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There is a very specific obsessive behavior that Flight or Fight, in reaction to our frightened, anxious thinking, drives us to do over and over again. It FEELS like something we HAVE to do, and it even feels scary to NOT do it – but it is not only a waste of our time, it is one of the active sources of our ongoing anxiety. And it is a total waste of our time and energy.

In a sense this post is a follow-up to the last post on acceptance. You might also find it useful to review this post HERE on what problem-solving is, vs. what anxiety worry and treating things as a crisis tempts us to do.

What Flight or Fight calls us to do is this: it tries to get us to “solve” the terrible scenarios that we conjure in our anxious thinking, consciously or not – and in so doing sets us up to keep scaring ourselves, over and over again, and feel even more compelled to resolve our hypothetical fearful thinking…

It all Starts with Scary Movies in our Heads…

Let’s do a little review. Chronic anxiety – really, anxiety of any kind – stems from one simple mis-step in our thinking. That mistake is to start trying to treat a problem, issue or challenge that is NOT life-threatening, not immediately about to kill or maim us, as if it was a life-or-death crisis. If you’ve read this blog at all then you’re crystal clear on this being the heart of all the misery and dysfunction that anxiety brings into our lives.

Solving the Future 1

Let’s do a little more review. The moment we start treating anything like a crisis, whether it is a crisis or not, we activate Flight or Fight. And one of the essential features of Flight or Fight is the automatic (and I mean automatic, as in pre-programmed, part of the DNA coding we have in dealing with real danger) attempt to escape, if at all possible, the danger we’ve told ourselves we’re facing.

One more time for the cheap seats: Flight or Fight, the moment it fires up, begins trying mightily to get us clear of whatever danger, real or manufactured in our thinking, that we think we’re facing down. One of the features of that attempt to escape is figuring out the worst-case scenarios.

This is brilliant. You really should reach around and pat yourself on the back for that amazing reflex. If you’re actually in danger your brain is WAY ahead of anything you could muster in a moment in the way of a response. In nano-seconds our brains our assessing the situation and working furiously to give us alternatives in the face of that danger.

But of course we’re not talking about real danger. We’re talking about the fears we’ve been nurturing, without meaning to, in our busy gray matter. And that sets in motion us trying to “solve” the future, in increasing desperation, and in utter futility.

Trying to Escape what isn’t there

Let’s say you’re afraid of facing down a difficult/scary conversation with your Significant Other. Let’s make the subject money management. The moment you begin thinking about the conversation you need to have you fire up Flight or Fight. In the midst of that reaction you begin, consciously or semi-consciously, worrying about how the conversation will go…

Solving the Future 2

Your brain starts to examine specific potential outcomes (according to your thinking.) Maybe you’re afraid that there will be a fight. Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll have to confront a serious shortage, directly, in your shared finances. Maybe you’re not even that clear on what scares you about the money thing with your partner – you just know that you ARE scared about it and don’t want to have this conversation.

Your thoughts riffle through what MIGHT happen (again, according to your fears.) What if he or she gets very angry? What if this damages your relationship? What if they never speak to you again? What if they storm out of the house, or even leave you forever? What if… well, you get it, yes?

Now you’re busy REALLY scaring yourself. Your brain begins to try to solve the terrible idea that you will wind up alone, without support, on the street, the wind howling around you… or whatever your idea of scary looks like at the present moment. You’re full-on treating this scenario in your head as a crisis – even though it hasn’t happened, even though it isn’t real –

And so your brain revves up a merry-go-round of efforts to “solve” this crisis – which isn’t a crisis at all. It isn’t even REAL. It’s simply a conjecture in your head. You’re trying to escape what isn’t there – and it is feeding your anxiety in a big, big way.

Now you have Flight or Fight really going strong in your thinking and body. Now you’re freaked out, a little or a lot, and the most natural thing in the world at this point is to try and run away from this thinking completely – or at least try to. Except of course that Flight or Fight is still trying to save you from the terrible danger of this conversation… the conversation that hasn’t happened yet… and the outcomes that are for the moment only in your head.

But it COULD happen that way!

Well, at least some part of your brain is saying that when you’re in Flight or Fight. Of COURSE its saying that – because you’re freaking yourself out about what MIGHT happen. You’re treating a problem (if it is a problem) as a crisis.

Solving the Future 3

Sure, Erik, but you don’t KNOW my Significant Other. He or she is a crazed wombat when it comes to money. And I’m not convinced that I can manage my own money anyway. And he or she is my primary support. And I can’t imagine my life without someone to help me with money. And what if I run out of money and never have any money ever again? And what if…

And you’re off and running again. It is what Flight or Fight DOES when we are fired up treating any issue/challenge/problem as a crisis. What does that mean?

1) It means we have to identify when we do that, with the issues we do it with as we’re doing it. It can be anything, about anything, and it can happen anytime. (It will in fact happen anytime to those of us that fight chronic anxiety, until we get that thinking sorted out.) We need to develop a brand-new skill (for us) of identifying where we turn thinking into a crisis.

2) We also need to begin to practice the awareness/understanding that IF we are trying to solve the future and we are NOT about to be consumed by man-eating piranha that we are by DEFINITION doing crisis thinking about a problem/issue/challenge. We don’t ALWAYS have to identify the specifics in that moment – but it is damn useful to start going “hey, I’m anxious – which means I’m up in the future, doing what if thinking, right now.”

That can be signaled by the conscious thoughts we notice – us solving the future in this unworkable way. Or it can just be the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight – anxious, restless, upset stomach, dizzy, angry, feeling helpless, etc.

Both 1 and 2 on this list are great things to practice – and they we need to practice both.

3) We really, really need to see Flight or Fight not as the enemy – however much we’ve learned to hate the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight, however much we’ve trained ourselves to run like hell from Flight or Fight – but see it is just as reactive as we are when we have anxious thoughts. In other words we can really use the practice of understanding that we’re treating Flight or Fight as a crisis – when it isn’t.

'See if our technical people can get this up and running.'

We attach so much significance (largely unconsciously) to Flight or Fight reactions that have no basis in reality. We really are able to change those meanings, call bullshit on them and diminish the significance of this set of reactions to our fearful thinking. We can learn to stop scaring ourselves when we experience Flight or Fight.

We Can’t Solve The Future

But we can, definitely, stop spending all our time there. We can come to understand that our frantic efforts to get away from Flight or Fight, and our fierce focus on trying to figure out some way to avert disaster, in whatever form we are currently imagining it, is all the product of asking ourselves scary what if questions about the future, coupled with the desperate efforts of Flight or Fight to “get us to safety.”

Ugh! We can get off this merry-go-round! It isn’t instant, and it will take some work – but it is within every human’s reach. Tired of the ride? Want to stop all that crazed spinning?

emotions 3

I have been thinking hard on the most useful ways to apply this information I’ve worked to outline here in the Fear Mastery blog. I think I’ve hit upon one tool, and it is based on this simple thought: anxiety takes us to the end.

What I mean is that whenever we’re anxious about something we automatically project out to the end of whatever thing we’re afraid of in our thinking. We do not pass go, we do not collect $200, we simply race around the Monopoly Board of our thinking and head right to the worst-case scenario.

And the problem with the worst-case scenario in our thinking is that it often, even usually, scares the crap out of us. So we, instead of working to do something about the problem we’re turning into a crisis in our minds, run away, hide from it, and hope it will go away by itself.

That makes a hell of a lot of sense when you’re being stalked by lean, hungry-looking wolves. It doesn’t make much sense at all when you’re late on your car payment and need to call the bank, or are madly in love with that good-looking guy or gal at work but are terrified to ask them out.

The End – Even the Phrase is Scary

You who have been reading this blog are already familiar with what the Flight or Fight Response does to our thinking when we’re fearful. (See the blog posts at 12/15/11 and 1/2/12 for more on this subject.)

When faced with danger in the real, physical world one crucial ability we have is to quickly sort through the relevant information we have about our immediate situation and think through (quickly!) the best escape route.

One of the qualities of that ability is looking for risks along that escape route. Where does the danger lie? Fear does us a big favor in the natural world with this ability and makes us look for the worst-case scenario – tries to pick holes, if you will, in our escape routes.

It is important to remember that this examination of future escape routes is happening VERY quickly – too quickly to track consciously, at least in the first rush of adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies. It takes some work, very often, to figure out just where our brains have gone in our projecting negative potential outcomes in our future.

And on top of all of that our bodies are geared up for DANGER – something scary is happening and we are getting ready in a big way to run or fight. So in a very real sense we’re not only ready for bad things to happen (good, in the wolf scenario, not so useful in the car loan/asking someone out scenarios), but we’re FEELING like something bad is about to happen.

In other words we’re set up in our thinking and feelings to treat a potential negative outcome as SOMETHING REAL, as something that can actually happen, as opposed to the projections and estimations of a frightened mind and body.

Forget the Middle Buddy – It’s All About the End!

So, let’s summarize: we have a fearful thought, we start generating possible outcomes, we tend to expect the worst (when we’re afraid or anxious), our bodies are all cued up to get us running in a split second, and we start assuming our projections are accurate.

To be even more brief: we go to the end in our thinking. And the end is usually BAD. We just skip over all the intervening time and possibilities.

For example: Let’s say you’ve lost your job. (I’m hoping you haven’t, but some of us have, and it is a fierce source of anxiety – either losing your job or being afraid of losing your job.)

Let’s say you have enough money in your checking and savings account to keep you fed and housed for 8 months after the end of your job. That’s 8 months to sort out what you’re going to do next.

In theory the thing to do next is to sit down with your bank balance and a calendar (and probably a trusted advisor or two in your world) and start doing some serious planning about what to do with your time. We have, after all, 8 months to at the very least start doing some serious work in any number of directions – job-hunting, career-changing, relocating, working our contacts, posting to job boards, etc.

This won’t guarantee that we WILL get a new job – but it sure increases the possibilities that we will find something for work.

Except that, if we’re responding out of anxiety (crisis mode) rather than cool planning (problem mode) then we can, all too easily, find ourselves angsting/worrying over the end of the 8 months ahead of us – how bad it will be when we reach the end of that time, when we run out of money, when we have to live with our parents or move in with friends or even live on the street.

And now we’re up at the end, where things will be TERIBBLE, and it freaks us out so badly that we freeze up, and we start avoiding thinking about the whole situation/problem-turned-crisis. We are living at the end – instead of where we are, or anyplace BEFORE the end…

We’re Not AT the End Yet

I’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you. I know it’s familiar to me!

We don’t have to go to the end. It is tempting, it is natural when we’re anxious, it is the easy thing to do, but we don’t have to go there and stay there. But it isn’t useful to us.

Let me make that stronger: it is a BAD idea to go to the end in our thinking and reactions. It is bad because, as I stated just a moment ago, it tends to shut us down and make us run away from a problem that needs our attention.

Easy to say – but in the moment of our panic and anxiety hard to do. This takes deliberate effort and work to step away from that panicked response and start thinking lucidly. And it is absolutely the way that we’ll be able to actually DO something about whatever problem we’ve converted into a crisis.

Just because we FEEL like everything is going to hell and we’re doomed and isn’t this awful and what in the heck are we going to DO doesn’t mean ANY of that is helping us. We are not at the end yet!

This has to become a kind of matra or affirmation that we learn to use when we reach that panicky place. OK – let’s say you’ve lost your job, or there is real concern that you might lose your job soon. What does sitting and wringing your hands about it DOING for you?

Worse, what does avoiding the topic completely do for you? Nothing. Not a dang thing. It just creates the ugly self-serving prophecy of your fears coming true, because in all that worry and avoiding you were doing nothing (or very little) to address the problem in the first place.

Let Me Repeat Myself – We’re Not at the End Yet…

Anxiety begins in our thinking, and that’s where we can fight it and overcome it, shut it down. So what to DO when we find ourselves racing to the end in our thinking?

1) First, practice a little self-care. You’re in a panic about running out of money or being alone for the rest of your life? Do those basic practices we’ve discussed here in the blog – take a few minutes and breathe deeply, do some full-body stretching, take a walk, take a shower, pull your thinking and your body out of the future and back to something approaching the present.

2) Next, what IS the problem that you’ve converted into a crisis? Even in the midst of your terror about your projected negative outcome/indefinite negative future thinking, you probably have some capacity to see that it is still a problem. (If it isn’t you’re in a crisis – act accordingly – but for this conversation we’re assuming you still have a little time.)

3) Deliberately call your mind back from the habit of thinking about the end of things. You’ve got enough money for 8 months? What then will you do with month 1? Month 2? Month 3? You’ll feel the strong gravitational pull of month 8 out there, trying to scare you with thoughts of pushing a shopping cart or living on your parent’s couch…

But practice thinking (note the word – thinking) about what you can do here in month 1, or there in month 2, etc. Our fears and anxieties pick up on other people’s stories all the time about how somebody couldn’t find a job in 2 years, or 4 years, or something horrible like that… and sometimes that’s true.

However, way too often, what happened was that person made minor efforts to find new work, and instead spent a ton of time being afraid of what would happen when they ran out of money and didnt’ have a new job.

4) Start writing down your plans for month 1, month 2, etc. Get specific. What will you do in week 1? How will you spend your mornings? How can you economize while you’re looking? Is there part-time work you could do while you’re looking? Etc.

Come Back to the Present

Fear takes us to the end. That end in the natural world might be minutes or seconds away (in the presence of real, physical, life-or-death danger) but it is weeks, months or years away if the danger (IF there is a danger, instead of just a challenge, or a problem to solve) is in our thinking.

We need to practice coming back to the present. It is here, in the present, that we can start thinking about what to do about this concern/challenge/issue, and it is here that we can calm down enough to start taking action. Don’t go to the end. Come back here to the present. You’ll be amazed what’s possible if you don’t focus on the worst-case scenario and give away the time you have…

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