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I have been using a couple of terms in the last year here at the Fear Mastery blog, and based on both some coaching sessions in the last few months and some direct questions about the difference between these two terms, I thought it was time for some clarification.


Briefly, when I use the term unpacking, I’m talking about identifying when a person has identified where they have turned a problem into a crisis in their thinking, and doing the work of converting it BACK into a problem/situation/thing to resolve.

This is very about how we are THINKING. We get ourselves in trouble in the first place when we decide that some issue, challenge or problem is in fact a life-or-death crisis that we have to somehow solve NOW.

Perhaps the hardest part of that sideways thinking is that we may not even be aware that we’re doing it. UGH! That’s why I break this out into two parts – first identifying clearly just what we’ve converted from a problem/issue/challenge into a crisis, and then sorting it back out into a problem – or “unpacking” that crisis back into what it really is.


When I use the term unplugging I’m discussing challenging the meaning of our Flight or Fight Reactions, and most specifically the ones that scare us. That can mean either physical responses (racing heart, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, nausea, you name it) or emotional responses (anger, terror, guilt, nervousness, sadness, fear, etc.)

This is very much about how we are FEELING. We can learn to have two things to be afraid of: 1) the scary thinking that we need to unpack, and 2) the Flight or Fight responses that are the natural outcome of us being afraid in the first place.

I call this “unplugging” because we need to climb off the merry-go-round of the ramping up of worry over what these responses mean. And what DO these responses mean? You already know if you’ve been reading this blog – NOTHING. They don’t mean anything, except that you’re afraid. End of story.

Think of your Flight or Fight responses as energy pouring into your body to deal with a real crisis in the natural world – someone attacking you, or your house catching on fire. Those responses evolved to GET YOU MOVING in the face of danger – either to run (preferable in the natural world) or fight (if you must.)

Here’s the thing: if your fear is in your thinking there is nothing to run from or fight. There is some definite need to get your thinking sorted out, and there may very well be a need to address a problem or challenge in your life. BUT IT ISN’T A CRISIS. And that rush of Flight or Fight responses (especially the ones we’ve learned to be particularly afraid of, the ones that freak us out) don’t have any significance other than to let us know that we’re afraid. Period.

Sometimes We Need to Unpack, and Sometimes We Need to Unplug

Unplugging is often what we need to do when we’re already ramped up/freaked out by our fears and Flight or Fight responses. We can barely think, let alone be rational. That’s a great time to remind yourself that, however you feel, there is no deep significance or meaning to that racing heart, sweaty palms, pit-in-your-stomach routine you’re doing.

Unplugging can also be crucial for when we’re ready to push our Comfort Zones, and even as we’re thinking about it Flight or Fight is powering up to make us stop before we do something crazy like challenge our fears. 🙂 Again, just a natural physical and emotional response to the thinking in our heads…

Unpacking is when we’re doing deliberate work, sitting down to take on the thinking that is scaring us in the first place, defuse the crisis we’ve creating (usually not deliberately, just from our assumptions, experience and training) and get our thinking clear.

Unpacking can also be useful when we’re suddenly confronted by a fearful or scary situation. This is usually more useful after we’ve had some practice, but heck, practice it when you get the opportunity, right?

What’s In a Name?

Hope this helps sort out any confusion on these two Fear Mastery terms. So how is YOUR unpacking and unplugging going? Is it more useful today, in this moment, to challenge what your thinking is telling you to be afraid of – or is it more to the point to redefine what those frightening Flight or Fight responses and what THEY mean to you?

Both are important. Both are useful. Together they are two of the most important tools we have in challenging the grip of anxiety in our lives.

I’ve been eager to get to the blog this week.  I’ve had a number of conversations with both friends and coaching clients around the elements of the Fear Mastery map, and my thinking around how those elements interact and reinforce each other has seen some good progress.  Some of that thinking  has been about the Indefinite Negative Future.  It has been impressive and encouraging to hear how many people get traction on their racing thoughts and their anxiety with this single element of the map.  Nothing can suck the joy out of life quite so quickly or thoroughly as an unrelenting dark view of the future.  It gets worse when we’re mostly unaware that we’re generating such a view, and so we continue to live in that despairing, or even hopeless, state.

For example:  let’s say my buddy Max has just learned that he has been laid off from his job.  He is anxious, angry and frightened about the current job market, and so he moves into crisis mode.  He begins to worry about finding work.  His brain, responding to being on full alert (i.e., the flight or fight response) is both ruminating over past experiences where things have been bad/scary/worrisome, and projecting potential negative outcomes to his not finding a job right away (i.e., he is generating “what if” scenarios.)  He both narrows his remembering of the past to negative experiences, AND he imagines bad outcomes to his hunt for work. 

His options seem to narrow in his thinking, and he starts to focus on the worst/most frightening possibilities.  What if it takes months to find a job?  What if he runs out of savings?  What if he has to start tapping his 401k or retirement money?  What if he can’t pay his bills?  What if he can’t find a job at all?  What if he runs through all his money, including his retirement?  I suspect some of you reading here find your own anxiety rising as you read these sentences and begin your own cycle of worry and anxiety – easy to do these days!  Max begins to obsess over these indefinite negative futures he’s creating, and in turn he continues to scare himself, generate more flight or fight responses in his body (physical and emotional), continue to ruminate and worry, and as a result make himself more and more stressed and anxious.

Now it’s possible that Max finds a job the next day, or talks himself down with a good friend about how things are not that bad yet, or gets a grip himself because he remembers that the last time he was out of work new work showed up pretty quickly.  But it is just as possible (and probably more likely, for most people) that Max won’t stop obsessing over his indefinite negative future projections, and he will continue to be anxious and afraid as the days pass.  He will find himself exhausted and stressed beyond his capacity to sustain, and so he’ll begin moving to the next stage of the Fear Mastery map – anticipatory anxiety. 

At this point Max begins to push away the scary future he’s been conjuring for himself – he works to stop thinking about it.  In a very real sense he runs away from the scary future.  He might do a number of things – distract himself with other issues, avoid the topic in conversation, medicate himself (alcohol, hours of TV, video games, excessive exercise, you name it), and works to even avoid the physical and emotional sensations that he’s come to associate with that indefinite negative future.  He is desperate to do anything that will ease the constant pressure of the flight or fight response’s effort to resolve this crisis.  And this makes sense, since he’s trying to solve a problem like a crisis.  Remember that a crisis involves an IMMEDIATE risk for injury or death, you have to act on it NOW, and it has to be resolved QUICKLY.  Not a workable approach for someone out of a job, at least most of the time.  He’s physically, mentally and emotionally weary of being afraid/anxious, and so he starts to push it out of his mind, wall it away from his conscious thinking.  And he begins to anticipate feeling anxious, and in an effort to avoid that closes off the situations and discussions that might bring up the scary topic again.  He’s literally becoming anxious about becoming anxious.

This is a pretty ugly scenario.  And I believe this scenario is being played out by just about every member of the human race, on one subject or another.  So what will stop this madness?  The same thing that will stop it at any point in this Chronic Anxiety Cycle I’m describing – making the simple move from crisis thinking back to problem thinking.  I am NOT saying that will necessarily be easy!  Weeks, months and years of worry rarely unplug themselves in a few minutes.  By the same token we can begin to see immediate results if we’ll work to deliberately unplug the Flight or Fight Response in our bodies and minds.  In the very near future I will begin to outline the techniques that work best for different parts of this cycle.  But first I must outline how we get into the last stage of the cycle, the Comfort Zone.  This is the home of the strongest and most seemingly intractable fears we possess, and any discussion of what to do with fear and anxiety must include an understanding of the Comfort Zone and how it exerts control over our thinking and behavior.

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