How Anxiety Tricks You
Anxiety, whether it be social anxiety or any other kind of anxiety, is a trickster. Usually the methods we employ to try and fix the anxiety backfire. The methods we use seem logical, but they have the opposite effect and actually make the anxiety worse.
Why is this?
Let’s think about anxiety for a moment. When you have an anxiety attack, your body goes into fear mode. It’s not just a mental block.. it also affects you physically in the form of nausea, racing heart rate, tensed muscles, knotted stomach, etc. It’s not just in your head as some suggest. It is the real deal – it is real physical fear.
How does this all start though? The root of the problem is this assumption: when you’re afraid, then you’re in danger. In that assumption lies the issue because it’s not always true. Fear does have its purposes – it protects us from danger and helps us protect ourselves. It sounds logical to think that being afraid equals being in danger all of the time, but this isn’t true.
As humans, we are able to be afraid even when we are not in danger. Think about scary movies or stories. When you watch the movie or read the story, you’re scared, but there is absolutely no danger. Your body will experience real fear, especially during jump scenes, but you have been tricked – there is no real danger. Even though you know it is a story or a movie, you’re still tricked.
Therefore, being afraid doesn’t always equal danger. Most of the time we never challenge this thought process, but we need to start.
Anxiety is just like the movie example. It tricks you into thinking you’re in real danger. You get uncomfortable and then you display the physical signs of danger. This is how anxiety works, this is how it tricks you, and why it is so powerful. Your mind thinks you’re in danger and screams – get the hell out of there!!
Fight – Flight – Freeze
Usually, when we are in danger, we will have the typical fight, flight, or freeze response. Evolution obviously has a lot to do with this. Depending on the threat, we either ran, fought, or played dead. It worked well – our species survived, but that instinct isn’t really serving us as well these days. Our environment has changed rapidly and we need to adjust.
Instead of following our instincts and fighting, freezing, or running from social discomfort (for example), we have to try another method. As you probably know, our natural instincts don’t work in the face of anxiety, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. You can’t fight it or run from it or freeze in the face of it because this only makes it stronger. It has the opposite effect that we desire.
How to Beat Anxiety
Anxiety can become a massive beast because of this vicious cycle. It can quickly spiral out of control and take over your life. I have been there and I know that it is all consuming. It makes life pretty lousy. To be free, we must do the opposite of what seems logical. Instead of treating panic like danger, you acknowledge that it is there and accept it.
Acknowledge and Accept
This is the first and most important step. This is the foundation on which everything else is built. You must first acknowledge your anxiety. Don’t try to fool yourself and say it’s not there. This will only lead to your anxiety getting worse. Admit to yourself how you’re feeling – say, “I’m afraid and starting to panic”.
Do not struggle or resist it or try to stop thinking about it.
Acknowledge that you are feeling afraid, but remember that being afraid doesn’t mean you’re in danger. Once you have acknowledged it, accept it. Don’t blame or complain or try to get rid of it. Simply accept that it is there and give it space to be there. The only way to get rid of anxiety is to work with it and not against it.
Anxiety doesn’t feel great, I know, but it is something you can learn to accept. It is very uncomfortable and feels so scary, but you’re not going to die from it. You will be ok, so try to accept it as best you can.
When faced with reality, you really only have 2 choices – you can resist it or you can accept it. It is already here, so resisting is only denying reality. Try another way – try to accept it just as you would a rainy day. You don’t resist a rainy day, you accept that it is there and deal with it. The more you resist anxiety and panic attacks, the worse they become and the more you will experience them.
Denying what is only creates more problems, so practice acceptance. Accept the anxiety symptoms you’re feeling. This is the first step in overcoming anxiety. The more you do this, the more you progress you will make and the grip anxiety has on you will lessen. This is probably the opposite of what you do during an anxiety attack, right?
Actions to take
Some other things to try after you have acknowledged and accepted the anxiety or panic attack:
Wait – Do not take any action. Do not leave the room or the situation. When you leave the room or situation, you’re responding as if you were in real danger (fight or flight response). You’re rewiring your brain to stay in the situation and learn that you’re not in danger. There is nothing to be afraid of.
Watch – Observe how you respond to the situation. Be the observer – pay attention to how you respond to the anxiety. This does a few things. First, it allows you to take a step back from the mental chatter and create some separation from the anxiety. It actually does a good job of allowing you to get out of your own head. Second, it allows for some self-discovery. It provides some insight into what you’re thinking and feeling. Write it down in a diary as it is happening.
Diary questions can be found here.
Putting it down is also quite therapeutic because it allows you to offload some of the stress and fear you’re feeling from the anxiety attack. It gets it out of your head and allows you to release it. Panic attacks and anxiety attacks will lessen as you lose your fear of them.
No matter what you do, your anxiety attack will end. No matter how you deal with it, keep in mind that they always end one way or another. Examine some of your past attacks and you will realize that they always end no matter how you handle it. The only positive thing you can do during an anxiety attack is to try and be comfortable with it while it is happening and stay strong until it ends. I understand that this is no easy task, but with you new knowledge at hand, you can take baby steps. It will be challenging at first but it will become easier.
What actions can you take to feel more comfortable during an attack?
Breathe deep – Breathe all the way into your stomach nice and slow. Then exhale even slower.
Focus on your inner body – place you attention on different parts of your body. Start by tensing up a part of your body and then releasing the tension – this is quite relaxing. This is especially helpful if you are the type that freezes up. Tense up any part of your body that you can and then release it. Start with your toes or fingers and move up. I find that releasing tension around my eyes, jaw, and shoulders is most helpful.
Another good technique is to focus all of your attention on an area below your belly button. This keeps you grounded.
Have a conversation with yourself – ask yourself if you are in real danger or if you’re just uncomfortable. This brings awareness to it. You may respond with: “it’s ok to be scared”, “it’s fine, just a panic attack and i’ll get over it in a few minutes”, “ok, let the attack happen, I can practice my techniques to get through it calmly”, or whatever works for you.
Become present – I recommend taking a look at The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle for this one. Anxiety, fear, worry, etc. stems from us thinking of the past or thinking about the future. We have regrets about the past and worries about the future, but if you focus on the present moment, you will realize that all is good.
When you’re completely grounded in the present moment, in the now, and out of the what if scenarios, life becomes much more enjoyable. Be in the present moment as often as you can. Get immersed in the activity you’re doing as much as possible.
Rinse and Repeat
The next time you’re experiencing an anxiety attack and thinking, “will this ever end?”, you will realize that yes, it will end. It will be ok.
What we want to do is program your mind to respond positively over and over again until you no longer fear panic and anxiety attacks. This takes time and does require effort, but it is well worth it! When you can break free from anxiety, you will be completely liberated and able to live life to its fullest.
You may make some progress and then get hit with another anxiety attack and think to yourself – “this isn’t working”. Do not give up – keep repeating the process even if you have a slip up. Relapses are normal and you will be able to overcome your anxiety. Believe in yourself.