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(This topic comes up a LOT in my coaching discussions and email exchanges. It is very, very easy to let the emotions and physical sensations of Flight or Fight derail us in our efforts to confront, unpack and rethink our anxious thoughts/assumptions. We HAVE to learn to reframe what those sensations and feelings actually mean – and learn to steadily scare ourselves less and less with those sensations and feelings as we move forward in this work.)

Feelings. I talk about them a lot in this blog. I often hear the word from my coaching clients, I see the word in the emails I receive, and yes, I have my own feelings. 🙂 Anxiety itself is a feeling, and it is often the seed of other feelings – anger, rage, sadness, depression, grief. To be afraid is to FEEL afraid, anxious, worried, scared. To be anxious is to be, too often, at the mercy of our feelings.

In this Fear Mastery work I say all the time that one of the skill sets we need to break free of anxiety is to “discount” the meaning of our feelings – specifically, the emotional (and physical) responses we have from Flight or Fight when we’re anxious. Some people have taken that to mean that they shouldn’t HAVE those feelings –that they should squish, bury and hide away those feelings from themselves.

Don’t do that. “Discounting” isn’t the same as shutting away. And shutting away our fears (and the thinking that generates those fears in the first place) is at the heart of why we’re anxious in the first place. No, our mission is to HAVE our feelings – let them surface, look them in the eye – but also dispute what they heck they seem to be saying to us.

HANG ON – You’re Saying it is GOOD to Feel Anxious?

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We anxiety-fighters don’t have a great relationship history with our feelings. It can, for many of us, seem like our feelings are petulant children or, worse, terrible slave-drivers, throwing us around the room, trashing our days, ruining our time with friends and family, making a mess of our lives. Our feelings can come to be unwanted house-guests that we just want to go away…

Part of the problem is we only poorly understand what the heck feelings ARE. Feelings are, among other things, ways to motivate us to take action. When we feel hungry we eat. (I know I do.) When we feel sleepy we find a flat surface and lie down. (Or, if you’re at work, put your head on your desk.) When we feel angry we want to DO something – break a dish, shout, take action in some way to deal with the thing that is making us angry.

All of that makes a ton of sense. Emotions/feelings are much older than conscious thought – way, way older. Like hundreds of millions of years older. Smart came very late in the game. Animals need to take action, and in the absence of clocks, calendars and appointment books feelings are what motivate them to take action in different situations.

So emotions are STRONG. They need to be. You can’t, if you’re a water buffalo, ignore those hunger pangs. Not eating is a bad idea! And this applies even more to immediate, physical danger. Living things need to be alert and responsive when their lives are threatened, yes?

Enter human beings and anxiety. We didn’t lose any of the feelings that helped our ancestors survive before humans had the bulging brains we have now – we just stacked those smarts on top of those feelings. That can be a tremendous strength, if we understand the relationship between feelings and thinking. It can also a key element of anxiety – which is why I’m writing and you’re reading this blog.

When we start to imagine/picture something bad happening in our future, and that bad thing scares us in our thinking, well, we’re going to have feelings. We’re going to have feelings because we’re triggering Flight or Fight. We’re hard-wired that way. As I keep saying here that’s a GOOD thing – we need that system to stay frosty in case of real danger.

So you are going to have feelings when you’re anxious! And they won’t be the happy, fuzzy feelings you have when you see a bunny or the face of someone you love. (Or, in my case, a container of Baskin-Robbins ice cream – Vanilla, please, or I’m also good with Cookie Dough.) Nope, they will be anxious, lets-get-the-hell-out-of-here kind of feelings – the feelings that would get you moving in the presence of real, physical, life-or-death danger.

Which means yes, you do need to feel your feelings, if only because you’re going to, whether you want to or not. And it won’t serve you at all to simply try and squish those feelings. It isn’t like you have a big box you can shove your feelings into and lock the lid. We’d like to THINK we can do that – but the end result of all that attempted squishing is, in fact, anxiety.

But I Don’t LIKE These Feelings!

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Yup – I hear that. Then again, those feelings really are not the problem. It is the thinking behind them that are the problem. Feelings are simply the messengers of your thinking or, more accurately, your mental responses to your environment. In non-self-aware creatures (like that mouse in your basement) that thinking is mostly learned experience. Don’t eat cheese sitting on wood platforms that smell of metal. Do chew open bags that smell like flour. Run away from large furry things that purr.

In us it is a much richer (and potentially more anxious) universe of mental activity. We can conjecture/speculate about the future – and in having that ability we open ourselves up to some serious worries, if we’re not clear on the difference between crisis and problem. All it takes for us is to think we’re in the middle of a crisis – life-or-death – and that’s enough to power up Flight or Fight.

Which means we’re going to have feelings! And their mission is to GET US MOVING – either running (best choice) or fighting (remove this scary thing from my life right now!) Like them, don’t like them, try to bury them, knock yourself out – you’re going to have feelings.

So it isn’t about liking or not liking our feelings, any more than it is about liking or not liking your eye color or your height. They just ARE. The real question is what do we DO with those feelings as we’re having them?

I have two answers for you –

Don’t Start the Wave / Ride the Wave

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The first answer is, of course, to avoid firing up Flight or Fight in the first place. And that’s the eventual goal of this work – to learn to NOT let our thoughts scare us the way they do now. As we get more and more skillful in our practice of converting crises back into problems in our thinking we will be less and less likely to get anxious in the first place.

Along the way, however (and essential to the work of reaching that end goal) we need to learn to ride the wave of our emotions once Flight or Fight is engaged. This is the perfect place for a surfing metaphor, so grab your board shorts…

Surfers understand that waves are NOT, by their nature and size, controllable. You don’t paddle out to surf with the expectation that you’re going to control ANYTHING but your reaction to the wave – period. When you’re starting out you pretty much suck at wave-riding. You get tossed around a lot, you feel helpless a lot of the time, and you’re convinced you’re never going to get it right.

But you do get better at it, with practice and determination, and part of what helps you get better is learning to just ride the wave rather than fight it. And that’s a great parallel with the feelings of Flight or Fight. Once we activate that mechanism, no matter HOW much we want to control it, it is going to do its thing.

And, as in surfing, the more we get freaked out by the wave of our feelings the worse we make it! Which, at the start, makes us even crazier. And even after we learn this crucial lesson about feeling our feelings, allowing them to just happen, we still have to practice discounting the meaning of those feelings.

That’s why discounting the MEANING of those feelings is so central to this work. Those intense feeling amplify our fear for two reasons: 1) we label them as bad, scary, evil, linking them to the thoughts that start those feelings in the first place, and 2) we’re afraid that they are never, ever going to stop/leave us alone.

ALL of that fear is about the future – yes? Every last bit of it. The future is the problem – not the feelings. The heart of all of this is the meaning we give our feelings. And meaning is a mental process, a learned process.

That doesn’t mean we set out to makes ourselves fearful, it just means that, with a combination of lack of understanding and worry about the future, we’ve learned to scare ourselves silly with our thinking and our physical and emotional reactions.

Here’s some really good news: you only need to get a little ways down the road of this work to see the results start to happen. That doesn’t mean you’ll turn a corner and suddenly it will be easy.

You have to do the work, and that means ups and downs, good days and bad days. What I mean is that you’ll begin to get it, begin to feel yourself NOT making it worse, begin to get skillful at both allowing your feelings and discounting their importance to you (when you’re anxious.)

Please don’t take my word for any of this! Nope, paddle out yourself and start the work. The waves are not good or bad – they just are. Your feelings are not good or bad – they just are. They are not prophets of doom, they don’t have certain knowledge of the future (any more than you or I do), and they can’t hurt you.

But they can scare you – until you begin to reframe what they MEAN. Then they start to become less and less frightening. There will be definite bumps – days or even weeks where the work seems endless and deeply frustrating. Which is to be expected. We, most of us, have spent a lot of time (years or decades) scaring ourselves witless with our thoughts AND our feelings.

Just don’t forget there will also be victories, and slow and steady progress, and you’ll reach a point where you’re aware that you just tried to scare yourself, and it didn’t really happen. You’ll have found that you’re starting to learn to ride the wave.

Feelings are one of the great hurdles to most of us as we face this work overcoming anxiety. I talked in my last post about how we learn to be afraid of our bodies as anxiety fighters. It is largely the same story when it comes to dealing with and managing our feelings. We come to fear and distrust our feelings, and begin to, in addition to having deeply anxious thoughts, also come to be anxious about the feelings we’re having…

(I have more to say about feelings at 4/3/13 and 4/11/13, and those might be useful posts to you if you haven’t already read them as I launch into today’s discussion.)

This leads us to running away from our feelings. We squish them, we avoid them, we pretend we don’t have them, we come to see them as the enemy, and we treat them as indications that there is something seriously WRONG. But feelings are NOT the enemy, they are not accurate (when we’re fighting chronic anxiety) indicators of danger, and we need to stop treating them as such.

Obeying Our Feelings/Misunderstanding Our Feelings

As I say in the posts I’ve referenced above we who live in this modern age have a piece of information that earlier generations didn’t really understand. This brilliant understanding was championed largely by a guy named Albert Ellis. Ol’ Al was a difficult guy – pushy, sometimes obnoxious, opinionated, not the easiest guy to get along with – but he was also smart, very smart. And he had something crucial for us anxiety fighters to understand, really understand. Ready?


Dr. Ellis (he was a psychologist) talks about this insight: our feelings are only the result of our thinking. They are messengers, servants. They are a mirror reflecting our thoughts.

Now that’s NOT what most of us come to think about our feelings. We experience feelings as ruthless taskmasters, abusive mysteries that show up for no reason, out the blue, ruining the day, bringing us down, making a mess of plans, relationships, ambitions and our energy to get on with our lives. Sadness, despair, rage, hurt, anxiety, “the blues” – we hate them!

But we’re wrong. Yes, no question, that’s how it FEELS – I’m not disputing that. And it makes sense, oddly, that we feel that way. It makes sense because feelings evolved to get us moving when we weren’t as smart as we are now. Feelings are supposed to motivate us to action, for the most part. They didn’t evolve to torture us – they evolved to help us deal with the world.

They also, however, didn’t evolve to cope with the fears that only creatures with brains like ours can have. Feelings are, more or less, a part of us coping with the right-now world, the immediate experience we are having. And that makes sense because almost every other species on the planet lives that way – here, in the moment, right now – just like we used to, back before we got the upgrades to the brain we’re carting around these days.

You see, it is those high-powered brains that are the real issue. These modern brains can be afraid of just about anything, and too often are.

So when these brains get ramped up/anxious about some issue in our lives our feelings (in response to our Flight or Fight Reflex) also get ramped up, trying to get us moving to DO something about this “danger” that we’re facing at the moment. Except that we’re NOT in danger. (Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I wrote THAT in this blog I’d be a millionaire…) We’re AFRAID – no question about that – but we’re not in crisis. Nope, we’re dealing with one or more problems that we’ve escalated to crisis status in our thinking.

And our feelings are responding accordingly.

It is pretty frustrating, these out-of-control feelings, when we don’t understand that they are not the enemy. We careen from feeling to feeling, thinking these terrible emotions are telling us something fiercely important, trying to react usefully to what seem like warning signals.

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And of course they ARE warning signals – what they are warning us about is our anxious thoughts! But we don’t get that information in our life training, not most of us, so we assume that when our feelings say NO, DON’T DO THAT, or HOLY CRAP THIS IS REALLY BAD that we should listen and veer off, sit down, stop moving, hide in a corner, wait until those bad feelings go away…

The other thing we do in response to our frightening feelings is work to bury them, squish them, beat them down until they are out of sight and out of mind. (Which doesn’t really happen – they are still in there – we just get really good at keeping them at arm’s length.)

Doing these things in reaction to our feelings is a mistake. That’s one of the principal reasons we’re as anxious as we’ve become.

Squishing Our Feelings

Feelings can’t hurt us – but squishing them can. We have this little illusion we hold onto that says hey, if I am not aware of something then it must not be there. Kinda like the peek-a-boo game you play with babies – you know, the one where you hold a blanket up and “hide” from the infant, then pull it down and announce you’re back? 🙂

Cute and funny with babies. Doesn’t really work with feelings. Feelings don’t GO anywhere when we push them aside or squish them down. There is no “recycle bin” for your feelings like you have on your computer.

More accurately feelings will automatically generate when we have thoughts to launch them. We can get good at flinching away from them, pushing them away from our conscious thinking – but they are still there, still happening.

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It is almost as if we erect a wall between our conscious thinking and our feelings. They are still there, over the wall, but we fool ourselves into thinking they have gone someplace…

We do this, of course, because our feelings scare us. But instead of getting rid of our feelings (remember, we can’t) we just bottle them up. Then, as I’m sure you know from your own experience, at the worst possible moment they come crashing through that wall, scaring us silly, getting us to back away yet again from what we need to do to get over anxiety, having us dissolve in front of or blow up at people around us, making us crazy, etc.

(That wall, by the way, isn’t anything of the sort. It is at best a bamboo screen. If the weather’s mild it can block the breeze – but when the wind comes up, then watch out…)

When people start this work with anxiety they often find themselves experiencing a rush of strong feelings – scary feelings – that SEEM to come out of nowhere. But feelings always come from the same place – our thinking. And if we have been hiding them from ourselves then sure, you bet, to start allowing them back into our conscious thinking can be scary as hell, at least at the start.

But that’s exactly what we need to do – allow our feelings back into our lives. More accurately we have to start understanding what feelings are trying to do for us, and how to respond to them more usefully and with less fear.

Letting Feelings Back Into Our Lives

The hard truth is we’re not very intelligent about our feelings. We have very distorted understandings of what they are, what function they serve and their actual power over our lives.

So let’s start with the basics: feelings CANNOT hurt you. They can be pretty unnerving, even terrifying, if you don’t understand why they are happening (or if you have convinced yourself that they mean something terrible), but they can’t hurt you.

People sometimes say things like “I’m so afraid that my feelings will get out of control.” They see feelings as this high-pressure oil well, about to detonate if not carefully shut down, or a bomb that might go off if they’re careless about keeping a lid on things.

That isn’t true. Squished feelings may come roaring up out of us, but there isn’t an inexhaustible supply of them buried in there. The interesting fact is that letting them out will help you to start feel better.

“Yes, but” (some people say) “what if I explode??? Or what if I say something mean or cruel? Or what if I cry? What if I can’t control these feelings? What if I go crazy?” Heck – you may explode – when you keep feelings bottled up for a time. But that explosion isn’t going to level a city block or require the Fire Department.  So you have a surge of feeling? Welcome to being human! Humans have feelings – LOTS of them. And if you’re burying/suppressing those feelings, well, they will back up –

(We may also need to find a person to safely vent all of these pent-up feelings. Yes, doesn’t that sound crazy – actually DELIBERATELY express your feelings, even the “risky” ones, to someone who can receive them with kindness and patience and not freak out when you do it.)

Yes, you may even WANT say something mean or cruel. That’s a risk of bottling up your feelings. But the notion that it will “just” explode out of you can only come from an ignorance of the way feelings work and the long habit of burying those feelings. We don’t “just” blow up on people. We detonate feeling bombs after long periods of suppressing feelings. What we NEED to do is allow those feelings to get un-squished.

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Maybe that means your safe person again. Maybe that means some journal writing on paper or on your computer, a place where you can be honest with at least yourself about how you feel. Because in fact maybe you need to say that hard, cruel-sounding thing, at least to yourself. Those feelings are not coming out of no-where – they are responding to your thinking, and that thinking has to be acknowledged, or those feelings will just keep coming. It may even need to be said to the person you’re angry at or hurt by. It would be ideal if you didn’t do it in a cruel way, obviously. But maybe there are things that need to be said, somehow…

And as far as crying is concerned – well, why the hell NOT cry? I HOPE you cry, if crying is what you need to do! Crying won’t hurt you either! Crying is one of nature’s great stress relievers. Our culture is very lame about crying and tears. We have made the terrible mistake of deciding that tears mean weakness, or softness, or that they indicate some basic flaw in us.

Forgive my language, but bullshit. Crying is a brilliant way to dump some of the chemicals of stress that come with anxiety. Crying actually clears our thinking some, helps us think better and more clearly. Because (as you know!) strong feelings can often cloud our thinking and judgment. Let’s get over this crap about crying indicating weakness or failure. Strong, smart, competent, brave people cry.

Finally, you won’t go crazy. Just the opposite. You’re a lot LESS likely to lose your marbles if you’re actually accessing and dealing with your feelings directly. And you will begin to feel better (doesn’t that sound good?)

No, it’s the folks that never allow themselves their feelings, never access what’s behind that wall/bamboo screen they’ve built between their conscious thinking and their bottled-up feelings that do crazy things – like shoot up an office building or hurt themselves.

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Notice I didn’t say necessarily more comfortable, or even happier, at least right away. Comfort and happy are both in a sense feelings. But you will begin to think better, respond more calmly to what’s going on around you, and be less frightened of your feelings as you move forward.

I Have Your Feelings For You on Line 1…

Next: your feelings are trying very hard to get you to look squarely at the thinking that is causing them in the first place. Think of them as alert signals, alarms not of impending disaster, but of thinking that is taking you off-beacon and away from problem-solving/good life management.

Now just because your feelings are trying to get you to confront the thinking that is making you anxious doesn’t mean you WANT to. But also remember that feelings are part of an automatic process, a set of deep reflexes that are going to function whether or not we want them too! So until we DO figure out and address the thinking that is rocking our world our feelings will continue to harass us…

Which means that as soon as we’re even somewhat ready to confront our anxious thinking, we should try to make a move. Feelings are pointing the way – even if it makes us uncomfortable (or anxious, or even frightened) the answer still lies in addressing, sorting out and dealing with the thinking that drives the feelings.

Remember in this work (especially if you’re at or near the start of this work) that you may not be immediately able to summon the thinking that is generating those feelings. That’s OK. You’ll get there. You’ve been building that bamboo screen for a while, yes? 🙂 Be patient with yourself.

Although I am writing about this more detail in upcoming blog posts let me also encourage you to consider the help of a good therapist in this accessing of the thinking behind your feelings. (This is another place that our culture is sadly off-beacon about – therapy is a tool and a resource, much like seeing the doctor for a broken leg. But like I said – more about that later.) A therapist can provide a safe and protected space for you to do some of this exploring, and can support you as you face the torrent of feelings – and the thinking behind those feelings.

Not everyone needs a therapist. But some of us are carrying ancient hurts – things like physical or psychological abuse, or highly traumatic events – and a skillful therapist can be an invaluable resource in this work.

And therapy isn’t forever. It might be, for some of us, a handful of visits. For others it might be more. (Just like sometimes we go to the doctor once a year, and sometimes we go to the hospital for surgery!) Therapy is a resource that might be useful to you.

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Feelings Are Your Friends and Allies

If you are anything like I was back in the middle of my fight with anxiety you’re probably shaking your head at that comment. But feelings ARE your friends – your servants, really – and their only purpose is to help you.

When we’re anxious our bodies and emotions can be very frightening to us. We don’t have to be afraid. We need to understand that everything about Flight or Fight – physical sensations and feelings – are automatic responses, and they are all trying to get us to deal with the thinking that is scaring us.

Your feelings are trying to get your attention. Maybe it’s becoming time to answer their call…

Alright, time for a pop quiz:

1) What is the first skill needed to be an effective un-packer of anxiety?
2) What is the second skill?

Heck, you know this! If you’ve been reading this blog you know:

1) The first skill is identifying where in our thinking we are converting problems to crises, and
2) The second skill is learning to “discount” the physical and emotional reactions generated by Flight or Fight when you start worrying/being anxious over those crises you’re creating in your thinking

Today I’m all about examples – examples of people I’ve met, known, and worked with who fight the same challenges you and I fight or have fought around anxiety, fear, panic and depression, and specifically the emotions that fear and anxiety generate in our bodies and brains.

When Feelings Go Bad/The Conviction About Feelings

I mentioned in my last post my own battle with sadness – overwhelming, life-draining sorrow about my fears. I shake my head when I look back now, remembering how I could give away the entire day, very easily, to sitting in front of a TV or staring at the ceiling in my bedroom, consumed by that sad feeling.

Of COURSE I was sad – I was grieving all the imagined outcomes of my fearful thinking. Even when I wasn’t directly conscious of my fears I was still living, physically and emotionally, in the terrible outcomes of my mental fears.

For example, as I mentioned last post, I was terribly worried that I would wind up alone. I’m sure most of you have never carried that fear… but it really rocked my world.

I could only see lonely nights in front of that stupid TV, or sitting at my dinner table alone, or always being the single guy at my friend’s parties and beach trips and… I’m pretty sure you get the picture.

To someone who had love to give and wanted someone to give it to it was a pretty dark future. Just one small problem with this massive focus on the potentially dark future – I actually had no certain knowledge about ANYTHING in my future. I FELT like this could happen, or even that it was all but a certainty – but I still didn’t know.

Earth To Erik – Come In Erik –

I’m probably hardest on myself about this loss of life and time and energy when I think on the clues I had that my thinking was sideways about my assumptions around feelings.

I could be in the grip of that dark sadness, for instance, and get a phone call out of the blue from an old friend, asking me out to dinner. While I might not feel like going in that moment, when I said yes, I would (weirdly enough) begin to feel better as I got up to get ready to meet them.

Hmmm… what did THAT mean? 🙂 I know now that what had happened was my thinking was pulled, however briefly, from my obsessing about my dark and lonely future (in my thinking), and when it was pulled I was suddenly feeling differently.

It worked in reverse, of course, too! I could be in a good space, happy and content, and suddenly I was confronted in my mind with some vision of my certain isolated future. Next thing I knew the day had gone grey, and everything felt pointless. Note the use of the word “felt”…

As I said, I had some clues. I just didn’t know how to put them together.

The Tragedy of Barry

I got lucky, in some respects. I got just enough tools and help to dig a way to the beginnings of a healthier life. Too many of us don’t. One story in particular still leaves me deeply sad – not the sadness of paralysis, but the sadness that brings a grim determination to make something happen.

I’ve written much earlier in this blog about my friend Barry. Barry was a gas – there is no other way to put it. He literally had never met a stranger, and could talk to anyone.

He loved to laugh, loved to dance (and was out at the clubs regularly, even as a man in his late 50’s.) He had had some hard breaks as a younger man, including a pretty savage divorce and some very angry children, not to mention a job he hated.

But he loved to paint, and he loved to teach English to kids who didn’t speak the language. Barry was British, and as an EU citizen could live and work pretty much anywhere he chose in Europe. His dream was to move to coastal Spain or France, spend his days on the shore painting, and his evenings teaching kids to do that English-speaking thing.

Not a bad dream, yes?

Except that Barry had the same fears I did about his future – that he would wind up alone, spending his days without anyone to call lover/friend/partner/spouse. It made him feel terrible (no surprise), and he began to let those feelings predict his future. He fell deep and hard into that problem-turned-crisis thinking result I call the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, and it began to shut down his life.

When we talked his language centered more and more around how bad he felt. He also insisted that because he felt so bad, so sad, angry and afraid, that he couldn’t really do anything about it – that he needed to feel better before he took action to change things. Besides, it didn’t feel like there was any point to it anyway, so why try?

The awful ending of this story is that Barry took his own life in July of 2010.

And It REALLY Pisses Me Off!

Barry took his own life because it FELT like there was no point to continuing. That’s usually the story with suicide. Depression is the result of being certain there is no escape and no hope.

Except that we usually base that on our FEELINGS. And – say it with me – however real our feelings feel, they are only the weather-vanes of our thinking. They only indicate what’s on our mind.

They are not prophetic truths from the future, and they are often at odds with what is really true about our lives, our capacities, our strengths or our potential futures.

I probably can’t say that last sentence too often. Our feelings, however real they may feel, don’t have certain knowledge of the future. Heck, our thinking certainly doesn’t – so how could our feelings? No, we are not clairvoyant, whatever we’d like to tell ourselves when we’re angry, sad, blue, depressed or frightened.

It wasn’t fair to Barry, this assumption that feelings meant reality. And it wasn’t fair that he ended a life that should still be going on, someplace on a beach in France or Spain, painting and teaching ESL. And, I suspect, finding love –

It’s Time To Stop The Insanity

Our fearful, anxious feelings evolved for one reason – to get us DOING something in the face of real, physical, life-or-death danger. That might be freezing in place, or running like hell, or even fighting if we absolutely have to do so.

So let’s do something. Let’s agree that we’re going to start questioning our feelings, really questioning them, instead of assuming that we have certain knowledge or that our feelings are somehow invariably reflections of reality.

And while we’re doing THAT let’s go back a step and question what the heck thinking we’re doing, consciously or otherwise, that is generating those feelings in the first place. And in doing both of those things we are practicing the first two skills that we need to be free of the tyranny of anxiety, fear, worry and depression.

Next up – the effects of long-term fear of physical sensations and emotions, and what we can do about it.

In my last post I began a discussion of the 2nd crucial skill in unpacking and dealing effectively with anxiety – the active awareness of the physical and emotional responses of the Flight or Fight Response when we scare ourselves with our thinking (consciously or otherwise.)

I focused on physical responses to Flight or Fight in that post. Today I’m talking about the emotional stuff that Flight or Fight tosses in our direction when we get afraid. This is where the famous quote from F.D.R. (you remember ol’ Franklin Delano Roosevelt, yes?) comes in – we literally “have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

It’s the truth! Our emotions can completely run away with us, carrying sweet reason with it, and we’re left overwhelmed by our feelings. Overwhelmed is understating it – we can be terrified, shut down and paralyzed by our feelings.

Actually It Isn’t More Than A Feeling –

I mentioned last post (and several times before that in this blog) that my physical reactions scared the crap out of me – vertigo and hand/finger numbness. The other bogeyman in my anxiety reaction closet was a desperate and overwhelming feeling of sadness.

It felt like the world was honestly coming to an end – that there was no point to anything I was doing – and that things could only end in failure and disaster.

And it felt so REAL – so damn real (pardon my french.) I was certain that my feelings reflected what was actually true, or was actually going to be true further down the road of my life. As a result trying seemed stupid, a waste of time, pointless.

That doesn’t even touch the energy drain that I experienced every time this feeling took control of me (or, rather, I let it take control of me.) I didn’t debate it, I didn’t dispute it – it just was. That sense of massive sadness could derail me for days, even sometimes weeks.

What I REALLY wish I had known then was that I was simply in the grip of Flight or Fight. My feelings were the direct result of my thinking, and what I was thinking was making me very anxious. I was afraid of so many things in my life and thinking –

What if I never finish college? That will make me a failure, right?

What if I never find someone to care for me, and for me to care for? I’ll be alone for the rest of my life, sad and an obvious social reject, right?

What if I never find work that’s interesting or means anything to me? That means I’ll be bored for the rest of my life, right?

What if I never overcome my anxiety? What if I have to feel this way for the rest of my life?

That last one was a real zinger for me – could leave me flattened – literally – just lying in bed wondering why I was even ALIVE.

And it Wasn’t Just Me

One of the gifts that the program called CHAANGE (the anxiety treatment program I went though in the middle 1990’s that handed me some beginning tools to start this road out of anxiety) gave to me was an instant awareness that I wasn’t the only person fighting this fight.

I would be put in contact with a couple of people who were also fighting panic attacks and anxiety, and I would quickly learn that they, too, had emotions that overwhelmed them and reinforced their anxiety.

One guy I talked to found himself in the grip of towering rages. A woman I met through the program would experience severe guilt and embarrassment. Both reported what I had experienced, that life- and energy-sucking experience that turned the world gray and made everything seem pointless.

What I wish CHAANGE had said to me was this: these are only feelings Erik, and they spring directly from you activating Flight or Fight with your thinking. They needed to say a second thing to me as well: these are ONLY feelings.

They don’t carry any more meaning than the truth that you’re thinking scary thoughts, fearful and anxious thoughts. That is all they mean – period.

I don’t know that I would have heard it immediately. I was so SURE that these feelings HAD to mean something true and profound that I could have easily resisted understanding this at the start. But just having the idea would have had the potential to change things much earlier than they did…

Here, almost 17 years after starting my climb out of chronic anxiety and panic attacks, I still find myself marveling at my freedom when I think on this basic truth about emotions. Do I still get sad? You bet. It’s a completely natural emotion.

The freedom comes in knowing that my sadness didn’t just drop in from out of the blue, or that it is something I’m unable to manage or deal with, or worst of all, that it MEANS something terrible, destructive and certain.

No, my sadness comes from something I’ve THOUGHT. I’m not always conscious of the thought when it happens – very important to understand that – but with some practice I’ve become pretty stinkin’ good at quickly identifying what thought or thoughts have suddenly turned my mood.

The Power of Your Mind

What emotions leave you low, leave you cratered for hours or days? And what are the thoughts that are generating those feelings in the first place?

Remember, we’re NOT saying that your feelings don’t matter, that you’re attempting to be a drama queen or that you are making something out of nothing. NOT the case. Nope, those feelings are very real, and very powerful.

They have to be, if they’re going to be effective motivators when you’re faced with real, physical danger. They evolved to get you to DO something – either run, or freeze, or fight if you absolutely had to – but you need to be getting away from danger NOW. Nope, these feelings are strong, and they are real.

That doesn’t mean that they have anything real to react to – they are simply the servants of your thinking. If you are afraid of something then you are almost invariably going to activate Flight or Fight, and that will generate feelings, strong feelings.

Isn’t the human brain amazing? Here’s some great news: the same brain that can make us so afraid has the power to make us unafraid as well. You don’t have to stay the prisoner of your feelings!

What are YOU Feeling?

So what feelings rock your world? What emotions bring you to your knees, leave you feeling abused and beat up? Is it sadness? Basic anxiety? Anger? Guilt? Embarrassment? (More common than you might imagine, btw.) Despair?

Maybe it’s time to take an inventory. These feelings are powerful clues that one or more thought patterns you have is/are making you anxious. These, along with the physical responses of Flight or Fight, can point like an arrow straight back to the thinking that causes them in the first place.

And that’s the second step – to remember that whatever you’re feeling is being generated by your thinking. Not necessarily conscious or aware thinking – but thinking nonetheless.

This is a skill. It takes some practice for most of us to even consider facing down those feelings, let alone tracking backwards from them into the fears that generate those feelings in the first place.

That’s OK. That’s the practice that will really, actually give you the strength to do this work and get free of all that worry and anxiety and endless chewing over your fears…

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

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

We Have a Wide Variety of Choices…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Need to Re-think Our Thinking

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

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

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

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

Bring Us to DEFCON 5!

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

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

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

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

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

Next Up

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

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

At the very heart of this on-going discussion about Fear Mastery is a simple premise – that our fears and worries start in our thinking, and it is thinking that will disconnect and shut down those fears. My only purpose with this blog is to communicate this idea, and help people implement that idea in their work against fear and anxiety.

It is however very important to understand the implications of this simple idea. One of those implications is what Dr. Albert Ellis told us decades ago – that feelings come from and are responses to our thinking. Thoughts are what can frighten us or make us anxious, but it is how something FEELS that tends to govern our responses and actions.

It is our feelings that have us running from the problems that we’ve turned into crises in our thinking, and it is our feelings that have us creating those Comfort Zone walls that drive those fears and worries into our mostly unconscious thinking.

In other words we put an enormous amount of (again, mostly unconscious) trust in how we FEEL about something. We let feelings drive all kinds of decisions for us, and there’s no place we do it more than in dealing with our fears. And so our troubles begin!

Feelings – The Product of our Thinking

There are two issues I want to tackle in this blog post today: 1) this notion that feelings come from our thinking, and 2) what we mean when we talk about feelings. First I’ll address feelings from thinking. That notion often feels counter-intuitive. How the heck can we check that theory?

Let’s start with an example I heard first in graduate school as a way to test this idea. Say you’re minding your own business some sunny afternoon, out at the mall maybe, and as you’re moving through the crowd somebody accidently steps on your foot. They don’t just tap that foot – they really put their weight down on it. IT REALLY HURTS.

Sure, it’s an accident, but most of us carry the belief that other adults are responsible for paying attention to what’s going on around them, and this oaf who stepped on our foot wasn’t paying attention they way he was supposed to – right? And so we get mad at him.

Maybe we curse quietly and shoot them a glare. Maybe we shout at them, call them bad names, and send them the bill for the doctor’s visit. But most of us have some sort of angry reaction. And of course they feel bad, because they carry the same belief that you do about adults being responsible for the outcomes of their behavior. So far no surprises here. Somebody stepped on your foot, you got mad.

Now suppose that same thing happened, but this time it is a 3-year-old. Do you dropkick the kid across the mall for causing you serious pain? No. Most of us carry the belief that little kids don’t carry the same responsibility for self-awareness, mostly because, well, they’re little kids – they don’t know enough yet to be held to that standard. Your foot still hurts, and you’re upset – but that’s different from mad, or angry, or enraged.

How the heck does that happen? It happens because our feelings get their start from our thoughts.

Different situation, same result

Or how about this situation? Let’s say you go to a movie that your friends have been raving about as a great film. You are expecting this movie to be worth your time, and popcorn in hand you sit down to be entertained. You discover however that the film isn’t nearly as good you as you expected, and now you’re (pardon the expression) pissed off – you blew $11 dollars (or more!) on this waste of two hours of your life.

By comparison your wife or husband or buddy or the total stranger sitting next to you had no expectations about this movie – they were just checking it out, had a little free time, thought it might be interesting, or they’re just along for the ride. Free of your level of expectation they had a pleasant time, and are puzzled that you are upset about the movie. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that you had THOUGHTS about the movie, beliefs about what it should or shouldn’t be. Change your particular thoughts and you have a different emotional reaction. It sounds simple, and it is, at least conceptually. But applying it takes a little work, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

So What Does This Mean For Me, The Consumer?

The point is your thoughts are what govern your feelings. This is huge, I mean really BIG in the work of dealing with anxiety and fear. There is an enormous amount of power in this simple notion, and with a little practice and effort you can use it to your advantage.

For a large part of my life it was my belief that my feelings just happened, in a kind of vacuum, and that I was to a large extent the victim of my feelings. And that’s exactly how I experienced my feelings. I would be feeling great, and then suddenly I was sad. Or I was sad, and then suddenly I was wistful – or amused – or you pick the feeling. Even when I was not dealing with an actual panic attack I was still too often the unwilling victim of my feelings.

But the entire time my feeling’s origins were no mystery at all (except to me). They were the product of my thinking. I fought this whole idea at the start. Didn’t everybody know instinctively that feelings just came from out of the blue? (More thinking, by the way – isn’t that interesting? If we assume something can’t be done, or is wrong, that will impact our feelings too, yes? Let alone what we are willing to try to do…)

When I took this notion for a test drive it was both disturbing and exciting to see just how much this was true. One of the ways I proved this for myself (and also made myself very angry for coming to understand just how much my fear had actually been under my control, all this time, and I had had no idea!) was the practice of distraction from my anxious thinking. I started learning this when I was working the CHAANGE Program back in 1995.

All my therapist wanted me to do was find something to pull my attention as a way of taking a break from the work of confronting and dealing with my anxiety. Easier said than done some days – you know the drill – you become stuck in certain kinds of anxious thinking, and it is like trying to climb out of a well.

One of the ways he got me started was doing deep breathing exercises. This was in fact the very first thing he taught me to give myself some temporary relief from my anxiety.

And it worked! At first it didn’t work for very long, but ANY break at that point was golden to me! Perhaps more important for this conversation, it was elegant proof that my feelings WERE the result of my thinking – and when I pulled my focus from my anxious thinking my feelings calmed down, changed.

So You’re Saying I Can Control My Feelings?

That’s exactly what I’m saying. I am NOT saying you will master that skill-set in a single sitting or one practice effort. There are folks on the Net who claim that they can deal with panic, anxiety and fear in a single session. At the heart of that claim is this notion that feelings are governed by thinking. And while I don’t doubt that there may have been some people who may have found some help with just one discussion or one reading of this idea, it isn’t that simple for most of us.

One challenge with this work is how FAST humans beings can have a thought. We don’t really get the speed at which we think, and how fast multiple thoughts can come at us. This is where a lot of people get stuck. “I was just thinking about my last job” you might hear someone say – only of course they had multiple thoughts about their last job, and there were feelings associated with ALL of those thoughts.

If some of those thoughts generate negative or unhappy feelings then presto, suddenly the day gets gray, or even just a little sad – only you’re already on to your next thoughts, not aware of the triggers that changed the tone of the day.

Another challenge is how much of our thinking isn’t conscious – it is happening in the background of our awareness. A great metaphor for our thinking is a stage with a spotlight. When you’re looking at the stage you’re only seeing what’s in the spotlight.

That doesn’t mean things are not happening elsewhere on the stage – you’re just not noticing them. And it doesn’t mean you can’t notice them – it will just take some work and attention.

Combine these two aspects of thought and you can suddenly be in the middle of a feeling with very little (initial) idea of why the heck you’re having that feeling. It takes practice to become skillful at identifying what thoughts are driving what feelings.

What Does Practice Look Like?

Practice starts with understanding that we do have a great deal of control over our feelings by becoming aware of our thinking. It then involves deciding to what I call “autopsy” our feelings. You find yourself feeling sad this afternoon, for example. You pause mid-activity and take a moment to ask yourself what thought or thoughts started you on that emotion?

When I first began to try this out I often couldn’t quickly identify the thought or thoughts I had had that in turn generated a feeling I was trying to autopsy. Worse still it was often more than just one single thought – sometimes it was a cascade of thoughts that had diverted my feelings so suddenly. It was frustrating, like any new skill learning curve can be.

But I began to realize, after a little time, that it wasn’t all that hard to identify when my thoughts had taken me in a particular direction. A quick example: the smell of honeysuckle reminds me very strongly of my first college experiences in California. That smell brings back both a set of very happy memories, and a fair amount of sadness, given that I made the decision to leave college half-way through and come home.

For YEARS I would smell honeysuckle and have a real flood of feelings, but I never thought through WHY, until I finally tracked that the smell transported me back in time…

And of course our thoughts are often pulled (either by external prompts, or our own musings) towards issues that are outside our Comfort Zone, and that can easily trigger uncomfortable feelings.

The point is to work to identify the thoughts that trigger specific feelings. It is a very useful exercise to, while you’re doing this, to write out the sequence you’re experiencing, both as a way to articulate what you’re thinking to yourself, and to see what else comes up for you. Talking the sequence/your thinking through out loud, to yourself or with someone else is also a great practice tool.

Another thing you can do to practice is deliberately focus on something you like or enjoy. This is advice the positive thinking advocates have been shouting about for decades, and it is a great way to road-test this idea that your feelings are governed by your thinking.

It will again take a little practice – we are often so accustomed to focusing on what we worry about that it can take real energy and effort to pull our thinking. This can also be accomplished by watching a movie that makes you laugh, or reading a funny story, or even just listening to someone else laugh…

You have WAY More Control Than You Know

Don’t take my word for any of this! Check it out for yourself. This is one of the crucial keys in doing the Fear Mastery work, of confronting and facing down and unpacking our fears, of turning our crises back into problems.

Expect some initial frustration. And expect some strong feelings too! But you can also expect some real understanding, as well as the interesting, growing capacity to begin to control your own feelings…

I’m not making any promises about what is in the next blog post – my careful plan to finish discussing Anticipatory Anxiety is apparently getting put to the side for the moment with my other writings for this blog. I would love to hear how your practice of identifying the thoughts that drive your feelings is doing if you’re willing to drop me a note here at the blog.

As I have written this blog over the last 8 months it has become blindingly clear that (as I keep saying here) our feelings are a primary issue in our running away from the things that scare us or make us anxious.  There’s no question we develop elaborate and articulate explanations about why we won’t face this or that fear, but in my experience (with myself, with my clients and in my research) the bottom line is that we FEEL afraid, or nervous, or scared, or whatever word that most accurately describes our feelings.  And it is those feelings that stop us, most of the time.

Which, ironically, is a great demonstration of just how effective and useful the Flight or Fight Mechanism is – for every creature on the planet but most modern humans, that is.  Running from (or, if you have to, fighting) immediate threats to safety and life are a good idea.  But to be a human these days rarely means that we are faced by a pack of hungry wolves, or find ourselves coping with a charging water buffalo.  We just don’t experience the same likelihood of immediate physical danger that our ancestors did, or any creature living in the wild.  We live in nice warm houses with alarm systems now, not in caves.  We go to the store and get our food by shopping, rather than running it down with spears or digging it out of the ground with sticks.  And we keep the wolves and buffalos in cages at the zoo, thank you very much – not out running around where they might hurt us. 

Sure, we still experience danger.  People drive drunk, people experience road rage, people take a swing at other people now and again.  And Flight or Fight is still with us, still ready to power up and help us navigate through those immediate physical dangers in the best way possible.  But the vast majority of our “dangers” these days involve the ones we create about our futures.  And for those dangers the Flight or Fight Response is little or no help at all.  Yet we still RESPOND with the same feelings that we would feel if we were facing hungry wolves or that crazy buffalo.  And those feelings developed as a way to get us in motion – either running or fighting.  They work really well under the conditions of immediate danger.  They don’t work so well when the danger is abstract, estimated in a future that isn’t here yet.  They in fact get in the way of us doing what we need to do. 

The answer?  We have to think about our feelings.  We have to become conscious of the fact that we are letting our feelings decide our behavior.  Yes, it is our thinking that is causing the problem (all those what if’s, etc. about the future) but it is our feelings that stop us from taking action.  In a very real sense the Flight or Fight Response is malfunctioning in situations where we are turning problems into crises. But because we literally evolved to respond/react to our feelings, NOT think them through, most of us do just that – react to our feelings and step away from addressing the problem as a problem, not a crisis. 

Like any habit we fall into this takes a little time and effort.  We have become so trained at simply responding to our feelings that it takes some work, some practice to change that habit.  We need to get some experience at feeling our feelings, but then not reacting to our feelings.  Feelings are great indicators, great signals that something is going on.  But what’s going on is in our heads – that’s the crucial distinction.  Unless we are actually facing an angry water buffalo we are not served by reacting to our fearful feelings by refusing to think about what’s scaring us.  And as a guy who spent decades being ruled by his feelings of fear and anxiety, I know that this sounds completely crazy, every scary to think about.  I also know that it was precisely what opened the door to getting free from my fears.  It wasn’t (and isn’t) the only piece, but it is one of the most important pieces in mastering fear.

As you might be able to tell from the last few blog postings I’m deep in the middle of a conversation about the Comfort Zone (that place we build to keep us away from our fears and anxieties.)   I am having a parallel conversation with my coaching clients on this exact topic.  One of the big (if not in fact biggest) issues I find myself returning to again and again is how the Comfort Zone (really, all the elements of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle) trigger the Flight or Fight Response, which in turns leads to powerful 1) emotions and 2) physical sensations.  (See “The Comfort Zone, Part II”, 2/24/10.)  It is my conviction that most people, even when they understand intellectually that they are facing fears and anxieties that can’t do them harm in the present moment, find those emotions and sensations so daunting and frightening that they simply turn and run – precisely what the Flight or Fight Response wants us to do.

It is important to recall the crucial differences between a crisis and a problem, as articulated in this blog earlier in the year.  (See “Crisis vs. Problem”, 2/3/10.)  The Flight or Fight Response developed as a mechanism to get us clear of danger – real, present moment danger – PERIOD.  That means 1 of 2 things: either you are running/escaping danger (preferred, since if you run and get away you’re uninjured – great survival tactic!) or turning to fight (if you can’t run and MUST face this danger, and of course then risk getting injured or killed.)  This mechanism doesn’t depend on thinking for the most part – in fact thinking can too often get in the way of running or fighting. 

So the Flight or Fight Response has, as part of its bag of tricks to get you moving NOW, powerful emotions to trigger behavior on your part, and accompanying physical sensations that are products of both the physiology of Flight or Fight (adrenaline, cortisol.)  And these feelings and sensations are sending strong, urgent, frightening messages that something is WRONG, and you better do something about it NOW – preferably run.

It can be overwhelming, that rush of anxiety and fear.  The most recent literature about the Flight or Fight Response and the brain indicates that we are literally hard-wired to go from perception of danger (real or imagined) and the Flight or Fight Response.  We’re going to feel those feelings because that is a big part of what will get us moving in the presence of real, right-now danger.  And in those first moments of the rush of emotions we’re not necessarily thinking very well – in fact most of us are suffering some degree of loss of our critical thinking, calm analytic skills in that rush.  For me the emotions that were most frightening were general anxiety and a deep sense of personal unworthiness.  Those feelings shut me down hard and fast, and had me moving away from whatever thoughts had triggered those feelings.  I was literally afraid to feel those feelings, so I worked hard to stop them when they started.  Other people might experience anger, terror, guilt, embarrassment, shame, sadness – you name it.  Whatever your individual experience is the temptation is to get away from those feelings as quickly as possible.

And the physical sensations we experience are powerful as well.  We’ve linked those sensations to being afraid, and that in turn reinforces the Comfort Zone boundaries we’ve created to keep us away from whatever thing we’re afraid of.  Each of us has specific sensations that rattle our cages, all products of what the Flight or Fight Response is doing to our bodies to get us ready to run or do battle.  In my own case the sensations that shook me up were vertigo/dizziness and numbness in my hands and arms.  Even the mildest start of these sensations warned me I was thinking about something scary, and that in turn (for over 20 years) had me shutting down those thoughts and moving away from the context I was in at that moment pretty quickly.  They were just too scary to spend any time experiencing.  That’s good news when we’re talking about avoiding something that can cause us real physical harm, like playing on the freeway or running with scissors.  It doesn’t serve us at all when it leads us to avoiding problems that we’re treating like crises. 

Any mix of physical sensations is possible.  I’ve taught presentation skills for a number of years, and I’ve heard students and clients report it all.  Some report nausea and tingling in their fingers.  Others mention breaking into a cold sweat and having “cotton-mouth” (saliva production shutting down.)  You pick the combination and some group of people is experiencing it.  Add on top of these physical sensations the rush of emotions that are supposed to get you moving away from danger, and you’ve got a pretty powerful combination.

Now mix in that the Comfort Zone’s primary purpose is to keep us away from the “tiger” that we’ve created around this problem we’ve made into a crisis, keep us from not being aware of the scary thing we’re avoiding, and a large part of the time we’re not even aware that we’re running!  This parallels what happens when we’re confronted by danger in the physical world.  Most of the time we’re in motion away from danger before we’re even aware of it – a great strategy if you’re being chased by a tiger, but not as useful when you’re running from a problem you need to think through and address. 

And doesn’t this speak to most of our experience about not confronting our fears and pushing past our Comfort Zone boundaries?  Sure, we’d like to move past our fears, face our anxieties and get control over this thing we’re afraid to work through.  As long as we don’t feel those scary feelings and physical sensations this sounds like an outstanding idea.  But the moment we begin to experience those feelings and sensations it is remarkable how fast that idea sounds like a really BAD idea, how quickly we’re changing the topic, shutting down the conversation, and moving away to something less frightening.

Which, a great deal of the time, leads to a sense of helplessness, frustration and even despair.  We start to feel powerless in the face of these fears we have, and it seems like a no-win scenario.  Which in turn is frightening, and so we move even further away from the thing we’re afraid to face.  What’s the solution? 

Part of the answer lies in deciding to do two things:  1) Recognizing that the feelings and sensations we’re experiencing, however unnerving or scary, are in fact only feelings and sensations.  Yes, they can be VERY, very unnerving, even show-stopping.  We’ve given a lot of time and energy to building a big Comfort Zone boundary to keep us away from this problem we’ve been treating like a crisis, and at the start it can seem crazy to even talk about this.  But in fact they are only feelings and sensations.  They themselves can’t hurt us, however much we’re afraid of them.  2) Work to convert this crisis we’ve created back into a problem, which is the heart of the reason we’re afraid in the first place.  Work in this direction will begin to unplug the indefinite negative futures we’ve created around this problem, and that in turn begins to give access to the very capacities we need to solve the problem – our lucid thinking, our ability to problem-solve and analyze issues, and the freedom to take steps to do something about what’s making us afraid. 

In my next post I will discuss 1st-level techniques to begin this work, ways to throttle back those feelings and sensations.

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