The human organism is designed to protect us from danger to ensure our survival. One way it does this is to make us afraid of things that can cause us harm or death.
Unfortunately sometimes this built in alarm and detection system is a little too sensitive and can cause us to feel afraid even if there is no actual threat to our survival.
It makes sense that our organism would err on the side of falsely alerting us to a danger rather than assuming we are safe when we are really not. However, these kinds of false alarms, if they happen frequently, are what can develop into what is often called an anxiety disorder.
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
An anxiety disorder is not really defined by the fact that we feel afraid when there is nothing to be afraid of since this happens to all of us at some point. We all worry excessively at times, or feel a knot in our stomach when there is probably no reason to. To be anxious even in the face of no real apparent threat to our survival is simply part and parcel of being human.
However, many people can roll with these annoying symptoms, let the anxiety pass, or push through the anxiety until the feeling of safety or relief returns. As a result they don’t end up living an anxious life, they simply feel anxious and then move on.
For some, however, an overactive alarm system can begin to become the focal point of living. A person can start to live as if they are in constant danger, or can become so afraid of the fear itself that they live in constant anticipation of this dreaded fear.
When this happens the anxiety does not simply pass and return us to a state of normalcy. Instead we rearrange our life as if we are really facing a great danger. We begin to respond to the feeling of fear not simply as a discomfort, but as a threat to our survival. And this leads us to engage in all kind of behaviors that are intended to avoid or combat the fear. This is why psychologist and anxiety specialist Dave Carbonell says that anxiety disorders are not really disorders of anxiety but disorders of excessive self-protection against anxiety. Anxiety, he says, simply tricks us into thinking we are in danger, and if we respond to non-dangerous situations as if we are in danger, we end up creating that danger. We get trapped into thinking a non-harmful bodily reaction is a threat and this makes it a threat.
The Anxiety Trap
What Dave Carbonell calls “the anxiety trick” and defines as the hallmark of all anxiety disorders is this tendency to get stuck in a loop of treating a false alarm as a real alarm rather than recognizing it for what it is.
If I take my anxious heart palpitations as a sign that I am having a heart attack and respond by engaging in fearful behaviors, then the heart palpitations become something I am afraid of rather than a symptom of an overactive alarm. Every time I now start to feel my heart beat I can get afraid of it and ramp up my fear and I can now become trapped in a world where a perfectly benign heartbeat invokes a struggle for survival.
This is a good description of the panic disorder trap. Perfectly benign anxiety symptoms are responded to as threats to my survival rather than as an unfortunate but temporary discomfort that will soon pass. Indeed the fear will pass no matter what, but because I struggle against it as if it were a real danger and not just a discomfort, I make the fear worse and the overactive alarm gets even more active. It is like I am fighting a fire with petroleum. The more afraid I get of the fear, the bigger the fear gets. The things I do to ward it off only make it worse, not better.
To Win the Battle Against a Panic Attack is to Stop Fighting It
The best way of fighting an anxiety attack is therefore to not fight it at all. When we fight or struggle the anxiety only gets worse. When we respond to it as if it is “bad” it becomes “bad”. So what do we need to do instead? Simply step back and wait it out. All anxiety will end whether or not we struggle against it, and in fact it will end sooner if we don’t struggle against it.
The first step to being able to not struggle against your panic is to recognize that anxiety is a discomfort and not a danger. As Dave Carbonell explains, it is similar to “headache” in the sense that it comes and stays for a while whether you want it or not and eventually dissipates in its own time. Struggling against a headache doesn’t make much sense, nor does struggling against your anxiety. You simply have to wait it out and make yourself as comfortable as you can in the process.
What does it mean to make yourself comfortable when you are feeling anxious? It means continuing with business as usual insofar as it is possible, not as a way to distract yourself or avoid it, but as a way to acknowledge that it is simply a nuisance that will pass and not a sign of danger to be responded to. You simply have to recognize that it is there, remember that it is a discomfort and not a danger, and remind yourself that it will come to an end no matter what.
Easier said than done? Certainly. Doing nothing is hard when anxiety tricks you into acting like you are in grave danger. This is why it will take practice to stay still. Not doing something is the counter-intuitive approach when your body thinks its on a sinking ship or in a lion's den. However, once you are able to stay still in the face of your panic attack the panic will start to reveal itself for what it is: a harmless bodily experience or nuisance rather than a danger requiring a fight or flight response.
For more information about how to “float” through your anxiety rather than swim against it or away from it, visit Dave Carbonell’s informative website The Anxiety Coach. Here you can read a very helpful description of the attitude of doing nothing in the face of a panic attack as well as explore several other resources that will help you shift your attitude toward your anxiety.
At the end of the day when it comes to anxiety disorders it appears the old adage is true “You have nothing to fear but fear itself”...
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak. Ph.D. a clinical psychologist in Houston. I help people get to the root of their problems. Visit my website to read more about my approach to the treatment of anxiety.