Monday, January 20, 2014

Sometimes my brain throws a temper tantrum.

{Photo from here}
It’s called panic.  Sometimes, my brain doesn’t know how to react in a certain situation, whether it’s from inexperience, an unknown, change, something that scares me, or no reason at all.  After these triggers, my mind decides to act somewhat like a child.

When I thought about it, the experience is very much like my brain is a 2 year old throwing a temper tantrum.  Things aren’t going my way and the only way I know how to cope is to panic.  After years of giving in to these episodes, the habitual reactions are formed and set.  The outcome: panic attacks, and a life of anxiety.

I don’t want to come across as insensitive.  I’m not saying that if you struggle with anxiety you are immature.  No, panic attacks are a real adult problem and many people suffer from them.  This analogy is only to serve as a possible way to help you overcome them.

For example, I often have panic attacks before I’m about to leave the house.  I am afraid of forgetting something I’ll need while I’m away.  I’m afraid of encountering a circumstance I won’t know how to handle.  Or I’m afraid of worst-case scenario problems that might arise, you know, like the house burning down, my car breaking down, or running into someone I know at the store...

I have found that one way to help overcome panic attacks is to think of them as the brain throwing a temper tantrum.  To stop the tantrum, you would treat it as you would treat a 2 year old; don’t engage.  I learned this technique from the blog article, “Five more ways of coping with panic” by Therese Borchard, who has long suffered from depression and anxiety.

I don’t have kids, but I’ve babysat many a temper-tantruming-two-year-olds and I know the best way to diffuse the situation is to ignore it.  The more you engage in the fit, the more you encourage it to go on.  Part of the reason for the tantrum is to get attention, so if no attention is given to it, the temper subsides.  Depending on how old the child is, later (maybe after a nap or some food), you can have a rational discussion concerning the behavior.

Reflecting on this example, I think, I can also learn how to deal with panic attacks.

When you are experiencing a panic attack, most of the time, your brain is on hyper-sensitive mode.  Your mind is reacting out of fear, so all the senses are engaged and participating in the ordeal.  It feels scary and all you want to do is give in and let the panic attack win.  Thus, repeating a vicious cycle, ever bringing you down.

However, if you decide not to engage in the panic, ignoring the feelings of extreme anxiety, and go about what you were doing, it is highly likely that you will live through the situation.  By going through the motions, and leading with your body, your brain will catch up and soon forget what it was so upset about in the first place.  Treat it like you would a little kid’s tantrum: blow it off, walk out of the room, and don’t engage.

This change in behavior will be very difficult at first.  But the more you do this, the more your brain will “mature”.  With time and practice, you will begin to re-train your brain to handle those non-emergency situations in a calm way.

In the moment, your brain is not capable of rationally thinking through the panic attack.  However, when all is said and done (maybe after a nap and some foodJ), you can think about the situation that caused you panic and have a rational, calm discussion with yourself about your feelings and what caused you fear.

This is from Therese’s article, “A study published in “Journal of Neuroscience” showed that there is a breakdown in normal patterns of emotional processing that can prevent anxious people from suppressing negative emotions. In fact, the more they tried, the more they activated the fear center of their brain, the amygdala, which fed them more negative messages.”

So, there is even a scientific explanation as to why you can’t “talk” yourself out of a panic attack.  So many times I’ve tried to calm myself down by confronting the panic, trying to figure it out, explain it, and rationalize it away.  In reality, all I was doing was engaging in my brain’s temper tantrum, fueling it with more and more fear.

If you also struggle with panic attacks, I encourage you to try this technique.  It has worked really well for me and it’s also helped me make a lot of positive progress concerning anxiety in general.

Again, I’m not trying to dismiss panic and anxiety by reducing it to the level of a toddler.  I just think that this example can play a positive part in helping us overcome the debilitating anxiety that keeps us from doing the things we love to do.

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