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When I posted my discussion of breaking the Habit of Worry 2 posts ago I received quite a bit of feedback in email and at the blog.  People told me they liked what I said there, but that they were also looking for more specifics on what to do to shake free of that life-sucking habit.  I am VERY appreciative of this kind of feedback, as it helps me sharpen my focus on what I call the “toolbox” of Fear Mastery.  Hence, this post.  Please, I’d like very much to hear from you what you think/experience with this information as you work to shake free of your own worry habit. 

First, it is important, crucial to keep in mind that this entire situation begins in your thinking.  The reflex to worry developed in us because we taught ourselves that worrying somehow keeps us SAFE.  Let me repeat that: we are constantly finding things to worry about because we’ve trained ourselves (and our environment has helped in that training process) to worry our way to safety.

Yes, that sounds wacky, but if you have this particular piece of Comfort Zone programming, it also sounds exactly right.  It is essential to keep in your focus that you are running a series of thoughts in your head, and those thoughts are in turn triggering some degree of activation of your Flight or Fight Response.

Where I believe most of us get stuck is in those Flight or Fight Responses.  We even start to think about putting down our worrying, just for a moment, and our Comfort Zone says “HANG ON THERE BUDDY – you’re not going ANYWHERE.”  You start to experience mild to severe signals in your body and feelings, whatever those are for you.

Some of us get sweaty palms, and our hearts race (or seem to clench, or squeeze, or however you describe the sensation.)  Some of us get dry mouths, deserts really, and a headache might start up behind our eyes or in the back of our heads.  Some of us get that queasy thing in our stomachs, with maybe a pinch of chill or a feeling of mild shock.  We might feel anxious, nervous, restless, irritated, sad, angry, or some combination of all of those.  And NONE of that feels good.  All of it is that Flight or Fight Response, warning us that we’re getting close to something that we’ve LEARNED to be afraid of.  I’m betting that, for many folks reading this, just the list of possible responses/sensations has you feeling uncomfortable – yes?

OK.  Stay calm.  This is exactly where you’ll begin to find your pry-bar to shake free of this tedious habit.  Because NOTHING, absolutely nothing, is wrong right now.  That’s not to say that your brain hasn’t started to race somewhat, and you’re beginning to cast around for something to worry about.

It may not take much casting.  You may latch onto how your foot has been mysteriously hurting, or how your boss has been acting funny, or the way your husband or wife is suddenly seeming distant or grumpy or irritated, or maybe you’re thinking that your 401K isn’t big enough… etc.  Let me say it again: just experiencing the sensations triggered by your thoughts can stop you in your tracks from even considering taking a break from the worry habit.  But that’s all it is – sensations, feelings, all conjured by your Flight or Fight Response, trying to steer you away from the scary thoughts you’re thinking.

Isn’t it maddening?  That we can be, in very real ways, controlled by something as intangible as thoughts and feelings?  Well, we don’t have to be controlled by them.  It just takes some conscious awareness of our reactions, and a little practice challenging those reactions, and the thoughts behind them.

You have to see it as a kind of merry-go-round, which you step onto and begin furiously pushing off with one foot, spinning that thing faster and faster in your thinking.  Merry-go-rounds don’t stop on a dime.  But they do stop!  And they stop when we stop pushing off and refuse to give the thing any more energy, any more momentum.  We may have to hang on for a little while so the thing can lose power – so our bodies can relax as we deliberately challenge our thinking, then practice changing that thinking.  But those thoughts will slow and change, your body will start to relax, just like that merry-go-round.

The way to break the worry habit is to challenge it.  Call yourself out on that habit and begin the practice of changing your thinking.  This is what  I call triad – the 3 elements that make for the disruption and pushing back of the Comfort Zone:

 1) Decide that you’re ready to break this frustrating habit, and set a little time (10 minutes, to start) to just sit with yourself and challenge your thinking around the need to worry.

2) As you do that challenging, expect your body and feelings to react – the Flight or Fight Response will kick in and try to steer you away from this challenging of your fears.  You told it, after all, that this was too scary to think about, so it is just doing what you told it to do.  Ride the brief, tedious, anxiety or fear wave, and remind yourself that nothing’s wrong, nothing is any different from 10 minutes ago, you’re just doing an exercise, the world isn’t coming to an end.

3) As you’re sitting with your body sensations and feelings, identify the thinking that is scaring you in the first place.

In this case you’re afraid that if you DON’T worry something bad will happen – which you and I both know is crap.  Sure, if FEELS like that, and it is draining and scary to face that thinking down – but then it’s draining and scary to worry all the time, isn’t it?  And imagine what it would be like to not worry like this anymore?

No, the worry habit isn’t helping you – it is getting in the way.  Because worry isn’t action, and worry isn’t concern, and worry doesn’t help a (pardon my language) damn thing.  What keeps you as safe as you can be is taking concrete steps to address your worries, and then putting the worry down, letting it go, and getting on with your life. 

As I’ve said throughout this blog worry stems from turning a problem into a crisis, and thereby activating your Flight or Fight Response.  Your single goal is to move the faux crisis back to problem status.  Because a crisis is you being attacked by a Mongol Horde, or teetering on the edge of falling off a cliff, or anything that is immediately threatening to kill or seriously injure you.   Otherwise it CAN’T be a crisis, which makes it a problem. 

We’re only 16 days into the New Year of 2011.  You can begin to find real relief from this (for most of us) decades-long habit of worrying to keep safe, and you can start to find it THIS MONTH.  Don’t expect it to get done in one practice, or two.  Do expect it to rattle your cage, shake you up a bit.  That’s the Comfort Zone’s job – to get you to stay away from scary, dangerous things.

But there isn’t any danger here, and you and I both know it.  Do expect to feel tired, depleted.  Do expect to find reasons to iron the cat, wash the trees or do anything rather than this simple 10-minute exercise.  Believe me, the cat and trees can wait.  This small amount of work, even with how it feels, will produce results that will frankly amaze you.  To repeat – you will not see this move in just one session.  You’ve given this a lot of energy and time, and it will take time to change.  Not nearly as long as you took to build up the habit, but still, a little time.  Take breaks, distract yourself, relax – then try it again, the next day, in a couple of days, and keep at it.

Please, let me know how your practice goes – very happy to offer support, encouragement, clarification and cheerleading.  And please let me know if this is helping the questions you have around challenging your Comfort Zone and getting to work on your freedom.  Next up – more about unplugging those thoughts, and some of the wisdom of Dr. Susan Jeffers, the author of “Feel the Fea and Do it Anyway.”  Till then – fight for your freedom.  You can shake free of the worry habit.

I have a married couple in my life that are sweet, good friends to me.  They have both asked for coaching around dealing with anxiety in the last year.  One of them has seen some good progress in this work.  He’s developed the capacity to look at what is making him worried and fearful, deal with the alerts coming out of his Flight or Fight Response, and then do what he thinks is needed to unplug that concern.  He did some great work with this around both work problems (erratic boss, erratic work conditions) and a potential diagnosis of cancer.  As it turns out it was a false alarm, but he stood calm in the storm, and to a large degree did so with the tools of Fear Mastery.

While I’m very proud of my friend, and pleased with his success, I’m not writing this blog post to pat myself on the back for anything.  He did the work – I just provided the tools.  I’m writing this post because it is his significant other that I want to discuss.  She is every bit as smart as he is, and just as kind and gentle as he is.  (They’re a great couple of people, simply put.)  But they have a crucial difference, something she learned in her life that he didn’t, a particular kind of anxiety that may just be the most insidious anxiety possible.  She learned that she could only be safe IF she found something to worry about.

This particular anxiety has been surfacing a lot in the work I’m doing these days.  I’m calling it for the moment the habit of worry.  It is a very corrosive, draining fear.  I’m beginning to believe it is different from other specific fears/anxieties in that, in a very real sense, it is not seen AS a fear or anxiety.  If I’m afraid of cats, for instance, then once I confront my fear of cats, well, that fear is dealt with and done.  If I’m afraid of stuttering during a presentation, but unpack my fear and practice moving through it, then I can deal with it and not be afraid of it any more.

But fearing the lack of worrying, well, that has a different quality to it.  Because it isn’t about dealing with any SPECIFIC fear, per se.  It is about being afraid of not being afraid!  My friend and I have talked about this during our coaching work.  She has said yes, she sees that.  And she has worked hard to address some of her specific fears.  She has anxiety around the health and safety of her young son, she has worries about her husband and his stress at work, she has fears about the future for her family – she has a number of things she worries about.

The one fear that we haven’t been able to tackle with any success is her worry habit.  She has a deep, abiding fear that eternal vigilance is the only way to avoid disaster, avoid something terrible happening in her life.  And so when she confronts her worry habit her Comfort Zone REALLY fires up, working to make her run from the horrible things that she envisions when she thinks about letting go of worry.

I wonder how many people wrestle with this fear.  And what a fear to have to fight!  I also have to wonder if most people who fight any degree of chronic anxiety don’t, to some degree, wind up fighting this fear as well (although I don’t know that, and it will take some more time and study before I can know that.)  But I DO know that the answer is the same for this fear as it is for all the others.  It has to be addressed, unpacked, thought through before we have a prayer of being free of it.  Just like facing the fear of making a mistake in public speaking, fear of not worrying is just that – a fear, in our heads, and it is only as frightening as we make it.

It is a kind of magical thinking, and not the Harry Potter/happy kind of magic.  It is a conviction that we can ward off danger by the act of worrying about it.  And nothing could be further from the truth!  My friend moves from worry to worry in her mind, in her day, and gives away enormous amounts of energy in the process.  She addresses one fear, but then has to find something else to worry about, because, in her thinking, if she doesn’t, she’s inviting disaster.  Something bad will happen, and it wouldn’t have happened if she had just thought to worry about it.  She believes that eternal vigilance IS the price for her freedom…

But it is just the reverse.  Her freedom can only come when she decides that her WORRY isn’t helping anything, or anyone.  Her active thinking, her planning, her work, her problem-solving – these can all do useful things for her.  Her WORRY isn’t taking her anyplace.  Just like with every other fear in the world (that isn’t an actual tiger kind of fear) she has to face her thinking, ride out the storm of her Flight or Fight Response trying to get her to run (with all the attendant feelings and physical warning signals she’s come to be afraid of as well!) and then actually nail this simple truth: her worry isn’t helping.

This is hard.  It may be one of the hardest pieces of work in Fear Mastery I know.  But it is completely possible to do – I know from my own experience.  I reached this place too in my life – this ugly habit of having to find something to worry about.  It requires thinking through what you can actually DO about your particular concerns, not reflexively worrying, and not holding on to the Comfort Zone belief that WORRY will keep you safe.  It won’t.  It can’t.  Healthy concern, lucid thinking and whatever action steps you can take that make sense about a particular issue, that will help you.  Not worry.

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