One of the first things we want to know is if anxiety and panic attacks are harmful. Our initial assumption is that they must be harmful because they feel so intense and unpleasant.
One of the turning points in my recovery was getting told by a doctor that what I was experiencing wasn’t going to harm me. Oh the relief! This was also confirmed by an ex-anxiety sufferer who managed to pull himself out of hell after suffering for so many years.
Reassurance that no harm can ever come to us from anxiety and panic, no matter how severe it gets and no matter how intense it feels is so helpful to know.
It’s normal for us to stay in the reassurance seeking mode for a while until we fully trust that anxiety and panic attacks cannot cause us any harm. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I recommend people stay in that mode until they can finally trust that anxiety and panic attacks are not going to harm them.
The reassurance that we are not going insane is very empowering as well. I spent most of my life thinking I was going insane during anxiety. I mean, I did have really unpleasant and disturbing thoughts and sensations. The thoughts were about harming myself and other’s. I also suffered from derealisation where everything felt like a movie.
In fact, it actually seemed as if there were parts happening which I’d seen in films before. I remember having a very disturbing experience where I was reliving a scene from a film called The Happening where people commit suicide thanks to an air born virus which is released into the air by plants. My parents convinced me that it was most likely hallucinations from medication that I was on for a little while.
Anyway, with that being said, it was just my over-active imagination merged with anxiety.
Understanding Fear And Anxiety
What really is the difference between fear and anxiety? Why is it important to know?
In my opinion the difference between fear and anxiety is that one is necessary for our survival and one is a self-created disorder that plagues our lives until we learn to deal with it in a “curative” manner.
In order to understand fear, there’s no better way than using the prehistoric metaphor to describe it. Imagine that you are a hunter who is bringing back food for the family (I’m against hunting but in them days, it was a necessity for survival) but before you get back to your mud hut, a wild tiger jumps out in front of you from the bushes. Automatically, without any conscious thought, our fight/flight response is activated.
Our body is primed for either fighting or running away from this real life threat. Our muscles tense up to make us stronger, our heart beats faster to pump more blood around the body, our pupils dilate, taking in more light so we can clearly see the danger in our external environment. Anything that isn’t necessary in that precise moment will be switched off. Obviously digesting food is not our top priority when faced with a dangerous predator.
All of these wonderful chemical and hormonal changes are happening for one reason – to preserve our survival. The body has an incredible intelligence of it’s own, far greater than that of the mind. It’s completely outside of our conscious control. It’s the same intelligence that heals cut’s on our fingers and digests our food.
What happens when we see a perceived danger, is that our senses send that data back to our brain. Specifically to the part which decodes this sensory data and then the brain has to make a really, really quick decision in how to respond.. In this case, a wild tiger licking it’s lips and ready to pounce on us is decoded as a threat, so the fight or flight is instantly, before any conscious thought, activated.
It has to happen this way because if it didn’t happen automatically without any conscious input, then we would be killed off. If we had to think about the whole situation, if we had to think about how to deal with the tiger, then we would end up being the tigers lunch. It’s all about action, it’s all about acting quick. Relying on our instincts.
As you can see, the mind and body work together to keep us safe. The fear response (fight/flight) is basically an alarm system of the body. Without this alarm system, we wouldn’t have survived as a species.
On the other hand, anxiety is something that we create for ourselves. In modern times, we rarely face life threatening situations. Now, in our day and age, the tiger and bear has been replaced by exam pressures and giving speeches to a bunch of strangers. This is known as modern day stressors. The part of the brain which acts as a them
When we experience symptoms of anxiety nowadays, what is it we usually do? We usually catastrophise over these anxiety symptoms. “Omg what the hell was that!” “What if I’m having a heart attack?” “What if I’m having a stroke?” The part of the brain responsible for carrying out worst-cast scenario thoughts (the prefrontal cortex) becomes very active. It’s constantly scanning for danger and then creating worst-case scenario thoughts in order to mitigate risk.
This is why we experience disturbing thoughts during the anxiety-based disorder. It’s just happening when there’s no real reason for it to do so. What happens is that we are fearing a normal psychological and physiological response to a danger. The Amygdala is the part of the brain which creates the physical sensations and the prefrontal cortex is the part that creates the “worst-case scenario” thoughts.
We fear the anxiety for our lives, this sends back all kinds of mixed messages to our brain. Unfortunately, our brain isn’t a reasoning machine. It doesn’t have the ability to work out that we are being scared for no reason. It doesn’t know that there isn’t a danger when we respond in a fearful manner. It doesn’t know that we are just afraid of the anxiety and panic itself.
It only has our internal responses and our behaviours to go off of. If we respond and behave in a way which is fearful, then the brain will automatically assume that we are in danger. As a result of this, more anxiety is activated to keep us alert and on edge. More anxiety is activated to help us fight or flee from a danger.
Our brain cannot tell the difference between a true danger (a wild predator about to eat us) or a modern day stressor (something harmless like preparing for a job interview). It will carry out the same response if we were being chased by a tiger when we’re about to give a presentation in front of the class.
It also cannot tell the difference between our responses. So, if we react in fear, our brain will conclude that we’re in danger, even when we’re not. So, even our internal responses to the anxiety can activate more anxiety. Fear breeds fear. This is what creates the disorder and this is what perpetuates it.
Now, here’s what helped me to actually heal/recover from anxiety and panic attacks…
Acceptance for generalised anxiety
After spending most of my time with anxiety fighting it and trying to escape from it. I eventually realised, with the help of other people, that maybe this wasn’t the right way to approach things. If fighting my anxiety was causing me more emotional pain and torment, then surely it only made sense to do the opposite?
At first, acceptance didn’t feel right. I was so used to fighting anxiety and not allowing myself to “let it go” that this new approach brought on feelings of uncertainty and apprehension.
But then I reminded myself that it was akin to learning a new skill or technique, so it’s only normal to feel the way I felt. I stuck with this approach and I haven’t looked back since.
There were times when I wanted to resist the anxiety because it feels so intense and unbearable, but I knew that fighting my anxiety only gave it more power. Acceptance is one way of showing the brain that everything is alright. Through resistance, we turn anxiety and panic into a problem.
This breeds more anxiety because the brain is a problem fixing machine. So, it will go to work on fixing a problem that doesn’t even exist. I would simply let whatever feelings and thoughts that arose the space to play out until they were not getting empowered through my resistance.
The anxiety loves resistance. It loves the attitude of “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” “I wish I felt like I did when I didn’t have this” because it refuels itself through our attitude of non-acceptance.
Whilst it did feel unnatural to not want my anxiety to be gone anymore, it felt so right as well. I could actually feel the internal harmony of no longer being at war with my anxiety. Of no longer wishing that it was gone.
It’s this ‘wishing it was gone’ mentality when we are already in the midst of it that creates more suffering. It creates an internal tug-of-war with our current state. This is obviously not conducive to healing.
So, mentally say “YES” to every thought and sensation that you experience. Fully feel the sensations, give approval to all thoughts.
The moment you resist any aspect of anxiety and tell yourself that “I should be in a better state” or “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” is the moment you turn the anxiety into a problem.
More resistance is created because you’re telling your brain the anxiety itself is the threat. It tries to fight off or run away from this “threat”. Hence why you feel more internally disturbed.
What do you do when you’re resisting your inner state? Allow the resistance to happen. Don’t try to stop yourself from resisting once you are resisting. Instead, go with it. Watch it happen, encourage yourself to resist more and watch the resistance fizzle out.
Trust me, this works. What usually happens is we beat ourselves up for resisting and then try our hardest to stop ourselves from resisting. This is resistance!!!
In order to create a state of non-resistance around our resistance, we have to give it space and permission to carry on.
Important info:- This only applies to when you’re already resisting your anxiety. Of course, don’t deliberately go out of your way to resist. Think of it in this way. If something is flowing in one direction, you don’t try to make it flow in another one.
You flow in the same direction as the wind, you float in the same direction as the stream, so to speak. Resistance is created when we go in the opposite direction of the wind flow or when we try to swim against the tide.
The point is – accept everything. If you’re resisting your anxiety, accept that you’re resisting. Don’t try to end the resistance because this is a state of resistance. Let it happen.
This is acceptance. The resistance will fizzle out if you try to make the resistance worse. Here’s the secret. When you try to make the resistance worse, when you watch it happen, you are actually accepting the resistance.
It’s the same with thoughts. Let the thoughts you’re thinking be in your internal space without trying to make them go away.
Don’t get into a mess by telling yourself that certain thoughts are acceptable whilst other thoughts are not. Thoughts are fine. No thought we experience is inherently bad. It’s only our negative interpretation that causes us to suffer.
Trying not to think thoughts will not help. It’s exhausting, draining and will make you feel more anxious. It’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant when I tell you not to. If I told you that for the next 10 minutes, you are not allowed to think of a pink elephant. You have to try your very hardest to stop this thought from entering your mind.
If I told you that for the next 10 minutes, you had to do your very best to stop thinking this thought. That you had to try and force it out of your mind. How do you think this exercise would go? It would probably go disastrously wouldn’t it? The very effort to throw a certain thought out the window actually puts more emphasis on the desire to think that certain thought.
We are better off just giving up trying to push the thought away and being okay with experiencing it. This approach tells our brain that the thought is not to be taken serious. It will just become another thought that floats on by without disturbing us.
The “make it worse” approach for panic attacks
So, one of the main questions anxiety sufferers have is, how can we overcome panic attacks? My personal answer to this – we have to learn how to stop fearing them. When we stop fearing panic attacks, we take away their power. It’s only when we fear them do they have the power to disturb us. Fear breeds fear. If you have a fearful perception of panic attacks, they will persist.
The only way we can really overcome our fear of panic attacks and ultimately stop them from reoccurring is through reassuring ourselves that they cannot harm us and making them do their worst.
This is the attitude of giving in to the panic attack. This “technique of making panic attacks do their worst wasn’t something I came up with myself. I discovered it through reading books and implementing programs.
I was very fearful of trying this approach at first because it sounds so backward and illogical to what we normally get told. However, it really is effective because it gets us to see for ourselves that the panic attacks are not going to hurt us.
The only way we can know for sure about something being true or not is through our own experience. Sure, we can read stuff about panic attacks being harmless, but it’s only until we see it for ourselves can we develop trust.
This counter-intuitive approach of making panic attacks do their worst is actually like a kill-switch. Remember, it’s our fear of them that keeps them going. It’s the approach of running away from them that makes them chase and engulf us. It’s all about changing our response to panic attacks in order to extinguish them.
It’s the difference between being in the darkness and being terrified of it, and being in the darkness and don’t being bothered by it. All it takes is a shift in understanding and most importantly, a shift in our response.
Me telling you that you’ll take away the panic attacks power and placing it back in your hands is not enough. You have to do it for yourself. So, if you trust me, then you’ll need to encourage the panic attack to do it’ worst.
There’s a scientific reason for why this approach is effective. When we change our fearful response to a fearless one (telling the panic attack to do it’s worst – “Bring it on!”), we are sending a message to our brain that the panic attack is not a danger.
The only thing the brain can do with this message is obey it. It will decode this message as panic attack = no danger. No danger means there’s no reason for the fight or flight response to stay activated.
Here’s how the ‘make-it-worse’ approach looks when put into practice.
You experience the familiar sensations and thoughts that trigger the panic attack.
Instead of mentally running away and/or pushing it away, instead of fearing it, you tell yourself that you enjoy the panic and you want more of it.
You allow yourself to fully feel the sensations of the panic attack. Leaning into it. Mentally say “YES” to the panic and allow the feeling to fully engulf you.
You deliberately try to make it as bad as it gets.
You get to the end of the panic attack knowing that there is truly nothing to fear. This reprograms your subconscious to not be afraid of panic attacks.
This, of course, takes practice. The more you trust the fact that panic attacks are not dangerous, and the more you practice deliberately trying to make them worse, you will, in time, put an end to them.
Behaviour change – Stopping the behaviours which are keeping us in the cycle
One of the things that eluded me for so long were my behaviours. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t recovering until someone a lot smarter than me pointed out the behaviours which keep people stuck in the cycle.
It turned out that I was, in fact, doing all of these things which were keeping the anxiety alive. I was talking to my family and friends about how anxious I felt, all of the time.
I was googling my symptoms every time I felt one. This only made me feel more anxious when I would read about them.
I was going on anxiety forums where people were talking about how anxious they felt and how there really was no hope left for them. Obviously, being in the state I was in at the time, this only made me feel more anxious and discouraged about ever finding a solution.
I was avoiding friends texts and phone calls. What does avoidance do? It tells the brain that the thing we are avoiding is a danger.
I was spending quite a bit of time on most days looking through old photographs of myself and comparing how I was then to how I felt when I was anxious. I began to feel sorry for myself. This is not a good place to be in because it takes away our power and makes us feel like all hope is lost.
Instead of doing the stuff I used to do, I was doing nothing but staring into space and getting caught up in anxious thoughts and memories. I was arguing with my anxious thoughts and feelings. I was trying to work out why I was experiencing them. Trying to think myself out of the anxiety and trying to work everything out.
All this did was mentally and emotionally drain me.
As you can see, all these behaviours are about focusing on the anxiety. Whatever has our dominant attention becomes empowered by our constant attention. I thought the solution to crawling out of this pit of hell was through focusing on it.
I thought I had to work things out. Put my mind right by figuring what may have caused this nightmare in the first place. However, the more I focused on the anxiety, the more anxious I felt. To recover, the opposite is actually needed.
It’s funny isn’t it really? Most of the therapists, practitioners and doctors keep us focused on the anxiety. “How are you feeling today?” “Should we talk about your anxiety?” What do you think caused it in the first place? “Was it the way your sister treated you?”
They assume that the way to recover is to come to terms with it all and to give it more importance and attention. Maybe it’s not their intention, but it’s what they doing with the outdated models they’re using.
“You’re mentally ill, you will need to take medication”. “You will never get rid of anxiety, you’ll always have to cope with it”. All of this just keeps us trapped within the anxiety matrix.
Redirecting attention – The power is in our focus
In order to fully recover from anxiety disorder, we have to get into the habit of redirecting our attention away from the world of anxiety. This is one of the keys in breaking free from the matrix of anxiety. What I just mentioned above is what keeps us in the matrix.
The way out of the matrix is through giving up the fight with anxiety and redirecting our focus onto stuff which is non-anxiety related. There’s no better way to do this than to focus as much time as we possibly can on our hobbies.
Like I mentioned earlier, the more we focus on anxiety, be it through researching, going to the doctors, constantly complaining about how we feel to other people, going on anxiety-related forums and spending time focusing on our thoughts and feelings, we are adding more fuel to the fire.
By carrying out these behaviours, by doing all these things, we are telling our subconscious mind that there is a problem that needs fixing.
Of course, the part of the brain responsible for the activation of the fight/flight response will release more adrenaline (press the alarm button) in order to keep us safe and protected from danger, which in reality, does not exist.
It’s just thinks it’s doing the right thing to protect us, which it is, but it’s doing it when there’s not an actual threat to our existence. So, this is when it becomes a pain in the backside so to speak.
“It is the search for the exit that convinces our protection system (fight/flight) that there is a problem; this causes the fight/flight to kick in to protect us from that problem. ” – Chris, nothingworks.weebly.com
If we keep carrying out these behaviours, then the fight or flight response will stay activated until the brain receives the message that it’s not required. How can we do this?
Well, we certainly can’t do it by just telling ourselves that there’s no reason to be fearful or to “snap out of it”. The only way our brain gets it’s information is through our senses. So, if we keep feeding our brain anxiety provoking information through the senses, then it can’t help but to activate more anxiety to keep us safe.
Remember, the brain cannot tell the difference between a real and imagined threat. This is why it’s so important to stop doing the things which are feeding the anxiety and focus on stuff which isn’t anxiety provoking.
What did I do?
I created a daily routine because having a routine was the only way which I would keep my mind focused on something else other than anxiety.
With a pen and a post-it note, I wrote down the things I wanted to do, interests/hobbies. Things like reading, playing the guitar, going for walks, going for jogs, playing video games, watching movies, watching Netflix, eating at my favourite restaurants, playing football, listening to music, drawing & painting.
Obviously, I couldn’t fit all of these things into one day so I would choose about 5 – 6 things I would do that day.
On the back of the post-it note, I would write down all of the “chores” that needed to be done that day. I know chores aren’t the most exciting thing in the world.
What has helped me is to see them as an opportunity to get into a productive frame of mind, instead of thinking “damn, I’ve got to empty the dishwasher now.” I tend to do as many chores as I possibly can first so it puts me into a productive mindset. Not only this but it’s also an opportunity to really focus on the present moment.
For example, if you’re washing the plates, really focus. Get all of your sense perceptions involved. Feel the sponge in your hand, feel the warm soapy water splash on your hands, see the shininess of the plate etc. Even better, if you’re doing in a chore, why not put on a podcast, audiobook or listen to music? It makes doing the chores far more interesting.
The same can be said for when you’re doing your hobbies. Hobbies are for pure enjoyment only. You don’t have to worry about whether or not they will help you feel better.
In fact, I often tell my clients that they shouldn’t expect themselves to feel better when doing hobbies because it puts to much pressure on themselves and too much expectation on an activity. It really is best if we don’t associate our hobbies with feeling better or with the mindset of “I’m doing this so I can distract myself from anxiety.”
As a paradox, you’ll actually be putting more emphasis on the anxiety when you have the intention that you’re doing things to get over it. Strange how the mind works, but it’s just the way it goes.
Really focus on what you’re doing. For example, if you’re learning a new song on guitar, really pay attention to the sounds which are coming from the guitar. Pay attention to how it feels when your fingers our pressing down the strings against the fret board.
Focusing on one thing at a time with as many of our sense perceptions engaged as possible is key because it pulls our minds away from the anxiety and onto the present moment. As Eckhart Tolle says, all mind generated problems cannot survive for long in the present.
So, the answer is to keep our minds engaged on the things we want to be doing. Being as present as we can by really paying close attention to whatever activity we are immersed in.
What makes this even more effective is by cutting out the distractions. When you are about to do an activity, I recommend putting your phone on silent and maybe putting it in another room. Tell the people you’re living with that you’re just going to do X for half an hour or so.
The more we can give our attention to things which are interesting and fun to us, the more we will be sending positive feedback messages to our subconscious mind. Specifically, to the part of the brain which is responsible for activating anxiety. In order for the fight/flight response to stay on, it needs to be getting anxiety provoking messages sent back to it from our senses.
This is easily done when we’re carrying out the behaviours such as making it conscious and more concrete by constantly discussing it with other people and googling our symptoms.
If we are not feeding the brain anxiety provoking information through our senses, in other words, if we are behaving like we normally would, then it will sooner or later, it will get the message that “all is well.”
In reality though, it does take time for this to happen. It’s a constant process as there is a lot of unlearning to do. We need to stop doing the things which are reinforcing the anxiety and we need to keep redirecting our attention onto non-anxiety provoking things such as our hobbies.
Another thing I’d like to mention is that this whole process of redirecting our attention should be done with the attitude of acceptance firmly plastered in the background.
We have to get it into our heads that we’re not doing stuff to escape or run away from our anxiety. We are doing it because that’s what we’d normally do. We want to make good use of time and have as much fun as possible.
One more thing. Continue to do things even when you feel anxious. Getting into a routine will make you feel better, in time. Stay with your hobbies no matter how you feel because remember, we need to prove to our brain that we are completely fine.
We need to behave like we normally would do if we didn’t have anxiety.
Before you overthink what I just said. Behaving like you would normally do if you didn’t have anxiety would just mean that you stopped doing the behaviours which feed it, giving up the fight with anxiety (acceptance and allowance) and focusing on what we want to do with our days.
After all, this is what people who don’t suffer from anxiety disorder do, don’t they? It makes sense then that we have to live like them, like the us without anxiety.
Again don’t overthink that last bit. It just means we stop fighting our anxiety, stop focusing on it and getting on with our day.
I hope this article can really support you in your journey towards anxiety recovery. As usual, if you have any questions then please let me know.
Feedback is greatly appreciated as it helps me to improve what I’m writing.
Until next time