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Problems. Crises. We so easily blur one into the other. If there is something that makes us anxious or afraid of an issue or situation we can, often without being aware of it, move from problem to crisis thinking.

And, as I’ve said about 100 times here in this blog, when we transmute a problem into a crisis, we can’t avoid but activate Flight or Fight – and the madness begins.

I covered two common problem-to-crisis topics in my last blog post – what if I lose my job, and what if someone gets mad/upset/angry with us. Note the use of the words “what if” – a huge clue that we are shifting, if we’re not careful, from problem to crisis thinking. Here’s another “what if” question a lot of us get lost in –

What If I Wind Up Alone/Unmarried/Un-partnered?

I lived a large part of my life with this fear on my shoulder. I remember very clearly the cold sadness in my chest when I considered the possibility of a life alone.

I turned my being alone of the moment, of where I was, into being alone forever. It seemed horrible, terrible, a fate that seemed worse than death. All I had to ask myself was “what if I DO wind up alone?” Things literally went gray for me.

Here’s the thing: I was out at the end in my thinking – way, way out in the future. I was treating the then-current problem of being alone like it had already happened – like I had already lived my life alone.

Which, of course, hadn’t happened yet… but which is exactly what fear/Flight or Fight does – the mission being to find you an escape route from this current dangerous thing…

Except of course there IS no danger. There is the challenge/problem of finding someone to hang with long-term. That work takes some time, for many of us. That’s OK. The point is that it ISN’T a crisis.

Perhaps more importantly it we make it into a crisis we are MUCH less effective at finding that Significant Other! And don’t we all already know that?

It is when we are relaxed, in our skin, NOT lost in our fears and anxieties, that we suddenly run into that person who thinks we’re pretty nifty? It isn’t a mystery. It is us being in the moment.

What If This Specific Physical or Emotional Response to My Fears Never Ends?

Almost everyone that is reading this blog has wrestled for some period of time with fears of this or that Flight or Fight reaction.

Maybe it is physical – chest pain, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, racing heart, dizziness, upset stomach, mysterious pain in this or that part of your body, you name it. Maybe it is emotional – rage, despair, panic, dread, guilt, sadness, helplessness.

This subject is one of the issues I address in email responses and phone coaching sessions almost every day. We can get ourselves really sideways with our fear/worry about these sensations/feelings.

This just in: they don’t mean anything. They are simply signaling to us that we’re thinking scary/worrisome things. End of story. We have those sensations and feelings and where do we go, usually unconsciously? The future.

We ask ourselves “what if this never stops? What if I have to live with this for the rest of my life? What if I can never sleep, or never be comfortable in my body, or…” the litany is all too familiar to most of us.

There’s another Zen-like paradox here: the more we practice “discounting” the meaning of those sensations and feelings the less they will make us anxious. This takes practice – all this work takes practice.

That’s OK. We’ve been practicing our fears for a long time, most of us – it isn’t surprising that it will take some work to get clear of all that effort.

What if I Wind Up With No Money?

This is in some respects a variation on the “What if I lose my job?” fear above. However we get here (job loss, injury, bank fraud, house burns down) some of us are petrified that we’ll be without resources.

And there is reason to be concerned about having enough of the green stuff, no question. The problem turns into a crisis however when, again, we go to the end of the scenarios in our thinking – what if I’m totally without money? What if I can’t pay my bills? What if I have to live with my insane brother? What if…” and again the litany starts.

Yet we do our best thinking NOT in crisis mode (not most of the time) but when we’re in problem-solving mode. Anxiety, as I’ve said here a number of times, isn’t conducive to good critical thinking and decision-making.

Most of us have been thin in the finance department. And, weirdly enough, it didn’t kill us (not if we’re reading this blog, anyway.)

When we’re concerned about money the last thing we need is to be paralyzed by fear and anxiety. We need to be able to pull apart the problem or problems that are keeping us from getting the money we need, and then start working for solutions.

Problem. Not a crisis. Repeat after me…

Enough with the Examples!

OK, that’s all I’m saying for this third Fear Mastery skill for the moment. I want to start with my next blog post on Skill 4 – taking care of ourselves while we’re working on the other three skills – something way too many of us fear/anxiety fighters are NOT very good at doing…

(Video post at the end of the written post.)

I’ve been looking back over my oldest blog posts, and it seems like a good time to take a fresh stab at discussing the basics of the Fear Mastery framework and toolbox in depth. My goal is to make it clearer, more accessible and less academic-sounding than those early blog posts, as well as do some accompanying video blog posts.

With that goal in mind I’m starting with the basic premise of Fear Mastery: EVERY one of our fears, without exception, stems from one of two sources. It either starts with a real, physical danger we are suddenly confronted with, or it starts with something in our thinking that frightens us. End of story. Either we are reacting to a situation that can kill or injure us, or we are reacting to our thinking.

Let me say that again: fear has two and only two origins. Either we are dealing with something that can hurt us RIGHT NOW, or we are dealing with something we’re thinking about, some problem or issue that we’re facing, and we’re afraid of that problem or issue.

Crisis Vs. Problem

In other words you are either facing a crisis (real, immediate, physical danger) or you’re facing a problem (something that your brain finds scary or worrisome, but which isn’t immediate or physical, and can’t hurt or kill you here in the present moment.) Crisis vs. problem. These are the two sources of fear for us human beings.

That sounds deceptively simple. In truth it IS simple, and one of the great weapons we have to deal with fear and anxiety. Simple, however, doesn’t mean easy.

WHY isn’t it easy? It isn’t easy because the survival mechanism called Flight or Fight is a deep and ancient part of our physical, emotional and mental nature. It is powerful, and it evolved to GET US MOVING when threatened with danger (real, or perceived.)

When we are afraid Flight or Fight has one mission – to get us away from whatever scary thing is making us afraid.

Think about it: when you’re faced with a real danger – the brakes failing on your car, a menacing-looking person approaching you on a dark street, an angry barking dog off its leash, anything that could hurt you or even kill you – you don’t have TIME to sit and rationally think through what should happen next. You need to be in motion NOW – and Flight or Fight’s preferred direction of motion is AWAY from the danger.

None of that changes when we frighten ourselves in our thinking. We can be equally afraid of a roaring lion or the IRS wanting their back taxes from us. If we are afraid of it – i.e., if our brains go “holy crap that’s scary!” then Flight or Fight has only one mission – to get us AWAY from that scary thing.

Your Thinking CAN Scare You!

Let me say for the record at this point that I am NOT saying you are “making up your fears” or somehow failing for being afraid of your thinking. Everybody, and I mean everybody, has things they think of that frighten them.

No, the message here is that we can be JUST as afraid of a problem or issue that we’ve turned into a crisis as we can of an actual crisis (i.e., physical danger.)

A large part of the reason that our thinking can be just as scary as an actual physical danger is that Flight or Fight has a host of things it does in response to danger, real or perceived.

I will talk more about that in my next post, but for now be clear that a pair of powerful chemicals in your body, adrenaline and cortisol, get released the moment you are frightened, and they in turn make all kinds of things happen in our body and emotions and thinking.

In other words you are not just reacting to the scary thought, but you are also reacting to the intense responses of Flight or Fight. You gear up physically and emotionally to either RUN (preferred course) or FIGHT (if you have to because at the moment you can’t run, until you can get away or until the danger is over.)

I can’t overstate this part of the discussion. We are literally hard-wired to react with Flight or Fight if we perceive danger – and I mean hard-wired!

You know this yourself from your own experience. You can be frightened and be in motion before you’re even aware that you’re reacting, yes? We have all felt the surge of anxiety and energy and the physical rush of our bodies reacting to a scary thing.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that even our fears about the future, or fears of failing, or fears of getting in trouble, or whatever is scaring us in a particular moment in our thinking (be that conscious or unconscious), can be as unnerving, even panic-inducing, as such thoughts can be.

A Good Mechanism Gone Bad

We have a magnificent mechanism that every living creature on Earth evolved to deal with real, physical danger – the Flight or Fight Response. This mechanism fires up the SECOND you sense you’re in danger.

A finely-developed set of brain processes starts up, which in turn activates a host of responses in your body, and as a result you are doing one of two things – you are either running like hell from that danger, or you are turning to fight that danger UNTIL you can run, or until you’re out danger.

And that’s a GREAT thing! We literally don’t need to worry per se about that kind of danger. 500 million years of evolution have taken care of that for us. In a very sense you can relax about those dangers – you can only do so much to anticipate those dangers and prepare for them.

Otherwise, sit back and enjoy that episode of Seinfeld – you’ll react the way you need to when you’re faced with that danger, to the best of your ability.

No, it is the OTHER source of fear that gets us in trouble that takes us down the life-draining road of anxiety, chronic anxiety, panic attacks and depression. And THAT is what Fear Mastery is all about.

Because if you’re not facing down an angry dog or a blown tire on the freeway, but you are facing down something you have developed a fear about in your thinking, then you have turned a problem into a crisis.

And this is where that amazing mechanism for dealing with physical, immediate danger, so well-suited to handling that kind of danger, can take us REALLY sideways when dealing with problems. It is a great mechanism that is NOT helping us – a mechanism that is in fact making things much worse.

Why DO We Turn Problems Into Crises?

Well, it isn’t so much that we set out to create crisis out of problem. It is that we REACT to a problem that we’re afraid of – we respond to it as a crisis – and that in turn creates a feedback loop. We scare ourselves, our Flight or Fight Response fires up, and immediately we are trying to get away from the thing that scares us… and so the cycle begins.

As an example let’s take one of the classic fears, the fear of snakes. Lots of people like snakes – but some of us are terrified of them. We have all kinds of excuses for not liking snakes, but the bottom-line is that we avoid them because they make us anything from profoundly uncomfortable to panicky about being near them.

We could try to figure out WHY someone has become afraid of snakes, but that’s unnecessary. All we have to know is a person is now frightened of them. The more interesting question is why is another person NOT afraid of snakes… and of course the answer in both cases is what each person is thinking about snakes.

Snakes are by and large harmless creatures that are probably more afraid of you then you are of them. Most snakes like to stay hidden, especially from creatures as large as ourselves. Most snakes are NOT poisonous, and most snakes won’t bite.

But none of that makes any difference if we are afraid of them. It doesn’t matter because of what we are thinking about the snake. We are afraid that something bad WILL happen if we get too close to a snake.

And of course that bad potential thing that might happen scares us – maybe scares us badly. The thought frighten us, and in turn Flight or Fight fires up to some degree, and we are, usually unconsciously, already in motion away from (as much as possible) even the THOUGHT that we might get near a snake.

Another person doesn’t have the same scary thinking about snakes. They are NOT projecting disaster about meeting a snake or being near a snake. So they don’t turn the issue (or what we might call the problem) of meeting a snake into a crisis in their thinking.

Which means they don’t activate Flight or Fight, and they arn’t caught in the feedback loop of their fearful thinking and Flight or Fight responses to that thinking.

We Can Make ANYTHING scary (In Our Thinking)

It doesn’t have to be snakes. Regardless of how that fear started, as long as we are frightened of it, we can turn a problem or issue into a crisis IN OUR THINKING.

Let’s do another example. Let’s say you’re afraid of personal conflict (like lots and lots of people are.) Just the thought of getting in a fight with someone (verbal, not physical – that’s a whole different ballgame) makes you restless, edgy, anxious, worried. You find yourself moving away from even the thought of fighting with someone because it makes you so uncomfortable.

Yet you know people who seem to have no trouble at all mixing it up (verbally, not physically!) with the people they care about, and they seem none the worse for wear. You kind of envy them, really – you wish you could be as straightforward and direct as they are, and stand your ground the way they do.

In a very real sense you are assuming that any conflict will be a crisis – something scary, something that could really hurt you – so you avoid it, like any sensible creature would avoid danger. Here’s the thing – a verbal argument can’t hurt you. It can make you upset, it can make you angry and hurt and sad… or it can be very productive, clear the air, open up communication and improve honesty between two people.

NONE of those things are a physical danger than can injure or kill you. A verbal conflict, or the risk of having one, is a problem, not a crisis.

You Can’t Treat a Problem Like a Crisis

Well, OK, you can. And most of us do, way, way too often. What I really mean to say is that it is rarely useful or productive to treat a problem like a crisis.

The problem with treating a problem like a crisis is that problems need a very different approach. As I’ve already said in this post we are hard-wired for crises, thank you very much.

Problems need THINKING. When we are faced with a problem we need to spend a little time thinking through the nature of the problem, the elements of the problem, and sort out some possible solutions.

We probably need to do a little study or research to get good information (read, get on the Net, talk to people) and we probably need to give it a little time.

As I said, this is vastly different from run-for-the-hills-there’s-a-hungry-tiger-loose responding! But most of us are doing an enormous amount of responding to problems as if they were crises…

The Trouble With Crisis Thinking

When we do make the mistake of treating a problem like a crisis we start a crazed and energy-draining process I call the Chronic Anxiety Cycle. In short we continue to keep treating this problem as a crisis, trying hard to solve it the way we would solve any life-threatening danger.

The only problem is we usually CAN’T solve it that way. There is NOTHING to run from, and nothing to fight -because the crisis is in our thinking, not in the physical world. Ugh! Talk about crazy-making!

More on this in my next two posts. In the meantime here are the takeaways from this blog post:

1) We all have a brilliant, hard-wired system for dealing with real, immediate, physical danger – Flight or Fight.

2) If we are faced with real, immediate, physical danger Flight or Fight is usually our best bet for dealing with that danger.

3) We get into trouble with fear and anxiety when we use that same response to deal with a problem, because most problems require a different approach than Flight or Fight, crisis-based thinking.

Crisis vs. Problem. This is the heart of our battle with anxiety, fear and depression. This in combination with our learned-over-time fearful responses to our Flight or Fight responses – the physical, mental and emotional signals we get as Flight or Fight tries to get us to run away from the scary thing in our heads – is what drags us down into acute and chronic anxiety both, and their close cousins panic attacks and depression.

We don’t have to go there, and if we’re there, we definitely don’t have to stay there! More on that in my next post…

Sometime in the winter of 1973 at the age of 13, I came down with a pretty serious stomach flu. I was sick for several days, and around day 3 or 4, right after bedtime, I found myself experiencing something completely new to me. The room began to spin, or at least that’s what it felt like, and until I finally fell asleep, exhausted that night, I floated, fell and spun, and was both helpless to stop it and terrified at the sensations.

I woke up the next morning tired and frightened at what had happened the night before. This frightening experience would repeat itself for 2-3 nights in a row, followed by one night of simply falling asleep almost before my head hit the pillow, for the next 5-1/2 months or so. I managed to almost completely block even thinking about the coming, very frightening effort to NOT fall, float or spin each evening during the day, and tried everything I knew to distract myself once I had to go to bed. I took to sneaking out of bed to watch TV in the living, and would get in trouble again and again for not staying in bed. I took to hiding my brother’s and I tiny TV behind my bed and watching it until I fell asleep.

If you’ve lived with panic attacks or chronic anxiety, or even if you have something in your life that you avoid at all costs because it frightens you, then you know how hard this period of my life was for me. Thankfully this bedtime nightmare would come to an abrupt stop when I headed to summer camp that year, but while the spells with vertigo didn’t come back when I came home, I had developed a real terror of that set of sensations. In that same 5-1/2 months I had also experienced numbness in my hands and fingers, and that was only slightly less scary than the vertigo sessions.

Not Much Fun

I would move through the rest of my K-12 school experience with no overt further episodes of physical anxiety (although I was clearly anxious – I fought chronic stomach problems again and again, but just assumed it was natural and suffered through them, even though the doctor said again and again that there was nothing physically wrong with me.) I started my first stint in college, and in the middle of my second year I came down with a pretty serious flu.

The doctor I saw that day prescribed Tylenol-3 with codeine, and when I took it that night it was like I had time-traveled back to Junior High – the vertigo and dizziness returned with a vengenence. For the next 4-5 hours I endured the terror that vertigo made me feel, and when it was done I dumped the prescription.

This experience rattled my cage pretty hard – part of me had hoped that I’d never have those sensations again. I understand now that there was nothing inherently scary in the vertigo – lots of people wrestle with this issue, but haven’t attached any fears about the future or expectations of disaster to those sensations. I, however, vividly remembered those exhausting and scary months in Junior High, and, although I didn’t get it at the time, assumed that if those sensations ever came back with any regularity they would NEVER, ever stop. That scared me pretty deeply.

After this unhappy evening I would run as hard as I knew how from even the hint of vertigo and dizziness – these sensations were just too frightening to experience. The same went for numbness in my extremities. I left school the following year, returned home to Las Vegas, then in the winter of 1983 moved to Reno, NV. I managed to avoid even the suggestion of either physical reaction that I can remember (although I know at least twice I was frightened of the possibility of numbness, so I know it was lurking in the back of my thinking.) I avoided it, that is, until a fateful evening in 1990, when I had Chinese food for dinner and it didn’t agree with me.

The Tiger Pounces

I woke up later that night in the middle of a full-blown panic attack, and it didn’t seem to start. I was dizzy and everything was spinning. I was terrified. Worse, my numbness was not just in my hands and feet – my whole body felt numb. I jumped out of bed and did everything I had done in the past to ward off these demons, and nothing worked. I watched TV, ate, goofed off on the computer, and still the sensations came. I finally fell into an exhausted sleep around 4pm, but the next morning I was definitely living in the future, terrified that the nightmare of bedtime from childhood was back.

And I was right – although I didn’t get yet why. It was bad that night, and worse the next night, and so on, until, after not sleeping for 48 hours, I finally made my way to my doctor. It was here I learned that I was fighting panic attacks. I was given Atavin, an anti-anxiety medication, and would wind up sleeping almost 15 hours that day. But make no mistake – the medication didn’t do anything to abate my fears – it was at best a stop-gap to give me time to marshal my energy and keep moving, but always sensing that I was fighting a losing fight – I was still terrified, and still didn’t know what to do about it.

And that last sentence pretty much summarizes the next 4+ years of my life. I worked, I spent time with friends, I ended a romantic relationship of 6 years and dated, I even traveled, but the whole time it felt like the walls were steadily closing in. I worked 3 jobs at some points, did weight-lifting and cardio exercise, and worked hard to distract myself. And that helped keep the fear at bay. But it couldn’t unplug it and get rid of it.

It is important to me that I state for the record that I was still living my life – as stated, still working, still dating, still seeing friends. I was very active. It is my experience that most of us that wrestle with this are people that want to engage life and be productive. Very few people even knew I was fighting the fight I was engaged in. And I resented the fact that my life seemed to be shrinking steadily in the face of my fear. What I didn’t get then was it wasn’t my life that was shrinking – it was my running from my fears, generated by my thinking, that made my life smaller and smaller.

The Last Mile, and The First Hint of Real Hope

I would fight stints of panic attacks from the winter of 1990 to the winter of 1994, but there were always breaks, and the worst of it would seem to calm down after a few days. That all ended when I went through a difficult break-up, and spent better than a month grieving for what I thought I had lost, fearful of never finding anything as good again in my life.

One afternoon things seemed to literally go to hell. I began to have panic attacks, and seemed unable to stop them. I soldiered on for a couple of weeks, but to say I was tired, deeply tired of being afraid and not seeing any hope of getting better, I began to seriously entertain thoughts of suicide. And a large part of my tiredness and desperation was being sick of being afraid of vertigo and numbness.

I will continue to discuss different aspects of my personal work with panic and anxiety on this blog in future blog posts, but suffice it to say for the moment I found a therapist who had some first-generation tools that would eventually provide a decent amount of help. I began to develop a frame around why I was anxious, and if you’ve been reading this blog you’ve seen how I’ve evolved and developed that frame still further. It looked like I wasn’t doomed after all, and that there would eventually be some freedom from my anxiety and fear.

But what I didn’t really come to understand until very late in the work with that therapist (and only in a beginning way) was that I had to face into what I was afraid of – unpack it, as I call it, and turn it back from a crisis into a problem. The first time I successfully did that centered around my fears of vertigo and numbness.

The Tiger Confronted and, Amazingly, Defeated

It happened like this: I had made a commitment to relocate, to San Diego, and my deadline was already up. Winter was coming to the Sierras, and I knew I had to make the move soon. I had done everything I could to prepare physically – clean up the house where I was living, do the yardwork, pack what little stuff I had, arrange for places to stay in San Diego where I was moving, quit my job – but I was still very afraid of leaving this safe place I’d been hiding since the last fight with the panic attacks had begun, months and months ago.

I woke up the morning I planned to leave, and I realized I just had to sit squarely with my fear of vertigo and deal with it. I had gained some clues – I had realized that my vertigo had NEVER gone on continuously without a break. I realized that I had learned to be afraid of my body. What I had to do now was somehow live through a vertigo episode and challenge my thinking around that vertigo.

And that’s what I did. I packed my car, afraid to leave and afraid to stay, and then laid down on the bed I had been using for the last few months. My heart was racing, and I had to fight the reflex to get up out of bed the moment I felt even the suggestion of vertigo, but I managed to stay there. I was obviously anxious, and immediately began to feel the bed spin and fall. I kept reminding myself that this never did go on, that it always eased off, whatever my fears had told me. And I kept telling myself that there wasn’t anything scary per se in the actual vertigo – just in my fears of it and it going on forever.

I don’t know how much actual time passed, but at most it might have been 3-4 minutes. And then the vertigo stopped. I held my breath. Had I really done this? It didn’t come back, so I stood up suddenly and then lay back down again, trying hard to bring it back, now anxious to confront it again. I managed to make myself somewhat dizzy, which in turned scared me, but I did it again. And again it stopped.

Did I Really Do This?

I don’t know how Neil Armstrong felt when he first walked on the moon, but it couldn’t have been any more impressive than how I felt after facing down decades of fear around vertigo. I wasn’t done with overcoming this fear, for sure – I would have to face this fear a number of times in the following months, but in this session I had proven that my fears were just that – fears, not fact. And I had learned that there was no danger in the Flight or Fight sensations (like vertigo, for example) even though they FELT so scary to me.

I’ve mentioned aftershocks on this blog – those reactions to facing into fear that come after you’ve done some work in confronting your fears. I had at least four of those aftershocks on the road south from Reno to San Diego that first day. But I had also “torn the veil” in my thinking, had seen past my fears, and had begun to turn what I had considered a crisis back into a problem, a problem that I could solve, and did, with work and time.

Make no mistake – I wasn’t done with my fear of vertigo. I would have to unpack this again and again in the weeks and months that followed. But that torn veil experience was what told me that it really was in my thinking, and that was where I’d get free of this fear. The habits of two decades didn’t just vanish overnight. We don’t reprogram our thinking (at least not usually) instantly. And it gets very tiring and tedious to keep facing this work. But the way out is through. Let me say that again – the way to end the tyranny of anxiety, worry and fear is to face it, pull it apart, and stop the reflexive (meaning usually unconscious and automatic) frightening, crisis-focused thinking we’ve learned to do.

The goal of this blog post is to provide a very concrete example from my life as a way to demonstrate how the work of facing and unpacking fears (what I call triad) works. It doesn’t have to be fears of physical sensations. It could be facing a situation that frightens you, or challenging a belief that you think you need to re-examine, or facing scary feelings. It is all the same work. And it is work that anyone can do, regardless of how scary it feels. And believe me, I know how scary it can feel…

And speaking of scary, kudos to three of my readers who confronted some serious fears of their own these last two weeks, and lived to tell the tale! One of you fell backwards into confronting your fear of the loss of control over your feelings, one of you took on a physical response of the Flight or Fight Response that really scared you, and one of you dealt with a difficult and anxiety-creating boss. All three of you made progress and dealt squarely with your fears. Nicely done – and best of all, you can congratulate yourselves on doing the work. Your Comfort Zone is retreated (not easily, and not without a fight) and you’re beginning to get some real breathing room. Feels good, yes? Tiring, and difficult, and it would sure be nice if you could just wave a wand or wish it all away – but you’re doing it.

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