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If you’re an anxiety fighter then I have some news for you: you are the victim of too many horror films.

You know horror films, right? Those stupid, scary stories where some guy in a mask comes looming out of the shadows to stab or strangle or do some other terrible thing to a petrified, screaming victim. The stories vary, but the outcome is the same. The person meets some grim fate and the monster stumbles on, looking for the next victim.

Well, if we’re fighting anxiety, we’re the victim of horror films. We didn’t set out in any deliberate way to buy a ticket to this stupid movie, but here we are, glued to our seats, staring in fascinated, freaked-out horror at the stories playing over and over again in our thinking. And although we think our mission is to shout at the screen and tell the knucklehead that’s about to be attacked to get the hell out of there (or squeeze our eyes and cower in our chair) what we really need to do is get up and walk out of the performance.

The Movie

The people who study neurology (brain scientists) tell us that the left hemisphere of the brain is quite a little storyteller. In a sense that side of our brain is constantly interpreting the world, constantly telling itself what is happening and what it means to us.

Here’s another little interesting factoid: that story doesn’t have to have much to do with what is actually happening. Yes, it’s true – the story doesn’t have to match up with what is actually going on, not for the left hemisphere of the brain. The left side of the brain wants to make sense of things, put some structure around what is happening – but it is deciding what is happening more than it is clarifying what actually IS happening.

Horror Movie 1

In other words, it’s making a movie… a story about what is going on in the world and in our experience. You know how movies can be, yes? How they can suck you in, overwhelm your senses if you’re not paying attention, get you shouting at the screen or crying or laughing or whatever the movie is trying to evoke in you? Only when the lights go up do we start to realize that it was just a story, just a movie…

Well, that is happening in your thinking all the time! You and I and everyone else are responding to “The Movie in our Minds” (to paraphrase the song title from “Ms. Saigon.”) But unlike in the movies we can lose sight of the truth that we are interpreting the world, seeing it through our story – and it takes a bit more work to regain perspective, get clear on what is actually going on vs. what we’re telling ourselves about what is going on.

Let me say that again: we can easily lose sight of what is objectively true (what’s actually going on around us) because of the story we’re telling ourselves, by how we’re interpreting what’s happening in our lives. That’s not weird, or strange, or sick – it is utterly human, very, very normal, and everyone, anxiety fighter or not, gets caught in that thinking challenge.

We anxiety fighters just take it to an extreme…

Examples

So let’s say you are walking down the street and you see a friend. You smile and say hi to them and they look over at you, no sign of recognition in their face, nod uncomfortably and keep walking. It looks like they are upset with you, or like they don’t want to talk to you, and you’re offended. What the hell was that about?

You start reviewing the last encounter you had with that person. Did you say something they didn’t like? You think about your mutual friends. Did someone say something nasty about you to this person? You look at how your dressed. Did you make some fashion mistake and piss this person off?

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Most people spin this story out, usually by making some decision based on their experience and what they think happened. And that’s when the trouble REALLY starts, because now they begin acting on what they’ve assumed AS IF IT WAS THE TRUTH. In other words they’re telling themselves a story, creating a movie in their minds, and now they treat it as fact.

Let’s run with the they-must-be-mad-at-you-for-something-you-said notion. You come through your thinking until you find what they must be mad at, decide that’s the problem, then start being angry because of course you didn’t mean to say anything that would upset them, why can’t they see that, they’re really stupid and selfish to assume that… etc.

So what happens? You see that person the next day and now you’re hurt, or mad, or upset, or pissed off, and so YOU give THEM the cold shoulder. They say hi to you and you’re chilly, distant, barely acknowledging their presence. Or maybe you drop some scathing comeback like “well, NOW you have time to say hello to me!”

Why do we do this? Two reasons: 1) in creating these stories about our experience we begin to see the world THROUGH our story, and 2) as we tell ourselves those stories we have reactions to them – i.e., Flight or Fight fires up and makes them SEEM real, FEEL real.

That is, until, after our snippy comment, our friend says “what the hell? What are you talking about? Why are you so upset?” If we’re honest we say because hey buddy, you treated me like dirt yesterday. Then, to our chagrin, they tell us that they just learned their Mom is sick, or their son failed math again, or their company might be sold and they’ll be out of a job… and they didn’t even see you as a result.

Whoops. There you were, busy telling yourself this fierce and angry story, sure you were right, and… you were wrong. Don’t you feel silly now? 🙂

What If – the Ultimate Movie Maker

Anxiety is a result of what if thinking. That’s the first principle of this Fear Mastery work. We cannot be anxious unless we’re caught up in some what if thinking of one flavor or another. Another way to say that is that we’ve constructed scary movies about our lives, about our futures, and we’re running them, consciously or otherwise, on the movie screen of our thinking, over and over again – and scaring ourselves the whole time.

Horror Movie 3

How did it start? There are so many possible scenarios, but it comes down to this: at some point we each had to learn a story about making a situation, issue or problem into a crisis in our thinking. Let’s pick the topic of self-sufficiency for this discussion – how capable we see ourselves as being able to take care of ourselves in the world.

If we learned as younger humans that we had some capability to deal with life as it comes – that we can hold down a job, have friends, feed ourselves, etc. – then we see ourselves as capable, and see that self-support as at most a problem. Challenges will come, issues will surface, but we can deal with them when they do.

If, however, we come to believe that we are NOT capable (we get told that, we try some things and we don’t learn the right lessons about our ability, we are traumatized by some terrible experience that rocks our world and our self-confidence, or all of the above) then we’re going to see capability as a crisis for us. We’re going to construct a story that we’re not capable, that we’re going to be dependent on other people to get by, that it would be terrible if we were alone… in other words, we’re going to build “what if?” stories about our capability in life, wherever we doubt that.

Ugh. Without intending to you’ve hired a film crew, got some actors, rented a wardrobe and made yourself one hell of a movie. It’s in color, it’s dramatic and scary and horrible, and you run that movie a LOT in your thinking. You run it so much early on that you may not even be conscious you’re running that film – but it’s there, and it’s scaring you, and usually at the worst possible times

Horror Movie 4

What if I can’t make it on my own? What if I wind up alone and then I die because I’m alone? What if people see me as weak? What if people think I’m a failure? What if I can never have the life I want because I’m incapable of making it? And on and on and on…

Here’s the worst part about this: you are making this movie based ON YOUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE EXPERIENCED, rather than on what’s really true. Failure in the past doesn’t guarantee failure in the future. Lack of skill then (when you first started making that movie) doesn’t mean you can’t acquire skill NOW. Lack of training is just lack of training, not proof that you’re doomed to never be able to care for yourself.

But the story is STRONG, and reinforced by years of sitting in that movie theatre, watching it over and over again, interpreting your experience through that movie…

This movie could be about almost anything – relationships, money, physical health, coping with getting older, career, children, church/faith, success, you name it. And of course every anxiety fighter is watching more than one horror film at the same time in our theatre, i.e., we have multiple stories running in our thinking – this can get to be one noisy, scary moviehouse…

Time to Leave the Theatre

When we “what if?” in our thinking is when we get anxious. That means we have to start disrupting the habit of “what if?” thinking to get free of anxiety. One tool in our arsenal is to SEE that we’re very, very energetically (as anxiety fighters) engaging with our movies, our what if thinking, and to begin to develop a new habit – seeing the what if crises we’ve been feeding for so long in our thinking as problems we can address and find ways to manage.

Horror Movie 5

One vital way we can do that is to stop watching the damn movie in the first place. We have developed a nasty habit of engaging in the what if dialogues in our thinking, aided by the encouragement of Flight or Fight, in an effort to somehow solve these what if crises we’re conjuring in our thinking. We feel compelled to revisit them again and again, trying to not be the victim, to get away from the guy in the mask in our horror story…

When what we need to do is shut off the film in the first place.

That’s not easy. Habits are strong creatures, and we’ve been feeding these habits for a long time. Add to that how Flight or Fight makes it all seem so real, FEEL so real, and we’re pulled right back into the chair in that movie theatre in our minds.

The work starts by first getting conscious of our films at all. That’s work by itself – figuring out where we are turning issues/challenges/problems into crises in our thinking. It continues by see how Flight or Fight, reacting to our frightened thinking, feeds those scary stories and becomes, in our thinking, itself a scary thing. It means practicing a new understanding of what being anxious is about, seeing anxiety and our thinking clearly, and actively discounting the messages we’re getting from Flight or Fight.

It comes down to focusing what we actually know, what we’ve actually learned is true, rather than deciding to surrender again to what feels real, to what our histories and our thinking want to make us think is true. It comes down to letting go of the illusion that by constantly engaging our fearful thinking we’re going to get anyplace and do anything constructive about that thinking.

It means allowing ourselves to be scared AND see through the fear to what’s actually happening – that we’re scaring ourselves, habitually, in our thinking. That’s how we push ourselves up out of that chair and make our way down to the exit, leaving the horror films running in an empty theatre.

Time for a New Movie

Ever sneak into another theatre when you went to the movies because you didn’t like the film you paid for? It’s kinda fun. That’s possible with anxiety too. It’s a lot more work than just trying to avoid the usher, but it’s utterly something we can all do.

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The work is hard. It doesn’t just happen with one or two practice sessions. It means a rigorous self-honesty and a determination to get your life back, regardless of how crappy you feel on any particular day or in any specific hour. It means CHOOSING to be scared for a while in order to get free of chronic anxiety.

It means defying habit and refusing to review the what if thinking again – and not doing that very successfully while you begin to build a new habit and new skills. It means Flight or Fight screaming at you to sit down – you’ve GOT to keep paying attention to those stories. It means distracting yourself, occupying yourself with new thinking, even when it seems stupid and pointless, even when your what if thinking is insisting you focus on it again.

It means getting up from the chair and sitting down again. Hell, it means changing chairs in the theatre as you fight to get to the exit. It means stepping on toes and having people yell at you because you’re in the way. It means a lot of discomfort. It means getting a LOT more uncomfortable, for a period of time, before you feel less afraid.

But there’s nothing quite like exiting that theatre, getting away from that endless horror film in our thinking.

Sometimes I wish there was a way for people to step outside themselves, to see how they react to events in their life. I especially wish I had a way to do that for the coaching work I do helping build good anxiety management skills.

One of the reasons I want this is to show how reactive we can be when we’re ramped up with anxiety. We like to think that we are, even when we’re anxious, fairly rational thinkers – or at least that we still ARE thinking. Some of us carry a conviction that we’re still gathering data effectively, still reasoning our way through our experience, etc.

But the truth is that (as I’ve said here a number of times) when we’re anxious WE’RE JUST NOT THINKING VERY CLEARLY. And this is one of the most important things we can understand about ourselves when we’re anxious.

Your Brain on Adrenaline (and Cortisol)

Let’s get clear on one thing: our brains are not at their best when we’re anxious. I’m not saying we can’t think at all, but I am saying that our higher reasoning abilities are very definitely compromised.

Thinking 1

It makes a lot of sense. We don’t need abstract reasoning powers to run from a charging water buffalo. We don’t need to do complex math problems when we blow out a tire on the freeway! The things that, in those dealing-with-danger situations, our brain NEEDS to do, it can do. But those things are focused on the getting away from or dealing with danger.

Which escape route seems to offer the best and most immediate relief from our danger, that we’re good at doing when we’re battling anxiety. Thinking is focused on the immediate and the short-term when we’re fired up with crisis thinking.

Which means that complex problem-solving suffers. It means that we are not necessarily good at weighing long-term choices. We’re not the best processors of information outside of the immediate need.

We’re also not good at determining cause and effect. We are doing the RIGHT NOW thing, not the think-clearly-about-things thing, or what might be more effective in the long haul. In particular one very specific problem starts from this diminished thinking capacity when we’re dealing with anxiety, and it happens in conjunction with another issue around our fears –

I Want To Stop Being Anxious NOW

When we’re afraid it is our number-one priority to be LESS afraid (or not afraid at all.) Danger meant for most of the history of life either escaping danger or dying. That’s the biological heritage we carry with our Flight or Fight Reflex, and that in turn colors our thinking…

Thinking 2

And that coloring says MAKE MY ANXIETY STOP. That’s usually what happened, too, in our long genetic history. Danger only lasted for a few moments, maybe a few minutes, and then either you were the main course at a lion dinner party, or you were dancing the dance of joy because those lions were going to have to go to Jack-in-the-Box if they wanted supper.

So we are predisposed to want to get AWAY from whatever is making us anxious, since anxiety = danger in our bodies. And, whether we’re aware of it or not, in our brains too!

So you have two pieces: you have a real lessening of capacity as a thinker when you’re in the midst of an anxious moment or situation, AND what thinking you have going on is saying GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE – whatever that takes.

I’m guessing you already see where this is going… whatever you like to tell yourself, whatever you want to believe, your primary motivation is to get away from what is scaring you.

OK, Great, I’m Not So Smart When I’m Anxious – What Does Knowing This DO for Me?

One of the central ideas in this Fear Mastery approach is that our fears start in our thinking, and that’s where we can also stop them. Knowing that you’re not necessarily reasoning very clearly (or even at all) when you’re anxious is a big first step in learning to first manage your anxiety more effectively, and then, as you get more skillful with your work, diminish it to the point where it no longer runs your life.

First, get clear on the kind of decisions you’re making about your anxiety and your life. Anyplace in your life where you’re responding to a problem as a crisis is a likely place to have anxiety also managing your thinking.

If, for example, you’re anxious about going to the gym (they’ll think you’re fat, you’ll be embarrassed, you don’t really know what to do in the weight room, what if you see a cute guy or girl and they are dismissive of you, etc.) then WHATEVER your out-loud, logical-sounding reasons for not going to the gym, the bottom-line is that you’re afraid to go.

Thinking 3

You might SOUND reasonable, even to yourself – but then you’re not really a very good judge of that when you’re anxious, right?

It is important to see in this example that in a very real sense you’re avoiding even really THINKING about the gym, because thinking about the gym makes you anxious. Sure, you might be OK considering the gym in some distant, abstract, intellectual way. You might not conjure up too much in the way of anxiety about the gym when you’re pondering getting fit for the New Year.

But when it comes down to actually going to the gym you now have to face into your anxious thinking about what that experience might be for you in regards to your fear –

Or maybe you’re in a less-than-healthy relationship. You might have all kinds of reasons to tell your friends and family why you don’t get out of that relationship and look for something better, but at the core of the conversation you’re afraid to leave – it’s that simple.

You might know that this relationship isn’t working for you, but to really get in and think it through, plan a useful exit strategy, deal with the fear and anxiety of leaving – that’s proving very challenging…

Take It In Pieces

The second thing to consider is deliberately NOT trying to address the issue all at once. It is very like anxiety to make us eager to find one, quick, cover-it-all solution and be DONE with this problem-turned-crisis. We just want it GONE –

Thinking 4

Except that most problems take time, effort, study, research and experimenting to solve. Just the opposite of crisis. So one way to drive yourself OUT of anxious thinking is to address the issue, when possible, in pieces.

Let’s go back to the bad-relationship-need-to-call-it-quits-but-I’m-afraid scenario. We can, when we’re anxious, frame the situation as either I’m trapped or I have to abandon ship this second. Both are scary.

But maybe the smartest thing we can do is simply start planning to go, and then take small, concrete steps to do that leaving. Maybe we need to save a little money first. Maybe we need to figure out what things we need to take with us. Maybe we need to shore up our emotional (or even physical) support network first. Maybe we need to see a counselor.

Maybe we need a PLAN – a set of steps that will get us where we need to go. We don’t, and usually can’t, do it all at once. But we can do it in pieces.

Same thing with that gym situation. So many people start the gym, or try to start, only to get overwhelmed by the “crisis” of all that weight they want to lose, or all those muscles they want to build.

Maybe for the first couple of weeks the ONLY mission is to get your butt to the gym and do anything. Ten minutes on the treadmill beats zero minutes, yes? Then maybe you go a little longer the next week…

Think About Your Thinking

We are not good, rational thinkers, by and large, when we’re anxious. To end our fear we have to face into our fears.

To face into our fears is to by definition rattle our cage and diminish our lucid thinking. We need to work hard to stay honest with ourselves and be clear when we’re not facing our fears, not let ourselves reason our way out of doing the work we need to do to get free of the rule of anxiety.

That takes work and practice (and some being uncomfortable.) It’s worth it.

It’s time. You’ve made the decision that you’re sick to death of being afraid of… something. Let’s say you’re going to face down your fear of flying. (I’m assuming we mean flying in an airplane, because if you can fly without one I REALLY have to meet you.)

You’ve been afraid of flying for years. You’ve not gone to see friends or visit places that interest you because they were too far to drive or take a train, and you sure as heck were not going to fly there. You may have lost business opportunities. You hate your limitation, but planes frankly scare the crap out of you. Enough. You want your freedom back. You don’t want to be afraid anymore.

You’ve done your homework. You know that you have gotten caught up in various “what if?” scenarios in your head – and of course they all end badly. What if the plane loses power? What if a wing falls off? What if you fly into turbulence and this time the pilot can’t control the plane? What if another plane crashes into your plane? Etc. etc. etc…

You know that you are up in the future in your thinking, generating crisis in your thinking, living in the indefinite negative future (the future on an airplane, in this case, will ALWAYS end badly). So you’re ready to unpack that thinking – get the crisis in your head back into a problem, or maybe even just an issue to manage.

Here We Go!

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You start with a journal. You sit and write for a few minutes in the morning after breakfast, and maybe some more at lunch. You identify the thinking that fires up Flight or Fight in your head, the stuff that makes your heart race and teeth clench and breathing get shallow. You write those down, and you start challenging your fear.

At the same time you’re busy discounting those Flight or Fight responses – the racing heart doesn’t mean anything, it is just letting you know that you’re thinking about scary stuff (to you.) The sweaty palms you get, or the rank terror you feel in your body, are just reactions to your fear about those frightening future scenarios you’ve gotten so skillful at conjuring.

And man, you’ve gotten skillful! You can just be eating lunch, or walking down the street, or even lying in bed, and suddenly BAM! You’re doing your own impression of Denzel Washington in “Flight”, and you think you’re a crazy person for evening THINKING about getting on an airplane…

This is hard work! The first couple of days is slow going – maybe the whole first week. You don’t really feel like doing this – maybe today you’ll skip it and just go to McDonald’s. A Big Mac and Extra Large Fries sounds damn good right about now…

You find yourself irritable, easily bugged at small problems. You might not sleep as well (which scares a lot of us anxiety-fighters all by itself.) Your stomach is upset. You have weird pains in your legs, or arms, or kneecaps, or fingertips. You get a kink in your neck that makes you mad. 

But you keep at it, because you know your Comfort Zone is REALLY pushing back – you’re afraid, and it is just trying to do its job at keeping you safe from your fears. It isn’t personal, your body isn’t betraying you, you’re not crazy, and you really are doing the right work. It is simply very uncomfortable, especially at the start, to push back on fears we have taught ourselves to avoid for years or decades.

And, amazingly, you begin to find yourself less afraid of the notion of flying. A few days, a couple of weeks of journaling have worked some magic on your thinking. You’ve begun to realize that while something COULD happen while you were flying (wing comes off, engines fail, any of your terrible fears) it is VERY, very unlikely – so unlikely that millions of people fly all over the country every week and have nothing happen…

So you begin to think hey, maybe I really COULD fly someplace and live to tell the tale.

Then You Have the Nightmare…

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In the middle of your happy progress you wake up one evening shaking with anxiety. You’ve had an airplane dream, and it wasn’t a good one. You dreamed that the plane was falling – you could FEEL it in your body – and it scared the crap out of you.

You get out of bed, you go to the bathroom, your heart is pounding, you’re bathed in sweat – it felt so real. What the hell happened? Weren’t you making progress? Where did all that new confidence in flying go so fast?

Well, it didn’t go anyplace. What happened was your brain was busy processing this thinking you’ve been doing about being afraid of flying, and that processing doesn’t stop just because you went to sleep! As you know from your own experience our brains are busy all night long. Dreams are just one piece of evidence in that direction.

In fact that nightmare is a really good sign. You’re working hard, even asleep, to process this new thinking, dispute your fears, and your Comfort Zone/fears are pushing back. Doesn’t FEEL that way, and especially not at 2am in the bathroom with a racing heart. But it is a good sign. And remember – it was only a dream, and these are only feelings. ALL of it is coming from your fearful thinking…

So you listen to some music, or watch a dumb comedy on TV, or read the “Twilight” books, or whatever gets you back into the present moment (stretching, hot bath, play with the sleepy dog, whatever.) And you calm down, and you remember that your fearful thoughts are getting unpacked…

Or You Watch the Discovery Channel Program on Plane Crashes…

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It would be wonderful if we could just get up in the face (metaphorically speaking) of our Comfort Zone and say “hey, buddy, I used to be afraid of this, but I’m starting to get that I’m mostly scaring myself in my thinking, along with some help from you. So you’ve got new marching orders starting now: I’m not afraid of (insert fear here) anymore.”

That isn’t, however, how the Comfort Zone works. In a mechanism that evolved to help creatures remember in a BIG way when they had encountered danger in the past (and did that through feelings and discomfort rather than anything we might call remembering the specific event) it needed to be something that stuck with us.

We needed to learn early and quickly that walking up to a watering hole without really paying attention for the smell of tiger was a bad idea –

So in a sense, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the Comfort Zone needs to be really convinced that we’re not afraid of something we’ve been afraid of in the past. The more accurate way to state this is that as long as you have enough worry about something in your thinking to activate Flight or Fight in your body you’re going to have anxious responses – period.

(Read that last sentence one more time – or maybe two. Really, really important to get this fixed in your thinking.)

So, for example, I fly a LOT for the consulting work I do. I mostly love flying, but fly enough and you will have a bad flight or two. A few months ago I had just come off of a pretty bumpy flight, and to make it worse I hadn’t been feeling well. The combination made me somewhat nervous – maybe even a little anxious – before we got to the ground.

No big deal, right? Except the very next day I’m watching the Discovery Channel, and that night’s feature presentation was a detailed review of why airplanes crash! Not the smartest thing to watch, I grant you…

And suddenly I’m finding myself nervous about my next business trip. For about 20 minutes. Until my brain says “hey, goofy, you’ve flown literally 1000’s of hours and hundreds of flights in the last 10 years, and haven’t had so much as a hard landing. You’ve actually had 2 car accidents in your life, but you’re completely unafraid of driving – what makes flying so scary?”

That made me grin, and a little embarrassed. The answer to what was making me nervous was my thinking – my starting, semi-consciously, to worry about the future.

But Back to You and That Flying Thing…

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So you’ve done the journal work, you’ve worked to discount those Flight or Fight responses that make you crazy, you’ve begun to not find thinking about flying as scary as it has been. This is all helping you do what therapists call “desensitization” – exposing you gradually to what scares you in an effort to remove the fear.

And even with the nightmare (or nightmares) and the Discovery Channel you’re beginning to think that you’re ready to climb up on a real airplane. Until that morning your spouse or best friend or Mom says “hey, let’s fly someplace.” (Or, as happened last week, one my coaching clients had his boss come to him and say “you’re flying to China!” Yikes!) And you suddenly get that chill up your spine, and your heart races (or whatever your favorite responses are), and you think “no way in hell! I can’t do this!”

Yup, it’s that Comfort Zone pushing back on you – that history of fearful thinking around flying that wants you to run away from even the thought. That’s OK. You take a deep breath, you remind yourself of what you’ve been teaching yourself, and you deliberately convert that crisis thinking back into problem thinking.

And then, to your amazement, you find yourself calming down. Wow – nice work. It took some practice and some time, but you’re actually not in a panic thinking about flying. Or you’re still anxious, but you’re beginning to live in two places at once in your mind – the scared thinking place AND the lucid this-is-not-a-big-deal place. Weird, cool, and still one more sign that you’re getting someplace in this work.

Still Some Work to Do…

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Of course you haven’t climbed on that airplane yet, and you haven’t made a two-hour trip in that airplane. But that’s OK. This blog post was all about how our Comfort Zone fears will push back on us when we start to challenge them.

But as you keep facing that fear and both unpacking your thinking and discount your Flight or Fight responses you’re going to be in better and better position to do that flying thing. Just expect that you WILL get static from your fears!

One last thing: that static is GOOD. It means you’re not willing any longer to have your life ruled by your fears and worries. How’s THAT for a different way of seeing things?  The more noise we get from our Comfort Zone, the more we know we’re pushing in the right direction…

So this post is a little late for Halloween, but after a couple of coaching conversations around this subject I thought I’d revisit this discussion. It’s time to once again pull the sheet off the scary Comfort Zone and expose it for what it really is –

Here’s the thing: our Comfort Zones will stop at nothing, NOTHING to get us to step back from our fears WHEN we are anxious about them. It can take on (when we’re seeing it through our calm and rational minds) almost comic proportions. There is no blow too low, no thought too wacky, that the Comfort Zone won’t pull it out and throw it at us if it has any chance of getting us to flinch away from facing our fears.

Ooohhh – Scary!

It goes like this: you decide that you want to face into an anxiety/fear that has been holding you back. Let’s say that you’ve been wanting to take on your fear of driving on the highway (a pretty common fear for us anxiety-fighters.) You miss your freedom, you’ve been reading the blog, you realize that you’ve been afraid of what MIGHT happen on the freeway, but you’re ready now to stop letting your fear get in your way.

Bravo! You rock! You make a plan to just get on the freeway for one entry-to-exit trip – just a test drive. You get your car keys, you adjust your sunglasses, you’ve picked a great, slow time of day for freeway traffic, you’re patting yourself on the back for pushing back on your anxiety, and –

Suddenly you hear the voices in your head say “what if THIS time you blow out a tire on the freeway? You’ve worried about this in the past – what if it happens now?”

You feel that little (or big) jolt of adrenaline course through your body, and suddenly you have Flight or Fight responses – heart speeds up, you get sweaty, you get butterflies in your stomach, you pick the responses – and now freeway driving doesn’t sound so smart.

Of course reading this you know what happened – you asked that crazy “what if?” question, and your mind went immediately to the worst possible outcome. You didn’t just blow out a tire on the freeway – you blew out a tire, the car careened completely out of control, you spun three or four times, and you finally ended in a fireball that consumed most of the downtown core of your city. 🙂

Except, of course, that it is highly unlikely that you’re going to blow out a tire on the freeway (unless you’re driving on bald tires – might want to check those first.)

What is most likely is you’ll get up on the freeway, heart pounding, drive to the next exit, get off the highway, and presto! You’ll have confronted a fear. You’ll be a little rattled, you’ll be a little agitated, and you’ll also have just done some nice expansion work on your Comfort Zone restrictions.

That Didn’t Work? OK, How About THIS Scary Thought?

So let’s say you worked through the blown tire scenario. You shook your head, you took a deep breath, and you said “forget blown tires. My tires are fine. I’m getting on that freeway.” You climb in the car, start the engine, put your seatbelt on, and you notice it is getting cloudy.

Suddenly you hear your brain shout “hey! What if starts to rain when we’re on the freeway? THAT can’t be good! Let’s go back inside and wait until the sky is completely cloud-free, THEN we’ll try driving on that nutty freeway.”

That sounds like great advice in that moment, since your heart is pounding again and you’re getting that warm feeling in your face and hands and… wait a minute. It isn’t even raining yet.

And who says that the freeway will become a death trap if it starts to sprinkle? Sure, if the heavens open and it’s raining an inch of water a minute you might be smart to pull off, but…

And once again the Comfort Zone shows it has NO shame whatsoever, desperate to keep you safe from that nightmare – wait, correction, no big deal – freeway. Of course it has no shame. It has the single mission of keeping you away from whatever scares you. Except that the fear of freeways is nothing we developed in nature –

Are you REALLY Sure You Want to Do This?

OK. You’ve muscled your way past two Comfort Zone pushbacks, you’re pulling out of the driveway, and while you’re feeling somewhat anxious (or even a lot anxious) you’re reminding yourself that those reactions are natural, you’re just experiencing Flight or Fight responses and they don’t mean anything.

You get down the street, you make the light, you’re heading towards the freeway, and then it hits you – you didn’t call your boss back this morning like you said. Or you forgot to feed the dog. Or you might have left the iron on, or the stove on, or the milk out of the fridge… and you feel the overwhelming desire to go home RIGHT NOW.

Only now you’re getting a little suspicious. Why can’t any of these things wait 5 minutes? You’re only zipping up and off the freeway for a little anti-anxiety practice.

Nobody is going to die, right? But your Comfort Zone is shouting at you that you really SHOULD go home first, feed the dog, call your boss, make SURE that iron is off – THEN you can do this crazy/dangerous/foolhardy freeway thing.

Isn’t it remarkable? We can find almost any reason to not take on our fears. You shake your head again – you’re almost at the freeway on-ramp – and you decide you’re going for it. One last burst of adrenaline hits you, you head up that ramp, and voila! You’re on the freeway!

Whoo-hooo! You cruise along and before you know it you’re at the next exit. You cruise off that freeway, and your Comfort Zone is strangely quiet –

For about a minute. Then it starts with “well, that went OK I guess – good thing nothing bad happened THIS time. We shouldn’t do too much of that though – what if something bad DID happen…”

Fear Does Not Have to Run Our Lives

Any of this seem familiar to you? Of course it does. We anxiety fighters hear this stuff in our heads every day. That’s why it is important to remember that your Comfort Zone, your history of being afraid, will work very hard to keep you from pushing your own boundaries – as long as you’re afraid of something, the Comfort Zone will work to keep you away from it.

This is why confronting our fears is so useful to us. The moment you move through a fearful experience and manage it, whatever happens, that’s the moment your Comfort Zone starts to get that this thing isn’t as scary as you were thinking. It will probably take more than one exposure or practice session (although sometimes just one confrontation is enough to make this work.)

What fear could you confront today, even in a small way? What would you like to do that you’re not feeling comfortable doing? What dire warnings is the Comfort Zone shouting at you right now as you read this? All of that is useful information to knowing what you need to do next.

Wrestling tigers naked – probably a bad idea. Listen to your Comfort Zone if you’re thinking about doing this. 🙂 Driving on the freeway for the purpose of getting your freedom back – that’s a good idea, if those tires are looking OK. Go for it. You have nothing to lose but your fear…

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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