These days, it has become essential for almost everyone to develop techniques for dealing with the sort of low-level anxiety that seems a part of daily life and also for talking ourselves off the ledge when we are heading towards a full-blown panic attack.
Here are three simple, concrete steps to take to calm down and move forward.
STEP 1 – Get Real!
Most anxiety is all in your head. Our brains and the parasympathic system that controls the fight, flight, or freeze reactions respond to our perceptions, not to “reality” itself. If you think something is happening, your brain will react, whether it’s really happening or not. (Think Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds.)
If you were calm and rational in the middle of a panic, you would realize that 90% of your thoughts and perceptions were, well, crazy talk. Unfortunately, you are in the middle of a panic, so you aren’t calm and rational.
The best thing you can do for yourself in a panic (and the best thing you can do for someone around you who might be panicking) is to simply focus on the immediate reality. Take the time to consciously focus on the chair you are sitting on, the temperature in the room, the sounds that you hear around you, the texture of the fabric of your clothes… anything in the here and now. Conscious breathing is also great at this point – especially if you are bordering on an actual panic attack.
I absolutely promise you that where you are is less scary than the imagined crisis that is causing your panic, even if you are in an emergency.
STEP 2 – Get out of your head
Now that you are back in the here and now and a little bit calmer, it’s time to deal with the underlying cause of the anxiety.
Here is the most important rule: unless you are actually being chased by a tiger or about to fall off a cliff, your fear is completely useless.
Actually, it’s worse than useless. The effects of fear on our cognitive and physical abilities is well documented and something to get really scared about. The problem is that fear comes with a built-in rationalization system, literally hardwired into our brains. Basically, if we are afraid, the fear system commandeers our rational brain and causes it to focus ONLY on things that justify being afraid, which, of course triggers a feedback loop making us more afraid and starting the whole process over again. This is true whether you are conscious of the thoughts or not.
So, the only solution is to short-circuit this process. We have to literally get some distance on our thoughts to be able to make sense of them. This is where writing things down can have an almost magical effect. Usually, it doesn’t matter if you ever look at what you wrote down again. It simply breaks the feedback loop in your brain.
The process is very simple – take a pen and a blank piece of paper and start writing whatever thoughts are going on in your head without censoring or editing. No one is going to see this – maybe not even you. Keep writing until the thoughts in your head stop bouncing around and bumping into each other.
A little trick that I’ve noticed for myself and heard is true for others is to focus your attention on writing as neatly as possible when you are doing this. Technically, this draws on the right side of your brain, balancing out your analytical left brain. Also, it increases focus and causes your thoughts to slow as well. Whatever the technical reasons, it seems to have a beneficial effect –plus your writing looks all pretty.
If you would like, you could do the classic thing of listing pros and cons of your situation, or brainstorm options for things to do. The important thing, really, is to clear you head of repeating thoughts by getting them on paper where you can get some distance from them, and some peace and quiet in your brain. All the rest are just details.
STEP 3 – Do Something!
The natural response to fear is action of some kind – you run, you hide, you found a new religion. You DO something. We are the only animal on the planet that thinks thinking might work. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a very important skill to have. But if you are afraid of something, you need to act to resolve it.
The problem is that we often get overwhelmed, usually because our imagination takes over saying “but it shouldn’t be like this” or “I bet there’s a perfect solution out there… somewhere else.”
This is where I can’t say it any better than the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
… the strength to change the things I can
… and the wisdom to know the difference.
Once you have gotten all your thoughts and ideas on a piece of paper, the next step is to figure out what you can do about it. The hard part of this is realizing all the things you can’t do anything about and accepting them. You will never be younger. You will never be able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. And you are probably not going to win the lottery. Sorry.
But don’t let the fact that you don’t have a perfect solutions blind you to the fact that there is a lot you can do, even if part of that is to be graceful in accepting what is given.
Don’t worry about perfection. Don’t worry if the thing you are doing is the ideal thing to do as long as it’s the best thing you can be doing now. List your choices. Double check that they are actually things you can do. Pick the best option – usually that’s the one that calls out to you to do, not the one that you think you “should” do – and take the first step.
And then DO IT! Start small. Then be willing to check-in after the first step to see if you need to make revisions.
And one last hint: if you pick an action and then can’t find the strength to actually do it, you haven’t picked the right choice. Go back and look at your choices again. Sometimes it’s like flipping a coin to decide if you are going to have chicken or fish. You may not agree with the coin toss, but you’ve still figured out the right choice in the end.