23 May

Panic is like a fire

Panic is not a slide – that terribly high, incredibly steep playground slide that once you start slipping there’s no stopping you from plummeting.

No, panic is not a slide, it is more like a fire.

All it can take is a single spark to get panic started.

“What if I (insert potential worry or catastrophe here).”

Or perhaps you feel light-headed and your thoughts go into overdrive. You’re instantly afraid that another panic attack is coming.

These type of thoughts and feelings can spark fear, panic, and anxiety. However, when most people I work with talk about their symptoms of panic, they describe them like a SLIDE.

Except the slide they fear isn’t the kiddie slide with easy bumps and drops and a soft landing. The “panic” slide is more like a 200 foot drop that ends in a black hole of agony. Once you feel you’re taking the slightest move downward, your body and mind go into overdrive, with legs and hands gripping the sides, terrified that you won’t make it back to the top.

What do I do, then?

The problem with this view is that simply adds fuel to the fire of panic. Your brain starts looking for any potential signs of anxiety, spots them, and then turns up the heat, sounding alarms and sending your body into a frenzy.

If that’s true, then the only way not to have panic is to avoid all signs of anxiety. This can lead to your life feeling smaller and smaller. What once was an easy task (going to the grocery store), can become a terrible fear (“What if I start to have a panic attack at the store and everyone sees me falling apart?”).

The problem with this view is that a symptom of every-day life – stress – a feeling necessary for helping you solve problems, understanding your limits, and identifying changes you want to make – can become a signal for panic. That lightheadedness you feel because you haven’t eaten enough can trigger panic. Stress about an upcoming date can trigger panic. A single “what if” can spark a bonfire of panic.

 

Panic is like a fire, not a slide.

 

You need multiple ingredients to get a fire going: firewood, oxygen, a dry environment, and a spark. Once a fire starts, it builds the more you add fuel to it and maintain oxygen flow. It slowly goes out as you remove the necessary elements.

The spark can be anything – a thought, a physical feeling, a reasonable anxiety or stressor. Your thoughts, a churning mass of tinder, provide excellent fuel to keep the fire going. The pressures of life – job worries, relationship difficulties, traumatic experiences – can represent the dry environment that allows the fire to burn more quickly. Your body represents the oxygen – facilitating the burn as you focus and heighten tension in your muscles, quicken your breath, and lose control.

Change your view of panic

Changing the way you see your panic allows you to have power over your mind and body. Instead of living in fear, gripping for dear life that you don’t plummet to your doom, you can watch for the signs of a building fire and get to work controlling the blaze and reducing the intensity. You can gain control of your mind; you can gain control of your body. It is not “over once it starts”.

Gaining control over panic does take some time and some work. Good psychotherapy arms you with tools to manage your thoughts in a way that leads to confidence and strength, not fear and avoidance. You can learn to be in charge of your body and live in confidence and in freedom.  

 

Dr. Rob Gibson, Psy.D. leads adult Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Groups, and counsels couples, adolescents, and adults with a variety of mood and personality disorders, as well as through tough times in life.

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