I'm continuing to shamelessly steal more good ideas from Reid Wilson's book, Don't Panic, and it's time to put these ideas into play, so let's get started.
The first step is learning how to calm the body and clear the mind of negative and fearful thoughts in order to be mentally sharp and alert, ready to quickly take care of ourselves. There are several simple ways to do this and, with practice, get good at it. All involve muscle relaxation techniques as our muscles naturally tense up when we're feeling anxious and on guard. Practicing these techniques creates new pathways in the brain that soon become muscle memory. And practice them during low-anxiety times when you're not feeling under stress.
Here are a few simple ways to do this. Sitting comfortably with eyes closed, take a long, deep breath and exhale it slowly, silently saying "relax" and counting each exhale from ten down to one. And then do it again counting down from twenty. Notice the body and mind becoming calmer.
Another technique is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation and simply requires tensing up a specific muscle such as your fists for five seconds and then releasing. Then repeat, moving up the forearms, biceps, shoulders, neck, etc. And then repeat with the lower body, calves, thighs, abdomen. This exercise is based on Newton's Third Law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Contracting and then releasing muscles causes them to go into a relaxed state. Try it a few times with your fists to get the idea.
Meditation and guided imagery are some other good ways to achieve a calming state. The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook suggested in my previous post is an excellent resource. Getting into a calming relaxed state is essential to controlling panic. By the way, these practices are excellent daily tools for relaxation and stress management and not just panic.
OK. So now that we've created a calming response our "supportive observer" can step in and take control over panic. Our S.O. (think Significant Other), unlike the negative observer, has a new attitude and way of thinking about things that's permissive, flexible, accepting, and gives us more freedoms and options. It's voice says "I can...It's OK" and is uncritical and non-judgemental.
Here's an example: I'm going into Starbucks to get my Grande Caramel Macchiato but remember that I had a panic attack the last time I was in there and had to leave. It's crowded and my worried observer says this is frightening and I'll have another attack and be out of control. So based on that interpretation I make the decision to leave. Maybe even rationalizing by telling myself I spend too much at Starbucks anyway.
Alternative scenario: I recognize I'm focusing on negative thoughts and decide to interrupt and stop them. Practice becoming aware of negative thoughts in general and shifting away from them, asking yourself, "Is this thought useful to me right now?" (See blog post The Useful Thought Question). Doing this, I've already disrupted the negative thinking. Starting the calming breaths, I tell myself it's OK to be a little nervous but I can handle this and it's a chance to practice my skills, I don't have to get it right the first time.
And it's OK to leave if I have to until I'm calm enough to go back in. Rather than focusing on my sensations, I can shift away from them (Remember, what we focus on expands) and focus my attention on other things, the breakfast muffins in the case, the serial numbers on my credit card, shifting my car keys from one pocket to another.
I once had a client who was a building contractor and got panic attacks in Home Depot. He gradually conditioned himself to overcome them by walking through the store handling and studying hammers, wrenches and plumbing fixtures while doing calming breathing each time he felt the panic rising until it passed.
Some of these ideas may sound silly and overly simple but doing something of relatively little importance slowly, methodically and that requires concentration is a distraction from negative thoughts and flips off the emergency switch. You won't get it right every time and will catch yourself drifting off into the worried, critical and hopeless observer comments. That's OK. As soon as you realize it--and you'll get better at it with time and practice--disrupt the pattern and shift back into the supportive observer mode. As long as you can do this, you'll be controlling panic, not it controlling you.
Next Time: RECOMMENDATION FROM THEFEARMONSTER'S BANNED BOOK LIST