The most common question I get from my clients experiencing anxiety or panic attacks is “What do I do?!” This is an innocent question, one I asked a million times when I myself was experiencing panic attacks. I mean, why wouldn’t we ask what to do?
It’s human nature to do something, to do anything, about the stuff that we believe is causing us harm. I don’t know about you, but when I accidentally rest my hand on the hot wood stove, I remove it with a guttural scream pretty quickly. (During the summer, the wood stove serves as a convenient way to steady myself as I hurriedly put my shoes on; in the winter... not so much.) It’s instinctual to want to do something when we’re suffering, but “doing” doesn’t work when it comes to anxiety because anxiety is a false alarm. It’d be like calling 9-1-1 and running out of the house every time that extra sensitive smoke detector went off while cooking dinner. So, there is literally nothing we have to DO when we feel anxious. It’s a false alarm; we’re already safe. Of course it doesn’t look that way in the midst of a panic attack, but the good news is the anxiety will pass whether or not we remember it’s a false alarm.
Something to reflect on - what does a real alarm feel like? What does a false alarm feel like? I know for me, when something is legitimately wrong, I don’t feel anxious about it. For instance, the time I drove by a house with leaf-filled gutters that were just starting to catch fire, I was too busy playing my part in that moment to feel anxious. I was grabbing the garden hose; I was shouting for the owner; I was instructing her to call the fire department. When there was a real alarm situation, I was present, taking action, and not anxious about a thing. Sure, I was definitely experiencing an adrenaline rush, and rightfully so, but no anxiety. However, when I’m getting wrapped up in false alarms, that feels VERY anxiety inducing. False alarms often take the form of “Oh no, this is definitely the time you’re going to fail as... (fill in the blank - some of my favorites include but are not limited to: a business owner, a daughter, a wife, a decent human being, etc.).” Why do these false alarms make us feel so anxious? Because the situation is NOT yet happening (and most likely never will) and trying to solve a non-existent problem leaves us feeling powerless and helpless. No one can solve a problem or challenge that hasn’t yet come to pass. So, remember, it’s just a false alarm.