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When I was taking high school English (way back at the beginning of human history – after they invented fire but before we had the wheel) there were several standard ways to start your essay for class. One of the popular ones was opening with a definition from the dictionary as a way to introduce your topic. I’m going to pull a page from history and do that now:

Practice verb \’prak-tes\

1 a: Carry out, apply
b: To do or perform often, customarily, or habitually
2 a: To perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient
b: To train by repeated exercises

Here in year four of this blog I’m coming to understand one crucial thing about most of us that are engaged in the fight with anxiety: we don’t really get right away (as we start this fight) that what this is about is PRACTICE. So today is all about practicing the skills to beat anxiety, break its power in our lives and make anxiety a tool and helper rather than a brutal taskmaster in our lives.

Mom, Do I GOTTA Go to Practice?

Let’s start with that 1a definition above: “Carry out, apply.” Practice starts with, more than anything else, DOING something. It is in the very nature of anxiety to try and get us to freeze in place or run away – anything but moving forward into our fears. And that’s where the trouble begins.

It starts there because we are driven by the powerful responses of Flight or Fight, in our body and feelings, to get AWAY from what is making us anxious. We are all but unconscious that we are stepping back.

Practice 2

All we really know is that we FEEL better for not engaging our fears – at least for a little while. So we don’t “carry out, apply”, because it means engaging our fears. And that feels bad, scary, dangerous.

Mastering our fears means engaging them – sorting out where we’ve turned an issue or challenge into a life-or-death crisis. But we can’t do that if we won’t first look the scary thing in the eye.

This doesn’t mean we spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week constantly confronting our fears! 🙂 Nobody can do that. It means doing the work in practice sessions – just like going to baseball practice, or practicing a piano, or doing yoga. Nobody is doing yoga 24 hours a day.

It also means brief moments of practice when anxiety comes yammering at your door, demanding that you worry about something RIGHT NOW. It means briefly and firmly reminding yourself that this isn’t a crisis, however it FEELS, and that your mission is to focus on being here, in the present moment, not up in some future scary scenario.

Notice I said “briefly and firmly.” That doesn’t necessarily mean you divert 45 minutes to an exhaustive unpacking session. It often means just that – remind yourself that your mission is to be here, in the present, not up in the future worrying about scary scenarios, discount what Flight or Fight is trying to tell you, and then GET ON with your life/day/whatever you’re doing.

That takes practice. Practice takes time. I wish it didn’t. I would summon heaven and Earth to make anxiety vanish from everyone’s life, if I had the power. But it doesn’t work that way!

It DOES, however, work to make the effort at the steady practice of unpacking and unplugging anxiety…

How Much Practice Is Enough?

“1 b: To do or perform often, customarily, or habitually”. When we are engaged in fighting anxiety we are SICK of it! Most of the folks reading this blog didn’t have anxiety come out of the sky blue yesterday afternoon. Nope, we’ve been fighting it for months and months, or more likely years and years. We are DONE, DONE, DONE with having anxiety run our lives.

Practice 1

So we’re not exactly in a place of being cool with being told “hey, this is going to take some time and practice.” What we want is “hey, this will make you better RIGHT NOW.” I’m not speaking hypothetically – this was exactly me when I finally found the first faint signs of good information on how to beat this thing called anxiety.

I got mad – mad and frustrated. I yelled and got pissed off and shouted at the heavens about it. (Literally – I stood outside one afternoon in the depths of a bad anxiety period and demanded to know why me? Guess I was lucky the neighbors didn’t call the police or the hospital…) Didn’t make any difference.

What DID make a difference was the steady reframing of my thinking by challenging my anxious thinking, discounting my Flight or Fight responses and repeatedly facing into my fears. It had to be regular and it had to be often enough to start to really change my thinking.

It sucked some days! 🙂 You know what I mean! Some days it seemed pointless, stupid, a grand waste of time, even counter-productive. It wasn’t – I was learning and getting better at it the whole time – but it sure FELT that way.

Steady practice. Daily practice – actually several times a day practice – coupled with the brief confronting of anxious thinking as it occurs, then moving on. That’s what reprograms our thinking, changes our responding to our Flight or Fight responses from fearful to unconcerned, sets us free from the hamster wheel of anxiety.

There comes a day when you discover that you’re in fact seeing progress. When you face a fear and you realize you’re not as scared. When you have a Flight or Fight response and smile at it instead of freak out about it. That’s when you discover you work is starting to pay off.

So what is enough? Well, are you free of chronic anxiety yet? If not, you’ve got some more work to do. Believe me, it’s worth it. (Or, don’t believe me. That’s OK. TRY IT ANYWAY. What have you got to lose?)

Practice 4

Practice Makes Perfect

That’s really a silly phrase – nothing is perfect, except maybe snowflakes (briefly) and hanging at the beach in San Diego (until you REALLY have to get out of the sun.) But practice does make you SKILLFUL – and that’s your mission.

“2 a: To perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient
b: To train by repeated exercises”

Practice means time – doing something again and again over time. We get impatient with that. We forget that we’ve given years or decades to building up some pretty fierce Comfort Zone walls, some pretty powerful fears that we’ve fed a LOT of energy and worry. We want anxiety to be done the way a light is off when you flip a switch.

We get frustrated with the time it takes to get free of anxiety. But tell me, what’s a handful of months of steady work against the years of your life that you’ve been pommeled by anxiety? If you started right now, today, doing this work consistently and patiently, even when you didn’t FEEL like doing it, well, you’d be a long ways down the road by the start of summer? Doesn’t that sound good?

“To perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient.” That’s our goal, that’s our mission. Expect to not be very good at this in the beginning! Practice assumes that you’re NOT skillful at the start, yes? And we who fight anxiety are so good at self-abuse if we don’t figure something out instantly. Not useful…

Practice. Patient, steady, regular. Even when you don’t feel like it. That’s your ticket out of chronic anxiety. Even when the day doesn’t feel right, or your back aches, or there’s a NCIS marathon on TV, or… anything that gets in the way of your practice.

If you’re new to the blog and you’re not sure what we’re talking about when it comes to unpacking anxious thinking and unplugging your fears about your emotional and physical reactions to anxiety, read the blog posts from 11/20/11 through 8/8/12. That will give you a solid grounding and get you moving. Still have questions? Hit me by email! I’m all about questions!

Practice. Now. Don’t wait. The way out is through practice.

When you’re battling anxiety, depression and panic the last thing you want someone to tell you is “just be patient – this work takes time.” I know that I had no interest in spending any longer than absolutely necessary to get free of anxiety and the way it was crippling my life.

But, as I spent the last few months outlining in excruciating detail here at this blog, one of the difficult truths about overcoming anxiety is that it takes time, work and patience. The problem is that it can be easy to pay lip service to this idea, but still (in our anxiety-weary souls) we just want it to be DONE.

That’s why I wanted to emphasize a point I’ve already made in this blog before: we will in all likelihood not dispel the anxiety and fear we’re generating in our thinking in one session or single push. We need to embrace this understanding both to not make ourselves crazy in the effort, and to do the work more effectively.

It’s a War, Not a Battle

My Dad is a military historian in his free time, and he taught me something very early in my life. If you want to win a war you have to see it as a series of battles. And if you are seeing that war as a series of battles you have to have a strategy to help you win those battles and that war. The fight with anxiety isn’t one battle – it is a war.

What that means for us in this work is that we have to pace ourselves. It is the nature of anxiety and fear that we want to deal with danger (real or in our thinking) NOW. Real danger doesn’t have any time for us to patiently, methodically figure out a winning strategy.

But anxiety (fear generated in our thinking) requires EXACTLY that – a methodical, steady approach that will give us the skills we need to succeed at this work.

For instance, part of the skills we need to practice is the work of “unpacking” our anxious/fearful thinking – i.e., converting the crisis in our thinking back into a problem. At the beginning of this work that is usually easier said than done.

If we have reached a place (as most of us have) where we are battling chronic/on-going anxiety then we have given that anxious thinking a lot of energy over some period of time. Many of us have been doing that worrying and anxious thinking for years or even decades.

Which means that we’re not just going to just stop that thinking in its tracks. No, it is going to take some practice and effort, some patience and time. I wish that wasn’t the case!

Take a Load Off

What this means practically is that we have do this work in steady steps. We have to practice improving the skills required to stop the cycle of anxious thinking in our heads. That means we have to do some work, then take a break, then do some more work, then take a break, etc.

What that looks like precisely is going to vary from person to person. When we’re just starting out that might mean we’re doing great to get to that practice 2-3 times a day.

As many of you reading this already understand it can be exhausting/scary just to get ourselves in a chair, deliberately, and begin to identify the thinking that is scaring us. (See my last post for some very specific steps to start that process.) We’re very tempted to put it off, delay a while longer, wait until we’re feeling better… etc.

It’s kind of like having to fight your way onto the soccer field before you can even start playing soccer, or running two miles before you can reach the starting line for the 10K! This work (as I know I say a lot here) takes energy – a lot of energy. We just can’t get it all done in one single push.

Take it in steps. Practice means doing something again and again across time, with the goal of getting more skillful. That’s a perfect description of what it means to deal with anxiety effectively.

It Isn’t Just About Energy

Another reason to get this straight is that we can be so stinkin’ HARD on ourselves if we don’t get this done fast enough. We can start worrying that we’re doing it wrong, or that it won’t work for us, or that we don’t have what it takes to go the distance. All of that thinking is what we’re already doing to ourselves – it is anxious/fearful thinking.

Ever see the movie “Groundhog Day”? In case you haven’t it is the story of a man (Bill Murray) who gets caught in a kind of loop – he is doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he sorts out his life. From the perspective of everyone else he just lives one day. But from his viewpoint he is doing the same thing again and again.

One of the ironies of this story is that, because he really can’t go anyplace else (even forward in his own life), he finally surrenders to the inevitable and begins to practice a number of things. He learns to play the piano, do ice sculpture, and even become more adept at being a good communicator and human being. To everyone else he transforms literally overnight – but for him it takes months and months to build those skills.

We who battle anxiety don’t have to wait that long. But in a very real sense we are living with our own version of Groundhog Day.

Slow and Steady

Nobody wants to have to wait to see the serious relief of anxiety. Anxiety, however, didn’t happen overnight for any of us, and while it won’t take nearly as long to sort out and unpack as it did to create it in the first place, it will take some work and time.

Please, let me know how the work is going for you. I’ve heard from a number of people in the last two weeks, and it is very encouraging/exciting to get updates from you. Send them to the blog or email me directly – and keep at it – slow and steady.

There is a pretty common belief in our world these days that says if you are wrestling with anxiety or depression then there must be something wrong with you. You must not be a very strong person – you’re weak, or wimpy, or a whiner.

Or you must be broken somehow – you’re fighting “mental illness” – not like fighting the flu illness, but some permanent handicap that can’t be really fixed. And again the implication is that you’re somehow failing, rather than fighting a real and debilitating issue that needs attention, clear thinking and work to overcome (and that can very much BE overcome.)

But none of that is true. The problem is that we have some thinking that is making us fearful – period. EVERYONE has some anxious thinking around something. Being anxious is one of the most normal things in the world!

To be human is to wrestle, to some degree, with anxiety, however calm, collected and cool we look on the outside. The heart of the challenge is mastering the tools that make us effective in managing and overcoming that anxiety.

Practice, Practice, Practice

If there’s one thing that’s true for all of us that do battle with anxiety/depression/panic, it is that we really DON’T have much interest in facing into that anxiety. It is the very nature of this struggle that anxiety wants us to AVOID dealing with it. You don’t get very far in the natural world if you’re hot to take tigers on bare-handed…

Nope, it makes WAY more sense (in the natural world) if you get your butt in gear and get AWAY from the tigers! Millions of years of evolution have shaped a response system that literally overrides conscious, lucid thought (when it is at full power), because you need to get moving NOW.

So what does all that mean for you, the consumer? It means that we have to expect this work of facing down anxious thinking to be difficult, even on the good days. The entire mechanism of Flight or Fight wants us to NOT look that fearful thinking in the eye.

We have to expect that the work will be tiring, tedious, exhausting. We have to expect that some days it will feel like we’re getting nowhere, and that all our efforts are pointless. We will get irritable, scratchy, angry, sad, frustrated and just plain grumpy.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this work is that:

1) It is infinitely worth doing,
2) We (all of us) are capable of doing it, and
3) We don’t have to (however we feel) get it all done in a single sitting. We’re most likely NOT going to get it done in one sitting. We have to practice.

More About Bicycles

I mentioned in my last blog post about my learning to ride a bike. Let just confess here that I wasn’t the world’s fastest master of the bicycle.

I wasn’t very self-confident at the start, and it didn’t help that I was one of the last people I knew to learn to ride a bike. I felt rushed, and I was frankly afraid of falling.

So my Mom (bless her patient soul!) kept at it with me. We’d go out after dinner and she’d run along behind me, holding the back of the bike, while I tottered along, afraid of really pushing, afraid of not learning it, afraid of looking stupid… so weeks passed, and all the while I was feeling like I was getting nowhere.

But when I think back on that time I remember clearly that there were signs I was getting it – that I was starting to manage not just one skill, but the several skills that made it possible to ride a bike. And then, one great night, it all came together and suddenly I realized she wasn’t holding the back of the bike anymore…

Dealing with anxiety will often be like that too. We’re not very skillful at the start. It takes us time to get much traction. Then we begin to experience some movement. We start buying the notion that our anxious feelings and physical reactions just don’t mean much. We begin to see through the fog of our fears.

The Bottom Line

I write all this because we have to take a little longer view of this work. We want to stop being anxious NOW – I get that – no question. Every day we lose to anxiety feels terrible. But we didn’t get to that place overnight, and it WILL take some time and practice to shake free of it.

It won’t take nearly as long, of course! And with steady effort you will be surprised at the progress you begin making. The key here is realizing the work will take a little time.

Next up – REALLY taking care of ourselves.

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