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Fear sucks. It has a terrible way of taking over our lives, despite our best efforts. We try taking medications, doing meditations, exercising, seeking out yet another possible physical cause, diverting our thinking, working with therapists, eating smarter, taking various homeopathic treatments, doing yoga – and it still seems to take over more and more of our attention, thinking and energy.

Some of us are new to this anxiety work – we didn’t really realize we were dealing with anxiety as an issue in our lives until recently. Some of us have been at war with our fears for years, even decades, and feel like we SHOULD be further along, be less fearful now, as some indication of all the work we’ve done.

Still others among us have fought fear on and off – perhaps finding relief with medications for a while, or mysteriously (and wonderfully, we think) the anxiety has eased off – only to have it come back full force again.

Wherever we are in the struggle it is nothing short of debilitating to think that we are doomed to fight anxiety for the rest of our lives – that there will NEVER be any relief from this awful loss of freedom and real living.

But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We are NOT doomed to fight anxiety. Anxiety is an acquired condition – something we learned along the path of figuring out how to deal with the world we lived in. We almost certainly learned it early. We also learned without realizing we HAD learned – which makes the work a little more challenging.

Here’s a hopeful truth: anything we learn we can learn differently. We can change how we think – which is the heart of dealing with anxiety.

Boundary 1

There is, However, One Fence We Have to Get Over –

And that’s the fence that seriously amplifies our reluctance to tackle our fearful thinking – the metaphoric walls of what Peter McWilliams calls the Comfort Zone. Those walls are the creation of years of flinching back from the reactions of Flight or Fight to our anxious thoughts.

One of the things that we learned early is that when anxiety/fear/worry reared its ugly head we also experienced some very uncomfortable sensations and emotions. Those sensations and emotions were strong, and seemed to signal that we were in serious trouble – even danger. Not knowing any better we sought a way to make those sensations and feelings go away.

The moment we found a way to do that a Comfort Zone wall was born for us. Unaware of the lesson we were teaching ourselves we quickly began getting away from those feelings and sensations whenever they occurred. In practice that meant two basic things: 1) avoiding the anxious thinking that caused Flight or Fight to fire up in the first place and 2) avoiding situations or contexts where we had experienced Flight or Fight.

And this is how chronic anxiety creeps into our lives, day by day, month by month, year by year, until we find ourselves, gradually or suddenly, realizing that we have been flinching back from our life experiences for a long time – and that we’re in trouble. We start to realize that the behavior that had kept us from feeling uncomfortable is now starting to strangle our lives.

Just in case it isn’t clear so far, the Comfort Zone isn’t a real, physical world thing – it is a learned response to the reactions of Flight or Fight. Having said that it has VERY real power in our lives!

Boundary 5

Part of that power is the sheer habit of moving away from things that make us uncomfortable. (More about that later.) Part of that power is the strength of Flight or Fight – the urgency and the “realness” of how Flight or Fight feels when it is activated.

And part of that power is our ignorance of the entire mechanism of Flight or Fight. We didn’t know what was going on when we first began retreating – we just retreated.

Flight or Fight scared us (just like our anxious, largely or totally unconscious anxious thinking scared us) so we backed off. That retreating, coupled with our desperation to get away from the fear and worry in our thinking, pushed all of our reaction out of conscious awareness as well.

So let’s riff for a moment on all the ways that Flight or Fight activates in our bodies and brains, with the goal of seeing ALL of Flight or Fight’s variety as simply one thing: an alarm system that is activating in response to scared thinking, and nothing more.

Boundary 2

All the Flavors of Flight or Fight

This is probably review for a number of you, but it’s worth discussing again, both for those of you who are new to this work and for those of us who are very, very tempted to find something scary or “true” in a new or unfamiliar Flight or Fight sensation. First are the physical reactions:

Increased heartbeat/slowed heartbeat
Heart skipping a beat, repeatedly skipping beats
Heart beating more intensely
Blood pressure goes up/goes way up/blood pressure drops
Shallow breathing/rapid breathing
Tightness in chest/chest feels squeezed
Hard to take a deep breath/feel unable to do so
Ringing in ears
Nausea/upset stomach/butterflies in stomach/vomiting
Dry or “cotton” mouth/difficulty swallowing
Sweating/cold sweat
Feeling “shocky”/feeling chilled/very cold
Tingling in fingers or toes
Numbness, partial or whole body
Blushing/flush response/face feeling warm
Muscle tightness/muscle soreness
Fainting/feeling about to faint
Hyper-sensitive to light, sounds, noise
Edgy/hyper/ants in pants/feeling the need to flee

Next up are the various emotional responses to anxiety, which of course includes:

Despair/sense of doom/depression
Nervous laughter

And, finally, we have a host of mental reactions to anxiety:

Feeling detached from our bodies/dissociation
Difficulty remembering
Difficulty organizing conversation
Difficulty focusing in general
Hyper-awareness/constant vigilance for danger
Obsessive thinking and behavior

Holy crap – that’s a lot of stuff that happens when we activate Flight or Fight. In addition it’s important to know that we’re usually not conscious of ALL of these happening when we’re anxious, even though some or all may in fact BE happening.

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The real question is which ones have we focused on, which ones scare us, which ones hold us back or frighten us away from challenging our anxious thinking and changing our behavior? One of the 4 basic steps of this Fear Mastery approach is getting clear on both which Flight or Fight reactions really trouble or scare us, then deliberately beginning to retrain ourselves on just how meaningless and NNO dangerous they really are.

I wrote a post in January of this year HERE about how Flight or Fight (when we’re dealing with problems, not real danger) is very much like a malfunctioning fire alarm. When someone pulls a fire alarm and there is no fire, well, then we’re not in danger. But we learn early and hard that when we hear a fire alarm is MUST mean danger, so we have a hard time just dismissing the alarm and going about our business.

Ramp that up two or three orders of magnitude and it is the exact same thing when it comes to Flight or Fight reacting to our thinking…

Boundaries 11

Putting it Together

So I’ve said in this post so far that we, if we want to break anxiety’s hold in our lives, have to confront the thinking that is the source of our anxiety in the first place.

That means confronting the Comfort Zone walls we’ve created to keep us away from the scary thinking that frightens us in the first place, and THAT includes confronting the foundation of those walls, the Flight or Fight reactions that fire up in response to that thinking (and which has come to be scary to us as well.)

That means this work comes down to getting OK, to some extent, with being uncomfortable – even very uncomfortable – as we do this work. We have a couple of layers of discomfort to face down and move through: 1) the Comfort Zone boundaries we’ve been busy creating, and 2) confronting the original thinking that made us anxious in the first place.

Wait a second – didn’t I just say the same thing twice? Yes – but I did so because it is really two layers of fear that we must be clear are driving our anxiety. It isn’t enough to JUST confront our Comfort Zone walls.

We can do that all day long – but if we are not also addressing the anxious thinking that created and sustains those walls, well, it’s like walking into an electric fence again and again – you might be trying very bravely to face your fears, but you won’t change much about the “zaps” you’re getting as you do so…

And, of course, if you confront that thinking but don’t unlearn your fears of your Comfort Zone boundaries, well, it’s going to be hard, even damn hard, to stand and deal with that thinking (unpack it, get it converted back from the crisis we’ve made it to the problem, or less than a problem even, that it actually is) long enough to be effective.

In my next post I’m going to give very specific examples of how this work looks. In the meantime , if you haven’t already, work to get very clear on where Flight or Fight rules your life (what specific sensations and feelings make you flinch back) and, if you haven’t already, start your own list of potential fearful thoughts that keep you anxious. (Those will but are NOT limited to fearful thoughts about Flight or Fight never stopping, always making your life miserable, etc. They are contributors, no doubt – but they didn’t start this spiral.)

Quick Fix 4

So this post is a little late for Halloween, but after a couple of coaching conversations around this subject I thought I’d revisit this discussion. It’s time to once again pull the sheet off the scary Comfort Zone and expose it for what it really is –

Here’s the thing: our Comfort Zones will stop at nothing, NOTHING to get us to step back from our fears WHEN we are anxious about them. It can take on (when we’re seeing it through our calm and rational minds) almost comic proportions. There is no blow too low, no thought too wacky, that the Comfort Zone won’t pull it out and throw it at us if it has any chance of getting us to flinch away from facing our fears.

Ooohhh – Scary!

It goes like this: you decide that you want to face into an anxiety/fear that has been holding you back. Let’s say that you’ve been wanting to take on your fear of driving on the highway (a pretty common fear for us anxiety-fighters.) You miss your freedom, you’ve been reading the blog, you realize that you’ve been afraid of what MIGHT happen on the freeway, but you’re ready now to stop letting your fear get in your way.

Bravo! You rock! You make a plan to just get on the freeway for one entry-to-exit trip – just a test drive. You get your car keys, you adjust your sunglasses, you’ve picked a great, slow time of day for freeway traffic, you’re patting yourself on the back for pushing back on your anxiety, and –

Suddenly you hear the voices in your head say “what if THIS time you blow out a tire on the freeway? You’ve worried about this in the past – what if it happens now?”

You feel that little (or big) jolt of adrenaline course through your body, and suddenly you have Flight or Fight responses – heart speeds up, you get sweaty, you get butterflies in your stomach, you pick the responses – and now freeway driving doesn’t sound so smart.

Of course reading this you know what happened – you asked that crazy “what if?” question, and your mind went immediately to the worst possible outcome. You didn’t just blow out a tire on the freeway – you blew out a tire, the car careened completely out of control, you spun three or four times, and you finally ended in a fireball that consumed most of the downtown core of your city. 🙂

Except, of course, that it is highly unlikely that you’re going to blow out a tire on the freeway (unless you’re driving on bald tires – might want to check those first.)

What is most likely is you’ll get up on the freeway, heart pounding, drive to the next exit, get off the highway, and presto! You’ll have confronted a fear. You’ll be a little rattled, you’ll be a little agitated, and you’ll also have just done some nice expansion work on your Comfort Zone restrictions.

That Didn’t Work? OK, How About THIS Scary Thought?

So let’s say you worked through the blown tire scenario. You shook your head, you took a deep breath, and you said “forget blown tires. My tires are fine. I’m getting on that freeway.” You climb in the car, start the engine, put your seatbelt on, and you notice it is getting cloudy.

Suddenly you hear your brain shout “hey! What if starts to rain when we’re on the freeway? THAT can’t be good! Let’s go back inside and wait until the sky is completely cloud-free, THEN we’ll try driving on that nutty freeway.”

That sounds like great advice in that moment, since your heart is pounding again and you’re getting that warm feeling in your face and hands and… wait a minute. It isn’t even raining yet.

And who says that the freeway will become a death trap if it starts to sprinkle? Sure, if the heavens open and it’s raining an inch of water a minute you might be smart to pull off, but…

And once again the Comfort Zone shows it has NO shame whatsoever, desperate to keep you safe from that nightmare – wait, correction, no big deal – freeway. Of course it has no shame. It has the single mission of keeping you away from whatever scares you. Except that the fear of freeways is nothing we developed in nature –

Are you REALLY Sure You Want to Do This?

OK. You’ve muscled your way past two Comfort Zone pushbacks, you’re pulling out of the driveway, and while you’re feeling somewhat anxious (or even a lot anxious) you’re reminding yourself that those reactions are natural, you’re just experiencing Flight or Fight responses and they don’t mean anything.

You get down the street, you make the light, you’re heading towards the freeway, and then it hits you – you didn’t call your boss back this morning like you said. Or you forgot to feed the dog. Or you might have left the iron on, or the stove on, or the milk out of the fridge… and you feel the overwhelming desire to go home RIGHT NOW.

Only now you’re getting a little suspicious. Why can’t any of these things wait 5 minutes? You’re only zipping up and off the freeway for a little anti-anxiety practice.

Nobody is going to die, right? But your Comfort Zone is shouting at you that you really SHOULD go home first, feed the dog, call your boss, make SURE that iron is off – THEN you can do this crazy/dangerous/foolhardy freeway thing.

Isn’t it remarkable? We can find almost any reason to not take on our fears. You shake your head again – you’re almost at the freeway on-ramp – and you decide you’re going for it. One last burst of adrenaline hits you, you head up that ramp, and voila! You’re on the freeway!

Whoo-hooo! You cruise along and before you know it you’re at the next exit. You cruise off that freeway, and your Comfort Zone is strangely quiet –

For about a minute. Then it starts with “well, that went OK I guess – good thing nothing bad happened THIS time. We shouldn’t do too much of that though – what if something bad DID happen…”

Fear Does Not Have to Run Our Lives

Any of this seem familiar to you? Of course it does. We anxiety fighters hear this stuff in our heads every day. That’s why it is important to remember that your Comfort Zone, your history of being afraid, will work very hard to keep you from pushing your own boundaries – as long as you’re afraid of something, the Comfort Zone will work to keep you away from it.

This is why confronting our fears is so useful to us. The moment you move through a fearful experience and manage it, whatever happens, that’s the moment your Comfort Zone starts to get that this thing isn’t as scary as you were thinking. It will probably take more than one exposure or practice session (although sometimes just one confrontation is enough to make this work.)

What fear could you confront today, even in a small way? What would you like to do that you’re not feeling comfortable doing? What dire warnings is the Comfort Zone shouting at you right now as you read this? All of that is useful information to knowing what you need to do next.

Wrestling tigers naked – probably a bad idea. Listen to your Comfort Zone if you’re thinking about doing this. 🙂 Driving on the freeway for the purpose of getting your freedom back – that’s a good idea, if those tires are looking OK. Go for it. You have nothing to lose but your fear…

OK, let’s get down to it, shall we? The first skill that we need to get anxiety and fear out of the driver’s seat of our life is getting clear on when we convert problems to crises.

I have articulated elsewhere in this blog (SEE THE BLOG POST 11/26/11) about the distinction between problem and crisis when it comes to anxiety. For the in-depth discussion of this idea let me strongly encourage you to, if you haven’t already, go back and read that post. It will give you a solid framework for today’s discussion.

The brief summary of that idea is simply this (for those of you who have been over this ground with me before, please feel free to skip ahead!): we have this amazing mechanism called Flight or Fight that is our primary means of dealing with real, physical danger.

That mechanism developed to deal with real-world dangers – things that could hurt or kill us RIGHT NOW. Repeating: Flight or Fight is our defense against tangible, physical danger. We are hard-wired for it, and if we see something dangerous we are ALREADY reacting to it, usually before we know it.

Cool, eh? A lot of danger doesn’t give us a lot of warning, so we evolved a right-now, make-it-happen response mechanism – and thank goodness. It helps us effectively deal with danger NOW.

The Problem ISN’T Flight or Fight…

The challenge for us humans is that we don’t just react to real dangers in our immediate environment. Nope, we have the capacity to IMAGINE danger – to project into the future situations that could become dangerous – or at least that FEEL dang dangerous to us.

In other words we can take a situation that isn’t a crisis and convert it in our thinking into a crisis. And guess what? The moment we do that we activate Flight or Fight. We have all the reactions of Flight or Fight as if we were really facing down a pack of hungry gray wolves – only we’re not. We’re imagining a scary outcome to some future situation.

When we do that we experience all that Flight or Fight has to offer us in the way of motivation to GET US RUNNING FROM THAT DANGER. We gear up in our bodies – heartbeat up, sweating increases to dump extra heat, stomach shuts down for the duration of the crisis, we become very narrowly focused in our attention, and a dozen things besides physically, all to get us ready to RUN (or fight if we can’t run.)

We also experience all the emotions of Flight or Fight – fear, terror, anxiety, worry, you name it. Because those emotions can help to GET US MOVING – when we actually have something to run from!

Real danger – that’s a crisis. Danger we project into a possible future – that’s not a crisis, not yet anyway. That’s a problem. And the two are VERY, very different.

What ARE We Running From?

The key point here is that we have to be able to clarify WHEN we do problem thinking and when we do crisis thinking. Everything that anxiety generates in us, all the energy drain and fear and worry and loss of life and time comes down to this one issue.

Let me say that again: everything we experience when we get anxious comes down to a two-step sequence – first we conjecture/picture something bad happening to us, then we experience the responses of Flight or Fight.

At the heart of this Fear Mastery model is a very simple premise: we have two choices when we are presented with thinking that unnerves, worries or even frightens us. Which choice we make literally either makes us anxious or puts us in position to stay calm and be a lucid problem-solver.

We have to learn to identify when we take an issue and convert it into a crisis rather than respond to it as a problem. Just this single skill, by itself, can do enormous good in our battle with fear and anxiety.

The specific skill we must develop to stop this problem-turned-crisis thinking at the source is to identify when we make those conversions in our thinking. Too many of us, through no real fault of our own, have been treating problems as crises and have been all but completely unaware that we’re doing it. We are reacting as opposed to thinking – something that is very easy to do.

Conscious Vs. Unconscious

There are a couple of challenges to getting a hold of this when it comes to fear work. One challenge is that most of us don’t really get how much thinking we’re doing when we’re not aware of it. You might call it unconscious thinking.

A better term would be out-of-our-awareness thinking – not so much unconscious (you’re awake right now, right?) but whether or not you’re focusing your attention on that particular thinking.

Just because YOU are not aware of thinking you’re doing doesn’t mean you’re not thinking. It is crucial to understand this as you take on (or even think about taking on) your anxiety. You have thinking processes that run ALL the time – one quick example is the thinking that governs your automatic functions, like heartbeat and breathing.

That’s an even better example when you think about all the things that happen in your body when you get anxious, but which you didn’t consciously direct to have happen – they just happened, right? All those funky Flight or Fight Responses could only start from signals from your brain – i.e., thinking.

What Software Are You Running In Your Head?

That’s no trivial question! A second thing to grasp about this thinking and consciousness thing is that the vast majority of us did NOT deliberately sit down and plan out what kind of thoughts we’d cultivate in our brains.

Nope, we just think – in much the same way I used to eat potato chips when I was watching TV… (thank goodness I started thinking about THAT…)

We are the home of a host of assumptions, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, rules, processes and routines that run their merry way in our minds all the time – all without us giving them more than a cursory glance, if we notice them at all. That has huge implications for fear and anxiety.

For example: I don’t like lentils in my food. (Bear with me – I promise it gets better.) My Mom used to make this lentil soup that was, for me, a great deal like eating brown paste. Now my Mom was a brilliant cook, but I just didn’t like her lentil soup! So by the time I reached adulthood even the mention of lentils was enough to turn my stomach.

All my Indian-food-eating friends told me I was missing out by not trying other ways to eat lentils, but I didn’t have the time of day for them about the stuff. My reaction was automatic and immediate – no lentils for me, thank you.

Then one afternoon a buddy and I were doing lunch at a little place near the house and they had a soup that had leeks in it. I LOVE leeks. What I didn’t know (and wasn’t on the menu) was that it also had lentils in it. I slurped up that soup like there was no tomorrow, and only when I finished did my friend, with a smirk on his face, tell me that I had just eaten lentils.

The Lentil Reaction

Two things happened: 1) I found myself starting to get an upset stomach, and 2) I found myself (thanks to this work on fear) asking myself “wait a minute – that soup tasted great. The lentils are not suddenly attacking my intestinal walls or anything – I was just fine a minute ago. Maybe lentils aren’t so bad?”

And within a minute my stomach had eased off, and I found myself shaking my head at both myself and the power of thoughts in general. I’m still sure I don’t like my Mom’s lentil soup. I’m not at all sure now that lentils in and of themselves are bad – in fact I’m sure they can be pretty tasty under the right conditions.

What’s that say about both the unconsciousness and the strength of our thinking when it comes to fear and anxiety? We have two issues around thinking when we go to tackle our fears – the fact that we don’t have much practice thinking about our thinking (as opposed to just running on automatic) and being clear just how much that thinking can govern our bodies and our emotions.

Thinking vs. Reacting – Problem vs. Crisis

OK, so I promised at the end of last year that I’d keep these posts shorter, so I’m gonna wrap this one here. Look at my next post for more examples of this converting of problem to crisis, and what we can start doing to CUT THAT OUT. And please, if you have your own examples, I’d LOVE to put them in the blog (or you can put your examples in the comment section.

Isn’t it time to, literally, stop the insanity? To stop making problems (which can be very real, be cause for concern, be things we need to address) into crises (holy crap, I’m going to DIE right now if I don’t fix this!)?

In this blog I have repeatedly used the metaphor of the Comfort Zone, that set of beliefs (including our fears) that, when we push on it/challenge it, trips the Flight or Fight Response in each of us. The Comfort Zone is really the accumulation of our experience – actual physical experience plus our learning/thinking – that in turn becomes our “operations map” of the world – what we assume is true, what we have learned works or doesn’t work for us, etc.

It is important, very important to note that the beliefs/assumptions of the Comfort Zone don’t necessarily have to be actually, objectively true. All that matters is that we think it’s true/accurate/right.

Because it is our beliefs, our thinking is what trips the alarms in our body and activates Flight or Fight. Think of your Comfort Zone as your internal security team, your own personal bodyguard, and it has only one mission – to keep you safe. Like the old Ford Motor advertising, Safety is Job #1 for each of our Comfort Zones.

And This Would Be Bad Because…?

Safety is good. The folks that learned from their experience what was dangerous and what was safe were the ones who got to survive and make more people who also learned how to stay alive. Alive is good!

But, as you know as a reader of this blog, safety can be taken too far. Safety can move from the real physical dangers of saber-tooth tigers, dire wolves and charging mastodons (the dangers our hardy ancestors had to worry about) into the realm of problems that we translate as dangers (crises), things that Flight or Fight usually can’t manage very well. In fact Flight or Fight can make a real mess of things, really scare us and make things worse for us, providing a source of endless stress and worry.

The issue here is that your Comfort Zone JUST DOESN’T CARE. It has one job – keep you away from danger. You’re scared? OK. The Comfort Zone is shouting “Get us the heck out of here NOW!” and too often we’re already running in our heads and in our lives. (Actually, in my experience the Comfort Zone uses MUCH stronger language…)

It is vital as you work on unplugging your anxieties and fears that you see how single-minded the Comfort Zone is. It isn’t interested in what might be best long-term for you. It doesn’t care how much you are freaked out by the physical and emotional sensations Flight or Fight is generating in your body. It doesn’t care that you don’t want to be afraid anymore! It just knows you ARE afraid – that’s all it needs. It only knows to take you to Red Alert and keep you there until you think you’re free of the particular fear that is troubling you.

So What’s It Gonna Take?

This is why it can be serious work to unplug our fears. We don’t really appreciate the energy and time we’ve poured, literally poured into creating our fears and beliefs in the first place, so when we confront them and work to change them it can be mystifying to find how much work it can take. Our Comfort Zones don’t just say “sure, you’re not afraid of this – no problem. I’ll just stop reacting when this thing shows up.” DOESN’T HAPPEN.

So it is going to take some work to unplug the thinking that frightens us, to develop new thinking that doesn’t trigger Flight or Fight the way our fears do. Let me say that again – it is going to take some work. Most of you reading this blog know precisely what I’m talking about. And this in turn is why so many of us stall out on or wave off of this work – because it is difficult, time-consuming and energy-draining.

I’m not talking about small fears or worries. I’m talking about the stuff that stops us in our tracks, the stuff we run from, the stuff that limits our lives and shuts us down. Not all of our fears come in the same size, obviously. Some fears are newer than others, less deeply embedded in our thinking. Some things that worry us are only medium-sized, and we can face them down without too much bloodshed.

But the fears and anxieties that shut us down – those are the fears that I’m discussing here. And those fears are the ones that the Comfort Zone will resist changing overnight or with one quick fear mastery triad session.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day…

We won’t break down our fears and flush them out of our thinking presto. But that’s part (weirdly enough) of the good news about this work – once you make a little progress it will be REAL progress, because you’re engaged in the difficult but highly effective work of re-programming your thinking.

A huge part of that work is getting some peace with your Flight or Fight responses – not just automatically reacting to them and running for the hills (in your thinking and behavior) but being present for them. I’ve discussed this in other blog posts here. We have to face down our bodyguard, confront the Comfort Zone and its alarm system Flight or Fight, and face into that storm of feelings and physical sensations.

For me historically that meant enduring a racing heart, sweaty palms and the back of my knees (weird, isn’t it?), stuttering, numbness in my hands and sometimes arms, and the scariest of all to me, dizziness and vertigo. I HATED those sensations – they were intimately linked to being afraid for me, and I didn’t find any joy in being afraid.

I may drive this too hard in this blog sometimes, but it was the lesson that could have moved me fastest off the dime in facing my fears, if I had only understood it – that there was nothing to fear from those warning signals. It would have enabled me much earlier in my life to do that unplugging of my fear – thinking through what I was turning into a crisis, and covert that stuff back into problems to solve.


Your Comfort Zone doesn’t care that you want to be free of your fears and anxieties. It only has one mission – to keep you safe. You have to change your thinking, reframe your fears into problems, challenge what you assume to be true or not true, and convince that bodyguard you have that you don’t fear this thing anymore. Then, and only then, will your Comfort Zone “stand down” and stop trying to get you to RUN…

Afraid of money issues? Worried about your current job, or not having a job at all? Anxious about relationship issues? Scared that you’ll get older and not have all the money you want or think you need? Afraid of your boss? Fearful of having to move? Nervous about the state of the economy? Worried about the Republicans (or the Democrats?) Here’s the weird part – YOU’RE NOT IN DANGER FROM ANY OF THEM. Because danger, biologically, means you’re going to be attacked and eaten RIGHT NOW. Anything else is a problem.

Some problems you can pull apart and address. Some problems (like the Republicans or Democrats) are way too big for you to solve by yourself, and they sure as heck won’t get solved by you being in crisis mode all the time! Either way, they are NOT dangerous, not right now. And they will only get helped/solved/addressed by you treating them as a problem, rather than a crisis.

And that’s where your bodyguard isn’t serving you. You keep shouting “HELP!” and your Bodyguard starts reacting to the problem you’ve morphed into a crisis – in your thinking. Our Bodyguards don’t have to be what makes us crazy. They only want to keep us safe. The work that we have to do is to get clear on what we reflexively react to in fear and anxiety, and short-circuit that reacting. Part of that work – really the heart of that work – is to develop the habit of treating problems AS problems – not as crises.

Next up – some discussion around depression and how it connects to anxiety. And (really, I mean it this time) – my first video blog for Fear Mastery.

I have been thinking about and studying the origins of fear and anxiety for a number of years.  One of my goals has been to find a simple, elegant map for the entire spectrum of fear and anxiety.  I am now convinced that all fear, regardless of the intensity or duration of those fears, stems from the basic physiological mechanism called Flight or Fight.  I am also convinced that there is an enormous amount of leverage on our fears that can be gained from this understanding.  (Look for the page on this blog coming in the next couple of weeks called “Research Information” for more material about the various physical and psychological issues that support and explain further the ideas you’ll read in this blog.)

It may seem simplistic to say that all the fear that people experience is simply a result of Flight or Fight.  But this isn’t to say that our fears are completed explained by F or F.  Several elements are required to create an accurate map of how our fears start, grow and maintain their strength with us.  No, I’m saying that the root, the basic origin of ALL of our fears and anxiety, begin in Flight or Fight.  And I also believe that this single understanding has a lot of potential power in helping us take on and defuse the power of our fears before they can grow and take over our lives.

The irony of the power of our fears and anxiety is that this remarkable set of responses called F or F is designed to keep us safe from danger!  Here’s what happens: 

1)       You experience a scary event or thing.  This can take many forms – a real physical danger (car accident, tiger in the woods), a relational problem (fight with your significant other, illness of a friend), a potential future event (loss of a job, death of a parent) or even large, global concerns (downturn in the economy, growing older.)  Doesn’t make much difference – the bottom-line is YOU are frightened/unnerved/worried about this event or thing.

2)      When this happens you activate a hard-wired system, what we call the Flight or Fight Response.  I will dig into the biology of that response in a later post here, but for the moment know that when this activates you are invariably going to experience some things that are designed to protect you.  It is important to understand that it doesn’t have to be a real or immediate danger – if you’re afraid of it, that’s enough for your brain.

3)      Your brain/body then gear up to either run or defend you – hence the name Flight or Fight.  And it is truly an impressive response system that we have!  Your brain shuts down blood flow to non-crisis functions like digestion or very often your higher thinking functions (VERY important for later in these conversations), your heartbeat elevates to cope with the need for extra oxygen in your bloodstream, you sweat to dump excessive heat that your body starts to generate, your focus narrows (i.e., your options simplify – run or fight?), your brain rapidly scans past experience to find relevant information to deal with this perceived threat – and all of this happens very, very quickly. 

4)      In that rapid response system you experience the following:

  1. Feelings – like fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, worry, and panic – the list is pretty extensive.
  2. Thinking responses – confusion, disorientation, loss of focus, and others.

5)      To make this even more intense you have developed a safety system, Flight or Fight that tends to default to Flight first.  Which makes perfect sense – if you run, and get away, hey, you’re uninjured and you’re safe!  We tend to only turn and fight if we feel trapped, can’t see a way to run.  Even the big cats like tigers and lions, if frightened suddenly, will turn and run rather than fight first.

6)      This system didn’t develop to keep up for a long period of time.  It is designed to get you AWAY from danger, NOW, either by running from the danger or getting rid of the danger by fighting.  You’re not supposed to experience this for hours or days or weeks – more like minutes. 

There is a LOT to digest in this information about the Flight or Fight Response.  The key things to take away at this point is

1)       If you’re afraid you’re going to activate the response – period.  Doesn’t make any difference how real or immediate the danger is – you’re afraid, and that’s enough.

2)      You’re hardwired to that response – you’re going to go through some of the F or F experiences, very quickly, no matter what.

3)      The WHOLE GOAL is to get you away from the danger.  That’s where your brain and body are driving you. 

So how is this useful to you as you think about what your fears are, and why you feel anxious?  Because unless you’re dealing with a real, immediate, actual physical danger (like a tiger or a car accident about to happen) you’re, without being aware of it, attempting to solve a problem like a crisis.  And this is where our fears and anxieties begin to take root and grow. 

Next post – how the Flight or Fight Response develops into chronic anxiety and fear, and the first in a series of “keys” to help you get free of fear and anxiety.

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