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I did a little time in my last post outlining some very basic features of the Flight or Fight Response, as well as how that danger management system in our bodies can take us sideways when we’re not actually dealing with physical danger.

I will finish up my discussion of Flight or Fight in this post, including some examples from my own and other people’s experience. I will also talk about specific work to continue “discounting” our anxiety and fear in the experiencing of those Flight or Fight symptoms that tend to freak us out…

Enter the Dark Side of Flight or Fight

So let’s go back to the physical responses of Flight or Fight. I know for myself that one of the things that used to rock my world during my fight with anxiety was extremity numbness (mostly in my fingers and hands.)

It scared the crap out me. Why was this happening, and what if it didn’t stop? It seemed weird, and unnatural, and I was really afraid it wouldn’t stop.

But of course it DID stop, all the time – I was just afraid, deeply afraid of it. And of course it happened when I was really worried or afraid, although often I was completely unaware, or only vaguely aware, that I was battling anxious/fearful thoughts.

Another way to say this is that it SEEMED like I was having that particular sensation, numbness, for no reason at all. I would be driving to work, I would be reading a book, I would be eating dinner, and suddenly my finger and hands are tingling, or I’m holding something and suddenly it feels small or light or I can’t feel it at all.

That scared me. There’s no other way to say it. Not only did it seem to come from nowhere, but the sensations made me think it would just keep coming , and my fear asked “what if, this time, it doesn’t stop? Or what if I have to deal with this for the rest of my life?”

It is important to also mention that the minute – literally the minute – my attention/obsessive worry about numbness or some projected scary future event was pulled into the present the numbness faded and stopped. I think about this now and I shake my head. I had clues the whole time, I just didn’t know how to put them together…

But Wait, There’s More

Another thing I used to fight was a terror (not too strong a word) of the dizziness and vertigo I’d sometimes feel when I was very afraid/anxious. As bad as the numbness was, to me this was worse.

It had begun when I was very young, in Junior High, and again it seemed like it was something completely abnormal, weird, wrong, malfunctioning, and it scared me.

This even extended to just a sense of lightheadedness – like when you stand up too quickly, for example. Or anytime I was fighting congestion from sinus trouble – allergies or a cold – I ran the risk of having this scary sensation.

So anytime I even began to feel a little bit numb, or a little bit dizzy, I could ramp myself up with a LOT of anxious worrying about what if this time it didn’t stop, what if this time it just kept going on and on and on… I suspect you know pretty much what I’m talking about.

This single symptom more than any other would lead me to end conversations, leave a movie theatre or a party, freeze up at work, and worst of all, work to avoid going to bed at night (when it was most likely to happen to me.)

Why at bedtime? Because of course that’s when I had the least to occupy my thinking, so the Worry Engine thinking could REALLY fire up…

Let me say again that I had had moments/situations where I had been numb, or dizzy, and was freaking myself out, only to be distracted by something, and then those sensations would stop. One of the key elements in this conversation is that half the battle (or more) with our fear of Flight or Fight symptoms is disconnecting the obsessive worry ABOUT those symptoms!

Nothing Abnormal Here…

I wish all to hell that someone, anyone had said at some point, “Hey, there’s nothing weird going on here. You are firing up Flight or Fight, and your body/feelings/mind are responding in ways that make perfect sense in that situation.”

And while I finally found some information that partially communicated that message (when I finally stumbled across someone who was working with anxiety and panic attacks) the message could have been a WHOLE lot clearer, a whole lot sooner.

And to be completely frank even after I found that therapist (a wonderful, compassionate, smart guy) this could have been driven home much earlier and much more effectively. Which would have in turn shaken me free of my fear a great deal faster.

You have your own preferred responses to Flight or Fight, right? Sure you do. And I’m betting, to some extent, they freak you out. Hear me now when I say that 1) You get scared of your body/feelings/mental responses – I get it – and 2) there’s nothing freaky about the responses per se. They are normal, everyday, natural human things, just the outcomes of Flight or Fight firing up.

I’m not saying that you’ll stop being afraid of your body/feelings/mental responses just with my telling you there’s nothing weird or scary in those responses. No, it takes some deliberate effort and practice on our parts to bust that apart, that fear and worry.

One of the things that convinced me that these were caused BY me (my thinking) was when I finally put together that they often, even usually, went away when I was distracted. This was a HUGE clue that I still look for today to determine if something is “real” or not.

Other Examples

It is amazing to see the range of Flight or Fight reactions that can rattle our cage. I have one friend who blushes like you’ve never seen when he’s anxious/worried/angry. He can feel the heat in his face and skin when he does that, and the moment he feels that he is climbing a tree (metaphorically), anxious to get away from whatever situation is making him respond that way.

He is, btw, VERY afraid of looking stupid or less than perfectly competent, and after we had some conversations two years ago he began to map that Flight or Fight Response to those moments where he was worried or anxious he might drop the ball (mostly at work, sometimes with his in-laws).

But more importantly he also started “discounting” the importance of his blushing – he stopped making THAT something he was afraid of, in addition to the worries/fears that were causing that response in the first place.

I know a former co-worker (from my teaching days) who starts to stutter when she is worried or anxious. She immediately gets even more anxious and worried when she is stuttering, and that just feeds the cycle for her. She used to get SO MAD when she stuttered! It would have been laughable if it hadn’t clearly been so frustrating for her!

She has told me as we’ve discussed this that initially she couldn’t bring herself to practice not getting upset when she stuttered. Wouldn’t people think she was an idiot for stuttering? Wouldn’t her students think she was dumb or stupid or something?

She could really talk herself into a frenzy if she even mispronounced a word (something everybody does) or talked too quickly and got tongue-tied (something she often did in her haste to get the words out before she would, God forbid, stutter!)

She has, however, with some practice and time, begun to stop letting the stuttering bug her so much. I will never forget the phone call the afternoon she realized that she had started to stutter in a staff meeting.

She stopped, took a deep breath, told herself that it didn’t really mean anything when she stuttered (as colleagues looked her quizzically and waited for her to start again) and then, a few minutes later, realized that she had 1) forgot she was worried about stuttering and 2) had stopped stuttering.

Interesting, yes?

Practice Makes Perfect

Bottom-line: Flight or Fight is just trying to do its job when we get worried or afraid, and we don’t have to be afraid of our Flight or Fight Response.

So what then to DO?

1) Get very clear on your own particular, preferred Flight or Fight symptoms. Mine are extremity numbness, fingers and hands mostly, and dizziness/vertigo. (I occasionally wrestle with an upset stomach too.) What are yours? Work to both identify them and just let them be what they are.

This can be scary work at the start! Just thinking about those responses sometimes can be unnerving – we often associate panic and worry with just the symptoms. That’s OK – practice makes perfect, and this takes some practice.

2) Remember that it is our thinking 99% of the time that is starting up those Flight or Fight reactions, and if it isn’t, well, something else in your body is generating that response. In ALL circumstances however those reactions don’t have any meaning IN THEMSELVES. They are just reactions. Period. They don’t signal disaster. They signal that YOU ARE AFRAID.

3) As you identify your particular favorites (if that’s the right word!) and begin to practice “discounting” their meaning you can then begin to practice experiencing them and continue that “discounting” practice. That’s called by the psychology folks “desensitization” and it is exactly the right thing to do.

That means deliberating exposing yourself to those reactions in situations where you KNOW that nothing bad is going to happen – home, safe in your bed, or in a chair, or taking a walk, or whatever works.

This is another example of what I call Triad Work – decide to face the scary thing (in this case, the Flight or Fight reaction that makes you scratchy), practice riding out the actual reaction for a little bit (30 seconds, 1 minute to start) and then practice unpacking your fear – in this case, that the reaction has any meaning other than just you’re afraid.

You’ll Get There!

This isn’t anything you can (usually) do in one sitting. It takes some time and effort. You’ll probably have better and worse practice sessions at the start of things, and you’ll have moments where suddenly you’ll have the particular reaction surface and scare the crap out of you. It is certainly what happened to me.

That’s OK. We have usually spent long months, years or even decades telling ourselves how scary this Flight or Fight reaction is – it will take some time to unpack. Be patient with yourself. Don’t try to do this all at once.

And you will be blown away at the progress you can make in reducing your fear of your Flight or Fight responses. Don’t take my word for it – try it.

Hey Fear Mastery Folk! Starting a new video blog post series today on what I wish I had known when I was in the middle of my fight with anxiety and panic attacks. Even if you don’t fight anxiety at that level I think you’ll find these thoughts useful. There are some basics that ANY of us can use in our work to be masters of our fears and worries –

Also experimenting a little with the flipcam I’m using, so PLEASE let me know if you have any issues with volume or how it looks. Thanks! Happy Friday Fear Fighters!

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…

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…

In this blog across the last couple of months I have worked to paint a clear and detailed picture of the nature of the Comfort Zone, how it maintains our fears/anxieties, and  how it works to keep us from doing anything about them.  With this blog post I am starting a discussion about what the heck to do about the fears maintained by the Comfort Zone – both how to unplug that fear and anxiety, and how to do so in the face of frightening thoughts and feelings that go along with those attempts.

At the heart of all of our fears and anxieties that don’t stem from actual physical danger (i.e., crossing a street without looking both ways, or jumping into a tiger cage at the zoo) is the reality that we’ve taken a problem (i.e., a concern or issue that engages our thinking, invariably about the future and a potential outcome in that future) and turned it into a crisis.  Everything we experience around fear and anxiety stems from this starting point.  Let me remind you that your brain does not need to be in the presence of actual, physical danger to start the Flight or Fight Response in you.  All that’s necessary is that you THINK that something bad or scary is about to happen, and that’s enough to activate the response.

So the first leg of the “triad” of basics around how to unplug your fear is exactly this: getting clear that you’ve turned a problem into a crisis, and deciding to turn back again into a problem.  It is very important that this statement not be read as “there’s nothing wrong with you – it’s all in your head.”  I get this reaction constantly from coaching clients, and I had this reaction myself (not said as clearly, but aiming in the same direction.)  It does mean that what IS wrong is HOW we’re thinking about something, as opposed to the actual danger of the thing we’re thinking about.  This is a crucial difference!

And of course this isn’t enough.  For most people, regardless of the fear they are wrestling with, just the thinking about the problem-turned-crisis is enough to start the physical and emotional responses of the Flight or Fight Response, and that in turn is often more than enough to stop us in our tracks.  We’re very often not even aware that we’ve veered off – we had the thought, considered the fearful thing, we experienced the physical and emotional discomfort of whatever our usual response to stress/fear might be (sweaty palms, racing heart, upset stomach, anger, terror, etc.) and we step away – all in seconds. 

So the second leg of this “triad” of basics is to DIS-count (i.e., correctly value) the sensations and feelings we’re experiencing when we’re afraid and anxious.  I believe this is what stops the vast majority of us from facing our fears – we’ve learned across years and decades that those feelings and sensations are signaling real danger, when in fact they are ONLY signaling that we’re frightened of something.  This doesn’t mean that there’s something weak about us, or that we’re messed up somehow – just the reverse.  Clearly your biology is working just the way it is supposed to when you have a fear response to something you’ve decided is scary!  What is off-kilter is the value we assign to a feeling or physical sensation during Flight or Fight – that’s what we’re working to correct.

These first two legs of the basics sound simple (if somewhat scary by themselves!) when written out, but when applied take a little practice and time.  Remember that the Comfort Zone’s sole purpose is to keep you away from the scary thing you’ve walled off there, and it is just obeying your orders when it works to steer you away from thinking about that scary thing.  This is a skill-set, like anything else we learn to do, and it will take some practice and some time.  Part of what will determine how much practice and time is the relative size/importance of the scary thing you’re addressing, and part of it will be your growing experience at facing into Comfort Zone issues. 

Next blog post – more on the “triad”, as well as specific examples of using that set of basic tools can look like in practice.  Remember – you don’t have to stay shut down by fear and anxiety!

As you might be able to tell from the last few blog postings I’m deep in the middle of a conversation about the Comfort Zone (that place we build to keep us away from our fears and anxieties.)   I am having a parallel conversation with my coaching clients on this exact topic.  One of the big (if not in fact biggest) issues I find myself returning to again and again is how the Comfort Zone (really, all the elements of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle) trigger the Flight or Fight Response, which in turns leads to powerful 1) emotions and 2) physical sensations.  (See “The Comfort Zone, Part II”, 2/24/10.)  It is my conviction that most people, even when they understand intellectually that they are facing fears and anxieties that can’t do them harm in the present moment, find those emotions and sensations so daunting and frightening that they simply turn and run – precisely what the Flight or Fight Response wants us to do.

It is important to recall the crucial differences between a crisis and a problem, as articulated in this blog earlier in the year.  (See “Crisis vs. Problem”, 2/3/10.)  The Flight or Fight Response developed as a mechanism to get us clear of danger – real, present moment danger – PERIOD.  That means 1 of 2 things: either you are running/escaping danger (preferred, since if you run and get away you’re uninjured – great survival tactic!) or turning to fight (if you can’t run and MUST face this danger, and of course then risk getting injured or killed.)  This mechanism doesn’t depend on thinking for the most part – in fact thinking can too often get in the way of running or fighting. 

So the Flight or Fight Response has, as part of its bag of tricks to get you moving NOW, powerful emotions to trigger behavior on your part, and accompanying physical sensations that are products of both the physiology of Flight or Fight (adrenaline, cortisol.)  And these feelings and sensations are sending strong, urgent, frightening messages that something is WRONG, and you better do something about it NOW – preferably run.

It can be overwhelming, that rush of anxiety and fear.  The most recent literature about the Flight or Fight Response and the brain indicates that we are literally hard-wired to go from perception of danger (real or imagined) and the Flight or Fight Response.  We’re going to feel those feelings because that is a big part of what will get us moving in the presence of real, right-now danger.  And in those first moments of the rush of emotions we’re not necessarily thinking very well – in fact most of us are suffering some degree of loss of our critical thinking, calm analytic skills in that rush.  For me the emotions that were most frightening were general anxiety and a deep sense of personal unworthiness.  Those feelings shut me down hard and fast, and had me moving away from whatever thoughts had triggered those feelings.  I was literally afraid to feel those feelings, so I worked hard to stop them when they started.  Other people might experience anger, terror, guilt, embarrassment, shame, sadness – you name it.  Whatever your individual experience is the temptation is to get away from those feelings as quickly as possible.

And the physical sensations we experience are powerful as well.  We’ve linked those sensations to being afraid, and that in turn reinforces the Comfort Zone boundaries we’ve created to keep us away from whatever thing we’re afraid of.  Each of us has specific sensations that rattle our cages, all products of what the Flight or Fight Response is doing to our bodies to get us ready to run or do battle.  In my own case the sensations that shook me up were vertigo/dizziness and numbness in my hands and arms.  Even the mildest start of these sensations warned me I was thinking about something scary, and that in turn (for over 20 years) had me shutting down those thoughts and moving away from the context I was in at that moment pretty quickly.  They were just too scary to spend any time experiencing.  That’s good news when we’re talking about avoiding something that can cause us real physical harm, like playing on the freeway or running with scissors.  It doesn’t serve us at all when it leads us to avoiding problems that we’re treating like crises. 

Any mix of physical sensations is possible.  I’ve taught presentation skills for a number of years, and I’ve heard students and clients report it all.  Some report nausea and tingling in their fingers.  Others mention breaking into a cold sweat and having “cotton-mouth” (saliva production shutting down.)  You pick the combination and some group of people is experiencing it.  Add on top of these physical sensations the rush of emotions that are supposed to get you moving away from danger, and you’ve got a pretty powerful combination.

Now mix in that the Comfort Zone’s primary purpose is to keep us away from the “tiger” that we’ve created around this problem we’ve made into a crisis, keep us from not being aware of the scary thing we’re avoiding, and a large part of the time we’re not even aware that we’re running!  This parallels what happens when we’re confronted by danger in the physical world.  Most of the time we’re in motion away from danger before we’re even aware of it – a great strategy if you’re being chased by a tiger, but not as useful when you’re running from a problem you need to think through and address. 

And doesn’t this speak to most of our experience about not confronting our fears and pushing past our Comfort Zone boundaries?  Sure, we’d like to move past our fears, face our anxieties and get control over this thing we’re afraid to work through.  As long as we don’t feel those scary feelings and physical sensations this sounds like an outstanding idea.  But the moment we begin to experience those feelings and sensations it is remarkable how fast that idea sounds like a really BAD idea, how quickly we’re changing the topic, shutting down the conversation, and moving away to something less frightening.

Which, a great deal of the time, leads to a sense of helplessness, frustration and even despair.  We start to feel powerless in the face of these fears we have, and it seems like a no-win scenario.  Which in turn is frightening, and so we move even further away from the thing we’re afraid to face.  What’s the solution? 

Part of the answer lies in deciding to do two things:  1) Recognizing that the feelings and sensations we’re experiencing, however unnerving or scary, are in fact only feelings and sensations.  Yes, they can be VERY, very unnerving, even show-stopping.  We’ve given a lot of time and energy to building a big Comfort Zone boundary to keep us away from this problem we’ve been treating like a crisis, and at the start it can seem crazy to even talk about this.  But in fact they are only feelings and sensations.  They themselves can’t hurt us, however much we’re afraid of them.  2) Work to convert this crisis we’ve created back into a problem, which is the heart of the reason we’re afraid in the first place.  Work in this direction will begin to unplug the indefinite negative futures we’ve created around this problem, and that in turn begins to give access to the very capacities we need to solve the problem – our lucid thinking, our ability to problem-solve and analyze issues, and the freedom to take steps to do something about what’s making us afraid. 

In my next post I will discuss 1st-level techniques to begin this work, ways to throttle back those feelings and sensations.

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