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This post is all about application of the notion that our anxiety springs from one central source – a nasty habit of asking ourselves scary “what if” questions about one or more topics. Today I’m going to demonstrate the process of unpacking those what if questions – finding them, seeing how we are making them into a crisis, and converting them back into what they are, at most – a problem.

Key points to remember in this discussion: 1) We don’t have to be conscious of what if thinking to have it scare the crap out of us. Very important to keep this in mind. We usually start this work rattling our own cages constantly but not really being clear on WHY – what the what if thinking is precisely. 2) It is in the nature of the Comfort Zone to resist this kind of examination. Each of us winds up saying “this stuff is too scary to think about” for a long time, consciously and unconsciously. It’s going to take some work and time to get clear on your what if thinking – and more time to get it converted back to what it is – a problem.

Let’s start with a brief summary of how we start scaring ourselves – how we get to what if questions driving us crazy…

Thinking plus Flight or Fight Equals What If – where the Trouble Starts

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I hear some variation of this what if just about every day. It makes a ton of sense. We get rattled by our fearful thinking – whatever it is – and we have Flight or Fight lurch out of the shadows and start shouting at us that something is WRONG!

And there is something wrong, in the sense that we are scaring ourselves silly. But for too many of us we’re not clear where the scaring begins or how much we’re letting both our fearful thinking and the reactions of Flight or Fight make us crazy.

Let’s be very clear – our anxiety started, at some point in our past, in our thinking. Whatever is happening at the moment, however crazed we feel we are right now, it can all be traced back to a moment when we learned/were taught (by circumstance or people around us) to see some issue, problem, challenge as a crisis – to see it as life or death.

That it wasn’t (or isn’t) life or death doesn’t matter. What matters is that we learned to SEE it that way. The moment we did that we who fight anxiety began to back away, flinch back, avoid that issue or challenge because we were seeing it as terrible, destructive, life or death.

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When we did that we engaged Flight or Fight, our natural defense system in the presence of life or death danger. And one of the most useful things Flight or Fight can do for us when we’re facing down actual life or death danger is figure out, RIGHT NOW, what might get us to safety.

If we’re backed against a cliff facing down a pride of lions this is damn useful. If we wake up and we smell smoke in the house this is brilliant. This mechanism does its thing at blinding speed, we’re thinking about how we get to safety and we’re already in motion, grabbing kids, finding a stick to fight off lions (or more likely scoping that thin path up the ledge to safety) –

In other words Flight or Fight is asking a fierce amount of “what if?” questions, all for the purpose of deciding which route to safety is the best, which course of action to take to get us away from whatever the danger is in front of us. All good – in real crisis.

But this amazing mechanism works exactly the same way the moment we THINK we’re in danger. It is here that we started to get stuck in the quicksand of anxious thinking, and it is here that we have to get our thinking cleaned up if we’re going to break free of anxiety.

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We Freak Out over Flight or Fight Reactions

One fiercely common example of what if thinking centers then around Flight or Fight reactions. LOTS of us get very caught up in this or that Flight or Fight response symptom, and then spin off into what if thinking about that symptom or symptoms. (For a list of the most common ones see the post HERE.)

Let’s try a common one – shallow breathing. There you are, Mr. or Ms. Anxiety Fighter, walking along or sitting at your computer, and BAM, you’re breathing is suddenly noticeable. You feel like you can’t get a deep breath. This scares you/freaks you out, so you start focusing on trying to breathe, or maybe you try distracting yourself, or you do whatever you do to comfort yourself or get away from this scary thing…

And you are what if thinking, right there, right now. What if this means something is wrong with me physically? What if I’m sick with something and don’t know it? What if this means I have cancer, or a brain tumor?

Another set of questions is simply what if this never stops? That’s scary to us precisely because we’ve made, all unintentionally, this symptom INTO something scary, and we spin that out into forever. Of course this anxious thinking opens the door to all of our other anxious thoughts – what if I can’t keep this job, what if my Mom dies soon, what if I never fall in love, you name it.

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Here’s the good news in this firestorm of anxious thinking: it’s all in our thinking. Every last bit of it. It isn’t Flight or Fight – shallow breathing, in this case – that’s the problem. It FEELS like the problem. It sure is the focus of our conscious thinking. But the problem is the thinking we’ve attached to this thing, not the thing itself.

Take “what if this never stops?” That seems scary as hell! But that thought isn’t anything in reality – it is simply and only our fear of what might happen. The truth is (and I fought this very hard when it first became clear to me) that we’re feeding and encouraging that shallow breathing by our thinking – in this case, by our what if this never stops thinking.

We have to disrupt, challenge and shut down that thinking. That’s hard at the start of this work. We FEEL like something terrible is happening with this shallow breathing. We want to make it stop by force of will. We want someone to turn it off for us. It’s too terrible to have to sit through, so we just want to run away – medicate with food, or some drug, or maybe just sit in our quiet corner and tremble, hoping it stops by itself.

But the way out is shutting down that what if thinking that is the problem in the first place. This applies to all of our Flight or Fight reactions. Feeling an overwhelming sadness? Sure you are. You are what if thinking about one or more (usually more) terrible fears about the future. What if this happens? What if this never gets better? What if I’m ALWAYS anxious? Etc. Who wouldn’t feel sad under the barrage of that kind of thinking?

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Feeling your heart race? Mouth suddenly so dry you can’t swallow? Dizzy as hell? Feeling mysterious and sudden anger? Does everything seem pointless? Guess what? Behind all of that is what if thinking, firing up Flight or Fight reactions.

We Don’t Stop this on a Dime

We have to go to the source of the problem to make this anxiety crap stop. That’s hard because we’re afraid to just “be” with our Flight or Fight reactions. That’s hard because we may not always be clear at the start of this work, or even well into this work, about which what if questions are scaring us – we’ve been pushing them away for a LONG time.

And this work is hard because we’ve gotten very, very good at avoiding our Flight or Fight reactions – we’ve learned to really scare ourselves with them. No question about any of that. But the work remains – identifying, tackling and changing that what if thinking.

I was, for two decades, terrified in my core of vertigo/dizziness/being lightheaded. Started for me in Junior High and haunted my days until my 35th birthday. I wept, raged, medicated with food and anything else that was at hand that also didn’t scare me, meditated, distracted myself, but the fear was always there.

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Then I met this whack job who said maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t my dizzy that was the real problem. Maybe it was what I was telling myself about the dizzy – and a whole lot of other things. I fought that tooth and claw for months and months. I tried to endure the days, endure the dizzy and the fear, but that didn’t change anything.

But I was learning to unpack my thinking. I was seeing how much I scared myself about a lot of things – my career, my relationships, who I was in the world, what failure looked like to me – I had a LOT of what ifs in my thinking. They were eating me alive, truth be told.

I identified those what if fears. I began to understand how they were problems. Some of them were serious problems. Some of them were only problems in my thinking. Some of them had never been problems at all. And as I got good at that I reluctantly realized that even my dizzy was just a what if question – what if this never stops, what if this goes on forever, what if I’m never free of anxiety?

I had been feeding and sustaining the dizzy for decades – and I had no idea. I was furious, I was scared, I wanted to do anything but face dizzy down. But face it down I did. I started refusing to engage in the what if thinking any more. It was hard. It was damn hard some days. I had been doing it for years and years.

And as I practiced that I began to scare myself less. Oh, you bet there were burps and backslides. I got confused, easily, but looking for NO dizzy as the mission, rather than seeing dizzy for what it was – a Flight or Fight response, something physical but not dangerous. I learned, and relearned, and relearned.

Guess what? It stopped being scary.

You can do this too.

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