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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Really Can’t Predict the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Feelings Don’t Have to Rule our World

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

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

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

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

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

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


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…

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how anxiety, fear and depression make us feel. One of the things we feel when we fight all of these is SUCKED DRY. We feel like doing NOTHING.

The days can turn to grey, our energy seems like it is taking a long vacation someplace, and even when our rational mind says we should be up and trying to do something, our bodies seem to take control, and we stay in the chair, on the couch, in the bed, feeling stuck and tired and defeated.

I know that feeling. It dogged me for years and years, took away time that I am sorry I lost, made me think of myself as lazy, weak and helpless. That’s a crappy way to feel, as I suspect you already know –

One immediate thing to say is that this can be a big clue that you are fighting depression. And depression springs from anxiety that has begun to give up (or has given up.) But it isn’t sufficient to stop at depression. Depression is, at least at the start, a RESPONSE to our anxiety.

Which means we need to sort out why we are giving up, feeling like it is all pointless. Understanding what is behind that feeling of who cares, and identifying what we can do about it, can be a good set of weapons against the gray sense of feeling defeated.

We Don’t Get What Feelings MEAN

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The first thing to get a handle on is the nature of feelings. I know I’ve beaten this drum a LOT on this blog, but it’s worth some more discussion, given how poorly most of us understand what drives emotions.

Say it with me: feelings spring from thinking. We learn, somehow, that feelings are these mysterious, rootless, out-of-the-blue creatures that sweep through our life. We learn also that we don’t really have any control of them, these mysterious creatures, and so all we can do is ride them out, endure them, and hope that they get better/happier.

But that isn’t true. Our feelings come from our thinking. Remember that it doesn’t have to be conscious thinking! And it can be a fast and vagrant thought – something triggered from a smell, or something someone says, or even just the time of day.

Feelings are NOT mysterious. They may be, in this present moment, not clearly linked to a specific thought yet in your mind, but they don’t just fall out of the sky. So if they are generated from thoughts then we really do have some control over them – in fact we have a lot more control over them then we commonly understand.

So now let’s make those thoughts fearful thoughts about the future, imagining dark scenarios of what could happen, what disasters are waiting for us out there someplace, or a sense of being trapped. What kinds of feelings will show up? No mystery there, right? We FEEL anxious because we are having anxious thoughts.

Which means when we FEEL like something is pointless it is because we have been making assumptions in our thinking that things are pointless. Here’s the million-dollar question – is our thinking accurate? Because our feelings can only be as accurate as our thinking.

So, for instance, if we have assumed that an activity is pointless then it will FEEL pointless to do it. If we believe that something won’t work for us then we will FEEL that it isn’t useful to us. Just because we are not aware of our thinking, or that it isn’t in the front of our skulls right now, doesn’t change the truth that our feelings are springing from our thinking.

We Are Mammals!

No work 2

There’s a second piece about our lethargy that’s insanely simple, yet most of us don’t get it. We’re mammals. Why does that matter? Because adult mammals are creatures that tend to conserve energy whenever they are not working for their survival.

Do you have a zoo near you? Or own a cat or dog? What those adult mammals manage their day. What do they do when they are not eating, or taking care of baby mammals, or amusing you with funny animal tricks? THEY ARE TAKING IT EASY. Dozing, sleeping, sitting down, not doing anything. That’s because mammal biology says save your energy for when you need it.

What happens when you get home from work and you don’t HAVE to do something? Isn’t it often tempting just to plant your butt on the couch or in a chair and stare at the TV? Sure, you’ve passed it off as lazy, selfish, unambitious, whatever – but what you’re are is just being human.

Combine that with depressed or anxious thinking and now it gets VERY easy to just do nothing. For long periods of time. We’re already tired, we don’t really FEEL like doing it, so we (too often) don’t. Except that even small amounts of work on our anxious thinking begins to pay off in large ways in terms of our renewed interest and energy in our lives…

We Carry Insanely High Expectations of Ourselves

PUshing boundaries 3

Yet another energy suck that pulls at us down is our absurdly high expectations of ourselves and what we’re supposed to be able to do, manage, accomplish, etc. in our lives on any given day. It seems to be one of the traits of anxiety-fighters to set incredible personal standards of best and good enough, and then be deeply frustrated with ourselves when we don’t measure up to those crazy standards.

(In fact I’ll bet right now a lot of you are living with insane personal standards and feeling badly for even questioning whether or not your personal bars of success are set a smidge too high. Am I right?)

Standards are good. Setting milestones for measuring progress is a great idea. But there’s also a lot of room for setting pragmatic, achievable, rational standards for personal success. And there’s a lot of room for making sure that we are setting standards that work/make sense for US – as opposed to what we think other people want from us.

It is savagely discouraging to consistently fail at our own standards. It becomes very easy to just give up. What’s the point if we can’t get there in the first place? Talk about setting ourselves up to fail!

I still wrestle with this, 16 years on after getting over chronic anxiety and panic attacks, but I’m slowly getting better at this work. Motivation and willingness to try, even when we don’t feel much like it, comes more easily when the goals are at least somewhat possible to attain –

We Can Make a Start – Every Day

No work 3

OK, so these are the vampires of our energy when we fight anxiety and depression. What then to do about them?

1) Get clear on what specific thinking is making you anxious in the first place. Do that unpacking work I keep talking about in this blog. Until you’re clear what specific issues you’ve turned into crises in your thinking all the effort and energy in the world to manage your anxiety won’t do you much good.

2) Take small steps. Sorting out anxious thinking just won’t get done in one push (as you’ve heard me say here before.) Do 2 or 3 10-minute sessions a day with your journal or laptop, addressing one or maybe two specific “what if?” thoughts that are generating anxiety for you. Do a little work discounting your Flight or Fight responses when you do that unpacking. Then get on with other parts of your day.

Expect it to take time. You’re acquiring new skillsets, and practice over time will do you a lot more good than a 3-day marathon effort, most of the time.

3) Practice doing #2 above especially when you DON’T feel like doing the work – but only push back for that 10-15 minutes. Don’t plan to spend 45 minutes when you can barely focus for 10. In other words, be both patient and kind with yourself.

4) Enlist the support of other people in the work when you can. Some of us have to fight this fight essentially alone. (And if that’s one of you then by all means send me an email – I’m happy to help and encourage you that way.) But if you have someone who can play cheerleader and encourager, then by all means do so.

It might be as simple as just asking them to check in with you daily to see if you’ve done your anxiety work for the day. It might be someone to go get kudos from when you have done the work. It might be someone to remind you when you just can’t muster any interest in the work why you want to do this work in the first place.

The Price of Liberty is WORK

No work 5

That doesn’t mean 24/7/365. It mean steady, patient, consistent work, even when we don’t really feel like it. In a sense we have to take our lives back from our tired, anxious, worried, drained feelings. We have to not let feelings be our only driver – or even slavemaster.

Anxiety isn’t invincible. It’s actually pretty vulnerable to patient work, increasingly clear thinking and a determination to take our lives back from fear and worry. You don’t have to stay drained and tired and defeated – not with a little work.

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…

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.

I began talking in my last post about how feelings around fear and anxiety can be pretty unnerving, even terrifying as we experience them.  I also discussed how much those feelings can drive our behavior, even if we’re not aware of it.  Finally, I reviewed the thinking of Albert Ellis, and how he contends that feelings spring from our thinking, conscious or otherwise.

I repeat all of this because these three understandings are crucial to being able to shake free of the tyranny of our feelings.  And isn’t it a kind of tyranny, having your life shut down or restricted because of scary feelings?   It often comes down to exactly that – there is something that frightens us, and we retreat from it because of how that feels.  People can become scared of just about anything –

Clowns.  Classic example.  People who are otherwise completely rational will freeze up, start stuttering, break into tears, leave the room or start shouting incoherently when they are confronted by clowns.  Or how about reptiles?  Sure, there are dangerous reptiles – and most of us never get within 100 miles of them.  Normally lucid folks will go into a panic when a 4-inch Bluebelly shows up on their patio. 

The list is literally endless.  Public speaking, crowds, roller-coasters, planes, rabbits, cats, dogs, night-time, eating in public, dancing, making simple mistakes, asking someone out, you name it, multiple people are afraid of it.  Logic doesn’t have anything to do with why, any more than the actual risk involved in these things.  Sure, you could die in a plane crash – but you’re more likely to get killed in a car crash.  So why are you not terrified of driving to the store?

The Thoughts that Lurk Behind the Feelings

We’re afraid of WHATEVER we’re afraid of because of what we think about it.  Let me repeat that the thoughts that are scaring us don’t have to be conscious.  Not at all.  We are generally unaware of an enormous amount of what is running through our minds at any given moment.  Just try doing 20 minutes of meditation and see just how much chatter (what people who do things like meditation often call “monkey-mind”) runs through your skull.

So we can have feelings lurch out of the blue at us and be caught completely flat-footed.  It has happened to you, hasn’t it?  You were standing there at the taco stand, feeling fine on a weekend day, off work and minding your own business, when suddenly you were sad.  Or maybe you got angry.  Or maybe you felt overwhelmed.  And for the life of you (in that moment) you didn’t know why.  But the why is simple – you had a thought.  Or a series of thoughts.  They zipped through your brain in a matter of moments, and you had feelings in response to those thoughts.

What did you think?  Maybe you remembered that Monday your boss is back from vacation.  Or perhaps you flashed on the taxes you have yet to do.  It might be that you smelled his cologne, that knuckle-head that broke your heart, and you’re back in that ugly break-up.  If it triggers a sense of fear or anxiety then you’re bumping into your Comfort Zone, and that in turn has fired up your Flight or Fight Response to some extent.  And now you’re having feelings that are trying to get you AWAY from this scary thing…

Worse, you are suddenly reacting to those feelings.  You had plans to eat three tacos and gulp a cold beer, but now the day has turned gray, so you head home, sad or mad or overwhelmed.  Or you snap at your wife, who only asked if you wanted hot sauce, because of the rush of feelings in your body.  Or you leave your friends because you “just want to be alone.”  Sure you do – you don’t feel real good right now.  And all of it started with some thinking…

“Fly, You Fools!”  (Lord of the Rings Quote)

You want to be alone, or you snap, or you go home, because the Flight or Fight Response has fired up.  You want to, literally, run away.  That’s what Flight or Fight knows to do when you’re afraid – run first.  We only fight when we HAVE to.  As said a number of times in this blog that just makes good survival sense, from an evolutionary perspective.  As my Dad is fond of saying, “if you won’t leave me alone, I’ll go away and find someone who will.”  That’s the creedo of Flight or Fight.

So we’re in motion, or reacting, and we’re too often only aware of the feelings that are driving our reaction.  Note the word reaction – that’s the key here.   We’re reacting because we FEEL bad, or sad, or overwhelmed. 

But running isn’t solving anything.  It can’t, not in this situation.  When we react to our feelings and step away from what is making us uncomfortable the last thing we’re doing is dealing with our fears/anxieties.  The hard but honest truth is that at some point we MUST turn and face into the thinking that is scaring us, making us afraid – we have to, because it is the only way we’re going to master those fears and get that portion of our life back.

Oh, I Don’t Think So…

Easy to say.  Sometimes, oftentimes, very, very hard to do.  By the time we’ve reached the place where we are reflexively running from our scary feelings (or physical sensations, or both) then we’re usually pretty hammered/freaked out by those feelings and physical sensations.

And of course that isn’t all that is happening.  If we’re worried or anxious or afraid of something that aspect of the Flight or Fight Response I call the Worry Engine starts spinning ugly potential outcomes in our thinking, scaring us even more.  It doesn’t take much of that to have us running for cover!

But that’s exactly what we need to do – stop and challenge that thinking.  The thinking is the source of the problem in the first place.  It is generating the Flight or Fight Response, which is in turn punching out that adrenaline and cortisol, which is the source of those physical sensations and unnerving feelings.  The source of the problem is your thinking, and that’s where you’ll unplug the responses of fear and anxiety. 

This is rarely easy when you first start this work.  The first few times are exhausting and feel like you’re rolling a rock uphill.  You have to contend with the feelings and the physical responses and stand your ground, and all of those things are working to get you to STOP thinking about this and just run away.  You have to focus on what you’re afraid of and unpack it, figure out what you’re telling yourself that is so scary, and turn that back into a problem, instead of treating it like a crisis.  This is what I call the triad of fear mastery – facing into the fear, bracing through the storm of the Flight or Fight Response, and unpacking what is scaring us in the first place.

You Gotta Start Small

The best way (in my experience) to begin this work is to deliberately select a fear or worry that isn’t your  biggest fear or worry, but which you’d still like to knock down.  Any good fighter knows to pick the time and place of the fight, and the same applies to this work.  Make some time – 30 minutes, maybe more, to deal with this practice of triad.  Have some paper and pens ready, or maybe your laptop, so you can do some writing around this.  Some folks like talking to a recorder.  You do what works for you.  The point is you’ll want to have a dialogue with yourself, some way, so you can sort out both your thinking and deal with the responses of your Flight or Fight Response.

Get yourself comfortable, start the egg timer and tackle that fear.  Expect to get squirrely physically and mentally and emotionally.  You’re working to override, literally, the mechanism that evolved to keep you from being eaten by tigers, and it won’t go quietly.  You’ve been telling yourself for a LONG time (most of our fears have been simmering on the back of the stove for a while) that this issue or problem is way too scary to face down, so it usually takes some wrestling to face into this work.  Your Comfort Zone is just obeying your orders! 

You may find you get a little traction on things fairly quickly.  You may find that you can do 10 minutes of this and you need to go iron the cat or wash the sidewalk.  That’s OK.  Be pleased with yourself that you did 10 minutes.  Expect that you’ll have what I’ve called “aftershocks” – emotional and physical reactions from facing Flight or Fight.  That’s OK.  It is just more of the same – your Comfort Zone trying to herd you back to where you’re taught yourself is safety.  Take a break, an hour, a day, and do it again.  Like any skill it takes a little practice, and time, and willingness to do a small learning curve.

What is Safety, and What is Freedom?

And that’s the whole point of this discussion, isn’t it?  We’ve talked ourselves into avoiding or running from a problem, treating it like a crisis, and scaring ourselves away from it.  We FEEL better, or safer, not dealing with this issue, but in fact we’re not safer.  The problem is still there, and until we address it, most of the time, it isn’t going away.  If anything it can only fester, get worse, while we’re fooling ourselves that everything is OK…

No, we don’t have to keep running.  The work is hard.  You won’t unpack and address your fears in a single setting.  And you don’t have to.  Because your feelings can’t hurt you.  And your physical sensations, however scary or worrisome, can’t hurt you.  Flight or Fight can’t hurt you, unless you let it herd you away from dealing with the thing that scares you.

More on practicing the triad of fear mastery next time, when I’ll give you several specific examples of doing triad.   You don’t have to be the prisoner of your fears. However scary this feels, you are stronger, smarter and tougher than your Comfort Zone.  It’s OK if you don’t feel that way right now – it’s still true.

I’ve already written a couple of posts around the topic of how the Comfort Zone makes us crazy with the warning signals in our body that come from being afraid or anxious.  We don’t however just have physical sensations/signals that we deal with when we’re revved up with fear – we also have to contend with the emotions that get generated by the Flight or Fight Response as well.  Those feelings are rarely comfortable for any of us, and for some of us the emotions can be more unnerving/disruptive to our thinking and peace of mind than the physical sensations we experience.

What are feelings?  That’s a pretty complex question, both physically and psychologically.  Let me offer the notion that feelings are basically evolved ways of getting us to take action. 

Those Wacky Feelings

Feelings are weird – that’s all there is to it.  At one level we know that feelings are just that – these squishy, messy, sometimes wonderful, sometimes extremely tedious aspects of being human, but still, just feelings.  But at another level feelings can exert an enormous amount of leverage on our thinking and behavior.  They can motivate us in ways we’re only semi-conscious of – and in fact most of us are blissfully unaware of how much feelings can drive what we do.

And that’s the point – feelings are about driving us to DO something.  Feelings of pleasure drive us to do more of  whatever feels good – keep doing this thing that feels good is the message.  Why does it feel so stinkin’ good to scratch that itch, whatever your rational mind is telling you?  Because you’ll stop the pain (that’s what your nerves at the itchy place are feeling, just not enough to “hurt” – just enough to be irritating) and so do more of that!  Why does that ice cream taste so dang tasty?  Because as we were coming along the evolutionary road we didn’t get access to much sugar (a great source of energy if you’re chasing Wildebeest around the plains of Africa, as we were wont to do back in the day), so sugar is a good idea, eat more of that!  Doesn’t it make sense that we developed pleasurable feelings as a way to let us know this thing is something we need to keep doing?

Of course the same thing applies to feelings of fear or anxiety.  If we feel this way it is our brains telling our bodies we need to get in gear and get AWAY from this thing that is making us feel this way.  More on that in a little bit…

Feelings – Nothing More Than Feelings…

Right now as I write this post I’m listening to a song from the 1970’s titled “We’ve Got To Get it On Again.”  (I know, cheesy title, but hey, it was the 70’s, right?)  I used to make cassette tapes off the radio (remember, the 70’s!) and this was one of the songs on my favorite tape.  Just listening to this song generates very specific feelings – a wistful kind of mushy, happy feeling, remembering my life as a kid, warm summer nights in Las Vegas where I grew up, hanging with friends, and singing along with the radio.

But wait – now I’m listening to a song by Alice Cooper (yup, still trapped in the 70’s) called “Billion Dollar Babies.”  Now the mood is completely different – now I’m in junior high school, sitting with my friend John in his room, surrounded by black light posters (now YOU’RE feeling the 70’s too, aren’t you?) and listening to a super-bitchin’ stereo system, grooving on how totally cool it was, and feeling oddly restless and scratchy.  (Nothing like being a teenager under development, right?)

Pretty impressive how feelings can transport us, yes?  Nothing I’m writing here is news to anyone reading this blog.  But most of us don’t give much (or any) conscious thought about how those feelings can direct us, drive us, radically change our thinking, govern our behavior.  We tend to trust our feelings, listen to them.  We tend to treat them as solid information sources, as credible messengers about the state of the world, and where we are in it.

But Wait – What If They Are NOT?

There’s a little problem with this assumption about the usefulness of feelings, at least under some conditions.  The problem lies in the belief that our feelings are reporting reality, giving us the straight story on what’s really going on.  Again, note that I said “under some conditions.” 

We hear it, and say it, all the time.  “I just have this feeling” we say.  “It feels like a bad idea.”  “I don’t feel like doing this.”  And so on.  Sometimes that response is exactly right.  When we are “in our skins” – lucid, calm, present for the experience, etc. – then our feelings can tell us a great deal about our thinking, even if we haven’t got it all conscious and clear to ourselves yet.  This is a part of what people call intuition, and it is definitely something to listen to – under those conditions.

But when we’re afraid, scared, anxious, rattled, then the whole validity of those feelings comes into question, IF WE’RE NOT FACING ACTUAL PHYSICAL DANGER.  When we’ve activated Flight or Fight by (usually) accidentally bumping into our Comfort Zone beliefs our feelings do what they evolved to do – they start to warn us away from the scary thing.  Here’s the beef: just because you feel like running DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD.  But Erik, you might be saying, it FEELS like I need to run!  Yeah, I know.  I spent 20+ years running away from those feelings.  I get it, in my body and my memory. 

The Monster in the Closet May Not Be There

When we’re not afraid – when Flight or Fight isn’t activated – then our feelings are springing from lucid and useful thinking.  Here’s an example:  let’s say a friend comes to you looking for advice.  Maybe they’re worried because their girlfriend was acting distant and uninterested on their date last night.  They’ve got themselves worked up, freaked out, and they want to know what you think.  They tell you “I’m sure that something is wrong.  I FEEL it man!”  You, however, are not worried or afraid.  It isn’t your girlfriend, it isn’t your situation, so Flight or Fight is not running in your brain and body during this conversation.  You calmly ask questions like is she maybe not feeling well?  What is work like for her right now?  Is it possible she’s distracted by her upcoming visit to see her crazy Dad?  And in doing that you’re helping (if he’s listening!) your friend think through and past his fears and worries.

And (more importantly for this conversation) you are challenging the certainty of his feelings, which are definitely in the grip of his Comfort Zone responses.  Now I’m not saying he’s for SURE wrong about what he’s feeling.  Maybe his girlfriend and he are in trouble.  But the point is he’s assuming his feelings have correctly identified the problem – and we’re a LONG way from knowing that on the basis of his feelings, especially in the face of Flight or Fight surging through his body and brain.  Maybe they are in trouble because he’s wearing crappy cologne.  Maybe they’re in trouble because his hair is too long.  And maybe they are not in trouble at all…

So consider this – part of the struggle against fear and anxiety is a clear identifying of the real value of your feelings.  Instead of the blank check we tend to give our feelings when they pop up it is important to actively challenge those feelings, question their origin and their usefulness.  Just because I feel afraid in this particular moment may NOT mean that there is something bad happening. 

Slow Down There Buddy – You’re Saying Ignore My Feelings?

Now I get that this notion can feel very counter-intuitive.  Albert Ellis (as I’ve mentioned before in this blog) was one of the very first people to offer this idea to the world, and believe me, people have really pushed back on what he said.  But here’s the piece you need to take away from this blog post today: as Albert says, your feelings come from your thinking.  It doesn’t have to be conscious thinking.  And you think pretty stinkin’ quickly – you’re by no means always aware of your thinking when it is happening.

Let me say it again: your feelings are driven by your thinking, conscious or otherwise.  Feelings are the flagposts of your thinking.  Their intensity and their driving power evolved to get you moving, in one direction or another.  And that is what feelings are supposed to do. 

SO – JUST because you feel something, anything, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to ACT on those feelings.  Sure, most of us get that under other conditions.  Just because I feel like telling that person  they are a hottie doesn’t mean I should, per se.  Just because I really want another Big Mac, that it feels vital that I have another extra-large serving of fries, doesn’t mean I should.

But when it comes to our feelings of fear, of anxiety, of terror, of depression – well, that also doesn’t mean that we should automatically surrender to those feelings.  It does mean, however, that  we need to examine the thinking behind those feelings, and unpack what we’re  feeling afraid of, terrified of or anxious about, and see what we need to do about that. 

More about feelings and the getting down to the thinking behind them in my next post!  In the meantime, try this for some homework: practice identifying or unpacking your thinking around some of your feelings this week, any feelings.  When you feel like suddenly sending roses to your Sweet Baboo, see if you can’t identify the triggering thought or thoughts that prompted that feeling.  When you find yourself in the grip of sudden melancholy, try determining what brought that mood on in the first place.  It isn’t always immediately clear – it may take some little effort at patient rewinding and pondering.  But you’ll find you can get to it.  And the practice is a great, great way to work at getting skillful at the triad work I push so hard in this blog.

Your feelings should be your servants, NOT your master.  Think on that this week!

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.

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