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When I talk about anxiety in this blog I’m talking about us reacting to our life as if we were being threatened with LOSING our lives. We might not always be conscious of that reaction, but that’s what we’re doing when we’re in the grip of our fears. We’re treating (say it with me!) a problem as a crisis…

One of the ugly and counter-productive results of that reacting to a problem as a crisis is this: in our desperate effort to make the anxiety stop we often run from potential solution to potential solution, looking for something that will give us some immediate relief from the physical and emotional abuse of anxious thinking.

The hard part of this anxiety work is pushing through what is essentially a reprogramming of our thinking. We have spent a LONG time developing some powerful, even automatic responses to our fearful thinking (and that fearful thinking is itself a mostly automatic responses), and it will take TIME and effort to change that thinking and those physical and emotional responses.

We don’t want to wait! I sure as hell didn’t want to wait! I was sick unto death of being anxious, of feeling like I could never relax or gear down or stop obsessing over my thinking. I didn’t want to wait and I didn’t think I could stand to face through the work.

But I was wrong on both counts. I HAD to wait on the work, and I WAS able to do the work. And so can any of us. We just have to remember that we’re going to be tempted to anything that seems to promise immediate relief…

The Work is the Work

When I finally identified that I was fighting chronic anxiety I had been working on being anxious for over 20 years. 20 years! I didn’t know that for the vast majority of that time, but that was all the water that had gone under my bridge before I understood my challenge.

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That meant I had been working steadily at living in the future, scaring myself in different ways with potential indefinite negative futures – i.e., if this happens then this terrible thing will also happen, won’t that be awful, I can’t stand that – and then I’d do it again.

I was afraid of:
Having a vertigo spell that would never stop
Losing sensation in my hands/body and having it never come back
Having eternal fights with nausea (not as much as the first two, but it was there)
Afraid of never having a “successful” career
Afraid of never figuring out what the heck I wanted for a career in the first place
Afraid of winding up alone/never finding a real, solid, healthy relationship
Afraid of being labeled a failure
Afraid of being trapped in a town I had grown to hate
Afraid of missing out on a lot of interesting adventures
Afraid of making other people angry, or disappointing other people

And these were just the big fears! So you can imagine (or maybe you even already know from your own experience) how much I wanted all that fear to stop NOW. Not in a month, not in a year, but NOW.

So I did a lot of things to try and make that happen…

Avoidance, Thy Name is Erik

In my last blog post I talked about freezing in place – that behavior we do when something scares us and we hide in the metaphorical underbrush, hoping the scary thing will just go away. I did a LOT of that in my 20 years of dealing with chronic anxiety.

I got REALLY busy as one way of avoiding dealing with my fears. I often worked multiple jobs. I raced around visiting friends, or traveling out of town (until the anxiety became so great that I was all but trapped, in my own head, in the little town of Reno, NV – at least until I broke free of my anxiety.) I watched a LOT of TV. I really strengthened the already-in-my-family behavior of medicating with food/comforting my fears with food.

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And I avoided with style ANY discussions of anxiety, panic attacks, etc, as well as any real discussion of the things I mentioned in the list above. I was both desperately avoiding my list of fears, and so afraid and angry that they might be true, that I couldn’t really bear the thought of them…

In the meantime I was still edging into more and more anxiety in my days and nights. When I finally tipped over into the well of ongoing panic attacks in the winter of 1990 I just got more frantic in my avoiding. I would come home from one of my 3 jobs, or my late graduate classes, and just stare at the TV, eating, until I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

All of these efforts were my way of trying to find a quick fix, a way to make the anxiety just go away. In my defense I didn’t yet know that there WAS any real way to deal with and get rid of my anxious thoughts, but it didn’t change the fact that I was trying to find a right-now answer to my fears…

Avoidance Has Other Names, Too

This running to find a quick fix takes other forms. An old friend of mine is one of the best examples of what I’m going to discuss next, although I’ve seen this pattern again and again in my friends, colleagues and coaching clients. His answer was to try something for a week, or maybe two weeks, then throw up his hands in frustration and go on to another potential solution…

So in just one year, for example, he tried two forms of yoga, an immersive therapy technique (intense, daily), a trip to a retreat center in Hawaii, 4 new jobs, several relationships and a special meditation technique. Every time he started something he pinned a great deal of hope on THIS new thing or effort being what would set him free from his anxiety.

(And, I should add, he was on a medication for anxiety the entire time, and still is to this day. It seems to soften the worst symptoms of his anxiety, but it has yet to make it go away…)

The interesting part of this wild running from thing to thing was that in several cases he was confronted by his fearful thinking – that excellent and essential first step in dealing with our anxiety. But he didn’t want to confront his anxious thinking, he wanted it to GO AWAY.

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He would get so angry and disappointed when the current thing he was doing didn’t make his anxiety stop! And who can blame him?

At the heart of this is the driving force of our Flight or Fight Reflex. We are afraid, and being afraid (in our genes, in our biology) means get away from the thing that is making us afraid. It is WORK to turn and sort out our anxious thinking, face down our fearful reactions. It is scary and hard. It is in a sense counter-intuitive to stand and face down our fearful thinking. But it is exactly what we need to do.

There Are Even Worse Ways to Avoid Anxiety…

This list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the classic paths of avoidance/make me feel better NOW that so many people have employed. One of the avoidance elephants in the room is the use of drugs and alcohol.

This is commonly called addiction, which I think is the exact wrong word. It’s isn’t addiction – it is self-medication. It is an effort on the part of deeply anxious, afraid people to medicate their fears into a corner, to get away from anxiety and stress and worry.

Is it much worse than bouncing from therapy to meditation to relationship to new job? Yes. It is brutally destructive in multiple ways. Is it fundamentally different in nature from the bouncing? No. It is all a way to make the anxiety stop THIS SECOND…

I’ve already mentioned the whole medicating with food that runs in my family. (I am willing to confess to a still-ongoing but reduced addiction to cookies.) Other folks try to make anxiety go away with compulsive gambling, or spree shopping trips, or random sexual encounters.

We have a lot of labels for all those behaviors, but underlying them all is our need to stop feeling anxious.

What To Do?

You already know the answer, don’t you? That doesn’t mean it is EASY to start. Some of us are fighting one or two moderate fears – scary, but they haven’t yet closed down our life, and they are not so terrifying that we can’t at least consider them in an abstract way.

Some of us however have ancient fears that go back decades, and/or fears that are so terrible to contemplate (at least to us) that it is heart-stopping to even consider that challenging of anxiety. We might need some extra help – medication of the legal kind, the hand of a therapist, to help us get started. That’s all legal and a damn good idea.

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And some of us, too many of us, are in fact wrestling with ancient fears, but have yet to really get conscious about that. We would like to dismiss those fears, brush them under the carpet, call them anything (physical illness, a nervous condition, just the way I am, etc.) but what they are – anxious thoughts that generate anxiety in our body and emotions.

But the bottom-line is we still need to stand and look our fears in the eye. This blog is all about that work. Because anxiety is anxiety, and the answer is always the same – figuring out the thinking that is scaring us in the first place and then re-framing that thinking.

Rome was definitely not built in a day. 🙂 We won’t sort out our fears and banish them from our life with one effort or one try. But we CAN banish them. To quote that remarkable confronter of fears Eleanor Roosevelt, “We must do the thing we think we cannot do.” Because we CAN do it – whatever our fear is telling us.

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