In this section of the book, David Richo gives us some guidance on how to deal with panic or acute anxiety. As a therapist, I see anxiety and panic come up a lot for people. It is amazing because most people talk about how debilitating it is, but that most other people don’t know about their anxiety. What I notice is that anxiety can often look like something else on the outside: someone being edgy, aloof, arrogant, abrupt or simply put...it looks like someone being kind of a jerk. But really, all that is is anxiety and people are just trying to find a way to make it through the moment in the most socially acceptable way while they experience something intense and unbearable on the inside.
David Richo describes panic in this way: “[It] happens when we believe ourselves to be powerless” (p. 50). I like this description because it encompasses the sense of feeling immobilized or stuck, which most people say characterizes their experience with anxiety. Another aspect of anxiety that I notice is it seems to create a tunnel that has you focus on the panic or anxiety and the accompanying thoughts. It seems like people have a hard time paying attention to what people say and what is happening around them during the moments of panic. In addition, they find it difficult to remember that there is no real or actual threat and that there is a solution or way out of the anxiety/panic. Panic or acute anxiety is very unlikely to kill anyone. However, it can be very limiting and make someone’s world small just because they anticipate its painful arrival. David Richo says: “Panic attacks are usually short, and what devastates us is the psychological intimidation and sense of powerlessness that comes with them” (p. 51).
These are three steps outlined in this part of the book with my comments for how to deal with panic:
First, allow the panic to be there. Resisting it actually makes it more difficult to move past. This is hard because it is uncomfortable and it feels out of control, so naturally, you want to control it. But really, it is just a wave of intense discomfort and your body is excreting adrenaline (responsible for fear) and noradrendaline (responsible for anger). Try not to stop it when it is already happening. Your body is in a process.
Second, focus on something relaxing in your mind. I know this seems crazy and maybe impossible. It is probably helpful to come up with the relaxing object, place, memory, person when you are calm so you have it ready ahead of time. But listen to why David Richo is recommending it: “Just the bringing of images into your mind decreases the consumption of oxygen, slows down your breathing, lowers your blood pressure, reduces tension and brings more blood to your brain. In other words, it reverses the components of the panic attack” (p. 53). It’s just science.
Third, breathe. Look. I get it. When you are feeling something extremely uncomfortable, the last thing you want to do is breathe. But think about this: If you were in real physical danger, your body would need to prepare to respond to the threat. Breathing would need to be shallow. If you start breathing slowly and deeply, you are sending the message to your body that you are, in fact, safe. Because you are. In panic, your brain is responding to an unseen threat.
So, the approach is really not to resist the panic and work with your body/mind to help them understand you are safe at a fundamental level. Think about getting caught in a riptide. They say not to swim against the current because you exhaust yourself, but to relax, to go with it and you will find an exit along the way since it is not the whole ocean that is a riptide. Same thing is true about life and the world. There are rough spots where you get caught, but that is not the whole of our experience on this planet. Check out this link for how you escape a literal riptide and notice the awesome parallels in the process David Richo describes: http://m.wikihow.com/Survive-a-Riptide. By the way, I looked up this link after I wrote this post. Pretty cool how human nature actually mirrors the nature of the elements sometimes.
*This post is written in response to a section in David Richo's book "When Love Meets Fear: Becoming Defense-Less and Resource-Full".