How Anxiety Attacks Trick You

Anxiety attacks (or panic attacks, I use the terms interchangeably) trick you into into trying to help yourself with methods that make the problem worse.

To see how this works, consider what happens when you experience an anxiety attack. You experience real fear, make no mistake about that. Pay no attention to those who say "it's all in your head", because it's not. They usually mean well, but the phrase is misleading and unhelpful.

The fear of a panic attack is in your breathing, in your muscles, in your heartbeat, in your stomach, and so on. It's real physical fear.

Here's the idea that's at the root of the trouble. If I'm afraid, then I'm in danger. This sounds like a reasonable idea. Most of us probably believe it, most of the time, without thinking about it. It's probably true a lot of the time, because fear is usually a useful signal that warns us of danger and motivates us to protect ourselves.

But is it always true? "If I'm afraid, then I'm in danger." If it's always true, then an anxiety attack is a really grim signal.

It's not always true

There are lots of ways to see that this belief isn't always true, and here's just one. Hundreds of millions of dollars change hands every year, all around the globe, in the scary movie industry. What does the existence of a scary movie industry tell us about ourselves?

It tells us that we're a species that can become afraid just from looking at pictures. This is a characteristic of our species, the ability to become afraid even when we know we're not in any danger. If this wasn't a characteristic of our species, there wouldn't be any scary movie industry. If we didn't have the ability to become afraid when we know we're not in danger, Stephen King would be writing for Good Housekeeping Magazine.

How does a scary movie work?

A scary movie tricks you into feeling afraid. It manipulates the information you receive in order to fill you with fear, even as you sit there munching on overpriced popcorn. A scary movie tricks you.

The trick is this: You experience discomfort as you view the unpleasant material of the film, and your body responds as if you were in danger. You experience real physical fear, even though you know "it's only a movie."

Panic uses the same Trick

The trick of an anxiety attack is the same as the trick of a scary movie. You experience discomfort, and respond as if it were danger. This is the key to what gives an anxiety attack its power to terrify you.

What's good for danger? It's the traditional Fight, Flight, and Freeze. These are the responses we developed as the human species evolved in a world full of predators trying to make meals out of us. Even though humans are now the top predator on the planet, we still have the nervous systems of prey, always watching out for danger, ready to jump into Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze is really good for dealing with predators. If it looks smaller than me, I'll fight it. If it looks bigger than me, but slower, I'll run away from it. And if it looks bigger and faster than me, I'll freeze and hope it doesn't see so well. It's very good for danger.

What's good for discomfort? This is very different. It doesn't help you relieve discomfort to get mad at it, or try to get away from it somehow. A headache will not be relieved by banging your head against the wall. What's good for discomfort is basically accepting whatever unpleasant feelings you have at the moment, and giving them time to pass, without struggling against them. Claire Weekes called this "floating", and she recommended that you "float" through an anxiety attack.

What's good for Danger
is the Opposite
of what's good for Discomfort

When you get tricked into reacting as if you face danger, you do all the things that get you more upset. You resist instead of accept. You flee instead of wait. You tense up instead of calm down. You hold your breath instead of breathing comfortably.

This is what gives anxiety attacks their power. When you get tricked into treating panic like a danger, you get tricked into doing exactly the opposite of what would be helpful. You get tricked into making things worse, even as you try to make them better.

You get tricked into putting out fires with gasoline. It's as if you've been sabotaged, and all your efforts to help yourself have been subverted into the means of your own imprisonment.

This is why most people's gut reactions to an anxiety attack make them feel worse rather than better.

Don't be put off by my use of the word "discomfort". I know it's a mild, understated word for what you experience during an anxiety attack. But I wanted a word that began with a "d". I want to highlight the fact that this is the fork in the road, your best chance to take a different path when you experience an anxiety attack.

When you respond to panic as if it's danger, by struggling against it, holding your breath, fleeing, and getting more upset, you will find that "the harder I try, the worse it gets", because you are getting tricked into trying methods that will sabotage your hopes for recovery.

But if you can train yourself, over time, to respond to the panic as discomfort, by "floating" and using the AWARE steps, then you can look forward to gradually bringing to an end the powerful negative influence panic has over your life.

My Panic Attacks Workbook is a good way to do your own self help program. If you're looking for professional help with this problem, I offer individual treatment in Chicago and the northwest suburbs of Chicago.

All the benefits you can get from the cognitive behavioral methods of desensitization and progressive exposure will follow from your recognition of this trick. If you use those methods to fight and oppose anxiety attacks, you will gain little relief. But if you recognize the trick, and use those methods to respond to panic as discomfort, you can look forward to the recovery you so strongly desire.

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Last updated on August 5, 2014