In our last post we talked about how not believing you can get better is a huge barrier to recovery. The other obstacle to recovery from anxiety and panic is this: exposure. In order to have significant and lasting results, you actually have to confront the things that you fear the most.
When someone has suffered the terror of panic attacks or debilitating social anxiety, that is the absolute LAST thing you want to hear.
I remember back in college, I learned about exposure therapy in a psychology course. (They called it Flooding back then). As I tried to sit through the class (in the back row, in the seat closest to the exit) zonked out on tranquilizers and chewing my mint gum so I wouldn’t throw up, I remember thinking, “exposure is absolutely barbaric.” I felt it was about on the same level as shocking monkeys and torturing animals in the name of science.
I thought of all the things that caused me to have panic attacks. There was just no freaking way I would ever be able to just: ride an elevator, take public transportation, sit in the middle of a row in a lecture hall, make casual small talk with someone I wanted to date, speak aloud in my medical ethics class, give a presentation, etc, etc, etc. There was just no way I could expose myself to all these feared situations. The only way I could manage to navigate college at all was with plenty of tranquilizers on board, extra in my pocket, seltzer water, tums, and mint gum. And even with all that, there were times I panicked and had to leave class. There were many days I just said screw this, and didn’t go to class at all.
I was numbing myself to be able to function on campus (passive avoidance) and actively avoiding the panic provoking situations when it was too much to handle by skipping class or dropping classes entirely if it got to be too much.
My thinking about exposure therapy has changed a lot in my recovery from anxiety and panic attacks. I’m here to tell you it is not as bad as I thought it was, and it really does work.
How I used exposure therapy and stared to get better
The really cool thing about exposure therapy is that you get results really fast. The thinking behind it is that the things we fear are never as scary or horrible as we make them out in our minds to be. And don’t our imaginations wreak havoc on us? Since I decided to just give exposure a try at the beginning of this year, I can’t believe how much my world has opened up.
I didn’t have to expose myself to everything I feared all at once. I didn’t even have to expose myself to a fear to the degree that it would be really hard for me. I just had to focus on one little teeny goal and do that one thing- and get to the other side.
So I started with going back to church. I’m years out of college now, but sitting in any sort of group setting where it is quiet has always been a huge panic attack trigger for me. My irrational fear is that I will either projectile vomit and embarrass myself or yell something inappropriate out and cause the whole audience to turn to me aghast and horrified.
I did it in baby steps.
I decided to try church as an experiment of sorts. I would expose myself to the panic situation, wait it out, and see what my results were. Now I didn’t just march right in to the Sunday 9:30 am family mass (which is packed) and go sit front and center in the second row (my ultimate fear- a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 for me).
I chose a mass that was not too crowded, but not too empty either. The point is to experience some anxious feelings and get through it to the other side. I chose the moderately crowded Saturday 5pm mass.
Before I went, I reviewed some reading materials as well as the One Move technique from my Panic Away course. I needed to know exactly what to do should I have a panic attack.
It’s funny, on the way to that first experimental mass, I have to tell you I felt a little giddy with excitement. Even though I’m not a regular church goer, the prospect of being able to sit through mass and be ok with it would be huge for me. I have had thousands of panic attacks in church over the years. So I didn’t feel like I was going into a den of wolves, I felt strangely happy.
Of course I went early but I’m early for everything (Aren’t all anxious people early for everything?) and I chose a seat that was challenging for me, but not too scary. My goal wasn’t to shock myself into a panic attack. My goal was gentle exposure to sitting through mass. I sat about halfway up towards the alter and I sat smack in the middle of the aisle.
I felt a little triumphant sitting there, happy and excited that I made the very cool decision to do this. When both sides of my aisle were taken up with living breathing human beings, and even more people were sitting behind me, I was trapped. This was my trigger for a panic attack. I had a twinge of panic, but I did the Face, Accept, Float let time Pass (this is the technique from Hope and Help for Your Nerves).
Once the Mass started I had another twinge of panic. If I had to leave now, it would be really weird. No one leaves when mass is just starting. I had another jolt of panic. I did my techniques and it passed.
Once the priest started the homily (that’s the big talk he gives in the middle of mass), I felt a huge panic attack coming on. The homily was always the scariest part of the mass for me. Everyone is dead quiet listening to the priest and if I were going to scream out loud or projectile vomit, this would be the time when EVERYONE would notice.
I did my techniques, and I felt another wave of panic. I self soothed with comforting self talk: “Jill you have never, ever embarrassed yourself, much less vomited in public, and you wont do it today either”. To my stomach I said “Go ahead and puke already!! Do it now and get it the hell over with, I’m so sick and tired of living this way!!.
Guess what? No vomit. The panic attack died on the spot. This gentle version of exposure therapy really worked!
The anxiety monster is a big fat bully and a liar.
After that, I found I was able to focus on what the priest was saying. I was just sitting there like everyone else. By exposing myself to the fear, challenging it to happen and seeing that it wouldn’t happen, I was free. I made it to the other side.
I went to church every week after that to practice. I was fine every time. I even got to the point where I could sit in the worst seat possible (2nd row, front and center) and not only be fine, I could be BORED!! If that isn’t a luxury, I don’t know what is.
And that, my friends, is how I do exposure to panic attacks in teeny tiny baby steps.
How about you? Do you think you can work on some gentle exposure therapy to a panic attack trigger situation and get to the other side? I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
Come to the edge, He said. They said, We are afraid. Come to the edge, He said. They came. He pushed them… and they flew. — Guillaume Apollinaire
I wish you peace,
Want to know how I’m doing so well after suffering from anxiety and panic attacks for so long? I gently but consistently expose myself to my fear triggers, and I use Panic Away. Click on the link to get started today and reclaim your life from fear.