By Becca Brodoff, PsyD.
- Panic attacks are dangerous.
If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know that the symptoms of panic are real and intense. Some people have a whole-body reaction, with physical changes like choking sensations, dizziness, sweating, urgency to use the bathroom and a racing heart. Many people rush to the hospital the first time they have a panic attack, convinced they’re dying or going crazy. Although panic attacks are uncomfortable, they are NOT harmful. Actually, panic attack symptoms demonstrate that your body is functioning properly. This probably seems absurd, but it’s not. When your body starts to panic it is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do when it perceives danger – your body’s “fight or flight” response is activated to keep you safe. The only problem is that panic attacks usually occur when there is nothing truly dangerous. So, the next time your body begins to misfire, just accept the panic and allow the misfiring to happen, barely giving the symptoms any credence. The more we can accept panic without labeling it as dangerous, the more tolerable the sensations become and the quicker it will end.
- Having a full-fledged anxiety disorder is rare.
An “Anxiety Disorder” involves clinical levels of anxiety which cause “significant distress and/or impairment” such that professional treatment is warranted. Many people feel like an outsider after being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but in fact, such diagnoses are extremely common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders with nearly one in five (19.1%) of American adults meeting criteria in every given year. That’s more than 40,000,000 people! Does that seem rare to you??
- Avoiding stress and stressful situations is necessary to feel better.
Avoiding what makes us nervous is a common response to fear and anxiety. It makes intuitive sense to want to avoid the very situations that send us into a panic since the very act of avoiding helps us feel calm for the time being. Although escaping what you fear works to keep anxiety at bay in the short run, the more we avoid what we fear, the stronger and more long-lasting this fear will become. How does this work? It’s simple. When we avoid, we never get a chance to disprove our anxious predictions. For example, if we’re afraid that we’re too awkward to make a good impression and avoid social situations, we never learn that we have more social skills than we think. Or if we’re terrified of passing out in an elevator due to fear and we always take the stairs, we never learn that we can tolerate high levels of anxiety without fainting. In a nutshell: The best way to get cope with your anxiety is to lean into fear, not avoid it.
- I’m weak and incompetent for being anxious.
Many people feel that something’s inherently wrong with them for feeling anxious. Not only is this just flat out wrong, it’s also cruel. Anxiety is a natural part of being human. In fact, it’s an emotion that we need to protect and motivate ourselves. While intense anxiety can be uncomfortable and interfere with daily functioning, too little anxiety is even worse! Anxiety, among other things, motivates us to study for exams, prepare for big interviews, and otherwise push beyond our limits. So, telling yourself that you’re weak, stupid, or incompetent for being anxious is just a lie. And by the way, it won’t do you any good to berate yourself when you feel anxious, in fact usually it only discourages people further. When we feel anxious it’s our body’s way of saying “I need support” so compounding stress with guilt and shame just makes things worse. Many people believe that putting themselves down will give them motivation to overcome anxiety. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. A better approach is to treat yourself like you would treat a good friend—with empathy and care. Try to understand, and be curious about why you’re feeling anxious. This understanding will go a long way in helping you devise a plan of action and overcome anxiety in the long run.
- The only way to beat anxiety is with medication.
While medication can be helpful for anxiety especially in the short term, it is not the only way to see results. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy and is the gold standard for anxiety disorder treatment. CBT works by helping people identify their worries, see things in more helpful and realistic ways, and confront anxiety-provoking situations head-on. At times, medication can be an important component of treatment, such as when anxiety prevents someone from engaging in CBT. So, taking medication may be an important first step. But, in the long-run taking medication can actually reinforce the idea that anxiety is bad or harmful, and interfere with the processes of learning to overcome our fears.