This Is Chapter/Lesson 3.6 from my book “The Anxious Truth“. I wanted to release a chapter to give everyone a look at what the book is all about. This is likely the most important chapter I wrote, so it seemed the the best choice to release as a preview.
We’ve seen the three reactions that are driving that faulty brain link between fear and danger. The reaction before, the reaction during, and the reaction after. Now that we understand how they work; we can look at how to change them into something more straightforward and more effective. All by doing NOTHING.
You heard me. NOTHING. We’re going take all the “something” that you’ve been doing to save yourself and turn it into “nothing.” We are going to prevent all those old reactions and replace them with no response. Why? Because “nothing” works, and it works faster and more efficiently than “something.”
Exposure therapy is a cornerstone of cognitive-behavioral therapy. But it’s not just exposure. It’s called EXPOSURE AND RESPONSE PREVENTION (ERP). It’s not just about intentionally doing scary things; it’s about doing them without responding in the old non-productive ways!
The goal is to teach your brain through experience that it has been wrong all this time. We need to correct the bad lessons your mind has learned and break the bad habits it’s developed over time. The way to do this is not to tell it to change or to think about how to change it. The way to do this is to SHOW your brain a new way. The part of your brain responsible for all this doesn’t respond to thought, reason, and logic anyway. It must be taught through direct experience.
The experience we need to have to break those lousy brain habits is essentially this:
- I experienced anxiety or panic.
- I was very afraid.
- I was very uncomfortable.
- I did NOTHING about it.
- I was OK anyway because afraid and uncomfortable do not equal danger.
That’s it. Simple lesson. When you feel anxiety and panic, do nothing, and still wind up OK. This is how you teach your brain that all that “stuff” you’ve been doing has been unnecessary because it’s been wrong all this time. You’ve always been OK. Even feeling your worst, you have been OK. It’s not just the exposure. It’s the response prevention too!. This is the cornerstone of EVERYTHING.
This is how you learn to recover.
So let’s go.
Changing the Reaction Before
When you know you have to do something that you hate to do because you fear it, the first order of business is to accept that you are going to be afraid beforehand. That’s how it’s going to work. You will be nervous about doing hard and scary things. Welcome to being human.
Expect it. Don’t fight it. Let yourself be nervous, but there’s no reason to be passive about it. Changing your “before” reaction is about learning to live in the moment you are in, not living in a scary future. Your new “before reaction” is about living your normal life in slow, deliberate, tiny chunks.
Living in the moment is a focus exercise. Imagine you are trying to improve your posture. Each time you find yourself slouching or hunching over, you consciously correct your posture. You stand up straight. You may have to do this over and over throughout the day. Breaking the slouching habit, building the standing up straight habit, takes awareness, action, and repetition. The same goes for learning to change your focus from the future to the present.
In the last lesson, we used a drive on the highway as our example event. Let’s continue with that. Remember that the concepts apply across all situations, not just driving.
When you know you are going to be driving on the highway, you will get anxious about it. This is normal. There’s no need to try to banish the fear or drown it out. However, when you find yourself thinking about the drive, stop, and return your focus to the present moment. Focus on what you are doing right now. The drive doesn’t exist yet. The future hasn’t arrived yet. There’s absolutely no reason to live it before it does.
Thinking about it, worrying about it, and ruminating about it will not change any outcomes. They will not protect you or save you from any horrible fate. These actions will simply fuel the fear cycle and make anticipatory anxiety even worse. Are you driving right now, or are you reading a book? Are you in the car right now, or are you chewing the eggs you cooked for breakfast? Are you on the highway right now, or are you brushing your teeth? Are you behind the wheel, or are you playing with your dog? Each time your mind goes back to the upcoming event, stop and return it to the present and the activity you are currently engaged in, regardless of what that activity is.
You will find that you have to do this again and again and again. It will be very difficult at first. You may find that you are frustrated. You may think that you have no control over the process.
But you do have control. Like any new skill, this will take time to learn and master. Be patient. This new tactic is not designed to instantly change everything for you. It is designed to change your reaction to fear incrementally over time. That’s how this works, so be prepared for that.
When you become aware that you have a difficult and scary event coming up, make a plan, then execute it step by step. The plan is designed to keep you living in the present rather than in the future. It will look something like this:
Every day before the event:
Do not think about the event. When you think about the event, stop. Think about what you’re doing in the present. Take each activity you will engage in throughout your days and break them into tiny pieces. Putting groceries away? Don’t put them all away at once. Attack every single item as its own project. Focus on each one fully. Pick it up, walk to where it belongs, open the cabinet door, place the item inside, close the cabinet door. Go back for the next item that needs to be put away.
Are you thinking about the drive that will happen in four days? Stop. Return your focus to the box of cereal in your hand and complete the task in progress.
Break everything you are doing into the smallest possible chunks and focus on completing each chunk before moving on to the next. This likely sounds odd to you. That’s OK if it does.
Breaking the act of making tea into 472 discrete steps isn’t something you normally do, so it will take some getting used to.
Just do it, even when it feels strange. It will become familiar pretty quickly.
Your goal is to remain in the present and to slow things down. There’s no need to rush through your day. Go slow, be deliberate and purposeful in your actions, and remember to keep your body relaxed and your breath flowing.
The day of the event:
Plan every activity leading up to that scary event, then execute that plan. Perform every activity slowly, deliberately, and mindfully. Start with opening your eyes in the morning, then sitting up, then putting your feet on the floor. Move on to standing up, then walking to the bathroom. Make every step you take before the event drive count. Time to brush your teeth? Just pick up your toothbrush. Then pick up the toothpaste. Then put the toothpaste on the brush. Then put down the toothpaste. Then put the brush in your mouth. Then brush. Break it all down into that kind of detail and execute every motion intently and with full focus.
Relax your body.
You have no need to live the scary event yet. You still have to shower, get dressed, eat, get the kids off to school and walk the dog first! As they happen—slowly and mindfully in the sequence—those actions are the only real things. The scary event isn’t real yet. It doesn’t exist until it does, so getting to that point in this mindful, quiet, slow, focused manner is essential.
Why should you work on living in the moment, slowing down, and breaking your day into tiny slices? What does this have to do with changing your reaction to anxiety and panic?
It has EVERYTHING to do with it.
By taking control of the process and executing a plan, you are forcing your brain to do none of the things it used to do before that scary event. It will not race, it will not obsess, it will not create worst-case scenarios. It will not drag you around, and it will not pour continuous buckets of irrational thoughts and fears over your head. You will be taking that away from your brain. This is important because you will ultimately arrive at the moment where the drive on the highway (for example) begins, but now you will get there without having been on high alert for hours or days beforehand. The lesson you will teach your brain is that it was OK to not go into alert/defend/escape mode. Even remaining quiet, slow and calm got you to the event.
Look, brain! None of that stuff was required. We’re still here. Nervous, afraid, and uncomfortable about the drive, but still OK. Now let’s go!
Do you see how changing how you react to that “before fear” can teach your brain new lessons? Blocking the old brain habits and still being OK (ready for the highway drive) shows your brain that it doesn’t have to do all that stuff any longer. Will your mind learn this lesson immediately? It will not.
This will take repetition and practice. It’s a process. Be patient with yourself and stick to the plan. Over time you will teach your brain to approach upcoming “challenges” in a totally different way that doesn’t involve being consumed by fear, worry, and dread for hours or days on end.
As with everything we’re talking about, doing this is not a shield against anxiety. As you work on living slowly and mindfully and on refocusing your thoughts from the future to the present, you will feel anxious and even afraid. This will be especially true when you first start out. Expect this. You will have to do this work while anxious at first. Do not expect that focusing on your shoelaces will instantly wipe away those feelings. It will not, at least not immediately.
Do this often enough, however, and you will find your anticipatory anxiety is decreasing and that you can actually experience increasing levels of calm even when you have a challenge on the horizon!
Trust the process.
Execute the plan.
Show your brain new things and allow it to learn. You will be amazed at how it will change if you give it a chance.
Changing the Reaction During
This is where the rubber meets the road (no pun intended). Now it’s time to actually do that drive on the highway that you’ve been fearing and avoiding for so long. The difference is that now we’re going to do it differently. We’re going to allow the fear and discomfort to come without trying to wipe it away or escape from it. This time when those sensations and thoughts arrive, we will do…nothing.
To start, you need to be OK with the fact that you are going to be afraid. Maybe even terrified.
This is to be expected, especially the first few times you try this new approach and intentionally put yourself into anxiety or panic-inducing situations. You will be afraid and uncomfortable, and you may even panic.
Be OK with it.
Understand that experiencing these things with your new “do nothing” plan is how you will teach your brain that it’s been wrong all this time!
When you are on that highway and driving along, when you feel your anxiety rising (maybe you even started the drive at near panic levels), the overall strategy is to stop trying to protect yourself against it. Protecting yourself against anxiety and panic hasn’t helped you, so we need to stop doing that.
How do we let our feelings and thoughts surround and engulf us without reacting?
That sounds impossible!
I promise it’s not. It’s very difficult because it requires that you display courage—even extreme courage—to start. It requires that you make a commitment to trust the process and see it through. You will be taking a leap of faith when you do this. I acknowledge that. Your brain is convinced that you are in real danger, so by deciding to intentionally do scary things AND to do nothing when the alarms start ringing, you are effectively choosing certain doom. You’re not really, but your brain thinks you are, so it will SCREAM at you when you relax and breathe instead of running for help.
As far as the fear center in your brain is concerned, you may as well be standing still as a speeding train heads directly toward you. The fear will be that intense. This is what makes this a difficult thing to do, especially the first few times. Remember, though, that there really is no speeding train. It’s an illusion. Your brain has been mistaken. It’s created a danger where none exists. You have to show it that the threat doesn’t exist. The only way to do that is to allow the worst possible thing to happen.
Here’s the secret: it will not. I promise it won’t. I am not writing a book about how to do dangerous things. I’m writing a book about how to do hard things. Know and trust the difference.
Let’s go back to the car. Our drive down the highway. How should you react differently? What are the nuts and bolts? Well, there aren’t many. This is good news.
Here’s how it works.
When you feel a scary sensation in your body, you will want to tense up and brace against it. You will want to fidget and wiggle in your seat. You may want to literally grab yourself. You may want to grab your phone to call for help, or turn up the radio, blast the air conditioning, or open a window. Do none of these things. Instead, simply relax your body like a rag doll. Release every bit of tension. Just let it go. In the case of our drive down the highway, keep your hands on the wheel (but no “death grip”), be still in the seat, relax against the seatback, chin up, eyes open. R-E-L-A-X into the fear. Let it wash over you thoroughly. Let it engulf you. Do nothing when it does. Just maintain your position in a relaxed way. This is the exact opposite of what your body and brain are telling you to do. Remember, your brain thinks this is actual danger. It will want you to do something to save yourself.
Let the tension out of your body.
Drive the car as if you don’t have a care in the world. Relax and drive while the fear of the fear tries to kill you, make you insane, or whatever it is you fear will happen. It won’t. Those things have never happened, and nothing you have ever done has stopped them from happening. That’s because they were NEVER going to happen to begin with. So do nothing with your body except go limp and drive.
Let’s talk about your breath. While you are going totally limp, you will breathe. You know all the thousands of times you’ve heard someone say, “Take a deep breath?” FORGET THAT. You don’t need to take a deep breath to calm down. Get that out of your head. No deep breathing, cleansing breaths, or grounding breaths. None of that is needed. All you need is plain old regular breathing. Your body knows exactly how much air to take in, and how much to exhale. It knows when to do this and how to do this. You couldn’t stop it if you tried.
You will simply breathe. Breathe through your nose. Breathe into your belly, NOT into your chest. Your shoulders and chest should not be rising and falling with each breath. Your stomach should be expanding and contracting. You will inhale, pause for a brief moment, then exhale for a bit longer than the inhale. Some people like to count. In for four, hold, out for six. You will not attempt to fill your lungs with air. That’s chest breathing. You will not sigh on the exhale. This is often done in an attempt to “calm down,” but the heavy sigh is a fast, high-volume exhale. This can lead to over-breathing, which can lead to hyperventilation.
If your face, hands, and feet get tingly, you are hyperventilating. If your hands and feet cramp up and lock so you can’t use them, you are hyperventilating. I have some useful instruction and links to tutorials on breathing on my website at theanxioustruth.com/skills.
Learning this and practicing proper breathing all the time when NOT in a panic will help make it the default state when you need it to be.
Now let’s look at your thoughts. When you are in a high anxiety or panic state, your brain will lock into high gear. It will scream scary things at you. They will all start with oh my God or What if? It will tell you that you are going to die, lose your mind, or look like a fool. Your brain will take your worst fear and yell it in your face at high volume, trying to get you to take evasive action.
This is to be expected.
This is your brain doing what it thinks is its job. It’s trying to keep you alive and safe. It doesn’t know that you are going to be just fine. It thinks it needs to intervene. When those thoughts are racing through your head and screaming loudly at you, you will NOT answer them.
No “talking yourself down.”
None of that.
You can’t reason with irrational fear. It will never listen to you. There will always be one more “what if” thought. Always. Trying to soothe yourself by repeating “I’m OK” is a dead end. It doesn’t really work. It’s actually counterproductive. Remember, the fear center in your brain isn’t listening. And it doesn’t learn that way. Trying to counter such thoughts while in a state of panic is like trying to call someone who has their phone turned off. It’s impossible.
Instead, while your brain is screaming for your attention, you are going to place your focus elsewhere. You are going to deny its request for attention. Place your focus on the tip of your nose? Why? Because this is where your breath enters and leaves your body, so it’s a handy target.
There’s no spiritual significance to the tip of your nose or your breath. It’s just a convenient focal point. You will breathe like we just talked about breathing, then you will simply bring your focus to the tip of your nose and your breath. When your brain yells, “Oh my God, I’m dying!” you will gently bring your focus to the tip of your nose and your breath.
Let it scream.
Let the thought be there.
Don’t try to stop it or argue with it.
When the next thought grabs your attention, you will not respond or engage. You will bring your focus back to the tip of your nose and your breath. You will do this again and again and again and again. It’s not easy. You are choosing to dismiss deeply ingrained alarms designed to keep you safe. You are essentially doing the opposite of what you’ve been programmed to do. Remember that you’re not trying to get the scary thoughts and suggestions to stop. You’re merely working on letting them be there without engaging with them in any way.
I like to use the tip of my nose and my breath as a focus point, but I also mentally visualize slightly turning my back on my thoughts. Imagine someone coming up to you on the street and screaming in your face. Rather than screaming back, you relax and gently turn you back on the screamer. They may come around to your face again. Relax, and turn your back again. And again. And again. As often as it takes. At some point your screaming friend will learn that it’s pointless, and they will stop screaming. This is what we’re doing with our brain and our thoughts. We are trusting that there really is no danger, and never has been, and we are teaching our minds the proper lesson.
Let’s go back to our driving scenario once more.
You may have to pull over. That is perfectly acceptable, especially in the early stages of this new approach. You may find that when anxiety and panic arrive that you have to stop what you are doing and actively do this new “nothing.” That is quite common.
Doing nothing is a new skill for you and you may need to stop everything to focus on being non-reactive to your thoughts and sensations. When driving this may mean pulling over to the side of the road for a few minutes. This is not wrong or incorrect in any way. The more times you do this, the more you will develop the ability to do nothing while doing other things. I can have a full-blown panic attack while driving, lifting weights in the gym, or having a business meeting.
I am able to do nothing while doing something, but this is the result of years of practice and experience. You will get there, too. For now, pull over or otherwise stop what you’re doing if you need to. That’s OK.
When you do nothing during periods of high anxiety and panic, the intense sensations and fear will pass. When you do it well, they will pass much more quickly than you can imagine. When they pass, you will calm down, be less afraid, and will generally feel better. You will have done nothing to save yourself or escape, yet you will feel better faster. You will experience the full force of anxiety, fear, discomfort, and panic, do nothing in response, and wind up perfectly OK.
Can you see how this will teach your brain that there is no need to go into alert mode anymore? This outcome—being OK even after taking no protective or evasive action—is the experience we need to have to break that faulty brain link between fear, discomfort, and danger. Every time you have this experience, that link gets a bit weaker. Over time and with repetition, the link will break. When it does, you will lose your fear of anxiety and panic. When you are no longer afraid of anxiety and panic, EVERYTHING changes. It will be wonderful. Doing nothing is extremely powerful. Doing nothing leverages the incredible power of your brain to learn and adapt. Doing nothing uses the same mechanism that got you into this mess to get you back out!
Changing The Reaction After
Congrats. You lived the hours or days preceding that scary event differently. You did the event differently. You’ve learned to be mindful, live in the present, focus where you want to focus, relax, and become non-reactive to the sensations and thoughts that come with anxiety and panic.
Now we need to turn our attention to changing your reaction after the fact. To finish up with our highway driving example, what should you do once the drive is over? You’re done. You did it. You’re back home, but your work isn’t finished yet.
First, recognize the victory! You were afraid beforehand. You were terrified during. You were in a total panic on that highway. That isn’t defeat or failure. Remember that you only learn by experiencing these things, so do not look at the experience as bad or negative because you felt fear and discomfort. Understand that you felt fear and discomfort more constructively than you used to. You took a step forward! Even if you weren’t able to entirely do nothing and you bailed out halfway through, you still made a step ahead. You took the first steps toward changing your reaction to anxiety and panic. You started to teach your brain new lessons. That’s progress! If you made the whole drive and managed to be non-reactive the entire time, that’s a bonus. It probably means you’ve had some practice and you’re getting better at it.
ALWAYS think about what you did better than you used to do. You took a different approach. You did different things. Every change matters. They all add up. From this moment on, feeling poorly isn’t a failure. It’s not defeat. It’s not negative. It’s learning.
Next, we need to change the words we use. You didn’t “make it.” NEVER say you “made it.” It’s inaccurate because you were always going to make it. That was never a question in terms of objective reality. The doubt was false doubt that existed only in your thoughts. Don’t give the doubt any more power. You didn’t make it. You DID it! Maybe you did it uncomfortably, but you did it. Always say you did it. Remember when you refused to do it? But now, you did it!
Stop using inflammatory words and phrases. You were not “in Hell.” It wasn’t “horrific.” You didn’t “almost die or pass out.” Those phrases and phrases like them have to be removed from your vocabulary. They have never served you well. They are not descriptions of reality. From now on, we only deal in fact, not in your interpretation or feelings.
Next, you will shorten the story. No more long-winded recounting of every scary sensation and thought. They don’t need to be described. They only matter in your own head. The story isn’t about your rapid heartbeat or depersonalization anymore. That story is part of your problem, so it’s time to stop telling it. From now on, your accounts will be objective and concise.
“I drove on the highway for 20 minutes today. It’s the first time I’ve done that in eight months. It was really scary and hard to do, but I did it. I was afraid and uncomfortable, but I was OK. I did it and I was OK.”
See how that story sounds VERY different than the one you’ve been telling? It’s accurate, and it helps to change the way you view things. In the old story, you are being kicked around by anxiety and panic. In the new account, you are in control. Your brain needs to hear that!
Now it’s time to think about who gets to hear your new story. YOU have to listen to it without a doubt. It’s essential to tell yourself the new story! Who else should you tell? You may choose to keep it to yourself. That’s perfectly fine.
I generally did my work in silence without sharing much of it with anyone else. That was my way. If that’s your way, great. If not, that’s great, too. Just be careful about who you share your new story with. What reaction are you getting? Are you getting encouragement to keep going? Are you getting support? Are you telling your new story to cheerleaders, or are you telling your new story to people who will dismiss it, minimize it, and immediately make it about themselves and why they can’t or won’t follow suit?
This can be a problem especially online. Do your best to surround yourself with people who will be happy when they hear your new story. Look for people who will encourage you to keep going. Seek out people who may share your struggle but will use your new story to motivate and inspire them.
Finally, and most importantly, instead of being happy that you’re back to your safe zone, plan to do that hard thing again right away. Or a different hard thing. Gone are the days where you brute force and white-knuckle your way through the supermarket only to “reward” yourself with four days at home afterward. Supermarket in the morning, walk around the block in the afternoon. Then do it again tomorrow. Stop reacting to these events like you’ve earned a vacation afterward.
There are no vacations in recovery. Celebrate the progress and plan for more. Look forward to it. Doing these things is proactive. You’re actively engaging in the process of recovery. Talk about it and plan for it accordingly!
When you change your “after” reaction you change how you tell the story and who you tell it to. You change your next steps from retreat to repetition. Doing these things teaches your brain the new lessons it needs to learn.
When we change our reactions to anxiety, panic, and fear before, during, and after episodes of high anxiety or panic, we set our brains on a new path. We weaken incorrect links and build new productive and positive connections. We leave wrong answers and bad cognitive habits behind while learning proper lessons and developing good brain habits.
Changing our reactions is a simple idea yet challenging to put into practice. When you find your courage, get determined, and do the work, you will learn it will be well worth it.
Then the day will come—maybe sooner than you think—when you suddenly find yourself not gripped by fear and worry all the time. That will be a great day. I promise it will.
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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)