What is the ultimate emotion underlying panic? Fear. You can’t begin to get a grasp on panic until you understand fear. We’ve all felt it before. Maybe someone’s said, ‘we need to talk’ and you start panicing, “oh my god… are they going to dump me? Do they have bad news?” Or maybe someone calls you and says, ‘something’s happened…’ and you think, “oh no… was someone in a car accident? Did someone die?” You feel your gut jump up into your throat, your heart beats faster and faster, you begin sweating, having racing thoughts, etc. When something happens that scares us into panic mode, our body automatically issues a “fight or flight” response. It becomes a problem, however when we start going into this “panic mode” when no real danger (or at least definite danger) exists – it becomes a false alarm. However, just because it’s a false alarm, doesn’t mean your same response doesn’t occur… it can still be just as scary. Often times, they can be triggered just by our faulty thinking…
How thinking Causes Stress…
Let’s say one of your friends says, “I’ll call you later tonight about making plans for this weekend.” Well…. 9pm comes and goes… 10 pm… now it’s 11pm and you haven’t heard from them. You start thinking, “why haven’t they called me? They must not really want to hang out this weekend. Am I just not important enough for them to call me back? Maybe I’ll call them… no… I’m better than that… well, I do really want to call, but does that make me look needy?” Before you know it, you’ve worked yourself into a frenzy and you’re stressed out… you have racing thoughts… your stomach is upset…. and you can’t sleep. Maybe it doesn’t always happen in that situation or maybe to that extreme, and maybe it does. Either way, it’s easy for us to ruminate and get caught up in our thoughts.
Another example I used to give to clients when teaching them about mindfulness is the following…
I went to go make some dinner and realised, ‘oops! I don’t have any food, I need to go to the grocery store’. So, as I make my grocery list, I start mentally going down the aisles of the store, thinking… ‘oh, that’s the breakfast aisle, and I do really need to get some cereal.’ As I keep going down the next row, I remember that last time I was shopping for food, I had run into a friend I hadn’t seen in quite awhile We chatted for a bit and I told her I’d give her a call so we could get together for some coffee and catch up. I then remember that I never called her back and that was a couple weeks ago. The next thing I know, I’m telling myself that I’m a bad friend and a bad person because I promised this person I’d call them back and never did.
It can happen that easily. And it’s not even just the getting off track with our thoughts, it’s the feelings and connotations we add to them without even noticing.
Remember, Feelings are NOT thoughts
Thoughts and feelings really are easy to confuse together – but it’s true, they aren’t the same thing. So, how do you learn how to separate them? Well, with a little tool that therapists like to call CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). They like to use an Acronym called the “ABC” method, which stands for the following…
- Activating Event: This is the event or situation that has “activated” how we think or feel about something
- Beliefs:These are the beliefs we developed about the activating event
- Consequences: is the consequence we are left with as a result of our belief, how we are left feeling. This can be emotional or physical feelings.
Using ABC’s on your own
You can use this ABC model on your own the next time you’re not feeling so great about a situation (check out this free printable worksheet you can try if you want). To start, look at the Activating event. Write down everything about it that you experienced, as if you’re writing an official record of what happened. Write down what you saw, heard, felt, etc. Write down every possible detail, no matter how small or insignificant. Don’t write down why you thought it happened, or whose fault it was, etc. Only write down what you witnessed and experienced.
For the next part, you actually skip B, and go straight to C – Consequences. Start writing down your feelings, how you felt after the event happened, and even try rating the intensity of what you felt on a scale of 0-100. After you write everything down, underline the emotion that most completely summarizes how you felt in the end. Then, write down the physical symptoms you experienced. Did you feel your heart pounding? Did your gut feel like it had jumped into your throat again? Lastly, write down what you did… your actions/behaviours. Did you start yelling? Crying? Did you run away to get out of the situation? Did you call someone else?
The finally, we get to B, beliefs. Write down the thoughts that went through your head. What were you thinking when the event happened? What was going through your mind? List every single one you can possibly think of. The go back, and underling the main though that you experienced after the event and rate it like you did for the consequences.
So, let’s go back to being stressed out, or panicking because someone hasn’t called you back. Your friend not calling you back would be the activating event. Write down what you’re feeling, what thoughts your having… this can be done while you’re in the moment, or afterwards.
Uncovering the faulty thought…
Your task now? Go through your thoughts and feelings as if you’re a scientist to find out where you where faulty thinking has come into play. Then read back through the beliefs you wrote down, and answer the following question: “What does this say about me?” The more honest you are, the more effective the exercise. This, ultimately will help you identify what is really bothering you. So once you know what’s really wrong… how do you fix it?
Challenging faulty thinking
You can’t change faulty thinking overnight, but by doing a little bit each time your anxious or panicy, you can slowly work at it.
- Make a list of examples when this faulty thought has not been true:if your thought was that, “The friend who didn’t call me doesn’t like me”, list examples that have shown you that your friend does actually like you. It can be as simple as, “well, if they didn’t like me, they wouldn’t have even told me they would call later”
- Once you’ve established that it’s not actually true, what is the new thought or belief you can tell yourself?Once you’ve established that your friend does indeed like you, your new thought or belief may be, “My friend does like me, and I am a good friend. People like me because I’m a good person.”
- Try a behavioural experiment:say you want to test if you’re a good friend. Write down a few things you can do to test it, such as inviting your friend out to lunch, or getting them a card, even just paying them a compliment. Write down what would happen if your faulty belief were true (I’ll just never get around to doing it, I’ll forget and ignore my friend). After you do the tasks you’ve written down for yourself, write down what actually happened (I gave my friend a card and it brightened their day, they told me thank you). Then write down your conclusion, “I am a good friend. Just because someone doesn’t call back right away doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like me.” Lastly, write down your new thought/belief, “I am a good friend.”
It’s easy to let our thoughts go into “automatic pilot” and leave us stuck feeling anxious and panicked. That doesn’t mean you have to feel that way though. If you’re needing some positive thoughts to help you get started, check out my “Happy Thoughts” page. For more information and help, check out some of the links below! Remember, this ABC process can be used to work though anxiety, panic, anger, sadness, etc. Now it’s your turn to be the expert. What’s helped you deal with unhelpful thoughts, or calming down when you’re feeling stressed?
Information and more help
Hi Future Self: App for the iPhone that sends yourself positive thoughts at future times
Beat Panic: App for iPhone to help stop anxiety using breathing techniques
Irrational Thinking CBT Test: App for android that helps you use the ideas above on the go to test your thoughts
Minding your mental health: Self-Talk (fact sheet by ReachOut.com)
STOPP: Worksheet to help you stop the panic/anxiety response and examine what’s going on
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.