Here’s How to Practice Your Skills at Overcoming Panic
Now you are ready to begin working on the tasks you outlined above, while applying the knowledge and skills from all of these sections. The stages of this step are: preparing for practice, beginning practice, responding to worried thoughts, responding to uncomfortable physical sensations, and ending the practice.
As you begin your practice, remember to face tasks one at a time. Don’t look back to your last practice unless it is to remind you of your skills and capabilities. And don’t look ahead as a way to remind yourself how far you have to go. Continue to practice a specific task until you feel relatively comfortable (never wait until you are completely comfortable), then begin the next one. Don’t measure your progress by how quickly you improve your skills. Measure your progress by how persistent you are in your determination to reach your Short-term and Long-term Goals. Shaping your positive attitude each day, and developing a consistent schedule for practice — these two intentions will pay off with success.
Choosing a Short-term Goal
You will be practicing the Short-term Tasks listed under one or more Short-term Goals, so your first decision is to choose a beginning Short-term Goal. There are no rules for selecting the perfect Short-term Goal to work on; use your best judgment to pick one. You have rank ordered your Goals in two ways: how difficult they seem and how important a priority they are. Let those rankings help you make your decision. For instance, there may be a Goal that is moderately hard on your difficulty list but is a high priority. Your desire to accomplish that Goal may help motivate you to work on it now, even though there are easier items on the list.
You also can work on more than one Short-term Goal at a time. Perhaps you choose to focus both on the goal of driving comfortably to the mall and the goal of tolerating exercise that elevates your heart rate. You may have time in your week to practice driving skills every two days and practice cardiovascular workouts on the opposite days.
Preparing for practice
There is a great array of options for practicing Tasks. In the beginning weeks, I suggest that you follow a structure similar to the one I am presenting in this section. As you get more proficient at designing and implementing your practices, then feel free to take “short cuts” in the process. By the end, your practice can be as informal as this: “Hmm . . . I feel anxious about doing something like that. I think I’ll try it!“
For instance, one of my clients is working construction in an office building. One day last month his co-worker reported that one of the elevators had been temporarily stuck between floors for a few minutes. Upon hearing that, Alan became anxious and worried about getting stuck himself. Within a few minutes he excused himself, walked to the bank of elevators and rode one to the top floor and back. He simply would not allow his fears to begin to take hold of him anymore.
Before practicing any Short-term Task that moves you closer to your Goals, consider each of these questions in detail. You will benefit from writing your answers down, making them concrete.
Planning Each Task
- What is my task?
- When will I do this?
- How long will I take?
- What worried thoughts do I have about this task?
- What self-critical thoughts do I have about accomplishing this task?
- What hopeless thoughts do I have about this task?
- What can I say (in place of those negative thoughts) to support myself during this task?
- How can I increase my sense of commitment while working on this task? (information about the setting or even, sense of options, willingness to take risks and reel uncomfortable, use of props such as a book or music, etc.)
- What support do I need from others?
Deciding how long to practice
Whenever possible, practice your task for 45 to 90 minutes at a time. It is true that shorter practices also will help your confidence, and some types of practices can only last a few minutes (such as looking people in the eye and smiling as you go through a reception line). However, from research we know that one of the most important purposes of Task practice is to develop habituation: during prolonged exposure to an anxiety-provoking situation, intense anxiety gradually decreases. As your anxiety diminishes, you can think more clearly. In the future, when these situations occur again, you will react with some anxiety, some distress, but not the terror that you once had.
So when you can, design your sessions for this 45- to 90-minute length, which promotes habituation as well as confidence. That may mean you will have to repeat the same behavior several times. Forty-five minutes will afford you many elevator rides. An hour’s shopping may require a trip to the grocery store then a walk next door to the pharmacy. Ninety minutes of aerobic exercise can mean that you run in place 5 minutes, then spend the next 15 minutes calming yourself down if you got too scared, then another 5 minutes of aerobics and 10 minutes of calming yourself, and so forth, until the time is up. The definition of “practice” means anything that you do while still facing the anxiety-provoking situation. For instance, you might enter the grocery store and stay only 5 minutes, then have to leave because of your distress level. For the next 30 minutes you may need to sit in your car, practicing your breathing skills to calm down enough to re-enter the store. Then you enter the store for another ten minutes before finishing your practice. That equals 45 minutes of practice — even though most of it was in the car — because all of that time you were working.
Creating supportive statements
Study your answers to questions 4, 5 and 6, above. These Negative Observer statements will be the most likely ways you will sabotage your efforts in the practice. Use them to design your supportive statements (question 7). Write these positive statements down on a card to carry with you during practice.
Increasing your commitment
As you plan your practice, consider what you can do to support your commitment. Certainly reviewing the eight attitudes is a positive step, because they will remind you that taking risks is the smartest way to get stronger.
You may also feel safer and therefore more committed if you gather information about the setting or event. If you are attending a party, know what the appropriate attire will be. If you are driving a new route, check the map in advance or take the ride first as a passenger. If you are spending a night in an unfamiliar hotel, call ahead to learn about their facilities.
Bring along any “props” that can help you manage the situation. For instance, if you are practicing eating alone in a restaurant, you might carry a novel to read as you wait for your food. For a long drive, bring your favorite music or borrow a book-on-tape from the library.
Receiving support from others
Decide if you would like one or more support persons to assist you in the practice. If so, choose people who believe in your worth and respect your efforts to improve yourself. They don’t have to have an intimate knowledge of anxiety problems; in fact, they might even be confused about the subject. They do need to be willing to follow instructions. Tell support people exactly how you would like them to help. What should they say to you before and during the practice? What should they do?
In the Don’t Panic Self-Help Kit (see Resources) you will learn about the many visualizations that can help you prepare for practice. After you review that section, include any relevant imagery practices into your preparations.
Here are three brief visualizations to work with during the few minutes just before you begin your Task practice. (For example, if you are about to enter the grocery store, practice one or both of these visualizations while in your car at the store parking lot.) Each of them takes about three minutes.
Three-Minute Success Imageries
- Successful Outcome. Close your eyes and see yourself after you have just finished your Task and it went perfectly, beyond your expectations. Don’t concern yourself at all with how you reached your goal. Just enjoy the pleasure of possible success.
- Successful Task. Close your eyes and visualize yourself accomplishing your Task easily and without discomfort. Repeat that positive image a second time.
- Successful Skills.* Close your eyes and visualize yourself moving through your Task. Let yourself experience two or three episodes in which you have some typical discomfort. Then rehearse what coping skills you want to use to take care of yourself during that discomfort. Imagine those skills working successfully.
* Always practice this one before a Task.
Beginning the practice
Now you are ready to enter the troubling situation. Remind yourself of each of your supportive statements. Take a gentle, slow Calming Breath after saying each one, giving yourself time to believe it.
Enter the situation with the expectation of responding naturally and easily to all that you encounter. Forget about yourself and pay attention to what you are presently perceiving with your five senses: what you are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and maybe even what you are tasting.
Use any of your skills to manage your thoughts and your physical symptoms. Continue to encourage yourself and ask for any needed support from others.
If you begin worried thoughts or if physical symptoms begin to bother you, use the two approaches below.
Responding to worried thoughts
In Step 8 you will learn the skills of responding to your worries. Here we are applying these skills to worries you have during your Task practice. The guidelines are simple: notice your worried thoughts, choose to stop them, then apply skills that support your decision. Which of these skills or combination of skills you use will depend on your Task, the nature of your worries and what has helped in the past. Sometimes you will need to explore several options before coming up with the most successful combination.
Responding to Worries
Notice your worried thoughts:
“I’m working myself up.”
Choose to stop them:
“These thoughts aren’t helpful. I can let them go.”
Take supportive action:
Practice any of these:
Find something neutral or pleasant to do
Negative thought stopping
Postpone your worries
Sing your worries
Write your worries down
Take 3 Calming Breaths
Do Calming Counts
Move and loosen whole body
Turn attention elsewhere
Leave the situation and go to a “safe” place
Responding to uncomfortable physical sensations
Again, like with your worries, the best approach to uncomfortable physical symptoms is a simple one. First, mentally “step back” and notice the sensations without making worried comments. Second, reassure yourself: “It’s OK for these symptoms to exist right now. I can handle these feelings.” Then, third, ask yourself: “What can I do to support myself right now?”
Choose among the supportive actions listed, based on the nature of your symptoms, the circumstance, and what has helped you in the past. Here are some examples.
- You can assure yourself that you can manage your task while experiencing these sensations. You then can turn your attention away from yourself and to the things around you. Involve yourself more actively in your surroundings (seek out a conversation or find something in your environment to study carefully) as a way to diminish your worried involvement in your body.
- You can use Calming Counts as a way to support your physical comfort.
- You can tell a supportive person about what you are feeling and what you want to do to take care of yourself. You can let that person support your efforts.
- You can leave the situation for a brief period as a way to increase your comfort and control, then return to continue your practice.
- You can leave the situation and not return at this time. As you continue to practice your skills, over time you will learn to remain in the scene.
As you study the chart below, you will notice how similar the actions are when your physical symptoms are your strongest concern. There is one primary difference. Can you see it?
Responding to Physical Symptoms
Notice your symptoms:
“I’m feeling uncomfortable.”
“That’s okay. I can handle this.”
Take supportive action:
Practice any of these:
Take 3 Calming Breaths
Brief Muscle Relaxation
Paradoxically Increase Symptoms
Move and Loosen Whole Body
Find Something Neutral or Pleasant to Do
Turn Attention Elsewhere
Leave the Situation and Go to a “Safe” Place
As you can see, there is one distinct difference in how you respond to each of these problems. Once you notice your worried thoughts, you choose to stop them. You reject the negative messages they are giving to your mind and body. The actions you take support that decision. On the other hand, when you notice your physical symptoms, you choose to accept them. Resisting your symptoms will only increase your discomfort.
This decision — to accept your symptoms before trying to modify them — is a pivotal one. We have talked about it in several sections. Start to become curious about its value as you try it out during Task practice.
Ending the practice
Now is the time to support yourself for all your efforts. At the same time, review your practice session objectively. Assess what worked and what didn’t. Use that information to plan your next practice.
Remember that you are successful every time you decide to practice, regardless of how long you are able to stay in that situation. This is not a test of your ability to stop all sensations of discomfort. Nor is this a test of your progress. This, and every other thing you do, is an opportunity to practice your ability to support yourself. The more you practice supporting every effort and attempt, the stronger you will become and the more willing you will be to practice.
So LISTEN for any harsh self-criticisms or discouraged thoughts after your practice. (“I still get anxious. What’s wrong with me! I’ll never get better.”)
And REPLACE THEM with statements of support: “I’m working to change a lot of complex processes. I can’t do it all at once. And I’m not trying to do it perfectly. One step at a time; I’m going to get there.”