“I am no longer panicking about my panic attacks” is a quote from a remarkable young lady who visited with me recently. With an enormous heart that is often too open, she had been struggling with the struggles of others, feeling the burden of her friends’ problems, resulting in anxiety and frequent panic attacks. The fear about panic attacks was exacerbating her anxiety and in most instances causing the panic attack itself.
While her story is unique, the experience of compounding emotions is a common story in my practice. All too often people explain their anxiety about panic attacks, the guilt that they feel about their depression, or the shame that compounds their anger. While all of these associated reactions are reasonable, they are seldom helpful; sending the person into a spiral of unhelpful emotions and negative self views.
For these people finding a level of acceptance around the initial emotion can prevent the spiraling into others; and enables the emotion to remain at a manageable level. Acceptance can include a choice to work with the emotion, as an acceptance of its place in their life.
Anger, for example, is a reasonable response to what many of my clients are managing, yet the unwillingness to accept or express this anger creates a build-up and a loss of control. Finding ways to express the anger in a productive and functional way in the early stages allows it to be managed and the energy of it released, without explosions or harm to self or others. A walk in the bush with the opportunity to scream freely; a written letter to the person whom has angered you; a good run to release the tension followed by an assertive conversation- all can release the anger, without a need for the associated and compounding shame.
Depression can also be accepted as the body and minds call for help. A desire to stay bed for weeks on end, avoid contact with people, can often lead to guilt or anxiety. What if we took an UN-commonsense approach to depression and allocated a day a fortnight, or a weekend a month, to stay in bed? What if we watched sad movies as a way of legitimately crying, what if we just simply accepted that some days we were sad. Is the fight to avoid depression exacerbating the exhaustion in depressed people? And is the guilt associated with feeling unmotivated and low, adding to the depression? I think the answer is yes.
Now let’s return to our young lady who suffers from panic attacks. Her concern about having a panic attack at school intrudes on her thoughts from the moment she wakes in the morning. Well before any indication that she may experience a panic attack today, she is already anxious about the possibility of having one. This anxiety has an effect on her hormones levels, her breathing, her blood pressure, her view of the world, and will inevitability lead to a panic attack. So for her gaining an acceptance that she may well experience a panic attack, and have the tools and strategies to manage it if it did occur, was a huge step in preventing them; and she did. Her movement away from “panicking about panic attacks” meant that she no longer experienced them.
An acceptance of emotions prior to their occurrence, during their presence and after their dissipation, is often to key to controlling them.