How to push your content aside to make room for doubt and discomfort.
The ten-hour flight back from London was uneventful, but being in the very back row meant that Mary had a non-reclining chair and was seated far from the exit doors. As the plane landed at Sky Harbor and taxied to the gate, to her the air inside the plane seemed to stop circulating. The other passengers got up to retrieve their luggage from the overhead bins, and Mary could no longer see the front of the plane. It seemed like eons before anyone started moving down the aisle. Her heart started racing. Her knees started shaking. Up popped this danger message inside her mind: There’s not enough air! I’m going to suffocate in here!
In a few moments, Mary was in full-blown panic mode.
Despite her whole body feeling weak, as though she was moments away from collapsing, she thought about climbing over the seats to get out of there as quickly as possible, and she came close to screaming. She felt caught between a likely death experience and social humiliation. Mary survived those ten intense minutes, but the moment she got off the plane, she collapsed in a chair in the airport terminal and wept.
Mary began to have more and more trouble flying. Worried anticipation. Panic attacks. Her trouble spread to other areas that offered no immediate escape. “I was revisiting Boston – I hadn’t been there in years – and my daughter was using the map to navigate for me. Two big highways had portions that were now underground, and it was really, really bad for me. I’m ashamed to say that at one point I started screaming at my daughter to keep us away from the tunnels. Only twelve at the time, my daughter was trying to read the map and accidentally put me into a three-mile-long tunnel. I kept yelling at her. When we finally got out, she started crying. She said, ‘I didn’t know you were so mean.’ In my mind I said, ‘Well, I’m never, ever driving in Boston again.’”
Elevators can be a struggle. “I don’t like elevators if they’re slow and kind of clunky, or if too many people crowd on. I’m afraid it’s going to get stuck, and then I won’t be able to breathe. And I won’t be able to get out. I don’t like to be in those kinds of situations. Anytime I feel trapped, I get really panicky.”
Parking structures are tough, too. “With their low ceilings I feel like I’m going to be crushed in there. … Basically, I just don’t park inside parking structures anymore.” Mary has concluded that these structures are a signal of danger, and she simply won’t go into parking garages anymore.
And now Mary’s world is smaller.
. . .
After experiencing such threatening moments of impending doom, Mary has constructed a belief system that perceives those situations as dangerous. Plus, those traumas alone convinced her limbic system’s amygdala that it should automatically move into alarm when it senses these types of stimuli.
So, what does Mary need to do? Her job – hers and mine together, really – is to push that content away. If Mary wants to reach her goals (if she wants to feel free to travel, to park where she wishes, to take tunnels when they’re convenient, to avoid using the stairs every time), then she needs to turn these signals into noise so she will be able to dismiss them more easily.
When her anxious worries pop up, she needs to develop her ability to mentally step back and label them as IRRELEVANT CLATTER. When she starts to feel panicky, Mary needs to mentally step back and then say (and believe), “I can handle these feelings.”
Can we push that content away — the suffocation, the humiliation, the stuck elevator, the collapsing garage — into the category of EXTRANEOUS NOISE? If Mary and I can accomplish that task, our work will not be done. She will then need to attend to the core work: allowing herself to feel doubt and physical discomfort. It will be hard for her, but at least she will be focusing on her primary task.
Coping with feelings of uncertainty and distress is hard enough. Coping with the content of fears – “But I may have run someone over!”– can seem utterly impossible. So, your job is the same as Mary’s. Your first task is to do whatever it takes to shift the topic of your needless, nagging, unhelpful worries from signal to noise. You might not be able to accomplish that by yourself, and you probably can’t do it instantly, but you do have to get it done. You must sweep your content out of the way so you can focus only on being willing to feel intimidated and insecure.
If you want to take back control of your life from anxiety, you can’t wait until you are certain that everything is safe or that you know what the perfect decision is. You cannot continue to gather more and more reassurance until you finally feel settled. You must learn how to step toward the threat while a part of you is still feeling insecure. Trying to close all the loopholes, attempting to erect a secure safety net, waiting for a clear indication that everything is going to work out, waiting until you feel confident… these options are not available to you while you are still being challenged by Anxiety. You have to step forward, into the proverbial fire, while some part of you is predicting that this is a really bad idea.
Adapted from: Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016.