In my last few posts I've shared some good tools for managing panic attacks and also provided some useful and interesting information about their physiology. Knowing what's going on and why it's happening can be reassuring in coping with the attacks. Most important: YOU WON'T GO CRAZY and YOU WON'T DIE!
Good information and useful tools for sure, but wouldn't it be better to just be able to face down panic, eyeball to eyeball, knowing we can handle whatever it throws at us without flinching? Knowing we can do this gives us power over panic and removes future fear of it which keeps us on guard and can actually bring on an attack. So let's have at it.
I'm never afraid to steal a good idea and am going to be taking some From Reid Wilson's book, Don't Panic! (on THEFEARMONSTER's banned book list). Trying to escape from difficult thoughts or feelings usually makes them worse. Remember the Chinese finger traps? So instead of trying to escape or change their distressing content, we change our relationship with them by learning to watch them mindfully and at enough distance to realize viscerally and objectively that they're just mental or physical sensations to be noticed. Not true or false reality.
Several posts ago I described how as a kid I learned to disengage myself from pain when having a tooth filled because my sadistic dentist skimped on or avoided using novocaine at all. It's the same idea.
So let's look at how this works. For anxiety or panic to intensify we have to: 1) closely observe what's happening. 2) interpret it negatively, commenting on it with fear and anticipation. Instead, let's think of ourselves as independent observers who merely notice and report on the data we see. Think Star Trek's Mr. Spock. Our independent observer collects relevant information, detached from strong emotions, thinks calmly even when concerned, is devoid of prejudices, gains perspective, and sees problems in an objective, different light. As Sgt. Joe Friday of the old TV series "Dragnet" used to say, "Just the facts, ma'am."
Contrary to our independent observer is 1) the "critical" observer who points out our flaws and past mistakes to remind us of what a failure we are, 2) the "hopeless" observer who expects us to always fail and that there are insurmountable obstacles in front of us, 3) the "worried" observer who is always on guard and anticipates and fears the worst. So what's the alternative?
Simple. Observe, detached from strong emotions, calmly collecting and interpreting the facts objectively, even while maybe feeling concern. Our observer gathers and observes the facts then chooses an appropriate action. Becoming preoccupied with the symptoms worsens them. My wife sometimes comments that when things are going badly, how useful it would be to separate from them and simply observe them as interesting and with curiosity as to how they'll turn out.
It takes some time to do this, 10 to 20 seconds, before responding. In a panic situation it usually takes less than two seconds before concluding we're losing control. The extra time allows us to realistically assess and interpret the situation and then take appropriate action.
Remember, these are physical sensations taking place that are mostly not dangerous but nonetheless unpleasant and frightening. Interestingly, most clients tell me their attacks come out of the blue when everything seems to be going along OK and they're not stressed or threatened. Understanding this is an important first step to effectively managing them. I've said in earlier posts that fear is a bully we have to stand up to or else it keeps coming back.
In my next post I'll share some steps to master these skills. And like getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice, practice, practice. See you then.
THEFEARMONSTER Banned Book Recommendation: The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, by Davis, Eshelman, McKay
Next Time: STARING DOWN PANIC