When Panic Attacks - Part 3: Advanced Anxiety Techniques
Updated: Dec 18, 2018
Hopefully you’ve found some useful ideas in my previous two anxiety articles. This article covers some even-more-advanced techniques for dealing with anxiety. These techniques have aspects that are simple to learn, but they also tend to go a little deeper into examining the ways you view the world and treat your thoughts. Because of this, people will often work with a therapist to really practice and incorporate these ideas into their lives. The descriptions below are necessarily succinct- there is an entire school of therapy behind each of these ideas with its own special practices, exercises, and philosophy. Nevertheless, hopefully this article will give you a brief introduction to some of these more advanced methods.
Recognize and Challenge Your Anxious Thoughts- People who suffer from chronic anxiety often have a recognizable pattern of thoughts (called cognitive distortions) that contribute to their anxious feelings. If someone is already feeling anxious, they may have a tendency to generally interpret the world and themselves in negative ways. As an example, they may tend to catastrophize: automatically imagine the worst case scenarios in a given situation. Therapy can help people begin to notice and challenge their anxious thought patterns in a way that opens them up to new possibilities.
Here’s one way it can work. Let’s pretend I see a friend when walking down the street. I say “Hi” to them but they do not say “Hi” back. If I’m having a bad day or generally feeling anxious, I may start to worry that they are angry with me. I may obsessively think over our recent interactions, trying to remember where I went wrong. I may instead get angry at them for purposely snubbing me. However, if I examine the situation a bit more, I might realize that the friend potentially didn’t notice or hear me. Maybe they just got bad news and were in their own head. Maybe I was farther away and they couldn’t recognize me. I may still want to talk to my friend about what actually happened later, but likely I will feel more at ease. Recognizing and challenging your thoughts can take some time to master, but it often created change that is lasting and helpful in many situations.
Thoughts are not Facts- As an alternative to challenging thoughts as described above, some people have success with learning the art of holding thoughts lightly. This technique is called defusion. Like the previous technique, it takes some time and practice to master. The main tenant of this technique is that our brains and bodies tend to take our thoughts too seriously- as though our thoughts are literal facts. For example, if I think “I am helpless”, my brain reacts as though that thought was literally true. Since literally being helpless would be incredibly dangerous, my fight or flight instinct kicks in to protect me. I’m flooded with anxiety before I know it.
Someone practicing defusion will learn to have overwhelming thoughts like “I am helpless” without actually becoming overwhelmed by them. There are many techniques they can use. They may become curious about how a thought affects their body. They may give it a color/sound/silly voice/character of its own. They may imagine it as sitting on a leaf floating by them on the stream. Some people also learn to react to these anxious thoughts with self-care- not as literal truths but as signs that they are going through a difficult time. When they notice they are having more overwhelming anxious thoughts, they will not pay undue attention to the content of such thoughts but will instead take time to practice extra self-care and self-kindness.
I hope this has been a helpful series for you! Remember that these articles aren’t comprehensive. Effective treatment of anxiety will vary based on the person and will be different based on your life stressors, personality, schedule, strengths, etc. Therapists generally know many methods can that help people- and a good therapist will work with you to find what combination of factors will work for you. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about ideas from these articles or if you would like to schedule a session. I would be happy to speak with you.
15 Common Cognitive Distortions: https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/
The ABC Model of Disputing Thoughts: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/albert-ellis-abc-model-rebt-cbt/
Defusion Techniques: https://contextualscience.org/cognitive_defusion_deliteralization
Leaves on the Stream Defusion Exercise:https://www.mindfulnessmuse.com/acceptance-and-commitment-therapy/leaves-on-a-stream-cognitive-defusion-exercise
What is Self-Compassion? https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/