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When you are someone who has experienced the fight with anxiety you can, after a while, feel pretty beat up. It can like seem like an endless uphill climb, this struggle to change crisis thinking to problem-solving, this relearning what our Flight or Fight responses actually mean, this journey into brand-new levels of self-learning and self-care.

That beat-up feeling isn’t helped by how hard we can be on ourselves. As I’ve pointed out in other blog posts we who battle anxiety tend to have pretty fierce personal standards (whether we’re clear on that consciously or not about ourselves.) We can start to feel like the world’s biggest failure. Everyone around us seems to have their act together. Why can’t we get there, we ask ourselves?

We can wind up feeling ineffectual, weak, lost and living a life that is more like flailing than living. We can feel like losers. And as if we weren’t already having a hard time we get to cart THAT thinking around as well. How do we combat that thinking?

Maybe We Need a Fresh Perspective

One place to start might be a reminder of just what this fight with anxiety is about – or, rather, where it starts. It starts with some less-than-useful thinking. And right away we can get ourselves in trouble, because we must be failures since we don’t think clearly or correctly, right? Ugh! NO! Every human being has to LEARN to think. We have the hardware (our brains), but the software doesn’t come with the system…

We have to learn how to think. And while most of us have had something in the way of a formal education (i.e., been to school) it is pretty appalling to consider just how haphazard our thinking education really has been.

Tough Guy 2

For example, one person learns to take chances socially – chat people up, talk to relative strangers, risk rejection, and not see it as anything big or scary. Another person learns to be tentative around people, to be afraid of social rejection, to learn to NOT talk to people unless they feel perfectly safe. Is there a curriculum someplace about social anxiety? Hardly. Nope, it is pretty random, pretty much dependent on the roll of the dice…

What and who roles those dice? It’s quite a list! Our parents figure largely, of course. They, mostly unintentionally, transmit their courage AND their fears to us, and we are more or less helpless in the face of that transmitting. Then there’s whatever traumas we’ve suffered in our family, if we have, or the traumas we’ve suffered in our lives – and only heaven knows if we had the necessary skills to deal with those effectively. Many of us did not, at least at the time…

And we can’t forget the expectations we pick up from the world around us – family, school, friends, work, church, you name it. Those expectations can become a mighty burden – what we expect from ourselves, what is “good” behavior, what measure success or failure, etc.

ALL of that and more gets jammed into our brains, and 99% of it is nothing we ever consciously review, think through or question. It JUST is. So our thinking can easily, very easily become a fertile seed-bed for anxious thoughts.

The bottom-line? We who fight anxiety are contending with a lifetime of less-than-optimal thinking forced on us, as well as an often limited set of skills in sorting out and challenging that thinking.

So before we go trashing ourselves we might consider how hard we’ve worked to keep our heads above water DESPITE our anxious thinking. We’re clearly made of tougher stuff than we usually give ourselves credit for…

And the Fun Doesn’t Stop There

Of course we haven’t had to just endure whatever problem-turned-to-crisis thinking that’s haunted us for the last X number of years – we’ve also had to face through and deal with the physical and emotional barrage of Flight or Fight. And that’s hardly been a cakewalk…

Nope, we’ve had to endure sleepless nights, nameless dread, bodies that feel/seem out of control, profound despair and depression, panic attacks, seemingly weird physical reactions – it’s been a real party. We’ve twitched away from situations that risked us experiencing those feelings and sensations, which meant we’ve lost out on good times, job opportunities, trips we’ve wanted to take, etc.

Tough Girl 1

We’ve also isolated ourselves, wanting to just FEEL BETTER, and not wanting to have to explain or justify our “weird” behavior to other people. We’ve sat in quiet (or loud) suffering, feeling trapped and scared and mad and deeply, deeply frustrated at what felt like life passing us by.

We’ve worried that we’re going crazy, or that our bodies are just going to suddenly give out on us, or that we have some weird, unusual disease or physical problem that the doctors can’t find (but which we KNOW is there – at least our fear is certain that something is there.) We’ve spent a lot of money on physical examinations and therapy programs and medication and stuff we found online and who knows what else.

We’ve wanted to SCREAM with frustration, dig a hole and bury ourselves in it, find an alternate universe were there was no such thing as anxiety and panic and depression. Between our bodies, our feelings and our relentless self-criticism for not “being stronger” or “just getting over it” we are under all-but-constant bombardment. Weak? Wimpy? Really? I don’t think so!

And We Were Doing (or ARE Doing) All of This While Attempting to Live Our Lives…

Maybe we’d have some room to trash ourselves if we just sat around eating bon-bons while we were dealing with anxiety. But no, we’ve been BUSY while we’re having this largely-invisible-to-others firefight with anxiety.

We’ve been, many of us, still holding down a job! That job might be earning money in a company or working for ourselves, or it might be raising one or more kids (which I’m convinced is probably the hardest job in the world of terms of sheer number of hours spent AT work…) So we get to fight anxiety and still have responsibilities to other people, still have to produce decent work product, most (or all) days of the week.

We’ve still paying bills (if we’re not to the point where we’re in a corner just trying to avoid ANYTHING that will make us anxious.) We’re still dealing with the mundane tasks of food shopping and house-cleaning.

Or we might be caring for elderly relatives or parents, or dealing with real physical challenges of our own on top of anxiety. We might be dealing with house foreclosures or traveling out of town for work or finishing school in one form or another.

The point is that we’re NOT just sitting around, however hard we are on ourselves, however much we think other people think we’re lazy or not trying hard enough! We are still in the world, still dealing with living in the world, along with trying to find ways to cope with our anxiety.

We’re Much, Much Stronger Than We Give Ourselves Credit For…

Maybe it’s time to start looking at ourselves just a little more honestly. It might even be time to acknowledge that we’re pretty damn tough. We don’t give up, however much we FEEL like giving up, however much things seem unbearable at any given moment.

Tough Guy 1

We are, in fact, survivors. Maybe it’s time to just say that to ourselves, and realize that, whatever we’re afraid of, we have ALREADY demonstrated that we have the stamina, the energy and the determination to face our fears and worries down and deal with them.

All we need are some effective tools and maybe a little support as we tackle our anxiety. We need to learn to do better thinking. We need to learn to see Flight or Fight for what it is, not what it feels like. We need to learn to do self-care, in multiple ways. We need to be honest with ourselves and our fears, not run away from them.

We’ve already demonstrated that we are remarkably durable, remarkably stubborn. We are MORE than capable of winning the fight against anxiety. We’re survivors. We’re fighters.

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.

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