There’s a reason why “just calm down” doesn’t quite cut it for most anxiety attacks.
I’m always mystified why anyone thinks “just calm down” is helpful advice. My thought about this has always been, “if it was that easy, don’t you think I would have calmed down already?”
It’s much like the advice often offered when people are procrastinating. “Just do it,” we’re told.
Really? Like that hasn’t occurred to us before?
“Just calm down” as a response to an anxiety attack is particularly problematic, for a very specific reason: anxiety attacks are fueled by a fair amount of energy. Taking a physical and emotional event that involves as much energy as an anxiety attack and asking us to just “turn it off” is like asking someone to slam on the brakes when they’re hurtling down the highway at a hundred fifty miles an hour.
An object in motion tends to stay in motion.
If you just slam on the brakes when a car is going that fast and expect to just stop, you’re going to be in for a surprise. It’s a good way to flip the car.
Your anxiety has energy. It has momentum to it. Anybody who has had an anxiety attack knows exactly what I’m talking about. The whole thing is just suffused with physical and emotional intensity.
You need to do something with that energy. You can’t just ignore it.
Anxiety attacks have multiple components, chief among them being what’s going on in our heads— what’s being seen by our mind’s eye— and the churning, driving intensity or momentum of the physiological response. Very often the former— the images, sounds, and associations happening in our heads— are what are driving the latter.
That said, once the physiological response has been started, we have to deal with the fact that it exists.
One effective way to deal with that energy is to channel it— by manipulating what’s happening in our heads.
Something that I emphasize to my patients, again and again, is that we all have movie screens in our heads. 24/7, we’re playing images and hearing sounds in the theater of our minds.
Sometimes we’re very aware of this, such as when we close our eyes to go to sleep at night.
Sometimes we’re not so aware of this, as when we’re focused on something actually in front of us in the day time. During these times, the movie screens in our heads become background noise— but they’re still operational.
When we have anxiety, one option we have is to take control of the movie screen in our mind, and change the channel.
(Okay, so maybe it’s more like a big TV screen. Think a surround sound theater, with state of the art audio and 3D technology. Either way— you have the option to change the channel.)
We can change the channel to a different set of images from those that are driving our anxiety— but we need to be conscious that we’re choosing new images that match the intensity and energy of the previous images.
Want to know why sometimes it doesn’t work to imagine, when we’re wound up, a peaceful waterfall or gentle breeze gently whispering through the leaves?
Because your body is already revved up from the previous images you had— it knows full well, from all the adrenaline and hyper-oxygenation coursing through it, that these images are incongruent with what it feels.
If you try to feed your body images that are dramatically different from what it was experiencing, energy-wise, your body’s going to know the difference.
It’ll waste no time in changing your channel BACK to the images from before, because those images are more congruent with what it’s experiencing.
Instead, try changing the channel in your head to something a little more energy-congruent with what you were experiencing.
I advised someone recently to switch the channel in his head from the images that were making him anxious, to the image of, say, him driving a race car, or him waterskiing.
Both of these were high-energy images that his brain could accept as energy-congruent with what he was experiencing— his brain didn’t balk at him switching to those channels.
Then, I had him imagine slowing the race car down; or imagining the boat towing him as a water-skier slowing down.
Those were imagines his body and brain could make sense of, images that spoke to his body and brain slowing down…without being the exact opposite of what he WAS experiencing.
It’s not the case that we ALWAYS have control over our internal movie screens.
But we have a lot more control than we think.
And if we exercise that control intelligently, that means we have a lot more control over our anxiety than we might think.
Keep this issue— energy congruence— in mind. We’re going to be talking about it a lot more on this blog.
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