Now at any moment in your life you are either chasing a dream or you are running away from a nightmare. Your brain has just 2 gears, forward and reverse, you are either moving forward, chasing a dream and trying to get something good to happen, or you are in reverse, running away from a nightmare, trying to prevent something bad from happening. Your brain operates completely differently when it is chasing a dream versus running away from a nightmare.
For example, lets say that you go to the state park to take a short hike to the summit where you can see this wonderful panoramic view of just about the whole state. As you drive up your brain has the image of the summit and the wonderful view in your head and you can’t wait to get there, you are chasing dream. You park as close as you can get to the ranger station and as soon as you get out of your car you are hit with a sickening stench. You look around and realize that the awful smell is coming from a decrepit old outhouse. You are still chasing your dream, you still have the panoramic vision in your head so you walk as far away from the outhouse as you can without interfering with the important thing, getting to the summit. You see the sign pointing the way to the summit and you start walking up the path.
You hear a rustling in the underbrush and you almost go into shock when you see a 500 lb bear coming right at you. You turn and start running, thankfully you aren’t far from the ranger station. you know if you can just get to the station or your car you will be safe. But bears run faster than people and even though you are getting close to your car, you realize that the bear will most likely catch you before you get there, the ranger station is closer and seems a safer bet, but you are not sure if its open, then you see the outhouse that is even closer and even better, the door is ajar. You run into the stinky place, close the door and breath a deep sigh of relief as the bear circles around the outhouse a couple of times before losing interest and loping away. You are so happy to be safe that you don’t even notice the smell until after the bear leaves.
The key thing here is that when you were chasing you were on your way to the summit, when you were chasing your dreams, things like the detour around the fallen tree and the stench of the outhouse were just obstacles, things that you had to overcome or avoid so that you could get to your goal but you never lost sight of your goal, you just were flexible in adjusting your plans on the go, making mid course corrections so that you could realize your dream. As soon as the bear showed up your brain shifted into fight-or-flight. You no longer cared about reaching the summit or seeing the panoramic splendor. Instead all you wanted to do is to get away from that bear. So instead of putting in a positive destination into your GPS, like you did when you were trying to reach the summit, you now put in a negative destination, a sort of ‘get the heck out of Dodge’ direction, you don’t care if you go east or west or north or south as long as you get away from that bear. If your car was closer, then that is where you wanted to go, if the ranger station was closer then that would have become your preferred destination. Your luck was that the stinky outhouse was the closest and so that was the one place on earth that you were dying to get to as fast as your legs would carry you. The point is that when you are running away from a nightmare you are not particular about where you run to, its not about getting any where it just about getting away from the threat. So, as the saying goes, any port in a storm, you will change your destination to the easiest or most sure fire way of getting away from the nightmare consequence.
There is another important difference between dreams and nightmares. When you are chasing a dream, trying to get to the summit, you were trying to get something good to happen. This means that you had two possible scenarios, either you got to your goal and you were better off than you were before or you didn’t get to your goal (the state park was closed) and you stayed the same as you were. So either things were going to be better or things were going to stay status quo. As soon as the bear showed up you were no longer trying to get something good to happen, you shifted into reverse and you were suddenly only concerned with trying to prevent something bad from happening. You now had a very different set of choices, either you get away from the bear and you keep the status quo (two arms, two legs, all major body parts working) or you are the bears high protein meal. So you shift from where the worst thing that can happen is the status quo, to one where the absolute best thing that can happen is the status quo.
So how does this help explain why anxiety leads to procrastination and other nonproductive behavior? Can it explain why it is so hard to get yourself to do what you know you should do, like go to the gym to work out? Well, remember that at every moment in your life you are either chasing a dream or running away from a nightmare. Dreams can be little dreams, getting a hamburger for lunch, hiking in a state park or big dreams, winning the nobel prize. Nightmares can be big, getting away from a 500 lb bear with all of your original body parts or small, being tired on the treadmill. If the image that gets loaded in the GPS is positive, if it triggers positive feelings then you will be chasing a dream and you will think flexibly about how to work around any obstacles in your way. If the image triggers negative feelings then you are running away from a nightmare and you will find any port in the storm, you will do anything, check you emails, tell yourself that there is a TV program that you just have to see tonight, go sit in a stinky outhouse, anything that you have to do to get away from that negative.
So how can you fix this problem? It’s simple once you understand it. All you have to do is to make sure that you are focusing on a dream, not a nightmare. For example, when you want to go to the gym you have to make sure that you have a positive image of your goal, and remember that a positive image is only positive if it generates a positive feeling when you think of it. So if you enjoy the good tired feeling that you get after a good workout in the gym then you should focus on that. If that doesn’t work for you then maybe the good feeling you get when your wife compliments you on sticking to your program. Again, this will only work if your wife tends to compliment you on things like that AND that when you imagine it you get a warm fuzzy feeling. So what about the typical motivators that people talk about, like the goal of getting into your skinny jeans or looking good at the next college reunion. Those will work also, but only when you follow the chase a dream rules, you have to load up a vivid image of the surprised look on your old college friend’s face when you show up all slim and trim. It also has to pass the positive-feeling test, it will only work if the image generates a positive feeling. There is a weakness in the college reunion type goal because ideally the dream doesn’t only motivate you to get to the finish line but it also activates a set of memories that give you guidance and direction on how to get there. The destination of getting that good tired feeling or of being able to run up the stairs without getting tired activate memories of times in the past when you got into shape. The college reunion might trigger memories of times when you had the last laugh or got someone to feel jealous of you but these memories themselves are not likely to give you useful pointers about how to get yourself to push yourself physically. So where both the college reunion and the good tired images show up on your GPS only the good tired one also gives you turn by turn directions on how to get there.