These techniques work for me whether I am in the midst of a full-blown panic attack or experiencing some fleeting anxiety. Here are five more ways I deal with my worrying brain.
1. Unravel the worry web.
Panic and anxiety are successful at raising our heart rate because, while we are in that state, a small kernel of a worry is miraculously transformed into a massive web of worries. That takes a bit of sweat and energy. So we have to work equally as hard at unraveling the web of worries back into the kernel or kernels we started with.
Some webs: “This is the end of the world.” “This is the end of my career.” “This is the end of me.” Try to unravel those webs into three sub-worries, such as “My boss hates me.” “The company is tanking.” “I’m going to get fired.” Then break down each of those into three more, such as: “I’m not performing at work,” “blah blah frightening blah.” Finally, you might arrive at some kernels (based on “This is the end of my career”) such as, “My last press release stunk and my boss was disappointed,” and “My resume is not updated.” Even if your kernel is substantial, like “I need a new job, but I’m scared to get one,” that’s still better that sweating over a generalized statement like, “My career is over.” Even if it is.
2. Don’t engage.
When one of my kids is throwing a tantrum, the worst thing I can do, which I consistently do, is yell at them. Why? I give him the attention he is seeking. What really drives him crazy? When I don’t engage at all. Or (this is the worst) walk out of the room.
Our worrying brain in the midst of a panic attack is like a kid throwing a colossal tantrum. Give in to it, and the brain wins. Blow it off, the old noggin might forget about what it’s so upset about. This theory is grounded in neuroscience. A study published in Journal of Neuroscience showed that there is a breakdown in normal patterns of emotional processing that can prevent anxious people from suppressing negative emotions. In fact, the more they tried, the more they activated the fear center of their brain, the amygdala, which fed them more negative messages.
3. Rewrite the formula.
“You are equipped to handle this! You go, girl!”
According to Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., founder and director of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety, the anxiety formula goes like this: Overestimation of threat + underestimation of ability to cope = anxious response.
My exercise of unraveling the worry web aims to break down the threat into pieces that can be addressed and managed. Underestimating the ability to cope is another animal altogether. I have never been able to say confidently, “Self, you are equipped to handle this! You go, girl!” I need to pretend I am talking to a friend.
Psychiatrist and bestselling author David Burns, M.D., calls this “the double standard technique:” you address yourself with the same compassion as you would someone you like and respect. With those two pieces in place, you can begin to build a more realistic response to the panic.
4. Indulge the anxiety.
You’ve tried to break it down. You’ve tried your best not to engage. You’ve tried to rewrite the formula. You’re still stuck. Go ahead and obsess, then.
That’s right. Throw away the self-help books and give the power back to your anxiety. Invite all those bad stress hormones back into your bloodstream and indulge in panic for five or 10 minutes before trying all the other exercises again.
In a famous psychological study from the 1980s, a group of people were told to think about anything but a white bear. Guess what they all thought about? A white bear. So sometimes by trying so hard not to panic, we panic more. Give your brain a break now and then.
5. Get used to it.
Chansky describes the process of graduated exposure and systematic desensitization, a cognitive-behavioral therapy term, as this: “get used to it” (GUDI). That’s the response a number of kids gave her when she asked how they got over their fears. They said they “got used to it.”
Sometimes panic is just about doing something over and over until it gets easier. When I began writing full-time, I became paralyzed every time I sat down at my computer. I spent about 80 percent of my working hours in panic, sometimes shaking and crying at my keyboard. A month later, having forced myself to churn out material practically every day, I am much less anxious. I simply have had to get used to it.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.