One little panic attack 25 years ago…a side effect of one medication…on one drive home—all explainable. It had never happened before…and wouldn’t have happened were it not for the medication I was taking, and yet it took me years to drive in a car free from fear and worry. Anxiety is on the rise in this country, and if we don’t get a handle on it and learn to control the spiraling loop between body symptoms and our overactive worried minds, we will become a paralyzed nation.
Why talk about it now? Because I had another unique and explainable incident recently which has given me flashbacks to my patterns of fear and anxiety in the past. The incident? I fainted briefly due to dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance when I had exercised too hard and hadn’t been drinking enough water while at high altitude in Colorado. Fortunately, I was not injured during the episode…and it lasted only a few moments. But since that time, when my head or my body start to feel similar sensations, I feel that familiar fear rise up. What if it happens again? What if there’s some other reason why I fainted and it wasn’t a benign incident? What if I’m alone when working out and something happens?
What if…what if…what if…
In spite of the fact that I have worked out hard for many years and never had an issue before, I still have all this fearful chatter in my head if I sense any of the feelings that I had right before I fainted. WTF?!??!
Am I the only crazy one whose mind swirls with all of these fears and what-ifs? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, “No, of course not.” In fact, I can name several people in my sphere who suffer from a similar fate…but I won’t name names. To save you all, I thought I’d expose myself to help others work through their own chatter.
Buddhism calls this the monkey mind…and fear is a major component of it.
Specifically…“Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention. Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.”
The question is, can you tame it? Yes, but not easily. It’s part of life’s journey.
Dealing with the never-ending to-do lists that often fill the monkey mind is easy. Just write them down, and your mind won’t swirl. The fear-based ones and all of the “catastrophizing what-ifs” are harder. I’m sure that there have been many scholarly papers written about the pervasiveness of our primal fears and why they exist. But why doesn’t really matter when all you want to know is what can you do to shut it up. Clearly, I haven’t succeeded yet, but here’s how I am working toward managing these irrational fears…
Stopping to ask myself, Is this a reasonable fear? What is the likelihood that your fear will come true…and is worrying going to make any difference? This helps me, in particular, when I’m flying. Every statistic says that flying is the safest mode of transportation per passenger mile. Yet fear of flying is very common.
Showing myself I’m not dead yet. How often do you experience shortness of breath when you’re exercising or get some funny twinge in your chest or shoulder? It happens to me quite often as my body adjusts to the movement. I move through it, inspired by a radio interview some years ago with an expert about panic attacks. His strategy: If you are not sure it’s a panic attack or a heart attack, do 10 jumping jacks (or keep exercising for a few minutes). If it is a panic attack, you will be fine. If it is a heart attack, you will have increasing difficulty performing the task and need to call 911 ASAP.
In my efforts to overcome my panic attacks, I listened to an audio program called Attacking Anxiety and Depression by Lucinda Bassett. In one section she talked about body symptoms and how the same adrenaline rush can be perceived as wonderful to someone who is skiing down a mountain feeling freedom and joy or disastrous for someone living in fear of an event. Biochemically our body is doing the same thing. The difference is how we perceive the racing heart or pounding head.
Reminding myself that I’ve succeeded at every step. Why keep worrying when you know that you have succeeded in the past? You have successfully completed that long car ride…finished the run or bike ride…given the presentation. I remind myself that I’ve already done it. Stop worrying about whether this will be the time when I won’t succeed.
Visualizing my glory moments. There are times in my past when completing a challenge felt amazing—sprinting to the finish of a race…completing a really interesting podcast with a super-powerful guest…reaching the top of a hike or the bottom of a ski run. Remembering those adrenaline-infused moments of glory helps shift my energy from fear to strength.
Playing the game of fives. I didn’t make this one up, and frankly I just recently read about it, but I’m going to try it. When your monkey mind starts going down the path of crazy, bring it back to the present by noticing five things. Just look around and notice their appearance… beauty… importance in your life—anything to take your focus away from the mind chatter so that it becomes a mindful moment. This may be difficult when I’m on the treadmill since my view never changes, but it seems like a great way to come back to the present on a run or bike ride, when there is an infinite number of things to notice at every step.
We hold ourselves back with the never-ending playlist of irrational fears and what ifs. They give us every reason in the world to say no and quit. The sad fact is that quitting will only make it worse. Far better is to consider what if the what ifs were why nots and we lived with enthusiasm for the adventure rather than fear. That would feel a whole lot better.