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In my experience it is way, way too easy to get way too serious when we’re fighting anxiety. No big surprise here – when you’re constantly holding worry and fear at arm’s length the world can get kinda grey around the edges. We’re tired, and we’re grumpy, and we’re testy, and we just want it to STOP!

And, of course, Flight or Fight is nipping at our heels – we really SHOULD do something about this fear RIGHT NOW, or… something will happen – something bad – vague, unclear, but scary, therefore bad.

How does a body go about getting a break from that?

One Break, Comin’ Up…

1) Practice the deep breathing/full-body stretching I’ve advocated at other points in this blog. (References HERE) NOTHING is so serious (unless the house really is on fire or you really are about to drive off a bridge) that you can’t take 5 minutes and deliberately relax your body. I wonder some days how much better off we’d be as a race if did only this one thing.

Tension builds up in the body. It is completely natural. The chemicals that get us prepped for Flight or Fight are toxic in the long term – we need to get that stuff flushed out of our system. Deep breathing, full-body stretching, pilates, yoga – anything that gets us both stretching muscles and slowing down can only help us.

These won’t banish anxiety by themselves, not usually -but they are a great way to get a break –

2) Physical movement – yes, that dreaded word, EXERCISE. Too many of us see this word and envision a 4-hour run or lifting our body weight in iron at the gym. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about TAKING A WALK.

One of the challenges of the modern age is that we spend an enormous amount of time (many of us) sitting on our butts staring at computers or working at a desk. This just in: we didn’t evolve for computers or desks. We evolved for MOVEMENT. This may sound odd, but there were no computers until about 70 years ago. I know – shocking, right? 🙂

Physical movement does a couple of things – it gets our blood flowing (like stretching, but even better), and pulls us into the present moment – where we are now, as opposed to up in the hypothetical, scary future. Both these results help us get a break from the constant worrying and fretting and being afraid.

You’re not limited to walks. Ride a bike. Go for a hike. Go swimming. Dance in your living room (after you pull the blinds – neighbors get SO weird sometimes when they see people trying to be healthy.) DON’T think you have to set any records. DON’T worry if you don’t look like a fitness model. Just MOVE.

And there’s no limit to how often you can do this, not really. Take a 5-minute walk every hour if you’re stuck at a desk. Take a 15-minute walk at lunch. It can only do you good. One break, comin’ up… it won’t by itself usually break the power of anxiety over our thinking – but it can give us some breathing room.

3) Occupy your thinking/distract yourself. Distraction gets a bad name sometimes, and it certainly isn’t a way to overcome anxiety by itself. Distraction taken too far becomes “medicating” – i.e., seeking a way to avoid all the time the anxiety and fear we carry around, rather than take it on.

But distraction can be a great way to get a breather. Lose yourself in a book, movie, project, hobby, meal-making, painting, you name it – but pull your focus from your obsessive thinking. This isn’t a fix – it’s a mini-vacation from anxiety and worry.

4) Find reasons to laugh! Sometimes nothing works better than something funny, silly, light, to pull us out of everything-is-serious-I-can’t-ever-ease-up mode. TV Comedy, YouTube videos, movies, whatever works for you. Play silly group games. Have some fun with your kids, even when your worries are SCREAMING at you that you need to sit and worry about stuff.

Your worries are not going anyplace. They’ll be there when you get back. But that’s precisely the point: WORRYING about them isn’t taking you anywhere. Take a small worry vacation, then, when you come back, start UNPACKING your fears, rather than worrying about them.

I have a married couple in my life that are sweet, good friends to me.  They have both asked for coaching around dealing with anxiety in the last year.  One of them has seen some good progress in this work.  He’s developed the capacity to look at what is making him worried and fearful, deal with the alerts coming out of his Flight or Fight Response, and then do what he thinks is needed to unplug that concern.  He did some great work with this around both work problems (erratic boss, erratic work conditions) and a potential diagnosis of cancer.  As it turns out it was a false alarm, but he stood calm in the storm, and to a large degree did so with the tools of Fear Mastery.

While I’m very proud of my friend, and pleased with his success, I’m not writing this blog post to pat myself on the back for anything.  He did the work – I just provided the tools.  I’m writing this post because it is his significant other that I want to discuss.  She is every bit as smart as he is, and just as kind and gentle as he is.  (They’re a great couple of people, simply put.)  But they have a crucial difference, something she learned in her life that he didn’t, a particular kind of anxiety that may just be the most insidious anxiety possible.  She learned that she could only be safe IF she found something to worry about.

This particular anxiety has been surfacing a lot in the work I’m doing these days.  I’m calling it for the moment the habit of worry.  It is a very corrosive, draining fear.  I’m beginning to believe it is different from other specific fears/anxieties in that, in a very real sense, it is not seen AS a fear or anxiety.  If I’m afraid of cats, for instance, then once I confront my fear of cats, well, that fear is dealt with and done.  If I’m afraid of stuttering during a presentation, but unpack my fear and practice moving through it, then I can deal with it and not be afraid of it any more.

But fearing the lack of worrying, well, that has a different quality to it.  Because it isn’t about dealing with any SPECIFIC fear, per se.  It is about being afraid of not being afraid!  My friend and I have talked about this during our coaching work.  She has said yes, she sees that.  And she has worked hard to address some of her specific fears.  She has anxiety around the health and safety of her young son, she has worries about her husband and his stress at work, she has fears about the future for her family – she has a number of things she worries about.

The one fear that we haven’t been able to tackle with any success is her worry habit.  She has a deep, abiding fear that eternal vigilance is the only way to avoid disaster, avoid something terrible happening in her life.  And so when she confronts her worry habit her Comfort Zone REALLY fires up, working to make her run from the horrible things that she envisions when she thinks about letting go of worry.

I wonder how many people wrestle with this fear.  And what a fear to have to fight!  I also have to wonder if most people who fight any degree of chronic anxiety don’t, to some degree, wind up fighting this fear as well (although I don’t know that, and it will take some more time and study before I can know that.)  But I DO know that the answer is the same for this fear as it is for all the others.  It has to be addressed, unpacked, thought through before we have a prayer of being free of it.  Just like facing the fear of making a mistake in public speaking, fear of not worrying is just that – a fear, in our heads, and it is only as frightening as we make it.

It is a kind of magical thinking, and not the Harry Potter/happy kind of magic.  It is a conviction that we can ward off danger by the act of worrying about it.  And nothing could be further from the truth!  My friend moves from worry to worry in her mind, in her day, and gives away enormous amounts of energy in the process.  She addresses one fear, but then has to find something else to worry about, because, in her thinking, if she doesn’t, she’s inviting disaster.  Something bad will happen, and it wouldn’t have happened if she had just thought to worry about it.  She believes that eternal vigilance IS the price for her freedom…

But it is just the reverse.  Her freedom can only come when she decides that her WORRY isn’t helping anything, or anyone.  Her active thinking, her planning, her work, her problem-solving – these can all do useful things for her.  Her WORRY isn’t taking her anyplace.  Just like with every other fear in the world (that isn’t an actual tiger kind of fear) she has to face her thinking, ride out the storm of her Flight or Fight Response trying to get her to run (with all the attendant feelings and physical warning signals she’s come to be afraid of as well!) and then actually nail this simple truth: her worry isn’t helping.

This is hard.  It may be one of the hardest pieces of work in Fear Mastery I know.  But it is completely possible to do – I know from my own experience.  I reached this place too in my life – this ugly habit of having to find something to worry about.  It requires thinking through what you can actually DO about your particular concerns, not reflexively worrying, and not holding on to the Comfort Zone belief that WORRY will keep you safe.  It won’t.  It can’t.  Healthy concern, lucid thinking and whatever action steps you can take that make sense about a particular issue, that will help you.  Not worry.

One of the things that is the most insidious (I’ve always wanted to use that word in writing) about the Comfort Zone and our resulting fears is the way they drain us of hope.  When a fear takes up residence in our Comfort Zone, or even spends much time helping us generate some Indefinite Negative Futures, it becomes a black hole of energy.  As you already know from this blog that’s a natural result of our own natural inclination to look at the worst-case scenarios, as Flight or Fight attempts to help us escape from the thing that is frightening us.  It isn’t a survival trait to look at the roses when there’s a tiger roaring at our door. 

By the same token it isn’t a survival trait (for creatures with brains that can extrapolate dark futures from a problem we’ve turned into a crisis) to live in constant fear and worry.  It’s different for different people, obviously, depending on how much fear and worry is encroaching on their lives.  Some of us, those of us who have fought or are fighting chronic anxiety (every day seems stressful, and there are multiple things that have us anxious) or acute anxiety (panic attacks) feel like we never get a break – that there’s literally never a moment where we can just take a break from all that has us worried.  Some of us wander through our day and feel more or less pretty good, except when X or Y surfaces in our thinking, gets mentioned in our presence.  Then we might fight 20 minutes or an hour of worry, then manage to pack it away again, out beyond the walls of the Comfort Zone, and can forget about it again.

The point is ANY problem that we convert into a thing to fear and run from diminishes our personal power, and prevents us from acting in strength with that problem.  We literally stop clearly thinking about the problem, and move into a reactive and relatively non-thinking response to the issue.  You see this when you read stories about people trapped in real danger situations, and how sometimes they seem to make poor choices.  “Why”? we ask, safe in our comfortable chairs, reading the news.  “Why didn’t they do this, or this, instead?”  They did what they did because they were in life-or-death situations, and while the Flight or Fight Response was doing everything it was supposed to do in helping them attempt to escape that danger, they were not the problem-solving machines they could be if they were not reacting out of fear.

Now take that real danger situation and convert it into a problem-turned-crisis situation.  We’re still acting as if we’re facing hungry wolves, even though what we’re actually facing is a shortage of cash, or a relationship communication problem, or maybe a downturn in the economy.  When we abdicate our responses to Flight or Fight (and that is precisely what we are doing, abdicating) we give away the power to deal with and solve that problem.  And we (oddly enough) then feel weak, helpless, hopeless.

Here’s the good news: we can reclaim that power, that strength, anytime we choose.  Sure, the Comfort Zone is going to start shouting at us to sit down.  You bet that we’ll find ourselves summoning a dozen reasons why this isn’t the right time to deal with this problem – because of course converting it back into a problem to solve will mean facing it, and you’ve told your Comfort Zone this is just too freakin’ scary.  So you’ll have to crest briefly through the rush of feelings and sensations that usually accompany facing a fear.  And that’s another reason you’ll tell yourself not to do it – it’s a drag, or it’s scary, or you’re sick of those feelings, or whatever you tell yourself.  Or you’ll make a plan to do it this weekend, or next week, or after Christmas, or early in 2013 – anytime but right now.

Let me encourage you to take your power back NOW.  Don’t wait.  You won’t do this in a day.  But there really is no better time to start than right now.  (OK, if you are being attacked by angry wolves, wait until you’ve gotten clear of that – THEN face a Comfort Zone fear.)  Strength – freedom – power – they are only as far away as the edge of our Comfort Zone…

I have been focusing pretty intensely in this blog on the tools/techniques that will effectively begin to pull a person’s focus from reactive thinking and into healthy, proactive movement away from fear.  Today’s post is no exception, but moves in a slight different direction.  I want to talk today about making lucid decisions about the information we’re taking in from the world around us, and assessing that information as more or less useful to you as you move towards the mastery of your fears and anxieties.

In my checkered academic past I spent some serious time studying something called Radical Behaviorism.  Before you assume that means I was learning to build pipe bombs or anything let me clarify what that means.  I was at the University of Nevada, Reno, studying psychology under a guy named Willard Day.  Dr. Day was in turn a student of B.F. Skinner.  Skinner (for those of you who don’t know) was a fervent believer in the power of a person’s environment to influence, even control their behavior.  The bottom line is that Dr. Day was a brilliant, gifted thinker, and he gave me a remarkable gem of knowledge with this simple notion: the environment you live in, including the information you take in and process, has a remarkable degree of influence over how you think and feel.

That may seem blindingly obvious to you, and you’re wondering to yourself “this guy had to go to college to figure this out?”  Well, it is obvious.  Except that most of us are carrying around the notion that somehow we’re this bubble of autonomy, independent thinkers and actors on the stage of our lives, impervious (for the most part) to the thoughts and feelings swirling around us in our daily lives.  We watch the news about the up-and-down economy, we read the paper to find the latest murders and rapes where we live, we watch hours of television about dysfunctional families and endless personal drama on reality shows, we listen to our friends bitch and complain and shout their fears, we hear our parents worry about retirement and pensions and health, we rent DVD’s about serial killers and scary hotels, and then we wonder why we wrestle with hopelessness and anxiety.

So call me crazy, but I’m convinced that if you’re going to take the work of mastering fear and anxiety seriously you need to take (with equal seriousness) stock of what you’re pouring into your skull from the world around you.  I can already hear some people yelling something along the lines of “so what you’re saying is bury your head in the sand?  Act as if the world was this great happy place, and live in a fantasy?”  I’m not encouraging anyone to live in a fantasy.  I am encouraging all of us (whether we’re deep in the grip of anxiety or not) to consider thoughtfully if 30 minutes of Fox News is useful to you RIGHT NOW.  Maybe it’s time to consider what I’ve heard called a “news vacation.” 

Because, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, what Fox News (and CNN, and every other news channel except maybe ESPN) is doing is steadily feeding us a diet of reasons to be afraid of the Indefinite Negative Future.  What if this happens?  What if that happens?  Won’t it be horrible if this happens?  Suppose that happens?  Won’t that be awful and terrible and scary?  And, if you have been reading this blog, you’ll know that the Indefinite Negative Future is just that – in the future.  It hasn’t happened yet.  And every moment any of us spend living in the future is a moment we’re not here in the present, problem-solving, making decisions, working to create the future we’d like to have – nope, we’re giving away energy to fear and anxiety, afraid of what might be.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the future.  Just the reverse.  We should be.  We should be concerned enough about the future to DO something about it.  And that has to start with climbing off the wheel of Chronic Anxiety and treating problems as if they were problems, not life-and-death crises.  In case it isn’t clear by now it is our fears of the future that wind up shutting down a huge amount of our useful thinking and problem-solving skills, and leave us worrying and anxious and essentially running away from what frightens us.

There’s a great deal of power, peace and strength that comes from moving out of the future and into the present.  Sure, I’m free to sit and watch the news and get angry about a huge range of topics.  Yes, we’re in the middle of a recession (or at the end of one, or the beginning of the next one, or coming into a depression – depends on what news channel you’re watching.)  Lots of people have suffered and are suffering.  Yes, people are losing jobs and finding it hard to make ends meet.  Here’s a question – what is your fear and worry DOING for you, or for anyone else?  How does your 2-hour diatribe at the dinner table about how stupid the government is, or how bad things could really get, doing for anyone, including you?

It is insidiously tempting to sit and worry.  Worrying FEELS like we’re doing something.  And the news (TV, talk radio, weekly news magazines,, etc.) is a great source of things to worry about.  It seems some days that the sole focus of the news is to get us to worrying about the BIG issues.  But in fact we’re not doing a damn thing (pardon my French.)  We’re just worrying – burning energy and time and little else.  Doing, on the other hand, gets things done.  And what can YOU do about the recession?  Well, in the first place, you should be taking care of yourself in this recession.  You need to think through what you’ll do to keep money coming in, securing a job, or going back to school, or taking some money from your retirement account to tide you over while you change careers, or whatever makes sense to you.  (No bank robbing though – it may relieve some short-term anxiety, but guns and jails are really scary too.)   Then you can focus on helping the people around you.  Then you can think lucidly about who to vote for, and where you might do some good volunteering, or whatever you think are effective next steps.  But worrying doesn’t do any of this.  It just sits and frets over what might happen… endlessly.

Will the world burn to the ground if you don’t watch the news this morning?  This evening?  What horrible thing will happen if you skip the news for a week?  What would your thinking and feelings be like if you did that?  What if you gave that energy away to a 30-minute walk?  Or read something inspiring and motivating?  What if you called a friend and talked through your next steps to get you out of that recession stuff, instead of burning 30 minutes bitching about how awful things are?  How would that change your thinking?  How much more effective, how much more energetic, how much calmer would you be if you gave this a try?

Don’t take my word for any of this.  Take a test drive for yourself.  Consider what news, what TV, what internet sources are firing up the Worry Engine in you, and consider taking a break from those for a while.  They’ll be there if you feel the need to check in with them.  They are not going anywhere!  You take a vacation from work, don’t you?  And you sometimes take an evening for yourself, away from your family or Significant Other, don’t you?  Why not try a news vacation?

I took this for a test drive back in the winter of 2008-2009.  The stock market had just tanked, the news experts were sounding warnings of imminent disaster and economic collapse, and I had lost close to $40,000 of business in the consulting work I do in weeks.  I became pretty worried (as you might imagine.)   I had taxes to pay, bills to clean up, work to find and no clear way of doing it.  I spent some serious time being seriously worried – frightened is a better way to describe it.  Close to 2 months in fact.  And what did that do for me.  NOTHING.  Not a dang thing.  I burned the months of December and January of that winter, made a hash of the Christmas Holiday, was mad, sad and grumpy, and it didn’t do a thing for me.  And I realized that part of the problem was my watching CNN, and reading The Economist, and watching the daily fluctuations of the Dow Jones.  So I took a break, just stepped away from the habit of soaking up the daily news, for 30 days.  And it was nothing short of remarkable how much it impacted my thinking and feelings.  (Yes, I know – I’m the guy who studied this stuff in college.  Sometimes you have to take the class over again, right?)  I haven’t given up on the news or anything.  I still check in once or twice a week, sometimes less, to make sure I haven’t missed something really important.  So far I haven’t.  And my thinking is much more focused on what I can DO, the practical things that I can apply myself to, and much less focused on all the things I can’t control, but could give away lots more lifespan worrying about.

Is it time for a news holiday for you?  Take the week off!  You’ve earned it!  The world really will keep spinning around the sun without you to worry about it for a little while.  And it can be a very, very effective way of moving out of the future (that place full of hypothetical fears and disasters) and into the present (that place of effective work, clear thinking and useful problem-solving.)

Please forgive my long silence here on this blog.  It has been a remarkable (and difficult) 3 weeks since my last post.  In that post I promised more examples about how thinking is what drives our feelings around fear, and more about how to deal with those feelings and unpack the thinking that causes it in the first place.  This is especially important to me at the moment because of the loss of a close friend of mine (which I only learned about last Friday, but happened in mid-July.)  He took his own life after months (and really years) of dealing with chronic anxiety and fear.

Let me tell you a little about my friend (I’ll call him “B” here for ease of reference.)  B was a smart, sensitive, people-oriented kind of guy.  He loved getting time with friends, going out to dinner, just shooting the breeze and hanging out with people he cared about.  He was a talented artist – had painted for years and years, even as he discounted his own creative gifts.  He was compassionate, hopeful and invariably making sure the person he was with was comfortable and happy.

At the same time B was afraid.  He was in his middle 50’s, doing work he didn’t mind (teaching at a vocational school) for an administrative team he hated and feared (believe me, those words are not too strong to describe his feelings.)   He was worried deeply about having enough money to retire, so he felt he couldn’t leave his job, or even change jobs – yet he wanted to flee his job.  He despised the house he owned, and wanted to move, but was afraid that he wouldn’t find anything he liked more.  He wanted desperately to leave the country he lived in and move to Spain – there to teach English as a second language, and paint, and live near the sea.   But he was afraid of traveling alone, afraid of running out of money, afraid that he’d blow it somehow, afraid he’d have to return to teaching at the school he worked at… afraid.  Very, very afraid.

There were two key issues that B was fighting.  1) He was literally living in the indefinite negative future (see my posts about this here on the blog from earlier in the year) and so was constantly generating fear about the maybe’s and what if’s that he was projecting onto that future, and 2) he was dealing with profound feelings of stress and anxiety that tended to overwhelm him and shut him down.  He talked often of how he just wished the feelings (and physical sensations they helped generate, in his case nausea, lack of sleep and restlessness) would just go away – then he could get on with his life.  He insisted that it was all but impossible to do any work towards shaking free of his fear until his feelings eased off.  At the same time he slowly retreated from his entire life – friends, work, going out to eat, everything – until, at the end, he was almost completely housebound. 

It is important to note here that B was treated again and again by medical and mental health care professionals.  He was given a variety of medications, given in-patient and out-patient care, given therapy, you name it.  This went on across years, and while some (but not all) of the medications did provide some temporary relief they didn’t (and couldn’t) change his thinking and the fear that thinking generated for him.   And while the therapy and reading he did gave him some new perspectives they still didn’t take him to a place where he faced into his fear, saw his feelings and physical responses as simply the result of his Flight or Fight response powering up, and then unpacked the assumptions/thinking he was focused on that generated the fear in the first place.  THIS IS CRUCIAL.

This is crucial because you have to do all three if you want to move past the fear and anxiety.  Simply facing your fear doesn’t promise freedom.  Sometimes, yes, just acknowledging that you’re afraid can help end small concerns, or things that haven’t blow up yet into major fears.  But more often all this does is remind of us how afraid we are, and Flight or Fight again powers up and we’re off and running.  And it usually isn’t enough to just unpack your thinking – yes, this or that fear isn’t real, yes, I’m living in the indefinite negative future – because if you keep it academic/abstract in your thinking you are still unlikely to do anything that will trigger the Flight or Fight response – and so nothing changes.

Let me be very clear – depression and chronic anxiety (including panic attacks) are brutal.  As someone who has dealt with all of them I can tell you it is literally hell.  I am not in any way diminishing what B was fighting.  I AM saying that his fear and the resulting feelings and physical sensations are simply extreme examples of what EVERYONE deals with when they are afraid.  And the answer to that is the same, regardless of the intensity.  B was afraid of the future.  He was afraid of the feelings and sensations that his fear generated in him.  And those fears shut him down and, finally, killed him.

It is very hard to write those words.  There is no way to express here how much I miss him, how sad and angry I am.  I am angry because his life being over is a vast waste.  I’m angry because he won’t produce any of the art he was capable of – won’t live in Spain – won’t walk sandy beaches and savor his life and his days.  I’m sad because I didn’t find the right words to say, didn’t find the key in these discussions that could have helped him finally face into his fears, his assumptions, and win free of them, win back his life, and take his life in the direction he wanted to go.  I miss my friend, miss him terribly.

But the point I’m looking to drive in this blog post, more than anything else, is that a crucial mistake B made (and which most of us continue to make) is that he was waiting for the feelings to ease off so he could get on with what he wanted to do.  And that is exactly backwards – the feelings will ease off ONCE we face into them, unpack what’s generating them in the first place.  Feels counter-intuitive – the Comfort Zone is screaming at us to STOP, not move, stay put.  But that’s exactly what we shouldn’t do.  And it is (I’m convinced) what finally killed B.

Thankfully most of the people I know, friends and clients and colleagues and such, will never reach this place.  But having said that I also know that most of them are limited/shut down in crucial ways for the same reasons – they are afraid of their projections of the future, and they are afraid of the warning signals of the Comfort Zone.  So they remain frozen, unable to move, wanting their freedom and afraid of taking it. 

Next up (and much sooner, I promise) more on the tools to shake free of fear and get on with our life…

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.

I’ve received some great feedback on my blog so far – my thanks to everyone who has had things to say either here or by email.  It is pretty great to hear that people are getting traction from the idea that turning problems into crisis is NOT the way to solve problems!  I’ve got a LOT more to say about this… (see my last post about the details of this notion.)

Because it has become my conviction that once a person shifts into crisis mode to deal with a problem they begin a process I’m calling the Chronic Anxiety Cycle.  Or, as my friend Dale calls it, Perpetual Flight.  This process begins from one of the elements of the natural Flight or Fight Response we have to deal with crisis.  When we perceive danger, real or imagined, part of that response is to comb our memories (VERY quickly) for relevant information we have from past experience in dealing with this crisis.  I’m looking at a tiger, for example, so my brain rapidly sorts past tiger experiences to get the best approach to running or fighting.  Great tool in that context, no question!  In addition we rapidly generate scenarios with what we know in order to escape the tiger – we essentially start asking ourselves “what if?” questions.  Again, highly useful in the advent of a crisis…

But when you do this with a problem (something that can’t be solved, most likely, right in the moment, and it will take some time and work to resolve) then this trying to recall earlier dangers becomes a liability.  I call it the Negative Thinking Mechanism, or the “Worry Engine.”  We begin to start thinking “what if”, and the slant is always towards the negative – what happens if this bad thing occurs?  What are the expected outcomes?  We very rarely start projecting sunny and hopeful outcomes – we instead extrapolate negative outcomes.  Makes sense – running into tigers rarely results in happy outcomes.  That makes us more worried, so we do it again, and that increases our worry, so we do it again, etc. 

One of the ironic outcomes of all this projecting is that we step out of the present – we are either reliving previous negative experiences or focused on frightening or unnerving future scenarios.  We are NOT being where we are, right now.  Yet our bodies really only get right now – so regardless of what is upsetting you, your body will continue to generate flight or fight responses – more adrenaline, more preparing to fight or run, more physical and emotional responses designed to gear you up for whatever this danger is.  Only there IS, in this moment, no danger.  There IS a problem or problems to solve, but we are in crisis mode. 

As I said in my last blog post we are not in our most useful problem-solving condition when we are in crisis mode.  Which doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes solve the problem with our crisis response.  Sometimes it works.  And a great deal of the time it doesn’t work.  Whether it works or not the stress on our bodies and minds is much greater than if we don’t approach a problem as a crisis.  And even if we do resolve the problem via crisis mode we almost certainly haven’t accessed our best information, resources, or thinking to do so. 

And, of course, many times the problem continues to grow and get larger (in our thinking), so we worry some more about the problem and the scenarios we are creating around potential outcomes.  If we keep it up long enough we move on further into the Chronic Anxiety Cycle, which in turn takes more energy and increases the drain on our brains and bodies.  If we don’t disrupt this cycle here we begin to set ourselves up for long-term anxiety (i.e., chronic anxiety) and the resulting problems that creates for us.  More about that in the next couple of weeks.  In my next posting I will give you some examples from my own and other people’s experiences around this crisis-problem discussion, and what happens when we start feeding the Worry Engine.

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