It probably sounds pretty simple, right? Duh! We don't enjoy feeling scared, anxious, or panicked so why would we talk ourselves into feeling this way? But the truth is that many of us do. Think about it. What usually happens just before (or often during) a panic attack? Negative thoughts. "What if..? Thoughts. "What if I do something embarrassing?" "What if I bomb this test?" "What if I forget the lines to my presentation, I lose the client, get fired from my job, my wife leaves me, my car gets repossessed, and I have to hold one of those signs saying "Cash 4 Gold" on the street corner?" Those negative, fearful thoughts fool your mind into thinking there really is something to fear, triggering a fight-or-flight response throughout your body. Your heart starts racing, your mind spins, and you spiral into the terrifying experience of a panic attack, and it all began with thoughts. Who created those thoughts? You did!
In most instances, there is no legitimate outside force causing you to panic. Look back and reflect on the times that you have experienced panic attacks and ask yourself "what was the cause?". Sure, there probably was a trigger. Maybe it was a large crowd at the mall, or a traffic jam that you were stuck in. Maybe you had to get up and speak in front of a group. A stressful day at work. A tough conversation with someone you love. Different things trigger panic attacks for different people. But the root cause is always the same: You. It's your reaction to the situation that causes the panic. You feel anxiety brought on by the triggering situation, which is perfectly natural. It is what happens after that initial anxiety that becomes a big problem. You start to fear the anxiety. When the fear kicks in and you become afraid that you are going to panic, you do.
This is all happening solely inside you. The external trigger no longer has anything to do with it. You are simply doing this to yourself. There is an awesome power that comes with realizing this. If you are the one causing yourself to panic, all you have to do is STOP! Stop feeding yourself negative thoughts. Replace them with positive ones. Take a deep breath, mentally step back and you'll realize that whatever is causing you to freak out is really nothing to worry about. Most of the time these triggers are things that we've done many times before, even once considered to be mundane. Unless you are actually being chased down by an angry bear, then you can give yourself permission to calm down.
It's easier said than done, I understand. I have struggled with panic myself for years, and it's still tough at times. I'm not trying to minimize it, just simplify it. If you pull back and give yourself a wider perspective on the situation, you'll see that there's literally nothing to fear except for fear itself. So you have to give a big speech in front of a class. Think about the times you've had to do this in the past. You were likely nervous then too, but you got through it. Is it a major life event that you reflect upon regularly? Do you recall specifics of any of the speeches given by your other classmates? Probably not, and they probably don't remember yours either. If you were all sweaty and nervous or stumbled over your words, it wasn't printed in the history books yet. And this time will be no different. You will be nervous, but you will get through it. Life will go on.
So quit beating yourself up, because it's just not that bad. Your worst "what if.." scenarios won't actually unfold. How many times have you actually seen someone freak out on a plane and run up and down the aisles at takeoff screaming their heads off? I have, but only in my head while I was sitting quietly in my seat with my eyes closed. They're just thoughts in your head. Most people don't act on them. You know those what ifs aren't actually going to happen. A good coping tool is to embrace them. If you're in line for a water slide and just petrified that you're going to embarrass yourself by chickening out and making the walk of shame back down all those stairs, then go with it. Imagine yourself just going absolutely looney toons, running down those stairs, arms in the air, screaming bloody murder, and knocking down little children left and right. Laugh it off and you'll feel a little better.
By realizing that you are talking yourself into fear, you give yourself the power to stop it. The next time you are feeling anxious and those what if thoughts come around, shoo them away and try replacing them with good what ifs. What if I amaze them at this interview and get the job of my dreams? What if everything goes right on this road trip and I have the time of my life? Or even simply, "what if I just get through this and then go eat some Zebra Cakes afterward?" Think of all of the opportunities that can come to you when you rid yourself of that fear and start thinking about possibilities!
“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.” -Ghandi