Facing Panic is Practice, Not a Test
As you begin taking action to face a panicky situation, your attitude about the task will be an important factor in your progress. I instruct my clients to consider any activity they engage in as “practice.” I take a firm stand on this point. Never view a future task as a “test” of your progress or of your ability to overcome panic. Never look back at an attempted task in order to label your efforts a failure. Never invest your sense of self-worth in the positive or negative outcome of your plans.
It seems that people who are prone to panic attacks turn many experiences into tests. When you decide to enter a previously difficult situation, do you say, “This will be a test of how well these new skills work”? As soon as you declare it a test, your body is going to secrete adrenaline, because you will be saying to yourself, “Uh oh, I’d better do well,” while you simultaneously imagine yourself failing. When you say, “Uh oh,” you secrete adrenaline through your body, and you will feel anxious. The more you set up future events as tests, the more you are going to feel anxious.
People declare, “This is a test” before events, and they declare, “I failed that test” after events. I have watched clients improve steadily week after week. Then, one week, they inevitably have a small setback in their progress. From this one episode they become dejected, depressed and demoralized. They are full of self-critical and hopeless thoughts. It is not simply that they say, “I failed,” but they then say, “. . . and I shouldn’t have,” or “. . . and that means I should quit trying,” “. . . what’s the point,” “. . . and that proves I’ll never change.”
When you decide that all your experiences are practice, you are, in effect, saying that you are both willing and able to learn from each of those experiences. You might fail to meet a certain goal by a certain time, but your intentions aren’t a failure, and your efforts aren’t a failure. They are the successful ways that people learn: setting goals and applying effort. No one knows everything about any particular subject. Our greatest scientists continually create new questions to ask about their field of expertise. These brilliant men and women would be the first to defend the importance of maintaining the open, curious, exploratory mind of a student.
When you test yourself during every activity, you inhibit your learning. If you say to yourself, “That action I took yesterday proves that I’m never going to make it,” you essentially have said, “Don’t bother learning from yesterday; it’s too late for you.” Of course, the truth of the matter is that making mistakes and studying them are among our best learning tools.
Since everyone who takes on a challenge has setbacks, you can assume you will too. When you hear your self-critical or hopeless comments rise up, let them go. They will only distract you from learning.
It’s true that if you set a goal of remaining at a party until 11 PM, but your discomfort caused you to leave at 9:30, then you failed to meet your goal. That is like throwing a dart at the bull’s eye from 15 feet and missing it by three rings. Let that experience be feedback to you as you take corrective action. What can you adjust for your next throw? Can you take aim at a different spot on the target? Give the dart more arc on the throw? Concentrate on your follow-through? Step closer to the target?
As you approach events, concentrate on what you can do to improve your outcome. Experiencing some worry and anxiety about the outcome is understandable. Just don’t let it consume your creative thinking. There are two important focal points for your attention when you leave a scene without meeting your goal. The first is, “What can I learn from my experience in that situation that I can apply next time?” The second is, “How can I take care of myself now that I am leaving this difficult situation?” Practice the skill of supporting yourself in the face of a disappointment. If your goal is improving your performance next time, how do you want to treat yourself after your difficulty this time? Stop being critical of yourself and begin developing a supportive voice within you.