One of the most enraging parts of anxiety is that one day you feel completely fine and the next, you’ve had your first panic attack and normal, everyday things you’ve done your entire life become places where you fear you might freak out, go crazy, or die. Driving in general, highways, public speaking, going to the grocery store, standing in line, elevators, heights, bridges, tunnels, getting your hair cut, signing your name, crowds, meeting a friend for coffee – I don’t claim this long list, but they’re some typical situations that people end up fearing after experiencing the height of panic.
In Dave Carbonell’s workbook he talks about what happens when we experience that first panic attack. He says that because we can’t explain away the intensity, we make something up. So, if your first panic attack is on an elevator, you tell yourself that you must have a problem with elevators. You see, our brains like to make connections and make sense of things. We either assimilate information into our current mental files or accommodate by making a new hanging file all together that says “Don’t go there. . .”
While we might think it has everything to do with the situation, it’s all about the fear of fear. What might fear do to me this time & in this place? Did I narrowly escape the last 100 times I got anxious on the elevator and THIS time I’ll lose it, go crazy, or die?
I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous in the light of reason. But imagine stepping into a grocery store and all of a sudden your heart begins to race, you feel like you can’t catch your breath, adrenaline surges and your legs feel like jelly. Internally you might think, WTF? I’ve got to get out of here. By the time you get home, you’re feeling better, but wondering if it will happen the next time you try to go shopping. Suppose it does. It makes sense that you’d want to stay away from the local A & P. But, then you find the symptoms & thoughts hijacking reason again while you’re driving, and then at a dinner party, and then at the office.
This is where exposure work is so important. In order to retrain your brain to turn off the alarm when sensations and thoughts of anxiety arise, you have to willingly go into any dreaded situation, stay long enough to feel the full extent of your fear, let it pass, and realize that you’re still alright. It actually works best when you have the attitude of expecting & wanting to feel the fear. Because, really, it’s like The Wizard of Oz. The voices that say “maybe I shouldn’t” and “you can’t” are big and booming, but anxiety is just that little punk behind the curtain. And honestly, you're strong enough to stay and take him.