin to teach yourself that you’re more able than helpless thinking would have you believe. See through those old learned reactions to what you are capable of…

3) Get out of the future in our thinking. Crisis thinking takes us into the future. Imagine the horrible thing that will happen when X occurs. This horrible thing will lead to this horrible thing. I’ll never be able to manage my money, so I’ll wind up on the street pushing a shopping cart and wearing garbage bags. Blah Blah Blah…

But the truth is that each of us is much more capable than we currently believe. If we’re going to reclaim our power one important step is to break the hold of obsessive, future worrying. It’s never helped us. Yes, it’s tempting. For many of us it is a strong and siren-like habit, calling us back again and again.

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But we don’t have to keep going there. It will take practice. It will mean focusing on the present even when we reflexively go into the “terrible” future. It will mean getting up and doing even when we don’t FEEL like it. It will mean treating crises as problems. But all of that work will begin to demonstrate what we can really do when we decide that we’re not helpless any longer.

The Time to Act is NOW

Even if we are called back to the couch, or to the TV show, or to the warm embrace of another brownie. (Yes, I’m a recovering brownie addict.) Helpless isn’t really a feeling. Helpless is a mindset, born of early training and long practice. We can break that habit. We are stronger than we know.

So – what “crisis” are you going to start treating like a problem, today, now?

In my last post I started listing out the reasons we get held up in our work to shake loose from anxious thinking. I went through the two biggest – running from our fears of Flight or Fight sensations and feelings, and not doing the hard but necessary work of identifying and “unpacking” our anxious thinking.

I’m going to list out what in my experience are the other stumbling blocks we can trip up on in this journey out of anxiety as a lifestyle. The next is

3) Insisting that something is physically wrong when we haven’t really challenged our anxious thinking

Ugh! How many of us, desperate to find a way to get some relief from how scared and trapped we feel, search hard and long for some clear medical reason for our anxiety? It isn’t a foolish thing to do. We are feeling in our bodies all these strange and terrifying sensations. Our bodies seem out of control! Real, physical things are rocking our worlds, disrupting our lives – it seems logical to find physical causes for these events.

The problem is that we (way too often, once we start this quest) find ourselves back at the doctor’s office or emergency room again and again and again… and usually just making ourselves more frustrated and anxious at what we find… which is nothing. We get our blood pressure checked, they examine our hearts, they take blood samples, they ask us questions, and then we get told that there isn’t anything wrong.

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Isn’t that comforting? No. Because we’re STILL having these physical things cascade through our bodies – hearts racing, breath labored and shallow, nausea doubling us over, etc. There HAS to be something physical wrong, right?

No. Actually there doesn’t have to be anything physical askew with us. This can be explained in terms of Flight or Fight responding to our fearful thinking. That’s big news for some us. And that’s hard news for some of us as well. It’s hard sometimes because we really don’t want to face down the thinking that scares us. And it’s hard news because we can harbor a hope that some pill or some treatment will make all of this fear and worry STOP.

Maybe someday. But not right now. Right now the work is unpacking that anxious thinking and coming to understand what’s happening in our bodies is simply reactive to that thinking.

I’m NOT saying that we shouldn’t go see a doctor if we’re having physical sensations or changes that scare us! By all means see the doc. It is WAY, way better to have that examination and assessment (and the accompanying solid information it can provide us about our physical health) than it is to not know.

The mission isn’t to avoid the doctor. The mission is to, once we have that “hey, we can’t find anything wrong with you physically” to then get down to the work of sorting out our anxious thinking.

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And, of course, there is a group of us that is both afraid to see the doctor AND afraid of what’s happening to us in our bodies – the proverbial rock and the hard place. Well, let’s be clear – there’s no rock or hard place – just anxious thinking that’s got us boxed in the corner for the moment. ALL of that is about addressing the fearful thinking that is hobbling us.

Our fears want us to just sit down, not move and wait for the anxiety to go away. It isn’t going to happen. Sooner or later we have to get up and make a move towards one or another Comfort Zone wall in our fears if we’re going to break the hold of anxiety in our lives.

Here’s another reason we can find ourselves not making progress in our work –

4) Refusing to Accept Discomfort as Part of the Journey

As anxiety fighters we learn way too early and too well to NOT be very kind to ourselves. We can engage very quickly in pretty self-abusive self-talk about how weak we are, how stupid we are, how much we suck, etc. So I address this next topic with some nervousness. I am NOT accusing any of us of being weak or stupid.

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I AM saying that it is very tempting to step back, and keep stepping back, from being uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is really a poor description. We step back from being scared out of our wits, at least at the start. Then at some point we keep flinching back from the memories of that fear whenever we get a twinge, an unexpected Flight or Fight sensation, a fearful thought…

And before you know it we’re (too often) sitting in our house, afraid to go out – or even just one room of our house. We’re avoiding even getting close to being uncomfortable for fear of waking the sleeping tiger of our fears. We hate being trapped and shut down – but we hate even more the notion that we’re going to have to deal with that fear again.

Part of the problem stems from our sheer ignorance when our anxiety first made itself apparent to us. We had our first bad spate of chronic anxious worrying, or our first panic attack, or our first conscious descent into depression, and it scared us. What the hell was going on, we wondered?

It is completely natural to flinch back from scary things. That kept our forebears alive in the face of some serious danger. But we’re NOT in physical danger when we’re fighting anxiety. We have to begin the very uncomfortable but absolutely necessary work of looking our fear in the eye and learning that it can’t hurt us, however much it scares us.

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We have to, essentially, get comfortable with some discomfort on the way to our freedom. Easy to say – hard to start – but still essential. We don’t have to do this all at once. We need to take it in steps, in small pieces at first, and slowly start to change our thinking about being uncomfortable, even very uncomfortable now and again.

That’s going to take time, and practice, and probably some encouragement and support from other people – a good therapist, a support group nearby or online, good information about anxiety and some solid self-care. And speaking of self-care – well, that’s another thing that can get in the way of us doing this work – or rather

5) Refusing to do Consistent Self-Care

Ah, the subject of self-care. Most of us KNOW that we have a need to take decent care of ourselves, yes? 🙂 But sadly we who battle anxiety are not usually skillful self-carers…

Self-care provides the foundation that we need to tackle this work of breaking anxiety’s hold. It isn’t terribly complicated, but it does run afoul of our fears. In some respects dealing with anxiety is to have to confront some of the ways we avoid our anxiety and sabotage our self-care at the same time.

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There are several issues to sustaining decent basic self-care. The first is how we can find various ways to medicate our fears with things like food, lots of TV in bed, alcohol, etc. (See my blog post HERE on medication and anxiety.) Our medicating often gets in the way of our self-care.

As I’ve said before in this blog my family’s preferred medication of choice is FOOD. We are part of the Carbohydrate Clan – we like our breads, cookies, brownies, the occasional giant piece of Safeway cake, etc. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong per se with any of these tasty treats. It is using them as a way to distract and divert our anxiety that becomes a problem when it comes to self-care –

To be clear distraction and diversion of obsessive anxious thinking is a very useful tool. We just don’t want it to get in the way of our work to get free of chronic anxiety.

(And of course it isn’t actually self-care to be eating significantly more calories than our bodies actually need in a day. I know, it’s bad form to discuss the W word – weight – but self-care includes some awareness of what’s useful to us. Don’t turn this discussion into another way to abuse yourself mentally and emotionally around all your “failures” – that’s anxiety talking. See this as a frank discussion of where each of us need to look clearly at our efforts – or lack thereof – in the direction of self-care.)

What this means is that we don’t want to HIDE behind our distractions/diversions. Using them to break up the obsessive thinking habits we’ve developed – that’s brilliant. Running from our anxious ruminating – that’s not so useful. That could be food, or loads of TV/DVD watching when we need to get up and engage our lives, or endless hours of video games, or whatever our medication of choice happens to be…

And some medications are significantly more destructive in the short-term than others. Over-eating to comfort ourselves isn’t a great idea – but we’re not destroying our livers and wreaking havoc on our thinking the way we can if we’re medicating for anxiety with chronic alcohol or drug medicating. Same thing if we’re blowing tons of cash with gambling or online shopping.

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Let’s review good self-care at its most basic:

Sleep – essential. Some of us have more challenges than others around this – but to the extent we can at the present moment we need to take sleep seriously. Some things that help are setting a regular time for bed (to the extent we can), slowing down before bed, practicing getting away from staring a TV down as you fall asleep (seems to mess up sleep cycles and restful sleep), and getting quiet and dark for sleep (again, as much as we can given our situation and our current progress in our anxiety work.)

There is some great advice on the web around healthy sleeping habits. Don’t get lost in finding PERFECT sleep skills/habits – just see where you can make improvements for yourself.

Nutrition – notice I didn’t say “food.” Nutrition is the real food game. Getting good food (some veggies, some protein, not too many carbs, a little healthy fat) is fueling the body for the work we’re doing. Don’t need to become a monk or only drink wheatgrass juice – just some basic healthy eating and not eating too much.

Again this isn’t terribly complicated. Find some basic information on your height, weight and nutritional needs on a daily basis on the web and then STOP. Basics, basics, basics.

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Movement – notice I didn’t say “exercise”! We’re talking 25-30 minutes of walking if you can manage that at the moment physically. Or some time in a pool swimming. Heck, jog or even run if you’re up to that. Dance around the living room for 15-20 minutes to your favorite pop stars (or rockers.) Walk the dang dog (and he or she will thank you for it.) GET OUTSIDE (unless you live above the Arctic Circle.)

MOVE. Don’t sit and ruminate over all your fears. Your fears are generating Flight or Fight responses, and that means adrenaline. USE that adrenaline for something and do yourself some good.

There is a remarkable connection between movement and healthy thinking. We didn’t develop on couches. We developed out in nature, and we were in motion while we were doing it. We need to engage our bodies to the extent we can if we want to help ourselves think more clearly and strongly and cleanly.

A lack of self-care can be a serious hobble on our efforts to break the hold of anxious thinking. All we really have to do is take care of the basics…

So What’s Stopping YOU in Your Work?

I’ve spent the last two blog posts reviewing the things/behaviors that get in the way of us doing the good, hard and necessary work of overcoming the grip of anxiety in our lives. I would love to hear your thoughts on these last two blog posts, as well as your challenges and efforts to move past them in your work.

Let’s figure out where we’re stuck and get unstuck, shall we?

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Anxiety can sometimes seem like a skillful actor – or maybe disguise artist. Sometimes it is crystal clear to us that we are in the grip of anxiety/fearful thinking. But sometimes anxiety wears other masks, and in doing so can muddy the water, confusing us as to why we’re feeling what we are feeling, and what we should or can do about it.

Today’s blog post mission is to clear up some confusion around the origins of and the connections between three seemingly distinct emotional states – anxiety, anger and depression. Despite the wealth of information and discussion around these topics I, your humble blog writer, will contend today that the last two, anger and depression, are simply different expressions of the cause of all three of these – our ancient ally (and now turned enemy) Flight or Flight.

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How it All Gets Started

In talking about anxiety and the road out of chronic anxiety suffering it is useful to understand that anxiety is really two things – it is the thinking that scares us in the first place AND the emotional reaction that we label “anxiety.” The root cause is that thinking – pure and simple. We cannot and will not break the hold of anxiety in our lives until our thinking changes – end of story.

But anxious thinking doesn’t constitute the entire problem. Flight or Fight, firing up in our brains and bodies in response to that anxious thinking, is what sends us running for the hills and experiencing all the emotional and physical drama that too often travels with anxious thinking. (Read my blog post HERE for a detailed discussion of Flight or Fight.)

A little review here: remember that Flight or Fight ALWAYS starts with an effort to GET AWAY from the danger we are experiencing (if we’re actually in a real, life-or-death crisis) or if we THINK we’re in a crisis (i.e., doing anxious thinking.) It’s invariably better (in the non-conscious thought, natural world) to run away from danger – because if we succeed then hey, no injury, no damage, and we live to run away another day. Running makes sense in the natural world when real danger shows up, and it is carved into our very genes, into the alarm system called Flight or Fight.

THAT running away feeling is what we call anxiety. Anxiety says “holy crap, this is scary as hell, I’d better get my frightened self OUTTA HERE.” This is why your cats jumps 8 feet in the air when you surprise him or her. This is why you get that ants-in-your-pants feeling when you get anxious, that restless, let’s get moving urge whenever you are confronted by one of your fearful thoughts (or when you are troubled by sensations or feelings from Flight or Fight when you’re not even necessarily conscious of your anxious thinking.)

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Of course the vital thing to be clear about is the difference between REAL, life-or-death danger and the perceived, in-our-thinking nature of our fear from anxious thinking. They are not the same and can’t be treated the same. One of our challenges in this work to break the power of anxiety is that Flight or Fight doesn’t really know the difference. All Flight or Fight needs is us saying in our thinking “holy crap, this is scary as hell” and it’s off and running – literally.

Anxiety = running. Great. Except in the natural world we sometimes CAN’T get away from the thing or experience that is threatening us. Sometimes we have no choice but to fight.

Anger – Anxiety’s Cousin

When we are trapped (physically or mentally) and can’t exercise the option of running (at least not yet) we escalate to anger. This again makes a hell of a lot of sense in the natural world. ANY creature will fight if cornered – because if it’s really life-or-death then fighting is the only option.

This can take a couple of forms in the natural world. This is can full-out confrontation – i.e., a fight between predator and prey, a fight between natural enemies, etc. – but it can also be anytime a creature feels threatened and assumes that there is NO other way to get what they need – i.e., they can’t run from that situation without threatening their survival. That might be competition for food supplies or defending their young.

This is why when you go to get that piece of steak that fell on the floor away from your dog or cat that they might growl or hiss at you – you’re threatening their survival, after all. This is why every creature (including even us advanced, big-brained humans) get angry, defensive, even growl when we think someone is threatening our survival (i.e., can’t get what we need another way, or can’t run away.)

We can feel every bit as trapped by our anxious thinking as well. Here’s an example: let’s say we avoid thinking about managing our money. (I know that probably doesn’t apply to YOU – for sure I NEVER had this fear…OK, actually I was terrified for years and years of dealing directly with my money/finances.)

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So maybe your direct deposit goes straight to your checking account, and you only even get close to seeing your balance when you go to the ATM to grab some cash. Otherwise you artfully glance away from the bottom-line total in your account (and so you in essence run away from the “danger” of the anxious thinking around money/finances.)

So far so good – at least as far as not dealing with your anxiety. But then you get a note from the bank that says “hey, knucklehead, your account is overdrawn! Give us some money!” Now you HAVE to deal with your dang bank account and the whole money issue. Ugh! NO! Now you get pissed off. Maybe you stomp around the house. Maybe you yell at your kids. Maybe you start crying from sheer frustration. But whatever you do you’re MAD. You’re angry because you feel threatened but you can’t run away – you have to fight this fight until the threat stops for you.

In other words anger is “holy crap, I’m being threatened and I CAN’T run. I HAVE to fight, at least until I win the fight or an avenue for running opens up.” With me so far? Anger = fighting (until the threat ends or you CAN run.)

Some of us have learned to see anger as this uncontrollable, out-of-nowhere monster that can ruin our days and mess up our relationships and lives. Some of us think anger is its own creature, a wild animal that we have to cage away and control. Not true. Anger is anxiety feeling like it can’t escape but that fighting WILL bring relief/freedom from risk. It doesn’t HAVE to be conscious. These are deeply embedded reactions.

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But the thinking that lies behind those anxious and angry response – those CAN be addressed, cleaned up, and set to rights.

There is one more member of the anxiety family – depression.

Dogs in Cages with Electric Floors

I have a longer discussion of the nature of depression HERE and HERE. For this conversation here’s the summary: depression is essentially “holy crap, I’m feeling threatened but I can’t run and I can’t fight – I’m trapped.”

Depression is in one sense an outcome of long-term anxiety. But that explanation misses the other half of depression – the conviction that there is no hope, no future, that all options have been closed off and THIS, whatever this is, will never change, and this is BAD.

Nevertheless we have to see the connection between anxiety and depression. Depression for most of us springs from a long history of being anxious. As long as we think there is SOME way out – even through avoidance – then anxiety stays anxiety. Anxiety tips to depression when the sense of being trapped begins…

This is a MENTAL thing – a thinking thing. It is strongly amplified by Flight or Fight, but make no mistake, if we are not actually trapped in a cage then WE ARE NOT TRAPPED. Our beliefs, fears, rules, faiths, assumptions may leave us believing we are trapped – but we’re not.

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One more thing to get clear on: depression is a transient state most of the time. Much of our depression is a thing of the afternoon, or 20 minutes, or two days, or constant dipping into depression and then back out to chronic anxiety. Why do I mention this? Because, again, we are NOT trapped, and we are not doomed – not unless we can’t see through to the anxious thinking that is making us depressed in the first place…

In the blog post I mentioned above a guy named Seligman and his research homies did some experiments that would horrify a lot of people – but which taught us some crucial things about anxiety and depression. He and his cohort put some dogs in cages and then repeatedly shocked those dogs through their feet with an electrified cage bottom.

The dogs initially tried desperately to escape. No surprises there. The dogs then essentially gave up (because they had tried to escape and couldn’t) and so they just lay down and continued to endure the shocks. No surprises here either, yes?

But the big news came when the researchers opened the cage doors and continued to deliver the shocks, fully expecting the dogs to now leap out of the cages. Instead the dogs CONTINUED TO LIE THERE AND BE SHOCKED. They had become so sure they couldn’t get away from the shocks that even with a clear escape route they continued suffering… and so they had to be literally enticed out of those cages, retaught to see escape where it was possible, before they would leave the cage and the electric shocks.

Depression isn’t a mysterious thing. It doesn’t come out of nowhere and it isn’t a force by itself. It is an outcome – an outcome of thinking that we are failing, or unable to help ourselves, or doomed – and not seeing the ways out of that thinking. It is anxiety with no hope of escaping the “danger” we have talked ourselves, unintentionally of course, into…

So What’s The Answer to this Crap?

Amazingly it’s pretty straightforward. We HAVE to identify the thinking that’s scaring us. We HAVE to see where we have learned to turn problems, issues, challenges into life-or-death crises in our thinking. (Look at my next blog post to see a LOT of examples.) We HAVE to rethink Flight or Fight, to see it NOT as the enemy we’ve learned to believe that it is, but instead as a well-meaning but misfiring alarm system responding to our thinking – and that it, itself, doesn’t signal doom or is dangerous in itself.

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We HAVE to convert all those crises in our thinking BACK into what they are – problems, to be dealt with AS problems. And we have to, quite possibly for the first time in our lives, start taking decent, honest, compassionate care of ourselves.

Those last two paragraphs are what this blog is all about.

Anxiety. Anger. Depression. Three close cousins, but anxiety is the root of them all. We are not dealing with mysterious monsters when we deal with these three kinds of reactions to danger, real or (for most of our experience) simply perceived in our thinking. We do NOT have to be trapped by them, owned by them, or have our lives ruined by them. And they all get dealt with by tackling what is scaring us, in our thinking, in the first place.

If you’re reading this blog then I’m betting, one way or another, that you have issues around safety. Anxiety is, after all, a quest to feel and be safe – we wouldn’t be anxious in the first place if we didn’t feel threatened.

We get in trouble, however, when safety becomes our primary goal. That may sound a little odd, but stay with me while I explain myself. Safety is good, important, something that we should certainly keep in mind. But when it becomes the major (or even only) thing we focus on we, unintentionally, amplify our anxiety. And we set ourselves up to fail, again and again, in our quest to overcome anxiety.

I would argue that this comes from a basic misunderstanding of safety.

Safety – A Packhorse we WAY Overburden…

Let’s just admit a basic truth about our fight with anxiety. The vast majority of us were very, very poorly educated when it comes to understanding where anxiety comes from and what drives it in the first place. If you’ve done much reading in this blog then you now understand anxiety’s origins in our thinking and the body’s Flight or Fight response –

But most of us don’t understand those basic, fundamental truths about anxiety’s causes when we begin our own experience with anxiety. We begin to deal with anxiety (whenever that starts for us) by starting to look for a way to FEEL safe. We’re not even aware that we’re doing it. We just start reacting to Flight or Fight’s reactions to our thinking, our anxious, frightened thinking, and we start retreating towards something we call, vaguely, feeling safe.

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There’s very little thinking in that reaction. That’s not a criticism, by the way. How in the heck could we do useful thinking about it when we were so poorly equipped to even understand what was happening to us? And Flight or Fight as a biological mechanism isn’t about thinking. It evolved WAY before we had the brain to do any thinking about it.

We shouldn’t feel stupid or that we’ve failed because we didn’t understand anxiety and its roots. But it is essential that we start to look more critically and unflinichingly at our unconscious and often manic drive for that safe feeling. We NEED to do that, because the automatic, reflexive push for safety isn’t taking us where we want to go…

A Little Parable About Safety

There is a great story from the original “Twilight Zone” TV show that demonstrates the futility of seeking perfect safety. (It starred William Shatner in case you’re a Star Trek fanatic like myself.) This man and woman are traveling through a small town and stop to get a meal at a diner there. In the diner, at their table, is a small personal fortune-telling machine.

When they ask the machine about their journey they get an ambigious answer. That answer makes them anxious, so they ask again. Every time they ask they don’t get the certain response guaranteeing a positive outcome to their question that they are looking for, so they get more worried, more afraid to even leave the booth at the diner for fear of what might come next.

That’s US when we demand that we have to be perfectly safe/feel perfectly safe! That’s us when we retreat from our Flight or Fight responses because we’ve convinced ourselves that our mission is to stay perfectly safe – i.e., free from anything that might rock our worlds, scare us or make us anxious.

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In other words we see ANXIETY AS THE ENEMY. But anxiety isn’t the enemy. Anxiety is simply, basically our fear of what MIGHT happen, translated into our bodies by Flight or Fight, tempting us to step back, stay safe by freezing in place, hiding from the world, not risking discomfort, upset, anxious feelings or anything that smacks of losing our grip on safety…

No, the enemy is the notion that we can achieve something as elusive and unreal as perfect safety. Maybe more accurately the enemy of our peace of mind is the belief that our mission is to FEEL perfectly safe.

Worse still we’re not even aware that we’re making that assumption. So we keep chasing it down, this feeling of safety, which really means that we keep retreating, further and further back.

Sometimes that retreat stalls because, for a time, we don’t feel as anxious, or think we’ve found safety. Maybe we find a great person who comforts us when we’re anxious, and that seems to be a safe place. Maybe we move to a new house, or get a new job, or come into some money, and that makes us feel safe. Maybe the anxiety/Flight or Fight symptoms subside and THAT brings us some comfort.

And then we tell ourselves PHEW, that’s behind us, I was anxious for a while but now I’m not. Except that we are still anxious – we’ve just managed to find a temporary truce in the fight. All that’s changed for the present is that we don’t FEEL anxious.

But, maddeningly, anxiety is still there, still lurking in our thinking about the world and what we deem to be safety. So when that delicate balance is upset, when our safe person suddenly doesn’t seem so safe or our safe haven of a house or apartment develops the taint of anxious thinking, then we panic, desperate again to STOP feeling anxious and START feeling safe again.

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This is one of the basic reasons we want so much to find a fast, right-now answer to our anxiety. We’re treating our anxiety like it’s a crisis – except that it isn’t. It’s a thinking problem, and we’re going to have to treat it like a problem to make it stop.

This is why so many people begin to find ways to medicate, in all the ways we do medicating – because they are focused on the wrong problem. Worse, medicating does bring, a lot of the time, some temporary abatement of Flight or Fight, so we keep at it, just wanting to not FEEL anxious.

Let’s Talk Turkey About Safety

So let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Our desperate search for the feeling of safety, the way we’ve been doing it, is only getting us in trouble. We need another approach to finding our way free of anxiety.

That approach consists very simply (as most of you reading understand) of both identifying the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place (what I call unpacking our fearful thinking) and at the same time develop new responses to what Flight or Fight means to us – i.e., not danger, just an alarm system about our anxious thinking.

At the heart of that new approach is a fundamental truth: safety is a dynamic state rather than a static end goal. Safety is a creature of the moment AND a thing we create in our thinking, not some absolute physical condition we achieve and then can put down and forget.

That may be pretty uncomfortable to hear, and I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. But here’s the good news – the moment we can begin to get our heads around this idea the faster we can begin to break free of the obsessive need to achieve “safety” as an end goal.

Safety is NOT the absence of any anxious feelings or sensations. Safety is not perfect. Safety is not striving for an absence of anxiety, because anxiety is, when we’re healthy thinkers, one of the alert systems we have to tell us there are issues/problems/challenges that need our attention.

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So what IS safety? Safety is the self-confidence to meet whatever comes our way head-on, secure that we’ll do the best we can, ride the storm (if storm it is) and take care of ourselves in the process. Safety is treating the world’s ups and downs as problems, not crises.

It is a terrible illusion to believe we can create some zone of perfect safety. The world is the world. It changes. People come and go, lives begin and end, jobs start and stop. We have to contend with the facts of illness, ignorance, accidents and yes, other people’s fears. We and other people make mistakes, mess things up, act on imperfect information.

If that makes you anxious reading that then you’re not alone – I know this thinking sure as hell made me uncomfortable when it first began to become clear to me. But it isn’t all darkness! Because with all that I listed above there is the other side of things. Good things happen to us too.

Yeah, I know, when you’re in the grip of anxiety the good things seem to get valued to zero and the bad things get extra credit. I get it. But that doesn’t mean we’re seeing things clearly or realistically. And it is past time for each of us to start looking at our thinking more critically (not as in criticizing – but as in questioning, evaluating, reassessing) about our assumptions.

Because the truth is life is much more complex than just risks and failures. Gifts get scattered in our lives. People love and care for us. Opportunities present themselves. Things go right, we learn things, we try and succeed. We celebrate victories, or at least we have victories, even if we discount them. We survive crises and grow stronger, smarter, more capable.

Yeah – More Capable…

And that might be the perfect word to set opposite the word safety – capability. We have to start getting clear just how capable we are, and have already demonstrated ourselves to be in our life.

What, you say? Me, capable? Well, yes. You’ve managed to get here, wherever you, and you’re still standing. You still have some sort of roof over your head. You’re still eating (unless you’re now somehow running on batteries.) You’re getting out of bed, most days, and still taking care of basics. You’re still managing a host of things, however much you trash and abuse yourself.

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And you’ve done that for years and decades in the face of some period of chronic anxiety and depression. I’m sorry – what’s NOT capable about that, exactly?

Oh, of course. It wasn’t perfect. You didn’t do it completely free of fear and the need for safety. But you DID IT. Capable. Not perfect. In fact incredibly capable.

Nobody is ever completely safe. That’s a fantasy. And we don’t need to be perfectly safe. We need to embrace the vagaries, variations and vipers of life. It’s our capability to meet what comes – whatever we’re FEELING in the midst of our anxiety – NOT achieving perfect safety – that will take us through and give us our life back.

The Pursuit of Perfect Safety Means We Stop Living

We can’t live, really live, if we’re running from what makes us anxious. The single-minded pursuit of safety means we give up engaging in life. (Any chronic anxiety fighter I know completely understands THAT truth.)

Flight or Fight isn’t trying to mess up our lives. It isn’t malicious. It is just doing what it evolved to do – get us away from real, actual, physical danger. The problem isn’t Flight or Fight. It’s our thinking – and our ignorance. We don’t have to stay ignorant. And we sure as hell don’t have to stay the prisoners of our thinking.

REAL safety – a real, life-living map of safety – starts with understanding that safety isn’t static. It’s evolving, it is variable, and it is dynamic. YOU are capable.

Real safety comes from looking our fears directly, facing them, unpacking them, and beginning to deal with them as the problems they are, not the crises our single-minded pursuit of safety would have them to be.

If there is one emotion that I associate with the experience of chronic anxiety more than any other it is despair. Just writing the word makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure there is anything more life-sucking than this single emotion.

One of the most insidious aspects of feeling despair is that it can, if left to its own devices, destroy motivation. Motivation to make any effort to change things, motivation to see things differently, motivation to take action even when it feels pointless. There’s the killer part – that despair makes everything seem pointless. It FEELS real.

This might make despair the most dangerous of the emotions we experience. Most of us can see through our other feelings, at least some of the time. If we’re wildly happy we don’t necessarily expect that wild happiness will go on forever. If we’re sad or fighting the blues we don’t necessarily expect the blues to never go away.

But when despair moves in it feels like it is coming to stay. One of my clients describes it as the world going grey. Another says it looks like the lights have lost power in the room. I know for me it was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness – like none of it mattered, whatever I tried to tell myself.

But I was wrong. And so are my coaching clients! Because nothing happens to the lights, the world doesn’t lose color and hopelessness isn’t real. That’s true despite how things feel…

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F.E.A.R. (False Expectations Appearing Real)

I have to confess that this little acronym used to really piss me off. I hated the word “false”. The one thing my fear didn’t feel to me was false. I was paralyzed by my fears more often than not, and it was certainly real enough to keep me awake at night worrying over all that might happen in the future.

What I wasn’t hearing in this phrase was the word “appearing”. I didn’t grasp that my feelings didn’t necessarily reflect reality. And that was no-where more true for me than when it came to despair.

I never learned to question my feelings. And that last sentence could be considered the heart of today’s blog post. I simply assumed that when I felt a feeling it was something I should respond to as real. It never crossed my mind to ask if that particular feeling was valid or, more accurately, if the reason I was feeling that feeling in the first place was valid.

That’s because I had never learned that feelings start with thinking. I didn’t see feelings as weathervanes following the wind of my thinking. I saw feelings as creatures in their own right, independent things that I had no control over and was helpless to control when they did their thing.

That seems odd now to me, but it was how I thought back then. I thought that because that’s how the people around me also saw their feelings, and that’s how I learned to see feelings/emotions.

But they were wrong, and so was I. Thank the heavens. Let me repeat a statement I made a couple of paragraphs ago: it never crossed my mind to ask if a particular feeling (especially despair) was even valid in the first place.

This is completely out-of-the-box thinking for most people. It is a natural mistake. Feelings are in some ways very, very primitive parts of us, part of our heritage as creatures of this planet. Feelings were very, very important to motivation back before we had thinking to carry some of that burden.

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And if feelings were about motivating us, and they have been around longer than our big, impressive brains, then, well, they will FEEL important, useful, real. Otherwise they wouldn’t be much good for motivating…

Add to this basic physical/emotional truth about emotions the fact that we are, most of us, terribly ignorant of this fact in the first place, and now we’re in trouble when it comes to emotions. Let’s make it even tougher – let’s also have people be ignorant of the notion that feelings are usually CAUSED by thinking – and now we’re really clueless when it comes to how we react to emotions.

I have reviewed some of this material a number of times in this blog. I am driving it again in this post because nowhere is this more important to understand than when we’re talking about despair. We who fight anxiety, to whatever degree we’re fighting it, MUST learn that despair really is false expectations appearing (or really feeling) real.

You Really Can’t Predict the Future

Despair is the child of depression. And depression comes when anxiety (which says crap, this is scary, we better get out of here) and its sister reaction, anger (which says crap, this is scary, we can’t get away so we’d better put up a fight) decide that neither running or fighting will do any good.

In other words depression says hope is gone. Despair is the natural feeling we experience in the face of depression. This doesn’t however mean that we have a lock on truth, reality or the future, HOWEVER we feel.

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And again I have to blame, at least in part, our terrible ignorance of the origin of feelings (coming from thoughts) and our tendency to assume that if we feel something it must be true.

You’ve done it, right? You’ve said to yourself man, this is pointless, I’m never going to beat anxiety, or I’m never going to be any better off financially than I am now, or I’m always going to be alone, or whatever thing you’ve been thinking (and therefore feeling despair, hopelessness, etc.) Then you begin acting as if you had heard it straight from God…

When all that you’re really depending on is your feelings and, well, how they FEEL to you. They FEEL real, solid, true. Except that they are just feelings. That’s all they are.

Yes, we say when confronted with this thinking, but I really DO know. I’ve always had bad luck with relationships, or I didn’t get to go to college so I’ll never make any real money, or I’ve always fought depression and it will never get better… etc.

I did some of that. I remember the months and years (and even decades) I gave away to those convictions of utterly real-feeling certainties.

I gave up on opportunities, walked away from jobs, didn’t take the risk in asking someone out that I wanted to get to know better, avoided the move to a new location because my life sucked and it would never change… all because I took my feelings as gospel truth.

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Feelings Don’t Have to Rule our World

If I was granted to chance to do one thing to make a difference in the world this would be it: to help people understand what Albert Ellis said so long ago and I’m busy yapping about in this blog post. Feelings are not real. They are feelings. They come from thinking. They are reactions, not truth.

This means we have to start questioning both the validity of our feelings AND their origin. We have to start developing the habit of putting a spotlight on that sense of despair, hopelessness and black mood. Why are we feeling this way? No, it didn’t come “out of the blue.” It came from one or more thoughts we had. We didn’t have to be aware of those thoughts – but we CAN become aware of them, with some work and practice.

A terrible number of people are afraid of the feelings and the physical sensations that are caused by Flight or Fight. They will do almost anything to avoid them – medicate them, bury them, push them away, get lost in TV, sleep the day away – anything.

We don’t have to run from our feelings. We don’t have to be tortured by them either. Despair is simply a feeling that came from some thinking. I’m not saying that many of us are NOT dealing with difficult or even terrible circumstances. Many of us are – divorce, lack of money, job challenges, relationship problems, difficult to horrible family histories, physical hurdles – you name it.

But that STILL doesn’t mean that we have to be slaves to our feelings. Problems can be very serious. But they remain problems. And we will NEVER see improvement in our problems if we sit down and give up based on our feelings.

Feelings want to be your servant – not your master. They are something we can manage and even come to control – if we’ll tackle the thinking that generates them in the first place. Despair is a powerful feeling – but it is only a feeling.

Sunrise

Alrighty! I promised we’d tackle closet monsters in my last post, and so we shall, starting today. Let’s start with a little discussion about those brains we have –

People are complicated! More specifically the human brain is complicated. (I natter on more about that brain in THIS post, talking about human thinking and the largely unconscious nature of that thinking. Please read this post if you haven’t already – it’s really useful for the next few blog post discussions here.)

In today’s writing I am expanding on how that unconscious thinking, specifically our core beliefs and assumptions, becomes the primary seed bed of our anxious thinking, and that we need to examine those beliefs and assumptions if we’re going to win this fight with anxiety…

It is my experience that most of us don’t get a really good picture of how our brains work as we move through school and grow up. Too many of us have the mistaken idea that our brains are like backyard wading pools on a summer day – bright, clear, and not very deep. We tend to treat our thoughts as consisting entirely of what we’re conscious of at the moment – whatever thoughts are in the spotlight of our attention.

We don’t understand that we have been busier than we know, from the moment we’re born, developing basic assumptions and beliefs about the world, how it works, and what we’re supposed to be doing from day to day. Those assumptions and beliefs get established and then literally fade into the background of our thinking.

Let me say that again: we have an enormous amount of thinking going on that we almost never consciously review or even notice in our day-to-day lives. And from that background that thinking drives an impressive amount of our reactions and behavior – way more than most people ever stop to seriously consider.

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Why do we care? If we’re fighting anxiety it is usually the case that a LOT of our anxiety is being driven by the assumptions and beliefs running in the background of our thinking. I’ll make that stronger: if we’re going to effectively combat this crap called anxiety we’re probably going to have to wade into at least a partial review of our assumptions and beliefs about the world and ourselves.

You Have a LOT of Unwritten Rules!

Here are some questions to get this conversation really started:

How are you supposed to act around other people?
How should other people act around you?
What makes a person a good spouse?
What must you do for and around your parents?
What do “good kids” do?
What should you never do?
What should you always do?
Who comes first – you, or other people?
What would make you a success?
What do you think of failure?
What is unforgivable?
What is universally true – in your opinion?
What constitutes “selfish?”
What constitutes “lazy?”
What do “normal” people do?

And these are just starter questions – I could go on for pages and pages asking questions like this. How we answer these kind of questions can tell us a remarkable amount what drives anxiety.

For lots and lots of people (heck, maybe even you!) the answers to these questions are supposed to be obvious to EVERYONE. Everyone knows what “lazy” looks like, right? Or what “normal” is supposed to be? And of course there’s only one standard for success – right? Or is that right?

Let’s try that first question I put up – how are you supposed to act around other people? Let’s include in that question issues like what should you always remember to ask, or what is never OK around other people, or how they MUST see you/think of you. What do you assume must be true when you’re around other people?

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Here’s one silly but VERY relevant example: I know two people, right now, who are terrified of farting around other people. I don’t mean just embarrassed or troubled – I mean SCARED TO DEATH that they might pass gas around someone else. It is unthinkable, it is unforgivable, it is so WRONG that they have even assumed that such a mistake would end a relationship/friendship permanently.

And, as you might guess, this simple, rigid, what some might think is a rather minor issue can generate a lot of anxiety for these two people. Here’s the kicker: neither one of them had, as adults, even consciously known that this rule was so strong for them. It was literally in the background of their thinking, operating as a base assumption.

But that base assumption was driving a lot of behavior, and as I said a lot of anxiety. For one of them eating anything that might remotely generate gas for them was off-limits. (And be clear that this person hadn’t actually verified for themselves whether or not a food in question was for SURE a gas generator for them – they just kept adding to their list out of fear that a specific food MIGHT make them gassy.)

For the other person they began eating out with friends or family less and less, mostly for fear that they wouldn’t be able to get to a bathroom in time in case they felt the need to pass gas. Let me remind you that neither one of these poor folk were conscious of the decisions they were making to avoid breaking this rule for themselves – and they were equally unaware of this assumption generating the amount of anxiety it was doing for both of them.

Your Thoughts are NOT Your Own…

Well, actually, your thoughts ARE your own – but you are not the master of entirely too many of your thoughts. Witness the two people I just discussed – how much their behavior was being decided by unconscious assumptions of what they should or shouldn’t do.

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What this means for those of us who fight anxiety is that we need to get clear on where our unconscious rules are getting us in trouble in respect to anxiety. This is where a lot of us – maybe most of us – get ourselves deeply frustrated in our fight with anxiety and depression.

Let’s take our fart-avoiders. They started with a problem EVERYONE ON THE PLANET experiences – passing gas now and again, very human function, really, trust me – and turned it into a crisis. Let’s make that stronger: they started with what some other people might regard as a minor issue, an annoyance, and turned it into a fear that got so big it severely hampered their interactions with other people.

Now I’m not saying it is good form to just pass gas anytime and anyplace. There is a time and season, yes? 🙂 But a little common sense and perhaps some idea of what makes us individually gassy is probably all we need to cope with this issue. We DON’T need to make it into a potential, looming disaster, stalking our days, shutting down our lives.

Yet we can’t get to that place if we don’t first understand the rules we’re holding ourselves to, and then make some conscious decisions to modify them/make them more human. Because, permit me to say, EVERYONE farts now and again. (The measure of how many people are affected by this one rather minor issue-turned-to-crisis is how many of you, dear readers, are even faintly troubled by the use of the word “fart” in this blog post…)

If Only Our Fears Were Limited to Passing Gas…

Sadly, they are not. We have much bigger monsters (in our thinking, anyway) stalking us in the nighttime hours, trashing our morning waking up, crippling our progress through the day. We have fears around money and money management, relationships, career, aging, physical health, mental health, performance anxiety, you name it.

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And given the nature of anxiety and Flight or Fight we are NOT prone to deliberately, doggedly looking at the thinking that we’re doing to scare ourselves. Nope, we run away. Do it long enough and that scary thinking fades into the background, lost in the automatic routines that dominate our day.

Then, one terrible day, anxiety comes to bite us HARD. And we tell ourselves “gee, I wonder why I’m so anxious? I can’t think of anything that’s really wrong.” Well, of course we can’t – because the thinking that is scaring us is way in the back of our minds, just part of the fabric of our unconscious beliefs and rules.

Maybe the belief is something like this: “I can’t trust myself to take care of myself.” That single, simple belief can generate a ton of different behaviors. We retreat from the world into some safe place – a marriage, stay home with our parents, hide behind a very, very safe job, look to our children to take care of us, etc. We stay away from anything new or risky. We assume that we’re not competent to manage change and disruption in our lives. We throw up our hands the moment we’re challenged by something.

ALL because we’ve got this powerful basic belief calling the shots in our thinking. We’re prisoners of our thinking and we don’t even know it, not consciously.

So what to do? Well, that’s simple to answer. It’s a fair amount of work, and it won’t happen overnight, but it is completely within our reach.

Somebody Hand Me a Flashlight –

1) Start with your anxious moments. What feelings are you experiencing? And what do those feelings point to you in your thinking? It is very common for the first thoughts we can identify to not necessarily be the most fundamental belief that is freaking us out – but it is usually several steps in that direction.

And yes, this is yet another example of what I call “unpacking” – identifying the anxious thinking that generates our anxiety in the first place, the problems we’ve turned to crises in our brains. But this is in some respects the ultimate unpacking – getting down to the essential assumptions that are driving our anxiety, the very bottom of the barrel.

This may come quickly – or this may take some time. I know for myself I have identified a base belief in one session of journaling or discussion – and I have taken over a year in some instances to do that same thing. Some of it is how much it scares us, as well as our belief in our capacity to deal with that scary belief/assumption. Some of it is simply the practice of doing this kind of internal examination. Many of us have very little practice sitting with, identifying, dialoguing with and attempting to change/rewrite our basic beliefs. It takes practice…

(and I’m sure many of you are sick of me using THAT word again…)

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2) Speaking of reframing, that’s every bit as important as identifying that scaring thinking in the first place. Just because you HAVE a belief doesn’t mean you’re doomed to keep it! Talk about a base belief – too many of us don’t even understand that we don’t have to STAY the prisoner of our thinking. We LEARNED that thinking in the first place – anything we learn we can learn differently.

Let’s go back to farting again. Let’s say we believe that farting in public is the worst thing EVER. Beyond words horrible. OK. But we don’t have to keep thinking that. We can change that belief (with deliberate effort and some time) to something more human, like “well, I’d prefer not to pass gas here on this crowded bus, but if I do I won’t be the first person to do so, and most everyone will survive the experience. Yes, I’ll be embarrassed, but I don’t know these good people, and people pass gas all the time and seem to not get attacked by an angry mob. I’ll probably be OK.”

3) Speaking of angry mobs this work will almost always make us aware of other base beliefs/assumptions that are there in the back of our thinking. So I start with figuring out my fears around farting, only to realize that I’m really more scared of what other people might think of me. And I realize that this fear is even more insidious, drives even more anxious thinking and behavior on my part. So I add that to my list and begin some work around changing/diminishing/rethinking my worries about the perceptions and reactions of other people.

Maybe that terror of other people not liking me/treating me with contempt/being angry with me can begin to take a more relaxed stance. Maybe I just would PREFER to not have people be dismissive or judgmental of me – but I can deal with the folks that are, because I start reminding myself that I can’t control what everyone else thinks of me. And I also get clear that no matter how hard I work someone in the world won’t like something about me. Just how things are.

(which rocks some of your worlds, yes? Maybe a good place for you to start this work?)

4) KEEP A RECORD. Do a journal. Do a computer Word file. Do something to create a record of your self-discussion around this thinking and learning about yourself. Add to it. Review it. Start a real concrete record of your assumptions and beliefs. You’re be creating a map of how you think – and giving yourself the power to challenge, change or leave alone those patterns of thinking – in the ways that work best to diminish anxiety and give you (maybe for the first time in your life) some control over your thinking.

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Get Your Waders On –

It’s time to start taking charge of your thinking. You are much smarter and stronger than your thinking habits and training, and you are very capable of being the boss of your brain. It can get pretty uncomfortable (but no more uncomfortable than the tyranny of our anxiety), and it can be frustrating and slow-going at times – but it is infinitely worth the work.

Next up – some more examples of identifying base beliefs and changing them to healthier, more rational ways of thinking.

In my last couple of blog posts I’ve been talking about the link between anxiety and depression, as well as what we can do about dealing with depression. I hope I’m not depressing all of you with my discussion about depression! I’m going to give over one more post to this topic to talk about how depression can become a set of habits, and the need to see that AS a habit that can be challenged and changed.

There is a lot of interesting material these days on the subject of habits. One of the most interesting is how habits get formed in a very old and basic part of our brains – i.e., habits are very basic to our nature and our thinking (especially our unconscious thinking, once they are formed.) Even more interesting is the fact that once they’re formed they are very difficult to change unless you make a deliberate, conscious effort.

Because, apparently, habits are by their nature behavior patterns we develop so we CAN stop thinking about doing them – they are automatic programs that our brain can run so it doesn’t take as much energy to do them. (Yes, it’s true – our brains our lazy. Well, not lazy really –but very concerned about energy conservation. It takes energy to think, in case you haven’t noticed. I’m lifting this information btw from a great book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.)

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That’s great when the habit is good driving skills or operating a sharp knife when you’re cutting carrots for your salad. That’s not so great when it comes to the bad habits we develop, like eating too many cookies or chronic worrying and the patterns we develop around depression.

Bad Habits

(Does that sound like the start of a nun joke?) Let’s start with the way that depression gets us to sit down and do nothing when we it comes to visit. We don’t FEEL like doing anything. Our bodies feel heavy, the world turns gray and we just want to hide under the covers and from the world. (That’s flight or fight stuff – helping us run away from the stuff that scares us.) It is JUST rewarding enough to begin the formation of a habit, and so the next time depression shows up we are tempted to do it again…

Two bad things from this bad habit: 1) we grind to a stop physically, which isn’t useful when we’re depressed (physical movement and engagement in our world are good counter moves to the game of depression) and 2) we start avoiding our depression rather than turning to sort out what thinking was getting us to depression in the first place.

As I mentioned above, once a habit is formed it tends to drop from our conscious thinking. Once that happens it takes some effort to change that habit. Think about your own habits for a minute. What do you do without thinking? Do you take the same route to work every day? Tend to make the same foods for dinner? It’s easier, right? Do you watch the same TV shows, do the same thing when you exercise, etc.?

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It takes conscious thought and effort to first summon a habit to your awareness, then change the pattern of the habit. In the Power of Habit it says that to change a habit we have to disrupt the sequence of that habit – introduce something new to the experience – to change the pattern of that habit. What does that mean for depression?

Depression is, Weirdly Enough, a Habit

Let’s say you’re fighting depression. And it’s been going on for a while. So the morning comes, you wake up, and you feel blue. You just don’t have any motivation. It just seems like a good idea to lie there in your bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing you felt better. You KNOW that just lying here isn’t useful to you, but you just don’t have any energy. What’s the point anyway? Everything is pointless, nothing is going to change, blah blah blah – and on you go, feeding the habit of depression…

And isn’t it remarkable how quick we are to defend our staying bed with a statement that sounds something like “yeah, I know I’m not helping myself, but I don’t FEEL like doing anything” – as if that was a good explanation for why we’re not moving?

As anxiety fighters we don’t need to heap any more guilt in our lives for the things we’re not doing. At the same time we won’t get any place in our fight with this problem if we don’t get very clean with ourselves about what’s going on when we’re battling anxiety and depression.

We have to start seeing depression as a set of habits that we’ve fallen into. We have to understand that those habits started because we were already engaged in a struggle with anxiety, often without being conscious of it, and that anxiety evolved into depression – i.e., we started to believe (again, probably largely unconsciously) that there was nothing we could do about the things we were/are anxious about, so we started to give up. Enter depression.

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And from the start of depression we began forming some nasty habits. I’ve already addressed in the two previous blog posts what you can about tackling the thinking behind depression (HERE), which is basically the same thing we do to deal with anxiety. Let’s talk instead about what to do with the habits of depression.

Breaking the Bad Habits

1) See your depression as anxiety convinced nothing can change, and take the steps you would take to combat anxiety. That means engaging the Fear Mastery work outlined in this blog. You have to identify the thinking that makes you anxious in the first place, then get that thinking sorted out from crisis (why you’re anxious) to problem (the way you want and need to address the challenges/issues/fears in your thinking.)

That might mean some real journaling/thinking/digging to sort out. Anxious thinking that turns to depression can be squished pretty hard –after all, it makes us anxious, and eventually we get so reactive we just push it away and bury it. This can take some time, patience and effort to get clear about.

Or it might right there waiting to get your attention! 🙂 Either way, your first focus is identifying that thinking and addressing it. Along with that work you want to do the following:

2) Remember, depression is a HABIT – and disrupting habits is the most effective way of changing them. Don’t confuse the sequence here. Sitting around waiting to FEEL better before you do anything will 99% of the time get you nothing but sitting around. Do, engage, move, challenge. See your depression as a set of habits, reactive habits, and start challenging them.

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3) See inertia as your enemy. Resist the temptation to sit in a corner and grieve for all you don’t have or feel you can’t have. I get how sexy and attractive that temptation is when we’re fighting depression. See it AS a temptation. Get up and MOVE. One of your best early counters to the drag of depression is simple physical movement. It isn’t a magic cure – but it can sure as heck HELP.

That might mean just taking a long walk. I know, you don’t FEEL like it. So what? You feel like lying in bed or watching TV all day – which can only feed your depressive thinking and habits, yes? It might be cleaning that bedroom instead of just watching the clothes pile up. That doesn’t mean a long guilt trip! So what if your room is messy? Messes are just ways to get us moving.

Maybe that means getting out of the house, as much as you can at the moment. Hell, just a walk around the block might get the juices flowing. Maybe it means a drive, or a visit to a friend (even if you don’t feel like it) or doing the food shopping.

4) Start focusing outward, away from your obsessive depressed thinking. That doesn’t mean don’t do the work of unpacking your anxious thinking. It means in addition to that work that you look outside yourself. What USED to interest you, even if you don’t find it very exciting right at the moment? What would you LIKE to be doing, in small beginning ways, if you felt less depressed?

You don’t need to develop the cure for cancer or solve world hunger. How about just hitting the library, or listening to music you used to enjoy, or volunteering someplace, or re-engaging that hobby you used to like?

5) Engage your Posse/Peeps/Homies/Crew/Family/Friends more – get them involved in your work to break the habits of depression. This isn’t easy work! It is very hard to get moving in the face of the inertia of our depression and anxious thinking. Get all the help you can get.

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That doesn’t mean you need anyone who will put you down or dismiss your struggles. You need allies, not further drags to your energy. And just for the record you’re not OBLIGATED to tell any single person – YOU get to decide who is helpful and who isn’t.

No, enlist the people who love you AND will support you. Tell them you might need to call them in the morning to get moving, or when the sun goes down and everything starts to feel gray, or even in the middle of the night when you’re afraid that living is a pointless activity.

We are a species that needs some community. Each of us has varying amounts of that need – but NONE of us thrive in absolute isolation. None of us. Find support. Don’t sit in the shadows by yourself. 7 billion people currently inhabit the planet – go chat a couple up and start breaking the silence and aloneness.

6) Finally, it is more than legal to seek the help of medication when you’re engaging the fight with depression. Medication won’t by itself break depression for you, but it can be helpful in giving you some energy and breaking some of the fog that depression creates.

That might take some experimenting. Obviously start with your doctor, but you might also be well-served to see a psych or therapist – M.D.’s are not always well-trained in understanding or dealing with depression. When I say experimenting I mean first don’t settle for the first medical or therapeutic professional to cross the road – find someone you can talk to, honestly, and who is willing to LISTEN to you. Crucial to do this.

I also mean by experimenting that you may have to try two or three or four different medications to find your best fit. People react differently to different meds, and you don’t want to dump the baby with the bathwater if the first or second med you try doesn’t seem to work or the side effects are too frustrating or disruptive for you to make work.

In the final analysis, as I’ve said, meds won’t solve your depression. But they might be a tool that can help.

Never Cry Defeat!

Winston Churchill (a guy who had a pretty strong history of wrestling with depression himself) said “Never, never, never, never give up.” He’s right. Depression says “this is a big waste of time. Just sit here. Maybe you’ll feel better later, or maybe you won’t, but it’s pointless to do anything until you do.”

Forgive my language, but bullshit. Sitting won’t help. Taking direct action against the thinking and habits of depression WILL help. Hit me here at the blog if you want someone to talk to about taking specific next steps. You don’t have to stay the prisoner of depression –

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In my last post I talked about how we really can’t trust our feelings (and our thinking) when we are in the grip of depression. Today I’m all about examples of what that means for what we DO when we’re fighting depression. And DO is probably the best summary of this entire blog post. Depression’s intense gravitational pull is to sit and not do anything – just simmer in our own juices, focusing on how we feel, how black things look – and we really don’t have to do that.

To have this conversation I need to discuss again the crucial issue of how thinking drives so much of what we do and feel. Depression doesn’t just “come out of no-where.” Depression is a RESULT of thinking – frightened, anxious, certain-that-we’re-screwed thinking.

This is probably one of the most fundamental distinctions we can make as human beings. We don’t really learn this as kids, and by the time we get to adulthood we unconsciously expect to be buffeted by emotions like a boat in the wind. We don’t understand that we have WAY more control over those feelings (and the Flight or Fight responses that come with anxiety and depression) than we think we do.

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Yeah – But It Seems Like I Can’t GET Control!

Control doesn’t mean instant control, however, and that’s especially true when it comes to taking charge of our thinking habits. I am reminded of when I was learning to drive a car. Although the primary witness to that challenging time in my life has gone on to other activities (thanks Mom – you were damn patient in that process), let me say that I wasn’t the world’s best novice driver.

Sure – I was in theory in control of the car, at least as far as I was the guy giving the engine gas, operating the brakes, turning the wheel, etc. To say that I was in CONTROL of the car, however, is a stretch, at least for the first few driving lessons…

And of course I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I didn’t take my courage in my hands and start driving. Because the other comparison to depression in this conversation was I was anxious about learning to drive – I didn’t really FEEL like doing it.

We confuse cause and effect when it comes to both anxiety and depression. We have this powerful temptation to want to first feel better, then act. And while getting over both anxiety and depression isn’t just about acting, it is impossible to do if we’re not engaged in the struggle, however that feels to us.

Let me say that again: we can’t wait to feel better. Carve that in stone someplace where you can see it. As I said in my last post we can’t trust our feelings about what to do when it comes to anxiety and depression. Even when it feels like we’re not getting control, even when the struggle feels uphill and pointless, even when 90% of our brain is saying just sit down, you’re wasting your time, you’re never going to feel better, etc…

OK, on to some examples of how anxious thinking can turn into depression –

Human sitting silhouette in back-lit in tunnel exit

It Starts With Anxiety

One lady I know (we’ll call her Leah) has been fighting fears around money for a long time. She’s never been very self-confident about her ability to make or manage money (at least as far back as high school) but in recent years she’s seen challenges to her personal business (the recession, changing technology, etc.)

Yes, she’s definitely anxious. But she’s managed to keep her anxiety more or less at bay. That doesn’t mean she’s successfully managed his anxiety! She’s had bad bouts of chronic worry, has run away from client problems, has avoided seeking new business (what if they reject her? What if that means she won’t make enough money? Etc.) She isn’t married, and that scares her too – what if she can’t support herself and winds up being homeless?

She has done some therapy for her anxiety, and sought some help with her financial skills, but money and related issues scare her pretty badly, so she has never really been able to engage the work. And besides, shouldn’t she be able to do this herself? Isn’t is kinda lame to have to ask for help with these kind of problems?

In the last 2 years she crossed some invisible (to herself, at least) line in her thinking. What has seemed really challenging now seems impossible. She’s begun to believe that no matter what she does about work and money she will never get out of this fear, and now she’s fighting depression.

She’s not clear when the change happened. But she does know that it seems pointless. She’ll never get any better at managing money, she’ll never be successful at making money, she’s tried and it just doesn’t work for her, maybe she’s different from other people, not as smart, maybe she’s missing something.

Oh yeah, and in addition she’s convinced herself that her depression is physical/some kind of brain problem. Which in turn has convinced her that she will NEVER really be better, ever again…

Fighting Depression 3

Any of this sound familiar? Let’s pull this apart.

1) She was fighting anxiety for a long time.

2) She was missing the skills to deal with her anxiety successfully, although she struggled with it and even sought various kinds of help for it.

3) She crossed some threshold in her thinking that convinced her she would NEVER get free of money worries – and in that instant she started wrestling with depression as well as anxiety.

4) Poorly informed about cause and effect she is now searching for a physical solution to her thinking problems-converted-to-crisis in her mind.

She reports she is depressed. And she is. She feels trapped. But depression didn’t come out of nowhere. It came directly from her fight with anxiety.

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Another Example

Martin is a guy who has been depressed longer than he can accurately remember. He is 48, but says he feels more like 70. He fights pretty fierce social anxiety, and is also very worried about growing old. He has tried dating services, singles groups, social clubs, work activities, but he always feels like an outsider. He felt that way even in junior high school, and remembers thinking before he finished high school that he would probably never find any close friends or people to love.

He has tried various medications for his depression. A therapist has told him that he is really dealing with anxiety, but he is convinced that his family’s history of depressed people (his Dad, his uncle, his older brother) are the real problem. He’s just a “depressed person.”

(And isn’t it interesting to hear that he grew up in a house where other people were already fighting depression? They couldn’t possibly influence his thinking, right? What beliefs did they pass on to little Martin, way before he was conscious of that process?)

He sees the future as bleak, without love or friendship. Never mind that his co-workers have repeatedly asked him to parties, dinner, drinks after work. Never mind that he’s a smart guy who doesn’t look bad either. And never mind that he spends all of his time when he isn’t at work sitting in his condo near downtown, watching TV or movies, hating his isolation but convinced it can never be better.

Perhaps most tellingly he often says that if he only “felt less depressed” he could make a move, change his job, try again to meet some people and build some relationships… I also want to mention that he has terrible personal standards – how he should look, how he should act, what he can and can’t say, how he should manage his feelings – and the combined weight of all those beliefs makes even simple social interactions seem, well, really stressful…

In this example we can’t as clearly point back to how he first began to believe he couldn’t comfortably deal with people. But we KNOW that he was anxious well before he was depressed, and is anxious still, although he denies he is fighting anxiety. He insists he is fighting depression, and until he isn’t depressed he just can’t move forward.

not dangerous 3

What To Do With This Information

1) Understand that depression stems directly from anxiety. Anxiety comes first, and is the root problem.

2) Realize that it CAN’T get better if you sit and agonize over your depression. You have to get to the thinking that is causing it in the first place. That can be damn challenging, both because that thinking is probably scary to you and because you just don’t feel like doing it. Doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got to do that work.

3) You’ll probably need help to do that work. You might need therapy support. You will definitely need whatever friends and family you can rally to the cause – and you will need to face your fear of admitting your “failure” with depression and anxiety to do so. You might need the aid of medication, at least at the start of the journey, if you can find meds that work for you (and that hunt might itself take some time, effort and dealing with various side effects.) Go get whatever you can get. Defy the crap voice in your head that you have to do it alone or that real grown-ups don’t need help. Nonsense.

4) Expect it to be draining, tedious and frustrating, even discouraging. In other words, to feel like you’re feeling RIGHT NOW in your fight with anxiety and depression – only that you’ll actually be doing something about it.

5) Expect it to be slow at times, especially at the start. That doesn’t prove depression right. This isn’t pointless. It is very, very useful. It will simply take time and patient work to pull apart and change the thinking that led to anxiety and depression in the first place.

6) And for the love of Mike, stop sitting there – whatever your depression tells you to do. Take the walk you don’t want to take. Make the meal you don’t want to make. Wash the bathtub (it probably really, really needs it!) 🙂 Sitting won’t help you. Nursing your depression can’t help you. Challenging your thinking and sorting out what that thinking convinces you is true is what will help you.

No Time Like The Present

Last recommendation for this blog post: don’t put this off. It won’t be any easier tomorrow. Start. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do this work 24/7. (We who fight anxiety are SO GOOD at black or white, all or nothing thinking…) But get up and start.

What have you got to lose? However hard it seems to do from where you’re sitting it sure has to beat any more waiting for your life to begin/return, yes? You can do this work. It doesn’t FEEL like it – but you can.

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