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So I rambled on in my last post about confronting the fear of our natural alarm/defense system, Flight or Fight, instead of persisting in the (almost always) unintentional habit of letting that alarm system feed our anxiety. In our fight to get free of the burden of chronic anxiety, whatever forms it takes in our lives, we have to be clear on the real problem – anxious thinking – and practice NOT making the alarm system that’s reacting to that thinking the focus of our energies.

This post I want to push this discussion a little further by talking about where we tend to “flinch back” in our lives from the walls of our Comfort Zone – from the places we’ve learned to run away/hide from the reactions of Flight or Fight.

Let me just say for the record that EVERYONE, regardless of whether or not they deal with chronic anxiety, winds up with these places/Comfort Zone walls. It’s impossible to be human and not have Comfort Zone boundaries of one kind or another.

It might be the guy who is a great athlete, comfortable in his personal relationships, a confident business person – but shaken to the core when he’s invited to get up and speak to an audience. Or it might be the terrified panic attacker sufferer who can barely leave the house but is a true Master of the Kitchen – no recipe, no foodstuff daunts him or her when they are in front of that store. Everybody has areas that they have little or no fear about, and areas that scare them/make them flinch back.

EVERYONE has boundaries that their experience, coupled with Flight or Fight, has solidified into those walls. To be alive and be human is to have safety boundaries. The only real question is this: are those boundaries something we’ve CHOSEN, or something we’ve allowed to happen, deliberately or not?

To break the hold of anxiety our mission becomes one of deciding where to not flinch back anymore.

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Not All Comfort Zones are Created Equal

Let’s be clear first that I’m not saying that Comfort Zone boundaries are bad things by themselves. Like so much related to anxiety there’s nothing inherently good or bad about the restrictions we are tempted to place on ourselves around things that make us anxious/worried/afraid.

Nope, it’s just what we do as creatures that live in the world, dealing (as we did for so long in the natural world) with the very real dangers that threatened life and limb. For some things it makes a heck of a lot of sense to just stay away from them, period.

Like, for instance, hot stoves without proper caution. Or crossing the street without looking both ways. Or walking back to your car late at night and not being aware of your environment. Or eating food from dicey-smelling leftover containers. (Really a bad idea – take it from me…) All these things are great for Comfort Zone restrictions.

So when your brain says “hey, you know what? Let’s go to McDonald’s – I don’t like how this Tupperware has turned green in the fridge” (responding to Comfort Zone experience prodding) then hurray Comfort Zone, hurray brain! Good work, and that’s the system doing just what it is supposed to do.

But some Comfort Zone boundaries don’t help us at all. Some of them (as I’m sure you already understand) can REALLY cramp our style and shut down our life.

Perhaps the biggest problem with that shutting down is that we’re too often not even conscious of just how fast or how easily we flinch back from those boundaries. Again, this work becomes about becoming deliberately aware of where we have drawn walls around our lives, as well as conscious about WHY we’ve done that, and then challenging those beliefs/assumptions.

In other words we have to take charge of the usually unconscious creating of Comfort Zone walls in our lives. WE have to start deciding where we like having our natural alarm system go off to warn us away from danger/risk, and where we DON’T want the alarm system to respond. Finally, we need to learn to live with the alarm while we push a Comfort Zone wall back in our lives, to give us more space to live and grow and respond more comfortably to the world.

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Comfort Zone Walls –

One example from my own life is how freakin’ freaked out I was about getting dizzy/experiencing vertigo. (Can’t overstate this for myself.) I first acquired my fear of being dizzy way back in Junior High, and I had only a vague awareness of just how much I had learned to RUN AWAY from even the vaguest hint that I might feel unsteady on my feet.

I can make that stronger – I HATED that sensation. I had developed the notion, somewhere along the way, that one day being dizzy would start and never, ever stop – and that scared me more than I had words for, back then. That fear would in turn generate this vast, overwhelming sense of sadness for the life I would never have because of that endless vertigo spell.

So anything at all that hinted at the potential for feeling dizzy became something I learned quickly to automatically avoid. Too-soft beds and chairs, where I felt like I was sinking into the mattress or cushions, became too scary to sit in. Plugged ears from allergies risked balance problems, and so allergy attacks and stuffed sinuses because frightening – which meant that exposure to anything that might make me congested became something to avoid.

This avoidance pattern ramped up when I had panic attacks come to stay in the winter of 1990. I bought a brand-new, firm mattress bed that winter, in a desperate effort to eliminate any chance of feeling dizzy in bed, only to have a massive panic attack one night in bed, which drove me to the couch for months and months. I learned to hate that bed because I had decided that it put me at risk for feeling dizzy.

I could go on with more examples of how just this one Flight or Fight sensation came to have a tyranny over my life, but the point is I just kept flinching back, retreating further and further from anything that might smack of being dizzy. I took my thinking for granted, which means I took my flinching back for granted. All I wanted was to NOT feel anxious and experience those “terrible” sensations.

But what I needed to do was turn around and a) challenge my thinking about what being dizzy MEANT, and then start discounting the importance/implications of experiencing dizzy in any given moment. It meant pushing back against my Comfort Zone walls.
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I’ve Said it Before and I’ll Say it Again…

In case it isn’t clear from my many blog posts on this topic that REALLY SCARED ME. It scared me because a) I had really convinced myself, all unawares, that one day dizzy would come and never, ever leave – so I had no choice but to run away, and b) the sensations were, as a result, much too terrible to endure.

You know exactly what I’m talking about, yes? It wasn’t like I was conscious or very rational about any of this – those assumptions were givens, bedrock truths in my thinking. But as I begin to understand that maybe my assumptions were wrong it was still damn scary to even think about doing a 180 and actually inviting the experience of dizzy into my day. I had spent 20+ years training myself and my body that dizzy was just too awful to risk, EVER.

Yet, amazingly enough, it was the morning that I finally got mad enough at my fear (and sick enough of the limitations it was placing on my life) that I lay down on a bed and deliberately courted vertigo again and again that I finally really, solidly stood and pressed against that metaphorical wall of my fear. And, incredibly, I lived to tell the tale. 🙂 It was a game changer…

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t “just” stop being afraid of vertigo. Just that fateful October day and my first effort generated attempts at panic attacks for the entire rest of the day. But that was more of the same – that panic attacks were just Flight or Fight responses, and that I didn’t have to automatically default to being afraid of them either.

Not comfortable. Not exactly a recreational activity! But absolutely necessary if I was to fight free of my automatic flinching away from scary Flight or Fight sensations and emotions.

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Feel the Fear and DO IT ANYWAY

Sure – easy to say, scarier to do. But that’s exactly the road out. It’s a simple sequence – forgive me for repeating it yet again here at the blog:

1) Get clear in your mind that you are dealing with problems – not crises. If this was a crisis you’d be half-way to the horizon by now. F or F doesn’t screw around in the presence of real danger! Nope, you’re, unintentionally of course, converting one or more problems into crises – and Flight or Fight is trying to warn you away/get you away from that scare problem-as-crisis.

2) And speaking of Flight or Fight, all you’re experiencing in your body and emotions IS Flight or Fight. Those crappy physical sensations (like my vertigo, or another person’s racing heart or labored breathing or sweaty hands or whatever) and those surging emotions (sadness, despair, gloom, rage, guilt, etc.) are just Flight or Fight trying to do its job. It’s misfiring in this situation – but it isn’t to blame. WE are to blame – in the sense that it is our thinking that’s starting Flight or Fight up in the first place.

Which means we can start challenging the real significance of those responses! Yes we’re scared by them. Yes we have developed a powerful habit of “flinching back” from them. Doesn’t mean we have to keep flinching back. We can stand our ground – shakily at first, maybe only for minute at a time at first – but if we do that work in combination with #3 we can break that habit –

3) We have to reframe that problem-as-crisis back to problem status. We have to identify the thinking we’re scaring ourselves with (#1) and then diminish that self-scaring by seeing the issue for what it is. We’ve almost certainly convinced ourselves that it REALLY IS a crisis – the overdue bill, the scary phone call, the confrontation with the teenager, the unfinished homework, the changing of living location or job, etc.

4) This work takes TIME. Which means not flinching back again and again and again. And we will be better at this some days more than others. So one day we’re heroic and the next day we suck! OK, so what? This is not a clean linear progression, and it definitely isn’t “lose 50 pounds in 30 minutes.” 🙂 It is work across time, requiring regular practice.

Which mean we have to take care of ourselves. We have to take breaks. We have to seek out encouragement where we can get it. We can’t do this work 24/7. We need downtime and feel sorry for ourselves time and eat a cookie time and get a massage time. We may have to be mad and cry and break some dishes.

We will definitely have to create an ongoing dialogue with ourselves, to track what we’re learning/unpacking in our thinking, to chart our victories and learn from our defeats, and to remind us of the basics when we get off-beacon.

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Don’t Flinch Back

If you’ve been reading this blog at all you’ve heard this routine before, several times. I repeat myself here today because this is how we practice not flinching back. This doesn’t mean you have to do anything perfectly, or that you won’t fail sometimes – maybe a lot at the beginning.

But the way out of the Comfort Zone prison we create for ourselves is through the walls – the Comfort Zone walls. Those walls will fight us – that’s their mission. They’re trying to keep us safe. But we don’t need this version of safety – sitting in the dark, afraid of our bodies and our feelings. We need to break out of those walls. We can do this work. We just have to practice not flinching back…

Alrighty! I promised we’d tackle closet monsters in my last post, and so we shall, starting today. Let’s start with a little discussion about those brains we have –

People are complicated! More specifically the human brain is complicated. (I natter on more about that brain in THIS post, talking about human thinking and the largely unconscious nature of that thinking. Please read this post if you haven’t already – it’s really useful for the next few blog post discussions here.)

In today’s writing I am expanding on how that unconscious thinking, specifically our core beliefs and assumptions, becomes the primary seed bed of our anxious thinking, and that we need to examine those beliefs and assumptions if we’re going to win this fight with anxiety…

It is my experience that most of us don’t get a really good picture of how our brains work as we move through school and grow up. Too many of us have the mistaken idea that our brains are like backyard wading pools on a summer day – bright, clear, and not very deep. We tend to treat our thoughts as consisting entirely of what we’re conscious of at the moment – whatever thoughts are in the spotlight of our attention.

We don’t understand that we have been busier than we know, from the moment we’re born, developing basic assumptions and beliefs about the world, how it works, and what we’re supposed to be doing from day to day. Those assumptions and beliefs get established and then literally fade into the background of our thinking.

Let me say that again: we have an enormous amount of thinking going on that we almost never consciously review or even notice in our day-to-day lives. And from that background that thinking drives an impressive amount of our reactions and behavior – way more than most people ever stop to seriously consider.

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Why do we care? If we’re fighting anxiety it is usually the case that a LOT of our anxiety is being driven by the assumptions and beliefs running in the background of our thinking. I’ll make that stronger: if we’re going to effectively combat this crap called anxiety we’re probably going to have to wade into at least a partial review of our assumptions and beliefs about the world and ourselves.

You Have a LOT of Unwritten Rules!

Here are some questions to get this conversation really started:

How are you supposed to act around other people?
How should other people act around you?
What makes a person a good spouse?
What must you do for and around your parents?
What do “good kids” do?
What should you never do?
What should you always do?
Who comes first – you, or other people?
What would make you a success?
What do you think of failure?
What is unforgivable?
What is universally true – in your opinion?
What constitutes “selfish?”
What constitutes “lazy?”
What do “normal” people do?

And these are just starter questions – I could go on for pages and pages asking questions like this. How we answer these kind of questions can tell us a remarkable amount what drives anxiety.

For lots and lots of people (heck, maybe even you!) the answers to these questions are supposed to be obvious to EVERYONE. Everyone knows what “lazy” looks like, right? Or what “normal” is supposed to be? And of course there’s only one standard for success – right? Or is that right?

Let’s try that first question I put up – how are you supposed to act around other people? Let’s include in that question issues like what should you always remember to ask, or what is never OK around other people, or how they MUST see you/think of you. What do you assume must be true when you’re around other people?

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Here’s one silly but VERY relevant example: I know two people, right now, who are terrified of farting around other people. I don’t mean just embarrassed or troubled – I mean SCARED TO DEATH that they might pass gas around someone else. It is unthinkable, it is unforgivable, it is so WRONG that they have even assumed that such a mistake would end a relationship/friendship permanently.

And, as you might guess, this simple, rigid, what some might think is a rather minor issue can generate a lot of anxiety for these two people. Here’s the kicker: neither one of them had, as adults, even consciously known that this rule was so strong for them. It was literally in the background of their thinking, operating as a base assumption.

But that base assumption was driving a lot of behavior, and as I said a lot of anxiety. For one of them eating anything that might remotely generate gas for them was off-limits. (And be clear that this person hadn’t actually verified for themselves whether or not a food in question was for SURE a gas generator for them – they just kept adding to their list out of fear that a specific food MIGHT make them gassy.)

For the other person they began eating out with friends or family less and less, mostly for fear that they wouldn’t be able to get to a bathroom in time in case they felt the need to pass gas. Let me remind you that neither one of these poor folk were conscious of the decisions they were making to avoid breaking this rule for themselves – and they were equally unaware of this assumption generating the amount of anxiety it was doing for both of them.

Your Thoughts are NOT Your Own…

Well, actually, your thoughts ARE your own – but you are not the master of entirely too many of your thoughts. Witness the two people I just discussed – how much their behavior was being decided by unconscious assumptions of what they should or shouldn’t do.

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What this means for those of us who fight anxiety is that we need to get clear on where our unconscious rules are getting us in trouble in respect to anxiety. This is where a lot of us – maybe most of us – get ourselves deeply frustrated in our fight with anxiety and depression.

Let’s take our fart-avoiders. They started with a problem EVERYONE ON THE PLANET experiences – passing gas now and again, very human function, really, trust me – and turned it into a crisis. Let’s make that stronger: they started with what some other people might regard as a minor issue, an annoyance, and turned it into a fear that got so big it severely hampered their interactions with other people.

Now I’m not saying it is good form to just pass gas anytime and anyplace. There is a time and season, yes? 🙂 But a little common sense and perhaps some idea of what makes us individually gassy is probably all we need to cope with this issue. We DON’T need to make it into a potential, looming disaster, stalking our days, shutting down our lives.

Yet we can’t get to that place if we don’t first understand the rules we’re holding ourselves to, and then make some conscious decisions to modify them/make them more human. Because, permit me to say, EVERYONE farts now and again. (The measure of how many people are affected by this one rather minor issue-turned-to-crisis is how many of you, dear readers, are even faintly troubled by the use of the word “fart” in this blog post…)

If Only Our Fears Were Limited to Passing Gas…

Sadly, they are not. We have much bigger monsters (in our thinking, anyway) stalking us in the nighttime hours, trashing our morning waking up, crippling our progress through the day. We have fears around money and money management, relationships, career, aging, physical health, mental health, performance anxiety, you name it.

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And given the nature of anxiety and Flight or Fight we are NOT prone to deliberately, doggedly looking at the thinking that we’re doing to scare ourselves. Nope, we run away. Do it long enough and that scary thinking fades into the background, lost in the automatic routines that dominate our day.

Then, one terrible day, anxiety comes to bite us HARD. And we tell ourselves “gee, I wonder why I’m so anxious? I can’t think of anything that’s really wrong.” Well, of course we can’t – because the thinking that is scaring us is way in the back of our minds, just part of the fabric of our unconscious beliefs and rules.

Maybe the belief is something like this: “I can’t trust myself to take care of myself.” That single, simple belief can generate a ton of different behaviors. We retreat from the world into some safe place – a marriage, stay home with our parents, hide behind a very, very safe job, look to our children to take care of us, etc. We stay away from anything new or risky. We assume that we’re not competent to manage change and disruption in our lives. We throw up our hands the moment we’re challenged by something.

ALL because we’ve got this powerful basic belief calling the shots in our thinking. We’re prisoners of our thinking and we don’t even know it, not consciously.

So what to do? Well, that’s simple to answer. It’s a fair amount of work, and it won’t happen overnight, but it is completely within our reach.

Somebody Hand Me a Flashlight –

1) Start with your anxious moments. What feelings are you experiencing? And what do those feelings point to you in your thinking? It is very common for the first thoughts we can identify to not necessarily be the most fundamental belief that is freaking us out – but it is usually several steps in that direction.

And yes, this is yet another example of what I call “unpacking” – identifying the anxious thinking that generates our anxiety in the first place, the problems we’ve turned to crises in our brains. But this is in some respects the ultimate unpacking – getting down to the essential assumptions that are driving our anxiety, the very bottom of the barrel.

This may come quickly – or this may take some time. I know for myself I have identified a base belief in one session of journaling or discussion – and I have taken over a year in some instances to do that same thing. Some of it is how much it scares us, as well as our belief in our capacity to deal with that scary belief/assumption. Some of it is simply the practice of doing this kind of internal examination. Many of us have very little practice sitting with, identifying, dialoguing with and attempting to change/rewrite our basic beliefs. It takes practice…

(and I’m sure many of you are sick of me using THAT word again…)

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2) Speaking of reframing, that’s every bit as important as identifying that scaring thinking in the first place. Just because you HAVE a belief doesn’t mean you’re doomed to keep it! Talk about a base belief – too many of us don’t even understand that we don’t have to STAY the prisoner of our thinking. We LEARNED that thinking in the first place – anything we learn we can learn differently.

Let’s go back to farting again. Let’s say we believe that farting in public is the worst thing EVER. Beyond words horrible. OK. But we don’t have to keep thinking that. We can change that belief (with deliberate effort and some time) to something more human, like “well, I’d prefer not to pass gas here on this crowded bus, but if I do I won’t be the first person to do so, and most everyone will survive the experience. Yes, I’ll be embarrassed, but I don’t know these good people, and people pass gas all the time and seem to not get attacked by an angry mob. I’ll probably be OK.”

3) Speaking of angry mobs this work will almost always make us aware of other base beliefs/assumptions that are there in the back of our thinking. So I start with figuring out my fears around farting, only to realize that I’m really more scared of what other people might think of me. And I realize that this fear is even more insidious, drives even more anxious thinking and behavior on my part. So I add that to my list and begin some work around changing/diminishing/rethinking my worries about the perceptions and reactions of other people.

Maybe that terror of other people not liking me/treating me with contempt/being angry with me can begin to take a more relaxed stance. Maybe I just would PREFER to not have people be dismissive or judgmental of me – but I can deal with the folks that are, because I start reminding myself that I can’t control what everyone else thinks of me. And I also get clear that no matter how hard I work someone in the world won’t like something about me. Just how things are.

(which rocks some of your worlds, yes? Maybe a good place for you to start this work?)

4) KEEP A RECORD. Do a journal. Do a computer Word file. Do something to create a record of your self-discussion around this thinking and learning about yourself. Add to it. Review it. Start a real concrete record of your assumptions and beliefs. You’re be creating a map of how you think – and giving yourself the power to challenge, change or leave alone those patterns of thinking – in the ways that work best to diminish anxiety and give you (maybe for the first time in your life) some control over your thinking.

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Get Your Waders On –

It’s time to start taking charge of your thinking. You are much smarter and stronger than your thinking habits and training, and you are very capable of being the boss of your brain. It can get pretty uncomfortable (but no more uncomfortable than the tyranny of our anxiety), and it can be frustrating and slow-going at times – but it is infinitely worth the work.

Next up – some more examples of identifying base beliefs and changing them to healthier, more rational ways of thinking.

I have been working with a very old and close friend about his making a change in the kind of work he does. (I’ve been doing a lot of that recently – more about that in upcoming blog posts.)

He has been thinking about the Fear Mastery idea of problem vs. crisis, and he made an interesting statement to me last week. He said that when he’s crisis mode he only sees one answer, but when he’s in problem mode he sees multiple solutions.

I think that’s exactly right. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today – how we need to understand that we literally don’t think as well when we’re in crisis mode as we do when we’re not. I can make that stronger: in some respects we really have to learn to question our thinking when we’re in crisis mode.

The Risks of Tunnel Vision

I have written about some of this in earlier blog posts. When we activate Flight or Fight one of the many things that happens in our bodies is that our brain prepares for crisis. This means several aspects of our thinking change or refocus when we’re getting ready to run or fight.

One thing that changes is our range of view – our capacity to look at the big picture. When we’re NOT in crisis mode we have a wider scope in our thinking. When we’re under attack (literally or just in our thinking) our view narrows down.

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Which is brilliant if we’re really facing a crisis. Our attention HAS to get laser-focused, because we have a real, physical challenge that has to get resolved RIGHT NOW. In the natural world that laser focus might mean the difference in seconds between survival and being dinner, or at the very least being seriously injured.

But that’s the rub: when we’re anxious we’re NOT facing a split-second, life-or-death situation. We are actually facing a problem or issue or concern that needs problem-solving, not crisis management. It FEELS like a crisis – but those feelings are fooling us into the wrong kind of thinking for our situation.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Let’s say you come home from work and you and your significant other (spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, life partner, you name it) have a disagreement. Well, really it’s more of a fight. 🙂 You both get mad, there’s a little (or a lot) of shouting, and now everything feels messed up.

Maybe you storm out of the house/condo/apartment/tepee. Maybe you get in the car and you start driving around. You’re angry, you’re hurt, and you’re saying to yourself “either they apologize or I’m leaving!” Because it FEELS like you’re in a crisis – this fight is terrible, it might be the end of your relationship, how will you ever sort this out, etc…

Except that of course it is pretty unlikely this one fight is the end of your relationship, yes? Sure, those fights happen. And they probably needed to happen (with maybe a little more training in how to do conflict well, for most of us.)

But, as you begin to calm down, as you begin to move out of crisis thinking (sooner or later most of us do) then you begin to see things a little more clearly. This probably isn’t one of those end-of-the-relationship fights.

Which is another way of saying you’re seeing the larger perspective on this current relationship challenge… as opposed to framing it as a make-or-break crisis.

The Dangers of Being Sure

But sometimes we don’t stop there, right? Sometimes we stay mad, angry, afraid. And so we begin to spin out scenarios for the next time we talk to our S.O.

We do those hypothetical conversations in our head where we say this and that, and then everything blows up, and then pretty soon you (or they) are moving out of the house/condo/apartment/tepee, and then you’re getting a divorce, or living alone in a shack, and you’ll never be in love again, and…

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Then we get home from our drive, and our S.O. says “hey, you know, I was out of line, I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Or you walk in and they look sad and you realize you really over-reacted. Or maybe both. And now, again, you’ve shifted from crisis to problem thinking, and all the drama and upset has suddenly become kinda silly, kinda narrow-minded…

Suddenly you’re not thinking you need to move out, or tell him or her that unless this or that happens this relationship is OVER, or most of that angry/frightened thinking you were doing 10 minutes earlier.

Yes? You’ve been here and done that, haven’t you? Or maybe you nursed that anger and that limited view for a couple of days, or a week, and then you kissed and made up. Or just maybe you kept treating it as a crisis, and so the two of you ended up going separate ways – only to, further down the road, realize that you really didn’t see things clearly at the time.

When we are afraid our view narrows –really narrows. We can be SURE that we see the future, SURE that we know something terrible is going to happen, SURE that we’ve looked at all the possibilities and this outcome is the ONLY likely one, etc.

We do it all the time! You do it, your friends do it, I’ve done it (and still do it sometimes, yes, even Erik the Fear Guy), all because we’ve for some period of time become the prisoner of our own Flight or Fight thinking.

Here’s something to consider as you think you’re sure about ANYTHING when you’re anxious (and not actually facing a Bengal Tiger.) When we’re in problem thinking mode we tend to be a LOT less certain about things we’re thinking. We tend to gather information, do research, think things through a little (or much) better, etc.

But when we’re afraid, anxious, terrified, lost in what MIGHT happen (according to our fear) then we can very easily fall into certainty that our terrible future scenarios are actually dark prophecies – and that we’re doomed to see them come true.

And It Isn’t Limited to Love!

We can do this I’m-sure-this-is-the-only-answer thing with anything in our lives. We hear that there might be layoffs at our company and we assume it will be us. Then we start worrying every day, every hour about what we’ll do if we’re laid off.

We start getting edgy and defensive when work stuff comes up at home, we start looking for proof that the boss is out to get us, we dream of winning the lottery so we can escape this nightmare of losing our job, and when we get home we bury ourselves in the TV or some other way to not think about the certain loss of our job. We’re SURE that we’re going to get laid off…

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Well, maybe you WILL lose your job. But at this point in the story you sure as heck don’t KNOW it yet. And what has your worry done for you so far? We are all very much like deer in the underbrush at this point – what we SHOULD do is start making plans and figuring out what comes next, but instead we stand trembling, hoping against hope that nothing bad happens. We are treating a problem like a crisis, and it is sucking the life out of us!

Here’s another something else to consider in this tendency. We’re TERRIBLE data-gatherers when we’re afraid, at least as far as most decisions are concerned. We might be hell on wheels at figuring out the best escape route if we’re caught in an earthquake – that’s the kind of thinking Flight or Fight is brilliant at doing.

But when it comes to considering alternative perspectives, calmly researching what our options are, sitting down and considering what we want from the whole thing, getting other people’s opinions, etc., well, we’re not at our best when we’re in crisis mode.

So How Do We Get Past That Feeling of Certain Doom?

1) The first thing we need to do is QUESTION that certainty, as opposed to letting it pound through our brains unchallenged. Sure, it FEELS real, and certain, and true. But decisions made under anxious, stressful conditions are way too often less than smart decisions.

In other words we should WAIT until we’re not quite so driven by our Flight or Fight reactions before we make any serious decisions. I really, really wish someone, anyone in my past had understood this basic truth and helped me understand it as well.

We just don’t manage problems nearly as well when we’re doing anxious thinking. Anxiety evolved for crisis, not for problems. If all you took away from this blog post was the idea that you should question the decisions or assumptions you’re making when you’re ramped up with fear/worry/anxiety then you’ve done yourself an enormous service in your work to overcome anxiety.

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Repeating: if it isn’t NOT a crisis (however it feels) then it is a problem, right? And if it is a problem then it can wait an hour, or two, or maybe even twenty-four, yes? Let me make a confession here: I’ve made some incredibly dumb moves acting out of crisis thinking, instead of waiting even 30 minutes to see how I think when I start to calm down (or when I create some calm thinking space even in the midst of my anxiety.

If the house isn’t on fire, or you are not being considered as a main course for dinner by some large hunting cat, maybe you really can just wait a little while before you start making decisions. That will not come easily. Flight or Fight is all about getting you to safety NOW – which is why it becomes so important to develop the skill I push in this blog of learning to separate the life-and-death stuff from just the stuff we MAKE into life-and-death stuff.

2) Take your crisis to your trusted friends and see what they think. When someone comes to us and it isn’t a crisis for US we can be pretty dang smart. 🙂 Tap the brilliance of your friends and allies when you’re in crisis mode.

Specifically, give them your crisis and see what they say. Then LISTEN to what they say. It doesn’t mean you have to take their counsel – it simply means that they are you NOT battling Flight or Fight for the moment, so they can be in problem-solving mode for you. If nothing else they will be seeing a larger picture than you (unless of course you fire up their anxiety – listen for that as well.)

And, of course, we all find it valuable to have someone really listen to us when we’re ramped up. If nothing else we can get our fear/worry out of our head and out where we have a chance to look at it slightly less frantically…

3) Try writing out your anxious thinking. I recommend this in general when we’re tackling the work of unpacking our fear, and this can be a good in-the-moment way to slow down the rush of anxiety and get a little perspective.

Just sit at your laptop or at your kitchen table and let the worry pour out on paper. See what you say when you write it out. Maybe pour it out and then step away for an hour or three (see recommendation #1 above.) Come back and look at it again. How does it look now?

Another variation on this is to come back and then, even through your anxiety, attempt to treat it AS a problem – purely as a mental exercise. What IF this was not a crisis? How would YOU frame your needs then?

4) Sometimes, as you probably already get, the very best thing you can do is go DO something else, deliberately. Clean a room, go for a run or a swim or a hike, make a meal, work on the cure for cancer, whatever will pull your focus for a little while.

Our brains work in various ways, and one of the ways our brains work best is when they have time to run a problem in the background of our thinking when we’re doing something else. It can be very useful to put your mind on a different situation, challenge or piece of work (or even just go recreate) and see what that busy brain you have does with a little time.

Challenge Certainty!

This might be a great motto for all of us who wrestle with or have wrestled with anxiety. Fear can make us so sure that there’s only one answer, only one outcome, only one dark scenario that can result from this or that worry.

And the brutal truth is most of the time that certainty is wrong. We’re not so good at remembering that when we’re anxious, but it’s still true.

We’re all much more capable, smarter, stronger, resourceful and resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Where can you question your fear’s certainty today?

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