It first happened in the fall of 1978, during a meeting of the psychology department. The professors were engaged in a full-fledged fight – yet again – and all I wanted was for them to stop.
Suddenly, I felt I was going to pass out. My heart was racing so fast I couldn’t count the beats. Something in that awful fighting had triggered an anxiety attack the likes of which I’d never felt before. As I tried to come up with a plan for escape, the room suddenly quieted and looked at me.
I opened my mouth but no sound came out. My eyes darted helplessly around the room, taking in the horrifying sight of so many others looking at me. I struggled to breathe.
After what seemed like ages (but was probably only 10 or 15 seconds), the perplexed group went back to their fighting as I was left still clutching my chair, opening and closing my mouth like a fish out of water, having never uttered a sound.
And so began my journey into the hell of panic disorder.
What Most People Don’t Know About Anxiety
Unfortunately, my experience with anxiety is not unusual. Anxiety disorders are among the most common forms of mental struggles, with nearly 40 million adults being affected each year in the U.S. (that’s roughly 20%).
If you are reading this and suffer from anxiety, let this be a reminder that you are not alone. In fact, every third person you ever meet is going to suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT in short) and other evidence-based treatments offer valuable tools and techniques to effectively deal with all forms of anxiety. But while anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only 37% of those affected receive treatment.
That is just not good enough.
There seems to be a widespread false notion about what anxiety is and what can be done about it. And apparently the answer for most people is “nothing”.
“Nothing can be done about anxiety. You either have it, or you don’t. And if you have it, there’s not much you can do about it. This is how it has always been, and this is how it will always be.”
This notion is not only wrong, it’s also dangerous, because it leads millions of people to needlessly suffer without hope for betterment. As a psychotherapist who has treated countless of people with anxiety over the past decades, and as someone who has personally struggled with panic disorder for many years, I KNOW the role of anxiety in our lives can lessen. The burden can be lightened and anxiety can assume its more proper role of warning us against real danger.
To change the unhealthy role that anxiety sometimes plays we need to learn how to address anxiety in day-to-day situations, so instead of running from our fear, we can face panic situations head on. And in order to learn how to do just that, we first need to talk about baseball.
How To Deal With An Anxiety Attack
Step 1: Let Go of Rules
Suppose you want to learn how to play baseball. It’s useful to learn the basic rules before you get on the field, like how the game is played, and how points are scored.
However, once you are on the field, relying on the rules no longer helps you. It doesn’t help you to think about “how to hold a bat”, or “at which specific angle you need to take a swing” while you are facing the pitcher. The more you engage these analyses, the more likely you are going to miss the ball, because you are too caught up in your own head.
You can try this out at home right now. Stand up and walk across the room, but with every single step think hard about the exact rules of walking. How do you lift your feet? In what order? And which part of your sole touches the ground first?
The more you focus on the “right” rules of walking, the more unstable your walk is going to be. And this is exactly what it’s like dealing with anxiety.
It’s useful to learn the basic processes first about what anxiety is, and how to effectively address it. However, once the anxiety sets in, focusing about the “right” thoughts and actions will not help you. In fact, entertaining these thoughts will keep you stuck in your own head and further pull you into your anxiety.
Dealing with anxiety is not a matter of following a specific set of rules. The rules can at best bring you to the edge. Instead, effectively dealing with anxiety requires you to let go of these rules and allow yourself to have “imperfect” thoughts and actions, so you can put your attention where it matters.