Don’t Guard Yourself Against Anxiety
Panic leads people to become vigilant. A panic attack hits suddenly, catches you by surprise and causes you pain. Our bodies and minds have trained over hundreds of thousands of years to guard against pain. A toddler doesn’t have to burn himself on a stove too many times before his built-in instinct trains him to watch out for stovetops. In that same way, when you’ve been “burned” several times by panic, your mind searches rapidly for danger signals any time you approach a panic-provoking situation. You are watching, listening, feeling with great attention, on guard in case something “goes wrong” in your body or your surroundings. Unfortunately, all this vigilance only contributes to your distress. You are tensing yourself up in anticipation of a problem. This is the definition of anticipatory anxiety.
What about when a panic attack begins? Think about what you say to yourself. Even during panic, almost all your communications are anticipatory in nature: “I’m really feeling bad right now. What if this gets worse?” “I’m lightheaded and dizzy. What if I faint in a moment?” “My face feels flushed. What if people start seeing this?” On and on it goes. “I can’t let myself get any worse.” “I can’t let the symptoms increase.”
This natural, instinctual response to threat works against you. When you stay on guard as you approach events, you increase your tension and become more vulnerable to a panic attack. When you warn yourself to stay on guard in the midst of panic, you secrete even greater amounts of adrenaline into your bloodstream, causing more intense symptoms. You can’t remain anxiously on guard and simultaneously learn to control panic.
Daniel Goleman once said, “A person prevails over anxiety by sacrificing attention.” To come out on top you must let down your guard. You must not pay such close attention to what might happen next. You must clear your head of its constant and frantic analysis.
Now if you do this — if you stop being so vigilant — you run the risk that something might slip past your conscious attention. Some little twinge in your body might go unnoticed. You might not see that four cars are waiting in line ahead of you in the left turn lane at the stop light. So, as usual, here is an intervention into your problem that can at first make you more anxious, not less. When in the past you have kept your guard up as a way to stay in control, I am suggesting that you now let down your guard. So, you may feel that you are not protecting yourself. If you feel vulnerable, you’ll probably feel a little anxious in response. (This is another reason to become a student of attitude #4, “It’s OK to be anxious here.”)
There are two further considerations here. The first (no surprise) is a paradoxical one: when you are considering the possibility of confronting an anxiety-provoking situation, it is fine to plan out how you will take care of yourself. In Step 7 I will walk you through such preparations. But make those plans with the expectation that you may become a bit anxious, and not with the fearful dread that panic might strike. Include in those plans your decision to accept any anxiety as it arises, without holding yourself in a death grip waiting for its arrival. The paradox to play with is plan, and don’t stay on guard.
Second, let’s consider where you can place your attention when you pull it away from your anxious anticipation. If you will reflect for a moment, I think you can appreciate just how much time and attention you devote to dreaded anticipation. There are so many valuable things to be doing with your attention. The world outside you offers beautiful, warm, sunny days in the summer and the soft glow of fires in the winter, the embraces and laughter shared with those who love you, the challenges of solving problems at work and home, the stimulating interest of conversation, music, study. When you are anxious, turn your attention outside yourself. Become connected to life, and allow that rich healing contact to influence your feelings. Stop trying to figure yourself out! Be anxious and simultaneously become interested in your surroundings.
There is a second choice for your attention when you stop focusing on what terrible things might happen in the future. Pay loving, caring attention to yourself in this moment. By asking, “What do I need right now to handle these feelings?,” you will contribute to your self-control far more than by asking, “What will I do if that (terrible thing) happens next?” Start supporting yourself based on what you need at this moment, instead of becoming anxious about what will happen thirty seconds from now. The upcoming Steps will suggest what actions to take. Apply those skills with the attitude of, “I don’t need to stay on guard against panic.”