Why Panic And Anxiety Are Not
As Harmful As You Think
I would like to begin by sharing with you a story about my personal experience with anxiety. For my entire life, I have been afraid of heights, in particular, bridges, roller coasters, chairlifts, glass elevators or anything that would place me in a position of having to "look over" a deep decline or ledge. My family took a vacation approximately 5 years ago to Hawaii, which included my wife and 24 year old son, (who was 19 at the time). Both my wife and son had plans to take a helicopter ride over the Big Island and the volcano. Of course I put up an argument and simply said, "no way." "You can go and I'll stay behind." After much discussion on the matter, I was convinced to tag along. Despite my anxiety, my wife and son were quite effective at minimizing my avoidance. So...off we went. When I got off the helicopter, I had a smile on my face. I loved it! Since then, I have participated in 5 more helicopter rides during a variety of other vacations. On that same trip, I was bold enough to go parasailing, 300 feet into the air. My fear of hights have been substantially minimized, (still won't go on roller coasters and got a little dizzy at the Grand Canyon), Had I "avoided" the helicopter, my fears and anxieties would continue to perpetuate.
Anxiety is a natural emotional state that everyone experiences from time to time. It is part of being human. It is the reaction that people have when they think something bad is going to happen, or when they feel they have no control of their envirornment. Anxiety is the body's natural defense mechanisim for preparing to meet challenges, threats and other environmental and external stimuli that are preceived as dangerous.
Anxiety is not bad in and of itself. Anxiety in fact can help enhance and stimulate performance such as tasks at work, school, relationships, etc. Without any anxiety, someone would have very little to no motivation to do the best at what he or she can do.
There are minimal to extreme symptoms of anxiety. When someone experiences the extreme, it will often interfere with daily tasks, concentration, attention and their ability to peform and function socially.
Some of the common components to anxiety are the physical symptoms, such as muscle ache, chest pain, sweating, and excelerated heart rate. When these symptoms occur, the thoughts and beliefs become, "I'm having a heart attack, or I'm going to pass out." Thoughts often become distorted, with the perception that something bad will happen, causing catastrophic thinking. The underlying fear is, "I'm going to loose control, I'm going crazy". Behavior can also change, causing someone to act in a manner that is atypical of that persons ordinary beahvior, such as isolation, avoidance, lack of social and public contact.
The primary purpose for anxiety is to protect people from harm. When the fear response is activated in the portion of the brain called the amygdala, the conscious mind kicks into gear. The senses then become hyperalert, taking in every detail of the surroundings. Adreneline shoots to the muscles, preparing the body to fight or flee. When we become suddenly startled, or are in immediate danger, our fight or flight response takes over to help protect us from harm.
When our body and minds detect danger, the brain will send a message to the autonomic nervous system. This system has two subsections called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. These two branches work by helping the body to control energy levels and the preperation for action. In other words the sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps to restore the system back to a normal state.
Most people in the midst of anxeity and panic believe these feelings and emotions are going to last forever. They don't. On average, a panic attack will last for approximately 15 minuites. The parasympathetic nervous system becomes the shut off valve that will help prevent anxiety and panic from continuing any longer.
There are many ways people deal with their anxiety and panic. However, there are some methods that most people use that have been shown to be ineffective and can even cause anxiety to become worse. Most want to avoid situations or activities they fear will generate anxiety. Others may turn to distractions, or use alcohol and even turn to superstitious objects they believe will make them feel better, such as food, drinks, cigarettes, pets, money or cell phones. It has been shown that these types of objects have little effect on anxiety.
The best know way to deal with and decrease anxiety is to learn the skills of acceptance and committment. Active acceptance means letting go of the struggle, the fears and avoidance with what cannot be controlled. Anxious individuals have thoughts and feelings about themselves that are negative, degrading, catastrophic and frightning. Active acceptance means to acknowledge thoughts and feelings without viewing them as facts, or approaving or disapproving of them or trying to do anything about them. By embracing and accepting anxious emotions, individuals can regain feelings of energy, improved self esteem, less fear and worry, that otherwise would be waisted on trying to change what cannot be changed.
Rather than relying on avoidance, distractions or superstitious objects, you can learn new ways of coping, thinking and feeling about your emotions and anxious thoughts. Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy can help you to restructure these thoughts by working on the hear and now emotions and experiences, rather than the past. Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy works by helping individuals to change old beliefs "tapes" or "self talk" that contribute to catastrophic thoughts, hightened sensitivity, fear and hopelessness. Changing old belief systems can help to lead to a decrease in the cycle of anxious thoughts, anxious behavior and anxious emotions.
David H. Barlow, Michelle G. Craske, "Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic", 2000, Graywind Publications, Inc.