Helen called me on my office phone, about her next appointment – ostensibly. I’m not sure how I knew – must have been something in her voice.
“Are you having a panic attack?” I asked.
I thought so.
“Ok. I know what that feels like – terrible. Right?” I do know. I have never had an actual panic attack, but I have experienced those feelings – tightness in the chest, pulse racing, heat, sweating, nausea. No one wants those feelings.
“Yes.” She sounded fearful, tight, squeezing the words out.
“Would you like to know how to stop it?”
“Yes,” was her answer. Of course she would!
“First of all, you’re not going to die. No one has ever died from a panic attack. Though it feels awful.”
“Ok,” I continued. “Now this is going to sound counter-intuitive. I want you to welcome it!”
“I know – you want it to stop. But listen to me — this is how. Welcome it. In fact, ask for more. Just do it.”
“Dare it: ‘Is this all you’ve got? Show me your worst.’ This thing is a three-year old, having a tantrum.”
I waited, maybe ten or fifteen seconds. “Tell me what you’re feeling.”
“It’s getting less,” she said, sounding surprised. “I think it’s going away.”
“Very good,” I said. “The feelings may come back later. If they do, do the same thing – welcome it, ask for more, dare it. If you do this each time, the episodes will become less and less frequent, until they go away entirely, maybe over several weeks. It’s like people teasing you, when you were a kid – your mom used to tell you, if you don’t react, it’s no longer fun for them, and they gradually stop.”
“Well, thank you so much.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better. Looking forward to seeing you Friday.”
If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know how terrifying it can be; you will probably go to great lengths to avoid having another one.
The anticipation of panic attacks is often the basis of common phobias, such as fear of driving, fear of bridges, fear of flying, and agoraphobia – fear of “unsafe” places (which may be any place outside your house). The individual fears and tries to avoid any place or situation in which they might have a panic attack. It is this “anxiety about the anxiety” that actually constrains and limits the person’s life, not the panic attack itself.
I have worked successfully with a number of individuals for whom anxiety was a major obstacle to leading a comfortable life. They have ranged from agoraphobics to people with fear of flying or driving. NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) offers several ways of removing the emotion from the memory of a traumatic event, or substituting a positive image for a negative one that used to trigger distress and anxiety (for example, the image of disaster: crashing, bodies, blood, and fire that triggered a client’s phobia of flying, whenever he was about to get on a plane). When people regularly practice “Finding the Zone”, the combination of self-hypnosis and meditation that I teach most of my clients, they notice positive changes in their ability to handle stress, often a general “mellowing-out”. Connirae Andreas’ Core Transformation process is another powerful instrument of change.
With Thomas, a recent client, I went through a number of these as well as several hypnosis sessions. Thomas kept saying, at the start of each session, that the anxiety was a lot better – but – there was something we were not addressing, which was continuing to make him miserable (“I just want it to stop”, he kept saying).
For a week or two I had been getting emails from a website called PanicAway, newsletters about various aspects of dealing with panic attacks. You know, somehow you get on someone’s email list and they keep coming. With most of these I finally end up unsubscribing. But occasionally one of them seems interesting or even potentially useful.
So on a hunch and a hope, I forwarded one of these PanicAway newsletters to Thomas, asking him to “see what you think of this – do you find it useful?” Well – bingo! He wrote me back that very afternoon, saying “This is it! This works for me. This is the missing piece.”
“Can you beat Ernest McCraney?”
Ernest ran for Central. He combed his hair into little wavelets and usually carried a mean look on his face. Most of the time he beat me, but my Junior year, in the 100 at the City Meet, I came fast out of the blocks and edged him at the tape. Ernest was mad about it. “Tell them (the judges) I was ahead of you,” he said to me, but I told them no such thing – it was their call, not mine.
“I’m gonna do my best to beat him,” I told the student.
When I first started running track, I would tense all up, trying to squeeze out every possible ounce of speed. Teeth clenched, lips pulled back in a grimace, neck tight, shoulders pulled up, and fists balled up, doing my utmost (I thought) to go faster. You can see this in a lot of sprinters, though not the best. I remember one boy who used to run with his hands and fingers stiff, slicing the air like blades.
I don’t remember if someone told me this or if I figured it out by myself: tensing up like that only slows you down; the way to go faster is to relax. It seems paradoxical: you are running near top speed, so shouldn’t you “squeeze” extra hard in an effort to go even faster?
The answer is, that’s not the way to do it. In fact, tensing up, “squeezing”, is counter-productive; it slows you down.
Think about it: when you run, you contract your quadriceps (in the front of the thigh) to lift your leg, then kick the lower part forward. When the extended foot strikes the ground you do the same thing again – the other leg’s quadriceps muscle contracts to pull it forward, lifting and kicking, while the first leg’s hamstrings are thrusting back, pushing you forward.
Your arms swing backward and forward to balance the opposite legs, using opposing pairs of arm and shoulder muscles.
When the quadriceps is contracting, the hamstrings should relax, and the other way around. Otherwise the one muscle set will resist the other, wasting energy and slowing you down, and the same thing with the shoulder and arm muscle sets. The principle is, any muscle that is not working (contracting) should relax. The best way to accomplish this is for the whole body to be relaxed, with the exception of the muscles that are actually working at any particular moment. Any unnecessary tension – in the face, the hands, the neck – reduces the overall relaxed state (in addition to using energy that is needed somewhere else and reducing overall endurance).
I came to understand this my sophomore year, when I was 15. I don’t remember if someone clued me in or if I figured it out on my own. I would practice by consciously relaxing myself as much as I could, then trying to maintain that relaxation, starting to run at a slow trot and gradually increasing my speed. As soon as I felt myself tensing up, I would stop, consciously relax myself, and start again. Little by little I taught myself to run at full speed while remaining fully relaxed (except for the muscles that were needed for running, in their turn). And in fact, this allowed me improve my speed considerably and become, yes – the track star.
If you watch sprint events, you will see the best runners’ hands loose, the fingers slightly curved, and their lips and cheeks flopping as they run.
The start follows the same principle, but here mental relaxation is especially important. You are waiting for the starting gun to sound, and when it does, you must react by springing forward and accelerating as quickly as you can. If your body and mind are tense you will inhibit your reaction. Some runners tense up and try to anticipate the gun, but unless you are very lucky, this will lead to a false start – jumping the gun, as they say – and disqualification. (Back in the day they gave us two false starts with warnings, before we were thrown out of the race. That was changed to one in 2003 and zero – immediate disqualification – in 2009.)
You can practice this with the child’s game where person A holds out his or her hands palms up; person B places hands palm down just above A’s, and A tries to slap the back of B’s hand before B can pull away. The best way to play, as B, is form the intention to pull away, then relax your mind, looking at your hands through half-closed eyes and trusting that your unconscious will react as needed. Otherwise you will try to anticipate A’s slap and that will slow down your reaction time.
Now reader: go forth and generalize.
Barry Joe McDonagh, of Galway, Ireland, is the developer of Panic Away, which he calls “The most powerful method for eliminating panic attacks and general anxiety.” The essentials of his method are what I described in the first part of this article: when you feel those symptoms, welcome it, observe it, ask for more. In his 256-page ebook, Panic Away (part of a package you can purchase for $67), McDonagh explains what a panic attack is, how it develops, common phobias, what causes an anxiety disorder, and describes ways to cope successfully with all of these and more. The book is thorough and well-written, with lots of real-life examples. I highly recommend it.
I must also say that these techniques are not new, as I am sure Barry McDonagh would agree. When I looked up “panic” in the index of Quantum Focus (1999), by Michael Ellner and Richard Jamison, there it is on page 150:
If you suffer from panic attacks, here is a very simple method to minimize these attacks as you first feel them coming on. Don’t fight the impending attack. Instead, gently slip into “The Zone” and invite the attack. This very act of invitation dispels the fear, while your relaxation breaks the physiological cycle the attack needs to intensify and sustain itself.
McDonough, though, has explicated and developed these techniques fully and applied them to many related issues and life situations: including Driving Anxiety, Agoraphobia, Fear of Flying, Fear of Public Speaking, Eliminating General Anxiety, Unwanted Anxious Thoughts, and O.C.D. Mr. McDonagh has done considerable research and drawn the lessons from his personal experience to create an effective and comprehensive guide.