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Ugh. Anxiety is fear about the future – fearful what if thinking about things that scare us. That’s the bottom line. To break anxiety’s hold we have to break the habit of the repeated what if dialogues in our heads.

One element that gets in our way in our thinking/fearful ruminating about the future are the things that we refuse to accept about life and the world we live in. We have set some issues up, usually through no fault of our own, into huge scary monsters that roar at us from their misty future location in our brains.

We can only defang those monsters if we’re willing to look them in the eye and see through them. In Malaysian cultures children are taught to face the monsters they find in their dreams – and to face down those monsters. That’s a huge gift to give children. Unfortunately here in the West we too often learn to run away from our monsters instead…

Refusing to Accept is a form of Running Away

Human have amazing imaginations. We can conjure things in our thinking that don’t exist (and may never exist) and imbue them with life, color and energy. That’s a remarkable ability. As smart as you think your dog is he or she doesn’t have anything like that kind of imagination. Imagination has been one of the key gifts in the building of our human world.

But the gift can be a curse when we turn anxiety loose on our imagination. It’s a natural sin, and one we have to be aware of to do much about. This is especially likely to happen when we begin think that we’re in danger – real or imagined.

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Why? Well, one of the features of Flight or Fight works like this: when it fires up in our bodies and brains it starts estimating which route is safest/most likely to work in our efforts to get away from danger. (I.e., what will be most likely in getting me out of danger’s way?) This is very effective in dealing with an angry mob or lions looking for a snack…

It is not so effective, however, when it comes to imagining ways to escape the IRS bill you owe, the doctor you need to visit or the in-law you’d like to avoid. Flight or Fight evolved to deal with real, present-moment CRISES. That means dealing with immediately available facts and the situation right in front of us. But PROBLEMS (including the ones we inflate into crises) don’t usually consist of either immediately available facts OR are situations we have to solve this second.

Which means Flight or Fight isn’t nearly so useful to us in problem situations. So when Flight or Fight fires up it just starts to mess with us! We start imagining the worst-case scenarios – and our monsters are born. Flight or Fight is just trying to help us, chiefly by trying to help us figure out the worst-case scenario and then figure out a solution…

Only it’s operating on limited facts/information, and it really can’t solve a problem that’s still up in the future – not the way it can solve or largely solve an immediate, right-now situation. I’ll bet you know what I’m talking about.

A Scenario you Might Recognize

Let’s try that doctor thing. Say you are supposed to see the doc for a problem – a racing heart, maybe, or high blood pressure. You are afraid that something is wrong. Flight or Fight, trying to help you, starts imagining the worst-case scenarios in an effort to “figure a way out.” Great – except that you don’t know a lot of info yet. You don’t know your physical situation well enough to make any good evaluations. That’s why you’re going to the doctor!

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But you have fears about where you are physically. So you conjure possible scenarios – and they scare you. What if the doc says your BP is too high? What if that means it’s straining your heart, or putting you at risk for stroke? What if the doc puts you on medication? What if that medication doesn’t work, or makes you dizzy, or makes you want to eat pizza? (OK, that last isn’t really scary.) What if you have to stop eating certain foods? What if you never get better? What if your brain explodes? Etc. Etc. Etc…

Sound familiar at all? Now you’re all freaked out. Your heart IS racing, or you’re feeling nausea, or you’re screaming no way I’m not going to the doctor, or whatever you’re doing in your anxiety and fear. So you refuse to go to the doctor. Great. You’ve managed to avoid the scary outcomes you’ve summoned –

Except that by running away, by refusing to accept the situation and find out what you can in order to do something helpful for yourself, you’ve only managed to 1) feed your fears more and 2) set yourself up to do more avoiding. That might not be bad today, or tomorrow – but that doesn’t mean you’ve done anything to really deal with the problem that might be there – or dispel your fears if it isn’t.

Not Accepting Doesn’t mean that Thing is not There

Running away feels good – for a while. Maybe for years. But, to keep playing with that doctor scenario, you have this little voice in the back of your head (the rational part, trying to shout over the anxious part of you) saying hey, sure would be nice to KNOW what’s happening with that blood pressure thing. If there’s a problem we could do something about it. But anxiety isn’t having it. NO, it shouts, it’s better if we just pretend that nothing’s wrong, or if we can’t pretend, just refuse to accept the possibility. We’ll feel safer that way.

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But that doesn’t change anything – and we KNOW it. And of course it isn’t like anxiety contents itself with just worrying about blood pressure and doctor responses. Nope, it starts worming its way into other parts of our life – and it fact has been doing it the whole time. We develop a terrible habit of running away – and that habit only gets stronger the more we support it.

Crises, real-life crises, come and then get resolved, one way or another. You’re either in a life-or-death situation or you’re not! It’s either happening or it’s over! But problems don’t usually work that way. In fact they NEVER work out that way, because when it becomes life-or-death then it isn’t a problem any more – it’s a crisis.

Problems, even problems we inflate into crises in our thinking, have a way of not going away – until we do something about them.

Which means we have to start to challenge that nasty habit of avoiding, of not accepting the world we live in as it is right now. Sure, we’re scared. I get it. I was scared as hell of lots of things back in my fight with anxiety. I ran like a champion.

But all that did for me was slowly worsen problems I was avoiding, as well as made me MORE anxious. Because our brains are not really fooled. We can run, and we can refuse to accept, but we still KNOW down deep that the problems are still there, lurking in the shadows. We really do have to develop the skill and strength to open the closet door, look under the bed, and face down our scary monsters…

99% of our Monsters are not Monsters at all

One of the most wonderful, and often the most infuriating, things about those monsters we’re avoiding is when we discover they are not monsters at all. We go to the doc and… discover our BP is fine, or a little elevated. We call the IRS (gasp!) and learn that we can pay what we owe in installments – they just want their money. We face down the in-law and realize that while he or she is tedious, even annoying as crap, the visit doesn’t kill us.

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Not accepting seems to automatically mean we make our problems-turned-to-crises larger and larger in our thinking. Small things get bigger, big things get huge, and we burn tremendous amounts of energy and lifespan running away, avoiding, not accepting the things we need to face down.

Flight or Fight is to blame for all of this. It’s trying so hard to help us “escape” our monsters – but it can’t. There’s nothing to escape. We have problems to address and solve, not crises to flee from, however it feels.

WE are the ones shouting “Oh my God this is terrible!” Flight or Fight obediently tries to help us escape the scary monster… which isn’t a monster at all. So even Flight or Fight is the helpless prisoner of our fearful thinking.

In other words we have to tackle the thinking that is scaring us if we are to deal with and overcome anxiety. It really all does come down to that.

Great, you say. That’s lovely. And you’re right Erik – I’m running away from problems I’ve made into monsters most of the time. But there are problems that I really can’t do a damn thing about –

What about the 1%?

Good point. There are problems we can do something about – the doctor visit, the IRS, the in-law – but there is a much smaller cluster of problems that we CAN’T resolve. We just have to accept them as part of our world, part of the world in general.

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Aging is one of those problems. We’re all going to get older (or, in my case, GETTING older.) We can rave about it, we can go get cosmetic surgery, we can eat healthy and get lots of sleep and wear facial masks and we’re still going to age. OK. That’s still not a crisis, whatever we think about aging. It’s a problem that we can’t solve – but we can learn to accept it as part of life, and then get about the business of living.

There is a whole little class of problems that we can’t solve by OURSELVES. We might potentially solve them with the assistance of other people – world hunger, the Middle East Mess, etc. – but we won’t do it by ourselves. We can contribute – help out – try to make a difference –but we won’t solve it all by our lonesome. What can do then? Not make it into a crisis. It’s a problem that’s too big for us alone .

And of course there’s the little problem we call death. Yes, death sucks. Nobody really wants to die. (Think of all the cookies that won’t get eaten when I, for instance, pass from this world.) Guess what? We will die. I don’t like it any more than you do.

But we can’t solve it. We can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen! We HAVE to accept it and get about the business of living while we are here, now. If we don’t we run the risk of running away from death, start treating it like a crisis, and when we do that we feed anxiety – and slowly begin to lose the capacity to live our life in the here and now.

In other words we can live until we die, or we can shut down our joy and engagement and life by running like hell away from something that will happen anyway. Only one of those makes any damn sense, yes?

Stop Running – Start Facing and Accepting

Avoidance. Monsters. Problems we can solve (which are most of them, in one form or another of solution) and problems we can’t solve. None of these things have to rob us of our capacity to live. And none of these things need to take up much more time in our thinking, making us anxious and keeping us trapped in our fears.

It starts with accepting where we are. It starts with accepting that our fight with anxiety is a thinking problem, and not some mysterious illness or mental breakdown. It starts with accepting that we have to turn and face down our closet monsters, our (unintentionally) conjured scary future scenarios. And it starts with accepting that Flight or Fight really can’t hurt us (has no interest in hurting us).

We can face down our fears. We can convert crises, the crises we’ve made in our thinking, back into problems. We can get our life back. It’s scary. It means a new way of thinking. It also means that we can get our lives back from our fears. Anyone can do this work, with the right information and a little encouragement.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When I talk about anxiety in this blog I’m talking about us reacting to our life as if we were being threatened with LOSING our lives. We might not always be conscious of that reaction, but that’s what we’re doing when we’re in the grip of our fears. We’re treating (say it with me!) a problem as a crisis…

One of the ugly and counter-productive results of that reacting to a problem as a crisis is this: in our desperate effort to make the anxiety stop we often run from potential solution to potential solution, looking for something that will give us some immediate relief from the physical and emotional abuse of anxious thinking.

The hard part of this anxiety work is pushing through what is essentially a reprogramming of our thinking. We have spent a LONG time developing some powerful, even automatic responses to our fearful thinking (and that fearful thinking is itself a mostly automatic responses), and it will take TIME and effort to change that thinking and those physical and emotional responses.

We don’t want to wait! I sure as hell didn’t want to wait! I was sick unto death of being anxious, of feeling like I could never relax or gear down or stop obsessing over my thinking. I didn’t want to wait and I didn’t think I could stand to face through the work.

But I was wrong on both counts. I HAD to wait on the work, and I WAS able to do the work. And so can any of us. We just have to remember that we’re going to be tempted to anything that seems to promise immediate relief…

The Work is the Work

When I finally identified that I was fighting chronic anxiety I had been working on being anxious for over 20 years. 20 years! I didn’t know that for the vast majority of that time, but that was all the water that had gone under my bridge before I understood my challenge.

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That meant I had been working steadily at living in the future, scaring myself in different ways with potential indefinite negative futures – i.e., if this happens then this terrible thing will also happen, won’t that be awful, I can’t stand that – and then I’d do it again.

I was afraid of:
Having a vertigo spell that would never stop
Losing sensation in my hands/body and having it never come back
Having eternal fights with nausea (not as much as the first two, but it was there)
Afraid of never having a “successful” career
Afraid of never figuring out what the heck I wanted for a career in the first place
Afraid of winding up alone/never finding a real, solid, healthy relationship
Afraid of being labeled a failure
Afraid of being trapped in a town I had grown to hate
Afraid of missing out on a lot of interesting adventures
Afraid of making other people angry, or disappointing other people

And these were just the big fears! So you can imagine (or maybe you even already know from your own experience) how much I wanted all that fear to stop NOW. Not in a month, not in a year, but NOW.

So I did a lot of things to try and make that happen…

Avoidance, Thy Name is Erik

In my last blog post I talked about freezing in place – that behavior we do when something scares us and we hide in the metaphorical underbrush, hoping the scary thing will just go away. I did a LOT of that in my 20 years of dealing with chronic anxiety.

I got REALLY busy as one way of avoiding dealing with my fears. I often worked multiple jobs. I raced around visiting friends, or traveling out of town (until the anxiety became so great that I was all but trapped, in my own head, in the little town of Reno, NV – at least until I broke free of my anxiety.) I watched a LOT of TV. I really strengthened the already-in-my-family behavior of medicating with food/comforting my fears with food.

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And I avoided with style ANY discussions of anxiety, panic attacks, etc, as well as any real discussion of the things I mentioned in the list above. I was both desperately avoiding my list of fears, and so afraid and angry that they might be true, that I couldn’t really bear the thought of them…

In the meantime I was still edging into more and more anxiety in my days and nights. When I finally tipped over into the well of ongoing panic attacks in the winter of 1990 I just got more frantic in my avoiding. I would come home from one of my 3 jobs, or my late graduate classes, and just stare at the TV, eating, until I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

All of these efforts were my way of trying to find a quick fix, a way to make the anxiety just go away. In my defense I didn’t yet know that there WAS any real way to deal with and get rid of my anxious thoughts, but it didn’t change the fact that I was trying to find a right-now answer to my fears…

Avoidance Has Other Names, Too

This running to find a quick fix takes other forms. An old friend of mine is one of the best examples of what I’m going to discuss next, although I’ve seen this pattern again and again in my friends, colleagues and coaching clients. His answer was to try something for a week, or maybe two weeks, then throw up his hands in frustration and go on to another potential solution…

So in just one year, for example, he tried two forms of yoga, an immersive therapy technique (intense, daily), a trip to a retreat center in Hawaii, 4 new jobs, several relationships and a special meditation technique. Every time he started something he pinned a great deal of hope on THIS new thing or effort being what would set him free from his anxiety.

(And, I should add, he was on a medication for anxiety the entire time, and still is to this day. It seems to soften the worst symptoms of his anxiety, but it has yet to make it go away…)

The interesting part of this wild running from thing to thing was that in several cases he was confronted by his fearful thinking – that excellent and essential first step in dealing with our anxiety. But he didn’t want to confront his anxious thinking, he wanted it to GO AWAY.

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He would get so angry and disappointed when the current thing he was doing didn’t make his anxiety stop! And who can blame him?

At the heart of this is the driving force of our Flight or Fight Reflex. We are afraid, and being afraid (in our genes, in our biology) means get away from the thing that is making us afraid. It is WORK to turn and sort out our anxious thinking, face down our fearful reactions. It is scary and hard. It is in a sense counter-intuitive to stand and face down our fearful thinking. But it is exactly what we need to do.

There Are Even Worse Ways to Avoid Anxiety…

This list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the classic paths of avoidance/make me feel better NOW that so many people have employed. One of the avoidance elephants in the room is the use of drugs and alcohol.

This is commonly called addiction, which I think is the exact wrong word. It’s isn’t addiction – it is self-medication. It is an effort on the part of deeply anxious, afraid people to medicate their fears into a corner, to get away from anxiety and stress and worry.

Is it much worse than bouncing from therapy to meditation to relationship to new job? Yes. It is brutally destructive in multiple ways. Is it fundamentally different in nature from the bouncing? No. It is all a way to make the anxiety stop THIS SECOND…

I’ve already mentioned the whole medicating with food that runs in my family. (I am willing to confess to a still-ongoing but reduced addiction to cookies.) Other folks try to make anxiety go away with compulsive gambling, or spree shopping trips, or random sexual encounters.

We have a lot of labels for all those behaviors, but underlying them all is our need to stop feeling anxious.

What To Do?

You already know the answer, don’t you? That doesn’t mean it is EASY to start. Some of us are fighting one or two moderate fears – scary, but they haven’t yet closed down our life, and they are not so terrifying that we can’t at least consider them in an abstract way.

Some of us however have ancient fears that go back decades, and/or fears that are so terrible to contemplate (at least to us) that it is heart-stopping to even consider that challenging of anxiety. We might need some extra help – medication of the legal kind, the hand of a therapist, to help us get started. That’s all legal and a damn good idea.

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And some of us, too many of us, are in fact wrestling with ancient fears, but have yet to really get conscious about that. We would like to dismiss those fears, brush them under the carpet, call them anything (physical illness, a nervous condition, just the way I am, etc.) but what they are – anxious thoughts that generate anxiety in our body and emotions.

But the bottom-line is we still need to stand and look our fears in the eye. This blog is all about that work. Because anxiety is anxiety, and the answer is always the same – figuring out the thinking that is scaring us in the first place and then re-framing that thinking.

Rome was definitely not built in a day. 🙂 We won’t sort out our fears and banish them from our life with one effort or one try. But we CAN banish them. To quote that remarkable confronter of fears Eleanor Roosevelt, “We must do the thing we think we cannot do.” Because we CAN do it – whatever our fear is telling us.

Feelings. I talk about them a lot in this blog. I often hear the word from my coaching clients, I see the word in the emails I receive, and yes, I have my own feelings. 🙂 Anxiety itself is a feeling, and it is often the seed of other feelings – anger, rage, sadness, depression, grief. To be afraid is to FEEL afraid, anxious, worried, scared. To be anxious is to be, too often, at the mercy of our feelings.

In this Fear Mastery work I say all the time that one of the skill sets we need to break free of anxiety is to “discount” the meaning of our feelings – specifically, the emotional (and physical) responses we have from Flight or Fight when we’re anxious. Some people have taken that to mean that they shouldn’t HAVE those feelings –that they should squish, bury and hide away those feelings from themselves.

Don’t do that. “Discounting” isn’t the same as shutting away. And shutting away our fears (and the thinking that generates those fears in the first place) is at the heart of why we’re anxious in the first place. No, our mission is to HAVE our feelings – let them surface, look them in the eye – but also dispute what they heck they seem to be saying to us.

HANG ON – You’re Saying it is GOOD to Feel Anxious?

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We anxiety-fighters don’t have a great relationship history with our feelings. It can, for many of us, seem like our feelings are petulant children or, worse, terrible slave-drivers, throwing us around the room, trashing our days, ruining our time with friends and family, making a mess of our lives. Our feelings can come to be unwanted house-guests that we just want to go away…

Part of the problem is we only poorly understand what the heck feelings ARE. Feelings are, among other things, ways to motivate us to take action. When we feel hungry we eat. (I know I do.) When we feel sleepy we find a flat surface and lie down. (Or, if you’re at work, put your head on your desk.) When we feel angry we want to DO something – break a dish, shout, take action in some way to deal with the thing that is making us angry.

All of that makes a ton of sense. Emotions/feelings are much older than conscious thought – way, way older. Like hundreds of millions of years older. Smart came very late in the game. Animals need to take action, and in the absence of clocks, calendars and appointment books feelings are what motivate them to take action in different situations.

So emotions are STRONG. They need to be. You can’t, if you’re a water buffalo, ignore those hunger pangs. Not eating is a bad idea! And this applies even more to immediate, physical danger. Living things need to be alert and responsive when their lives are threatened, yes?

Enter human beings and anxiety. We didn’t lose any of the feelings that helped our ancestors survive before humans had the bulging brains we have now – we just stacked those smarts on top of those feelings. That can be a tremendous strength, if we understand the relationship between feelings and thinking. It can also a key element of anxiety – which is why I’m writing and you’re reading this blog.

When we start to imagine/picture something bad happening in our future, and that bad thing scares us in our thinking, well, we’re going to have feelings. We’re going to have feelings because we’re triggering Flight or Fight. We’re hard-wired that way. As I keep saying here that’s a GOOD thing – we need that system to stay frosty in case of real danger.

So you are going to have feelings when you’re anxious! And they won’t be the happy, fuzzy feelings you have when you see a bunny or the face of someone you love. (Or, in my case, a container of Baskin-Robbins ice cream – Vanilla, please, or I’m also good with Cookie Dough.) Nope, they will be anxious, lets-get-the-hell-out-of-here kind of feelings – the feelings that would get you moving in the presence of real, physical, life-or-death danger.

Which means yes, you do need to feel your feelings, if only because you’re going to, whether you want to or not. And it won’t serve you at all to simply try and squish those feelings. It isn’t like you have a big box you can shove your feelings into and lock the lid. We’d like to THINK we can do that – but the end result of all that attempted squishing is, in fact, anxiety.

But I Don’t LIKE These Feelings!

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Yup – I hear that. Then again, those feelings really are not the problem. It is the thinking behind them that are the problem. Feelings are simply the messengers of your thinking or, more accurately, your mental responses to your environment. In non-self-aware creatures (like that mouse in your basement) that thinking is mostly learned experience. Don’t eat cheese sitting on wood platforms that smell of metal. Do chew open bags that smell like flour. Run away from large furry things that purr.

In us it is a much richer (and potentially more anxious) universe of mental activity. We can conjecture/speculate about the future – and in having that ability we open ourselves up to some serious worries, if we’re not clear on the difference between crisis and problem. All it takes for us is to think we’re in the middle of a crisis – life-or-death – and that’s enough to power up Flight or Fight.

Which means we’re going to have feelings! And their mission is to GET US MOVING – either running (best choice) or fighting (remove this scary thing from my life right now!) Like them, don’t like them, try to bury them, knock yourself out – you’re going to have feelings.

So it isn’t about liking or not liking our feelings, any more than it is about liking or not liking your eye color or your height. They just ARE. The real question is what do we DO with those feelings as we’re having them?

I have two answers for you –

Don’t Start the Wave / Ride the Wave

Disputing Feelings 2

The first answer is, of course, to avoid firing up Flight or Fight in the first place. And that’s the eventual goal of this work – to learn to NOT let our thoughts scare us the way they do now. As we get more and more skillful in our practice of converting crises back into problems in our thinking we will be less and less likely to get anxious in the first place.

Along the way, however (and essential to the work of reaching that end goal) we need to learn to ride the wave of our emotions once Flight or Fight is engaged. This is the perfect place for a surfing metaphor, so grab your board shorts…

Surfers understand that waves are NOT, by their nature and size, controllable. You don’t paddle out to surf with the expectation that you’re going to control ANYTHING but your reaction to the wave – period. When you’re starting out you pretty much suck at wave-riding. You get tossed around a lot, you feel helpless a lot of the time, and you’re convinced you’re never going to get it right.

But you do get better at it, with practice and determination, and part of what helps you get better is learning to just ride the wave rather than fight it. And that’s a great parallel with the feelings of Flight or Fight. Once we activate that mechanism, no matter HOW much we want to control it, it is going to do its thing.

And, as in surfing, the more we get freaked out by the wave of our feelings the worse we make it! Which, at the start, makes us even crazier. And even after we learn this crucial lesson about feeling our feelings, allowing them to just happen, we still have to practice discounting the meaning of those feelings.

That’s why discounting the MEANING of those feelings is so central to this work. Those intense feeling amplify our fear for two reasons: 1) we label them as bad, scary, evil, linking them to the thoughts that start those feelings in the first place, and 2) we’re afraid that they are never, ever going to stop/leave us alone.

ALL of that fear is about the future – yes? Every last bit of it. The future is the problem – not the feelings. The heart of all of this is the meaning we give our feelings. And meaning is a mental process, a learned process.

That doesn’t mean we set out to makes ourselves fearful, it just means that, with a combination of lack of understanding and worry about the future, we’ve learned to scare ourselves silly with our thinking and our physical and emotional reactions.

Here’s some really good news: you only need to get a little ways down the road of this work to see the results start to happen. That doesn’t mean you’ll turn a corner and suddenly it will be easy.

You have to do the work, and that means ups and downs, good days and bad days. What I mean is that you’ll begin to get it, begin to feel yourself NOT making it worse, begin to get skillful at both allowing your feelings and discounting their importance to you (when you’re anxious.)

Please don’t take my word for any of this! Nope, paddle out yourself and start the work. The waves are not good or bad – they just are. Your feelings are not good or bad – they just are. They are not prophets of doom, they don’t have certain knowledge of the future (any more than you or I do), and they can’t hurt you.

But they can scare you – until you begin to reframe what they MEAN. Then they start to become less and less frightening. There will be definite bumps – days or even weeks where the work seems endless and deeply frustrating. Which is to be expected. We, most of us, have spent a lot of time (years or decades) scaring ourselves witless with our thoughts AND our feelings.

Just don’t forget there will also be victories, and slow and steady progress, and you’ll reach a point where you’re aware that you just tried to scare yourself, and it didn’t really happen. You’ll have found that you’re starting to learn to ride the wave.

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