A racing heart, dizziness, tingling in limbs, sweats, chest pain and breathing difficulties can all be symptoms of a panic attack. Anxiety is on a spectrum ranging from mild worry to an anxiety attack with a whole lot in-between. If you have ever been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, you are not alone. More than 6 million people in the United States suffer from anxiety. 

While a panic attack can feel like you are dying, it is not fatal. Of course, it is recommended and wise to have a physician check your symptoms to rule out heart problems or any other physical illness. Once you receive a clean bill of health, it is important to take steps to learn skills to drive down this crippling emotion.

Anxiety is caused by catastrophizing thoughts. It is a formulaic thought that goes like this: What if + Awfulizing + I could not stand it = anxiety. These are future based thoughts that have no current reality. When I counsel clients on-line, phone or in-person, I utilize a synergistic approach including cognitive behavioral therapy, rational-emotive behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation. Homework assignments prove to be extremely beneficial in teaching clients how to change their thinking and create new neural pathways that bypass the anxiety.

The truth is no matter how old you are you have had experiences in your life that you thought you couldn’t stand. Stressors such as the death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, health issues and financial difficulties to name just a few. Take a moment and look back over your life. And then reflect that you are still standing. Not only are you still standing, you may be emotionally stronger for having gone through the challenge and pain.

Here are the 4 steps you can take to reduce anxiety:

  1. Challenge your thinking.  Ask yourself, “Would it really be awful? Could I really not stand it?” Do NOT answer this question. If you answer the question you will fuel the anxiety. You ask the question merely to open the door a tiny crack to the idea that you can change your thinking.
  2. Now ask what I call the “oh my gosh, holy shit question.”  What would happen to the anxiety if you didn’t have the thought that it would be awful and you could not stand it? Answer: the anxiety wouldn’t be there. It’s that simple.
  3. Recognize the habit patterns you have that fuel the anxiety. For example, catastrophizing thoughts, rumination (thought repetition), procrastinating, avoidance behaviors, addictions, beating yourself up, etc.
  4. Create a new thought with a positive emotional and physiological consequence. Make sure this thought has a behavior change, turn the situation into a teaching moment and have gratitude and compassion. With repetition, this will help to create a new neural pathway in the brain that will bypass the old anxiety loops.

  Here is an example of what to do with the anxiety-producing thought:

 “What if I fail the test? That would be awful and I could not stand it.”

  1. Ask yourself, “Would it be awful if I fail the test? Could I really not stand it?” shhh do not answer this question. If an answer arises, let it go down the river.
  2. What if this thought that it would be awful and I could not stand it never entered your mind? The anxiety wouldn’t be there.
  3. Note what habits you have that serve to make the anxiety worse: catastrophizing and imagining that this would mean you would fail the class and you wouldn’t graduate from high school. You won’t get into a good college and ultimately will wind up homeless. You may lay awake at night looping on the fear you will fail, and you may procrastinate and not study enough.
  4. Create a new thought. What if I trusted that if I break the studying down and set aside an hour a day to review, I will do just fine. I can ask for help from the teacher if there is something I do not understand.

Just by rewriting two anxiety thoughts a day there will be a reduction in anxiety symptoms and panic attacks. The daily repetition of these new thoughts can dramatically reduce anxiety. You won’t fall into the anxiety pattern as often. You won’t fall in as deep and you won’t stay in the behavior pattern as long. My clients practice with daily written exercises and meditation. This combined approach along with compassionate support creates a new neural pathway in the brain. After years of anxiety in only 4 to 6 weeks, they are tasting life free of anxiety symptoms. And you can too.

Margie Ahern is a registered psychotherapist in Evergreen, Colorado just outside Denver, CO. Ms.  Ahern has a daily meditation practice and attends 10-and 30-day retreats annually. She has a Master’s in Counseling Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston class of 1994. Ms. Ahern provides online virtual therapy in Colorado and other states in the privacy of your home. She is available in-person and via phone. Call 303-523-9941.

Margie Ahern
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