Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Don't scream! stop your anxiety-fueled thinking

The Scream by Edvard Munch

A panic attack is when you experience a sudden burst of anxiety and fear for no apparent reason.

While we all experience anxiety and stress at times, a true panic attack comes out of the blue. Although looking back on them, it is evident that panic attacks often take place during a lingering stressful situation or period in our lives.

Panic attacks in my experience have also always occurred in the middle of the night.

It’s no great surprise that the times that I experienced these panic attacks were times when I was feeling physically vulnerable and broken—such as when I first started having physical symptoms that no doctor could diagnose, or perhaps after one of my surgeries.

I can testify that waking up with a panic attack is very scary, like being in a car wreck when I didn't realize I was even driving. I jump out of bed, run out of the room to nowhere in particular, feeling an elephant on my chest that keeps me from breathing.

While I know that I cannot prevent a true panic attack from happening again, I have learned that, on a day to day basis, there are concrete steps I can take to challenge my thinking, calm my mind, and focus on my spirit when I'm feeling anxiety. 

In other words, there are things that I can do to stop anxiety-fueled thinking, that vicious cycle of anxious feelings that lead to anxious thoughts—that in turn reinforce those anxious feelings!

My own “maría brand” of anxiety-fueled thinking is what I call going global, or overgeneralizing. Whatever it is that I’m stressing about becomes all-encompassing, universal—and obviously, permanent, in my stressed-induce (irrational) thinking. For example, 
“Wow, that project was a disaster. The editor hated it. Obviously, I have no talent for this. I guess I never will.” 
Get the idea?

But there are other common anxiety-fueled thought patterns [paraphrasing here from an article I read in February's Taste for Life magazine], such as: 
  • fortune telling, when I start making predictions (in my head) as if they are actual facts; 
  • emotional reasoning, treating anxiety itself as a reliable indicator for reality; 
  • tunnel vision, where I see only the negative and ignore any positive facts in a situation; 
  • catastrophizing, where I decide that the outcome that I’m stressing about (or the disappointment or the failure) is permanent and total! 

If you can relate to any of these, you're in good company!

I'm not a medical professional, so here’s just my three action steps for when I recognize that what I'm feeling is anxiety:
  1. Stop and ask myself if my thoughts are reinforcing the anxiety (as in the examples above) – am I turning this moment into a global reality by overgeneralizing?
  2. Name the specific (often irrational) thought that is fueling the anxiety – is it true to say that I have no talent at all as a writer in this area?!
  3. Stop whatever I'm doing and ask the Holy Spirit for assistance!

Come, Spirit of Truth
Show me God’s reality right here and now, in this situation.
I surrender myself, 
acknowledging that I cannot control, fix, or change my negative thinking.
And I commend my thoughts, my feelings, my worries, my anxieties, my entire being,
To the God who knows me and loves me 
as I am, today and always.

What about you? How do you handle anxiety and its thought patterns?