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Face anxiety and panic to fight anxiety and panic.

Posted Oct 22 2008 6:16pm 1 Comment

This is a discussion of how to better deal with catastrophic thinking -- the tendency of many dealing with panic, anxiety, and depression to imagine the worst possible consequences of their predicament. It might seem a paradox at first, but according to the author, the best response is not to push away the unpleasant thoughts, or to seek out distractions them, but to face the thoughts head-on by following them to their logical conclusion:

According to the research, the two biggest mistakes anxious people tend to make is that they think the bad thing is more likely than it really is, and they think if the bad thing happens, the consequences would be more horrible than they really would be.

This is the antidote: Ask the question, "What would happen then?" and keep following the consequences out to their natural conclusion, and the whole thing kind of dissipates...

...Think about something you have worried about recently. Now ask yourself, "What if it happened?" Really. What if it happened? What would you do about it? How would you respond? And then what would happen? And then what? And how would you respond to that? Follow it through as realistically as you can and see if that doesn't have a dramatic effect on that particular worry.

When your own distress is making things worse, go ahead and confront the worst that could possibly happen. Don't just do it briefly. This isn't positive thinking. Don't merely tell yourself, "Oh, there is nothing to be afraid of, everything will be all right." That won't work. Imagine the worst case scenario clearly in your mind. Imagine what would happen. Imagine time passing. And be realistic. Don't try to be overly optimistic with your imaginings. Try to imagine what you really think would happen.

What you discover is that this is not the calamity you feared. And your increased calm will help make a calamity less likely.

This technique, which the author discovered more or less serendipitously, is a standard part of the cognitive aspect of cognitive-behavioral therapy. As part of my course of CBT, I explored and confronted the specific fears I experience during panic attacks. I'd been having panic attacks for so long that I was pretty sure a panic attack did not mean I was about to die. But they still terrified me. What was that about?

At first, I wasn't sure; the fear itself was much more front-and-center for me during a panic attack than any perceived causes of the fear. The causes of the fear were vague -- dark, "bad" places that I was wary of spending time considering. But the more I looked at my thoughts, the more I realized that there were specific things I was afraid might happen due to my panic -- that the jolt of adrenaline accompanying panic might cause a heart attack (see? I was still afraid of dying), or that panic might somehow cause me to lose my mind.

So I followed these fears through to their logical conclusion. If I had a heart attack, I figured, I might collapse. I might die instantly, or someone might come upon my fallen body and get help. I might still die, or I might end up in a hospital. Regardless, it was good to create a concrete picture in my imagination of what I was fearing -- better, for certain, than fearing something shadowy and indefinite. If I went crazy -- if the thoughts racing through my brain during panic "overloaded my circuits" and caused me to lose touch with reality -- I'd probably end up in a hospital as well, as a result of the intervention of friends or family or maybe the police officer who arrested me for disturbing the peace. Or I'd end up homeless, living under a bridge. All these scenarios would suck, of course -- but somehow, imagining them was better than leaving what I feared undefined. It was as though giving specific form to the objects of my fears took away their magic -- like realizing that the bad guy is still just a guy, still puts his pants on one leg at a time.

Bottom line, I think this author is onto something, and I recommend trying this technique to confront your fears, whether or not you experience panic, anxiety, or depression.
Comments (1)
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Thanks for sharing information on panic attacks! People who suffer from panic attacks that don't attempt to get panic attack relief, often tend to withdraw from society and normal activities. In the interest of avoiding stressful situations, they shy away from any type of conflict, and live hobbled lives.
But panic attacks are treatable. At the very least, there are some self panic attacks help techniques that have proven effective at treating mild or infrequent cases of anxiety or panic.
You're right, the key is to get to the root of the issues that generate the feelings of stress and anxiety and facing those feats!
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