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

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

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

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

Practice, Practice, Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

More About Bicycles

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

Next up – REALLY taking care of ourselves.

OK, so I’ve talked now about two essential skills to be a Fear Master (kind of like a Jedi Master, only real.) One skill is the capacity to sort out when we’ve turned a problem into a crisis – when we’ve taken an issue that can’t immediately hurt or injure us and transformed it into a life-or-death monster that scares the crap out of us.

The other skill is the conscious “discounting” of Flight or Fight Response physical reactions and feelings, i.e., understanding that there is nothing wrong with us when have those sensations and feelings. We are simply experiencing Flight or Fight, it is completely normal, and however we feel physically or emotionally we are not having a heart attack, losing our mind or sliding into eternal darkness.

The only word I can think of to accurately describe these abilities is (for those of us who are or have wrestled with chronic or acute anxiety, panic attacks and/or depression) is the word vital. If we want to get free of anxiety and get our lives back we need these skills.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes (or, Better, Don’t!)

Some of us, however (actually entirely too many of us) have been fighting this whole fear/anxiety/worry thing for a LONG time – years, even decades. We have had a kind of vampire at our throats, sucking the literal life out of us.

We acquired that vampire because we have lived with our fear for so long, lived with the constant pulse of anxiety and worry and stress, that we are conditioned to flinch away from both our Comfort Zone (which is only trying to keep us safe!) and the feelings and physical sensations that scare us. We hate it, we hate how our lives have been shut down and limited, but we don’t know what else to do.

That leaves us, if we’ve been at this long enough, feeling hopeless.

Dog In A Cage

I have mentioned before in this blog a series of experiments conducted at the University of Pittsburgh back in the 1960’s. Martin Seligman, a research psychologist and the author of books like “Authentic Happiness”, describes the following experiment( which is VERY relevant to this work at overcoming anxiety and fear):

A dog is put into a wire cage. The bottom of the cage is electrified – i.e., the person running the experiment can run an electric shock through the cage bottom. The dog is secured in the cage, then is shocked again and again.

(I know this sounds like the worst sort of sadistic torture, and I’m not crazy about the whole thing in the first place, but believe me, not only did it teach us something hugely important, but the dogs were not hurt long-term.)

Then the cage door was opened and the dog was shocked again. In addition there was food or a treat outside the cage, and the assumption was made that the dog, both seeing his/her freedom and smelling the food/treat, would take the first opportunity to leave the cage.

To the researcher’s surprise (and our great gain in understanding) the dog DIDN’T leave the cage!

Why? The door was open, it really could leave, so what was the problem? The problem, as it turned out, was that the dog had TRIED to escape, a lot, earlier in the experiment. Of course it did – it was getting shocked! But after trying a number of times and failing it gave up – just laid down and suffered through more shocks.

We’re Not Dogs, But…

There is a happy ending to this story. The dogs were taught they could leave the cage, and leave they did. Another good piece of news is that we learned something about living creatures in general, including human beings. We learned that we could literally learn to give up – what is now called learned helplessness.

We can take enough injury/setbacks/anxiety to teach us that there is no point in trying. So we stop trying. As bad as things are we assume they can’t get better. We’ve tried before, tried and tried, but nothing worked. So we learn to expect that nothing WILL work – that there isn’t any point – that we should just give up.

But we don’t have to stay there. I can try to break a padlock all I want – but unless I have a big steel hammer I’m unlikely to succeed. Or there is one other option – I could find the key.

Anxiety is a great deal like that padlock. We can want to open the lock – we can shout and batter and bruise ourselves trying to open it – but in the end it really is about finding a useful key.

Or, in this case, a small handful of skills, two of which you already know.

Hope – It Is a Really Good Thing

So this blog post is really about feelings, again – in this case, questioning that feeling of hopelessness that comes to those of us who fight anxiety, depression, panic attacks and fear. Just because we feel that way doesn’t mean we’re right. Just because we haven’t succeeded so far doesn’t mean we can’t succeed in the future – and more so if we have effective tools to help us succeed.

Bottom-line: question what your feelings tell you. Question your reactions to your body. Fear and anxiety can make you crazy, worried, even feeling helpless – but question it. See what thinking lies behind it. And know that it is possible to shake free of fear and worry – possible to unplug the thinking that generates those feelings in the first place.

Next up – skill #3 in our short series on the essentials of Fear Mastery.

First off, thank you to the new blog subscribers I’m seeing pop up in the last couple of weeks.  I’m glad you’re with us.  Please know that if you want to chat about anything in the blog or related topics you can find my email on the blog – always happy to have a conversation around this material.

Secondly, I’m happy to report that I’m going to be posting a video blog this week about this particular Fear Mastery Blog Post, sometime in the next several days.  This is a new direction and a bit of a stretch for me, but I’m looking forward to it.   Please let me know what you think of that first effort – all feedback gratefully accepted.

Thirdly, I have had several conversations in the last two weeks that center around two specific issues in dealing with fear and anxiety.  The first is the physical sensations that accompany our Flight or Fight Response, and how those sensations can really frighten us, rattle our cages, and leave us feeling exhausted and even more afraid.  The second is what those sensations (as well as our emotional responses to Flight or Fight) can lead us to do – namely, stepping even further away from facing into our fears, trying to do what Flight or Fight evolved to have us do – run, rather than stand and face them down.

We learn to be afraid of our body’s physical sensations

Every one of us develops an individual set of “preferred” physical reactions to our Flight or Fight Response getting activated.  When I taught public speaking (one of the most frightening things imaginable for the majority of people) I would go around the room and poll the class about their top two or three responses (physical, emotional or psychological) when they were anxious or afraid.  The sheer variety was always interesting to hear.  Just the physical variation was impressive.  This student would blush/flush furiously and find themselves with an upset stomach.  That student would get the shakes as well as feel dizzy/fight vertigo.  Still another student wrestled with headaches, sweaty palms and a dry mouth. 

And of course none of these sensations by themselves have any meaning, except to let you know that you’re afraid, and that you’d better get away from the thing that is scaring you.  Every one of the physical sensations/responses to fear that we have in our bodies are the direct result of the adrenaline and cortisol pumping through our bodies when we activate Flight or Fight.  Those sensations are simply the body getting ready to run or fight.

We, however, come to associate our fear WITH those physical sensations, so those sensations in turn acquire the power to scare us as well.  We’re not just afraid of the scary thing – we’re also afraid of the physical sensations that being afraid of the scary thing generates as well.  It FEELS like something significant is happening – it FEELS frightening, or very frightening.  It takes some real work and practice to not let that fear take us over when all of our alert systems are telling us this is BAD, very scary, get out of here!

So, for example, I have a friend who is currently starting to work on a couple of things that have made him afraid for a long time.  One of those things is dealing directly with his finances.  Money in general makes him very uncomfortable.  When he has to do pretty much anything around his financial situation he finds himself getting restless and edgy.  If he can’t deal with it quickly and get away from it (his usual response in the past) then he starts getting an upset stomach.

He has learned to associate that with dealing with money in general, so an upset stomach makes him pretty anxious.  All he wants to do is ease the angry intestines, and get away from what is making his stomach unhappy in the first place.  Which, of course, means not dealing with the money challenges he wants to overcome.

All this makes us want to run…

And this in turn leads me to my second point in this post, our reflexive running away from the stuff that scares us.  One of the most difficult things about dealing with our fears and anxieties is our all-but-automatic twitching back from the stuff that makes us fearful in the first place.  A huge amount of the energy drain that we experience when we first start facing into our fears and knocking them down is simply standing our ground in the face of our fear.

It is one thing to bravely say “I’m going to face my fears now”, and something else to then stay put, crest through the physical and emotional responses to our fears, in order to unplug them.  Everything in our bodies says run, our physical responses and our feelings.  The best and most effective weapon against that fear is our thinking tools, and at the same time Flight or Fight tends to severely degrade/compromise our capacity for clear, lucid thinking.  This is why I push so hard on the concept of practicing “triad” work – making a deliberate plan to challenge a fear, facing into that fear and letting the Flight or Fight responses roll over you, and consciously addressing what you’re afraid of, unpacking what you’re afraid of, so you can think clearly about how to address your fears and move past them.

It is very much a conscious process – it is the opposite of the automatic responses of the Comfort Zone.  It is a skill set, and it takes practice and effort.  One of the toughest (but completely acheiveable) parts of this week is enduring those physical sensations you’ve learned to be afraid of, and staying put – not running away from the work OR the physical sensations that our anxieties and fears generate in our bodies. 

We have to teach ourselves that our physical responses to our fear don’t carry any messages, don’t have any meaning in themselves, however much they scare us or make us uncomfortable.  The only message they have for us is that something is scaring us, something in our thinking, and that we need to unpack that thinking, address whatever problem or problems we’ve afraid of, and deal with that issue.

Hard, but you can do it!

This can be very, very uncomfortable.  It is definitely draining, tedious work.  It is also tremendously fruitful, and is part of the work of shaking free of our fears and worries.  Let me be even more direct: to get free of our fears we have to reframe what our physical sensations are telling us, let go of our fear of them.  We have to endure, for a little while, those unnerving physical warning signals, and directly address the fear (or, more likely, fears) that are scaring us (and causing those sensations) in the first place.

You can do this.  Any of us can do this.  It just feels so (pardon my french) damn scary.  That upset stomach, those sweaty palms, that sense of vertigo – we can learn to be very afraid of any of them.  But they are only the result of our thinking – the result of us being afraid of some issue or problem, and the result of the Flight or Fight Response powering up in our bodies.

Next up – some discussion of the Comfort Zone as a Drama Queen in our lives…

When I posted my discussion of breaking the Habit of Worry 2 posts ago I received quite a bit of feedback in email and at the blog.  People told me they liked what I said there, but that they were also looking for more specifics on what to do to shake free of that life-sucking habit.  I am VERY appreciative of this kind of feedback, as it helps me sharpen my focus on what I call the “toolbox” of Fear Mastery.  Hence, this post.  Please, I’d like very much to hear from you what you think/experience with this information as you work to shake free of your own worry habit. 

First, it is important, crucial to keep in mind that this entire situation begins in your thinking.  The reflex to worry developed in us because we taught ourselves that worrying somehow keeps us SAFE.  Let me repeat that: we are constantly finding things to worry about because we’ve trained ourselves (and our environment has helped in that training process) to worry our way to safety.

Yes, that sounds wacky, but if you have this particular piece of Comfort Zone programming, it also sounds exactly right.  It is essential to keep in your focus that you are running a series of thoughts in your head, and those thoughts are in turn triggering some degree of activation of your Flight or Fight Response.

Where I believe most of us get stuck is in those Flight or Fight Responses.  We even start to think about putting down our worrying, just for a moment, and our Comfort Zone says “HANG ON THERE BUDDY – you’re not going ANYWHERE.”  You start to experience mild to severe signals in your body and feelings, whatever those are for you.

Some of us get sweaty palms, and our hearts race (or seem to clench, or squeeze, or however you describe the sensation.)  Some of us get dry mouths, deserts really, and a headache might start up behind our eyes or in the back of our heads.  Some of us get that queasy thing in our stomachs, with maybe a pinch of chill or a feeling of mild shock.  We might feel anxious, nervous, restless, irritated, sad, angry, or some combination of all of those.  And NONE of that feels good.  All of it is that Flight or Fight Response, warning us that we’re getting close to something that we’ve LEARNED to be afraid of.  I’m betting that, for many folks reading this, just the list of possible responses/sensations has you feeling uncomfortable – yes?

OK.  Stay calm.  This is exactly where you’ll begin to find your pry-bar to shake free of this tedious habit.  Because NOTHING, absolutely nothing, is wrong right now.  That’s not to say that your brain hasn’t started to race somewhat, and you’re beginning to cast around for something to worry about.

It may not take much casting.  You may latch onto how your foot has been mysteriously hurting, or how your boss has been acting funny, or the way your husband or wife is suddenly seeming distant or grumpy or irritated, or maybe you’re thinking that your 401K isn’t big enough… etc.  Let me say it again: just experiencing the sensations triggered by your thoughts can stop you in your tracks from even considering taking a break from the worry habit.  But that’s all it is – sensations, feelings, all conjured by your Flight or Fight Response, trying to steer you away from the scary thoughts you’re thinking.

Isn’t it maddening?  That we can be, in very real ways, controlled by something as intangible as thoughts and feelings?  Well, we don’t have to be controlled by them.  It just takes some conscious awareness of our reactions, and a little practice challenging those reactions, and the thoughts behind them.

You have to see it as a kind of merry-go-round, which you step onto and begin furiously pushing off with one foot, spinning that thing faster and faster in your thinking.  Merry-go-rounds don’t stop on a dime.  But they do stop!  And they stop when we stop pushing off and refuse to give the thing any more energy, any more momentum.  We may have to hang on for a little while so the thing can lose power – so our bodies can relax as we deliberately challenge our thinking, then practice changing that thinking.  But those thoughts will slow and change, your body will start to relax, just like that merry-go-round.

The way to break the worry habit is to challenge it.  Call yourself out on that habit and begin the practice of changing your thinking.  This is what  I call triad – the 3 elements that make for the disruption and pushing back of the Comfort Zone:

 1) Decide that you’re ready to break this frustrating habit, and set a little time (10 minutes, to start) to just sit with yourself and challenge your thinking around the need to worry.

2) As you do that challenging, expect your body and feelings to react – the Flight or Fight Response will kick in and try to steer you away from this challenging of your fears.  You told it, after all, that this was too scary to think about, so it is just doing what you told it to do.  Ride the brief, tedious, anxiety or fear wave, and remind yourself that nothing’s wrong, nothing is any different from 10 minutes ago, you’re just doing an exercise, the world isn’t coming to an end.

3) As you’re sitting with your body sensations and feelings, identify the thinking that is scaring you in the first place.

In this case you’re afraid that if you DON’T worry something bad will happen – which you and I both know is crap.  Sure, if FEELS like that, and it is draining and scary to face that thinking down – but then it’s draining and scary to worry all the time, isn’t it?  And imagine what it would be like to not worry like this anymore?

No, the worry habit isn’t helping you – it is getting in the way.  Because worry isn’t action, and worry isn’t concern, and worry doesn’t help a (pardon my language) damn thing.  What keeps you as safe as you can be is taking concrete steps to address your worries, and then putting the worry down, letting it go, and getting on with your life. 

As I’ve said throughout this blog worry stems from turning a problem into a crisis, and thereby activating your Flight or Fight Response.  Your single goal is to move the faux crisis back to problem status.  Because a crisis is you being attacked by a Mongol Horde, or teetering on the edge of falling off a cliff, or anything that is immediately threatening to kill or seriously injure you.   Otherwise it CAN’T be a crisis, which makes it a problem. 

We’re only 16 days into the New Year of 2011.  You can begin to find real relief from this (for most of us) decades-long habit of worrying to keep safe, and you can start to find it THIS MONTH.  Don’t expect it to get done in one practice, or two.  Do expect it to rattle your cage, shake you up a bit.  That’s the Comfort Zone’s job – to get you to stay away from scary, dangerous things.

But there isn’t any danger here, and you and I both know it.  Do expect to feel tired, depleted.  Do expect to find reasons to iron the cat, wash the trees or do anything rather than this simple 10-minute exercise.  Believe me, the cat and trees can wait.  This small amount of work, even with how it feels, will produce results that will frankly amaze you.  To repeat – you will not see this move in just one session.  You’ve given this a lot of energy and time, and it will take time to change.  Not nearly as long as you took to build up the habit, but still, a little time.  Take breaks, distract yourself, relax – then try it again, the next day, in a couple of days, and keep at it.

Please, let me know how your practice goes – very happy to offer support, encouragement, clarification and cheerleading.  And please let me know if this is helping the questions you have around challenging your Comfort Zone and getting to work on your freedom.  Next up – more about unplugging those thoughts, and some of the wisdom of Dr. Susan Jeffers, the author of “Feel the Fea and Do it Anyway.”  Till then – fight for your freedom.  You can shake free of the worry habit.

I have been discussing tools for helping you do the triad of Fear Mastery in the last few posts here.  By way of review the triad is the simple (but requiring a little practice and skill) effort of doing the following things: 1) facing or addressing a fear or anxiety, 2) allowing/being present for the frightening physical and emotional sensations that accompany our fears, and 3) unpacking precisely what you’re afraid or anxious of, identifying the problem you’ve transmuted into a crisis, and turning back into a problem.

The point of today’s post is simply this: the work of the triad is the heart of this work.  It is fear, pure and simple, that stops us, freezes us in place, keeps us from moving towards something we need or want, keeps us motionless or, more likely, running in the opposite direction.  Our feelings and physical responses are working to get us to move away from the thinking or behavior that is frightening us, and our Comfort Zone wants to wall that scary thing away from our conscious thought.  To gain our freedom we HAVE to bring the issue to consciousness, endure the Flight or Fight’s burst of feelings and sensations, and deliberately move that scary thing from reactive fear to proactive problem to solve.  End of story.

I am NOT saying this is easy.  No, for most of us it is hard, at least at the start, because for most of us it is scary as hell.  Most of us don’t have much practice in the actual triad.  We have practice enduring fear and anxiety.  We have plenty of practice reacting to our experience and our worries.  What we’re not very skillful at is facing our fears/worries/anxieties and unplugging them, making them conscious and giving them their actual importance, as opposed to the stress and worry we might habitually give them.

But saying it isn’t easy isn’t the same thing as saying it is endlessly challenging or can’t be done.  And don’t confuse easy with simple.  It is a relatively simple thing to get up and run a mile.  Just involves putting your feet on the ground and breaking into a trot.  That doesn’t mean for some of us (maybe a lot of us) that effort to run isn’t exhausting, and that we can run 5-6-7 miles whenever we choose.  We have to work up to it, build some muscle, give it some time and practice.

Same thing for facing our fears, unplugging our anxieties, dealing with our worries, and pushing the Comfort Zone back to give us the room we need and want to live our lives.  What fear is holding you back right now?  What problem-turned-crisis in your thinking is sucking the life out of you, keeping you rooted in place, holding you back from the direction you’d like to move in?  I’m not saying that you can instantly, magically break past that fear or anxiety by starting the work of facing it, enduring the burst of Comfort Zone warnings in your body and feelings, and working to unpack it, getting a clear grasp on what is scaring you, and turning into a problem.  I AM saying that this is completely do-able, completely within your reach.  I am saying that your freedom and your strength are not lost or outside your power to access.  They are here, now, with you.  And you will be amazed, amazed to find that it will be much less difficult than you’ve been (probably unconsciously) assuming.  Hard and scary at the start?  Almost certainly.  But it is hard and scary now.  Why wait any longer?

What do you want?  Do you want your freedom?  Do you want to be unafraid of your finances, your relationship issues, your job, your retirement, your physical condition, your neighbors, the economy?  OK.  Then let’s get started.  Review this blog.  Identify what problems you’ve morphed into crises.  Pick a place to start.  Give yourself tools like affirmations, meditative practices, exercise, distractions, friendship support, and a comfortable bed (you’ll need your sleep for this work!)  Then get up and start practicing.  You don’t have to stay afraid.  You don’t have to wait any longer.  The only thing you’re waiting on is… you.

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.

I promised last post that I would start into a detailed discussion of the Comfort Zone, which, in the Fear Mastery map I’ve developed, is the final stage of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.  In the work of the last few weeks I’ve begun to realize just how remarkable the Comfort Zone is, and how much it can influence our thinking.  With this post I am starting what will turn into a short series of posts on the Comfort Zone, how it develops, how it restricts our behavior and thinking, and then I will turn to some of the tools that we can use to shake free/reshape our Comfort Zone boundaries.

I don’t know who the first person was who coined the term “The Comfort Zone” to describe the perimeter of rules and boundaries that we create around ourselves for protection.  My first clearly cited reference came from Peter McWilliam’s excellent book “Do It!”, which I first read back in the middle 1990’s.  The bottom line is that the Comfort Zone outlines what we each learn is safe and is not safe as we make our way through the world.  As little kids we learn to look both ways before we cross the street, not touch hot stoves (a particularly powerful Comfort Zone boundary in my experience), not stick screwdrivers in wall sockets, etc.  This is the Comfort Zone in one of its most useful functions – protecting us from real, physical danger.  And it is a pretty powerful protection too.  I once tested this by attempting to (at 2 in the morning, when there wasn’t a car for miles) cross a small residential street without looking both ways.  It was not only difficult, but also extremely uncomfortable.  I had warning bells going off the entire time, and found myself surprised at the energy it took to NOT look left or right as I did it.  Good thing, yes?  This is a natural extension of the Flight or Fight Response, this developing of rules for physical safety. 

But the Comfort Zone doesn’t limit us to physical safety issues.  We also learn what is mentally and emotionally risky as we grow and develop, and those dangers also get built into our Comfort Zone.  One of the classic examples is most people’s fear of speaking to a group.  I’ve been teaching Public Speaking for years and years (starting in graduate school as a TA) and I can tell you first-hand that most people carry this fear.  It ranges from mild discomfort to outright terror (and this is only the sample of people actually willing to take the class!) but it is fear, whatever the intensity.  Now I suspect most people know that they can’t actually get physically injured talking to a group of people, however scary it might feel.  That doesn’t make much difference – all they know is that speaking to a group is frightening.  Another example is cultural taboos – rules we learned early on about what topics are safe or not safe to think about out loud (examples might include sexual behavior, bathroom functions, or political beliefs.)

In a very real sense the Comfort Zone is the final home of our most serious fears.  If you’ve been following the blog so far you’ve learned that we start acquiring fears when we turn a problem into a crisis – when we activate our Flight or Fight Response over something that we can’t resolve immediately.  We start generating “what if?” scenarios that scare us, (The Worry Engine), then latch onto one of those scary scenarios and begin treating it as real (The Indefinite Negative Future), then in our efforts to avoid that frightening future we start avoiding thinking and feeling around the topic (Anticipatory Anxiety.)   If we don’t identify this path and convert the issue back into a problem or problems to solve, as opposed to a crisis that is frightening us in the now and must be resolved immediately, we will wind up walling that fear away – taking the behavior we develop during Anticipatory Anxiety and creating a Comfort Zone boundary. 

And it when it reaches that stage it is going to take some real work to undo.  By the time a concern or fear reaches this point we’ve probably been stressing about it for a fair amount of time, and it has been scaring us all along the way.  We’re weary of being scared and worried, we just want it to stop, and when we build a Comfort Zone boundary around it we can (to some extent, since it hasn’t gone away) take a break from the “tiger” we’ve created in our thinking.  We stop thinking about it (mostly), we reflexively shut down and move away from the topic or fear when it is presented to us, and we (most importantly) usually stop then trying to solve the issue.  And, in addition to the topic itself being frightening, we’re also now pretty strongly conditioned to avoid the emotions and physical sensations that accompany the scary topic for us – a process which also begins back in the Indefinite Negative Future stage, but now has become just about as scary as the topic itself.

It is an elegant solution – you’re afraid, you build a boundary to protect yourself, and you (mostly) then stop being afraid, since you’re no longer thinking about or experiencing the feelings/sensations associated with the issue.  It is also the exact opposite thing from what we need to do.  Because, unlike a hot stove or crossing the street, the topic we’ve walled off is a problem we almost certainly need to address, to think through and resolve.  And we’re not going to do that unless we’re thinking about it!  Not thinking about it in crisis mode (holy crap, what am I going to do, this is really bad, this will be a disaster, etc.) thinking, but problem-solving thinking (what are my options, who can help me, what plans do I have to make, etc.)

This is easy to say – but it is much harder to do when a fear or anxiety reaches this stage in the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.  That doesn’t mean we can’t do it – not by a long shot.  But it will take some work and energy!  And there are other issues to contend with in the Comfort Zone that need to be taken into account as we approach that work.  More on that in my next post…

I’ve been eager to get to the blog this week.  I’ve had a number of conversations with both friends and coaching clients around the elements of the Fear Mastery map, and my thinking around how those elements interact and reinforce each other has seen some good progress.  Some of that thinking  has been about the Indefinite Negative Future.  It has been impressive and encouraging to hear how many people get traction on their racing thoughts and their anxiety with this single element of the map.  Nothing can suck the joy out of life quite so quickly or thoroughly as an unrelenting dark view of the future.  It gets worse when we’re mostly unaware that we’re generating such a view, and so we continue to live in that despairing, or even hopeless, state.

For example:  let’s say my buddy Max has just learned that he has been laid off from his job.  He is anxious, angry and frightened about the current job market, and so he moves into crisis mode.  He begins to worry about finding work.  His brain, responding to being on full alert (i.e., the flight or fight response) is both ruminating over past experiences where things have been bad/scary/worrisome, and projecting potential negative outcomes to his not finding a job right away (i.e., he is generating “what if” scenarios.)  He both narrows his remembering of the past to negative experiences, AND he imagines bad outcomes to his hunt for work. 

His options seem to narrow in his thinking, and he starts to focus on the worst/most frightening possibilities.  What if it takes months to find a job?  What if he runs out of savings?  What if he has to start tapping his 401k or retirement money?  What if he can’t pay his bills?  What if he can’t find a job at all?  What if he runs through all his money, including his retirement?  I suspect some of you reading here find your own anxiety rising as you read these sentences and begin your own cycle of worry and anxiety – easy to do these days!  Max begins to obsess over these indefinite negative futures he’s creating, and in turn he continues to scare himself, generate more flight or fight responses in his body (physical and emotional), continue to ruminate and worry, and as a result make himself more and more stressed and anxious.

Now it’s possible that Max finds a job the next day, or talks himself down with a good friend about how things are not that bad yet, or gets a grip himself because he remembers that the last time he was out of work new work showed up pretty quickly.  But it is just as possible (and probably more likely, for most people) that Max won’t stop obsessing over his indefinite negative future projections, and he will continue to be anxious and afraid as the days pass.  He will find himself exhausted and stressed beyond his capacity to sustain, and so he’ll begin moving to the next stage of the Fear Mastery map – anticipatory anxiety. 

At this point Max begins to push away the scary future he’s been conjuring for himself – he works to stop thinking about it.  In a very real sense he runs away from the scary future.  He might do a number of things – distract himself with other issues, avoid the topic in conversation, medicate himself (alcohol, hours of TV, video games, excessive exercise, you name it), and works to even avoid the physical and emotional sensations that he’s come to associate with that indefinite negative future.  He is desperate to do anything that will ease the constant pressure of the flight or fight response’s effort to resolve this crisis.  And this makes sense, since he’s trying to solve a problem like a crisis.  Remember that a crisis involves an IMMEDIATE risk for injury or death, you have to act on it NOW, and it has to be resolved QUICKLY.  Not a workable approach for someone out of a job, at least most of the time.  He’s physically, mentally and emotionally weary of being afraid/anxious, and so he starts to push it out of his mind, wall it away from his conscious thinking.  And he begins to anticipate feeling anxious, and in an effort to avoid that closes off the situations and discussions that might bring up the scary topic again.  He’s literally becoming anxious about becoming anxious.

This is a pretty ugly scenario.  And I believe this scenario is being played out by just about every member of the human race, on one subject or another.  So what will stop this madness?  The same thing that will stop it at any point in this Chronic Anxiety Cycle I’m describing – making the simple move from crisis thinking back to problem thinking.  I am NOT saying that will necessarily be easy!  Weeks, months and years of worry rarely unplug themselves in a few minutes.  By the same token we can begin to see immediate results if we’ll work to deliberately unplug the Flight or Fight Response in our bodies and minds.  In the very near future I will begin to outline the techniques that work best for different parts of this cycle.  But first I must outline how we get into the last stage of the cycle, the Comfort Zone.  This is the home of the strongest and most seemingly intractable fears we possess, and any discussion of what to do with fear and anxiety must include an understanding of the Comfort Zone and how it exerts control over our thinking and behavior.

I apologize for the long gap in postings!  I have been doing a huge amount of thinking, processing out loud with friends and writing about one of the elements of the Fear Mastery map I’ve created, the Comfort Zone.  That is still several blog posts away, but I can tell you that this has been a very fruitful and interesting couple of weeks, and I can’t wait to share with you what has been produced since my last writing here.

I promised last time that I’d discuss what happens when we let the “Worry Engine” get away from us.  Remember that the Worry Engine’s natural function (in the Flight or Fight Response) is to both pull useful information from your past experience (negative experiences that might have something to do with what you’re worrying about right now, in theory if not always in practice) and project possible scenarios about the future (again, to help you with the thing you’re worrying about – usually possible negative outcomes that you’ll want to avoid.) 

All of this works really well if you’re dealing with immediate, right now danger that could injure or kill you – a real crisis.  This doesn’t work however nearly as well when you’re dealing with a problem as if it was a crisis.  It doesn’t work as well because you’re NOT dealing with a life-or-death crisis.  Sure, it could become one further down the road (or it may not… all of us have had it work out both ways) but for the moment it is still a problem, requiring the thinking that problems require (see “Crisis vs. Problem”, 2/3/10 blog posting.)

So here you are, worrying your head off, remembering difficult or hard experiences from your past (that may in some way relate to what’s got you stressed right now) and you’re creating scenarios about the future – almost always negative scenarios.  If you recognize that you’re doing this the cleanest, most effective way to shake loose of your stress is to stop the Worry Engine in its tracks – shut it down.  Acknowledge that you’re trying to solve this problem as a crisis, and instead move this current dilemma back into the problem column.  Get a little distance, calm yourself down, do some deep breathing, and then come at the problem AS a problem.  Easy to say, sometimes harder to do – other factors can make it VERY hard for us to shut the Worry Engine down – more about that as we develop the map here in the blog (and include the Comfort Zone and its components – the place where are deepest and most stubborn worries/fears/anxieties call home.) 

If we don’t unplug the Worry Engine we will move onto what I call the Indefinite Negative Future, or INF.  At this point we have taken one or more of those negative scenarios from the Worry Engine and begun to treat it/them as if it were in fact accurate, a real map of the future.  Of course we don’t know for sure, and if we were not caught in a pattern of worry and anxiety we’d know that, but we are caught in such a pattern, and so we begin to treat the scenario as likely, or even certain.

And that generates some ugly side effects!  We are now in a very real sense constantly scaring ourselves with our INF projections, firing up the Flight or Fight response again and again, and dealing with the emotions and physical sensations of that response on an on-going basis.  And that gets pretty tedious, pretty fast.  Each of us has a set of responses to stress that we tend to favor, physically, mentally and emotionally.  We’ll discuss these in more depth when we get to the Comfort Zone, but this applies as well to our contact with our INF projections.  So if, for instance, when Flight or Fight fires up in you, you may feel sweaty palms and get frustrated easily.  Or you may develop a stutter and butterflies in your stomach.  Or you might feel fearful and a little dizzy.  All kinds of combinations are possible, and all are directly related to the physiological elements of Flight or Fight.  So when we have those sensations, feelings and thoughts we get anxious as well – and we keep having them when we ponder our Indefinite Negative Future. 

But wait – there’s more.   We feel trapped, boxed in by that INF, and that is scary all by itself.  The future looks pretty bleak (at least for this thing we’re worried about) and I have yet to meet anyone who likes feeling trapped.  Often we have a feeling or sense of impending doom, and that can come to dominate our thinking and our feelings.  Yikes!  Who needs that? 

And it gets wackier still!  Because it isn’t like we only generate one INF projection about only one topic.  No – we do this on multiple fronts, about multiple topics, and so we can have a number of INF’s floating around in our heads.  These can vary in intensity – some less frightening, some really scary – but each pulling our focus, our energy and our time.

Nobody wants to or can keep this up for very long.  Flight or Fight is a response mechanism that is not meant to be activated 18 hours a day.  It is meant for quick, rapidly resolved crisis situations.  The chemicals involved in this response in our body are quite literally toxins when they are pumped again and again into our bloodstreams – and there is a physical price to pay for that repeated exposure. 

At this point I’m sure some folks reading this are already starting to worry about how much they worry.  Cut it out!  You don’t need to go there.  The goal is to move away from the worry and anxiety that pushes so much of your thinking.  My primary goal with this blog, and the resulting eBook that I’m developing for this Fear Mastery map, is to provide the tools to stop treating problems like crises.  Next up on this blog I’ll review where we go when we lock onto an Indefinite Negative Future and dwell there for any length of time, and get us one step closer to the final home of fear and anxiety – the Comfort Zone.

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