My psychotherapy client sits opposite me frozen in terror. She lives in a world of “what ifs.”
“But what if the elevator does get stuck?”
Life is unpredictable and it can be dangerous. But most people wouldn’t give a thought to going in an elevator. The likelihood of anything bad happening is so low that it approaches the impossible.
Sadly, for my client, the fear feels so real that she cannot walk through the elevator doors. What she doesn’t realize is that the danger she faces isn’t a stuck elevator; it is anxiety.
It’s silly to give statistics on how many of us experience anxiety. Is there anyone who doesn’t?
Anxiety comes in many forms.
Some people wake in the middle of the night with their heart pounding thinking they are going to die of a heart attack. We say these people suffer from panic.
A few get crazy thoughts stuck in their head. One client of mine believed he was going to die from a haircut. We say these people have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Still more spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about everything. These people, we say, have generalized anxiety.
Then there are those like my client who are afraid of one specific thing. We say these people have a phobia.
But even without the names, we all know what it means to be anxious. Why do we feel this way?
When we are anxious, we think we are about to get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, when we are just talking to a cute guy.
When we are anxious, our body is misreading what is happening in the world. Our body believes we are about to get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, when actually we are chatting with an attractive guy.
When the body believes that it cannot cope with the risk it faces, it turns on a system in the body called the sympathetic nervous system. This is the famous fight, flight, freeze system. I’ll call it our danger system. This system is regulated by a part of the brain the size of a walnut. It is like a reptile. Its only job is to scan the horizon for danger.
When the danger system turns on it leads to a series of chemical reactions that involve all your body systems, including your nervous system, brain, muscles, and organs. What this tells us is that anxiety is something that happens in your body.
When we live with the danger system turned on all, most, or some of the time, we have an overwhelming urge to run away, start yelling, or we become caught like a deer in headlights.
When we feel anxiety we focus on the wrong thing.
The problem with anxiety is that when we are feeling it, we often focus on the wrong thing. We become convinced that the terrible feeling in our body makes the thought in our head true. Then we act as if it is true.
The person who is afraid of airplanes focuses on what could go wrong on the airplane, and does all they can to avoid flying. The person who is afraid of social situations tells themselves that they will make an idiot out of themselves at the party. Then they drink too much, and make an idiot out of themselves at the party. The person who thinks they are contaminated spends hours washing their hands.
But since we are not really facing a mortal threat, these are rarely the appropriate responses, especially if we are talking to an attractive person. What people gripped by anxiety need to be focusing on is not the airplane, the party, or the germs.
The crazy thoughts, weird body feelings, and strange compulsions we experience are merely signals that the danger system is on. Rather than avoiding, the solution is to turn off the danger system.
You can beat anxiety.
The good news is that, with practice, you can learn to turn off the danger system and you can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which I will call the all-clear system.
By doing this you activate the much larger part of the brain that is reasonable, can speak English, and knows how to be charming.
Turning on the all-clear system makes you feel safe and secure, and then you can then get on with the happy business of life.
You can turn off the danger system and turn on the all-clear by working with your awareness, your thoughts, and your body. In order to do that, all you have to do is practice a set of simple step-by-step instructions.
Will this work right away? The body has a hard time believing it is safe when it is imagining that it is about to get eaten. That is why it is important to practice this technique over and over again. It is especially important to practice when you are not panicking, because it will be easier to train your body that way. Eventually, if you practice enough, you can learn how to calm yourself down and become yourself again.