10 Rules for Coping with Panic: Rule #4 (Part 2)
(Note: this post is part of a series about navigating my way through the 10 Rules for Coping with Panic, which is a nifty little list I keep in my wallet. To read the introduction to this series, check out this post: Coping with Panic: Why I Can’t, and Why I Can.)
In case you missed my last post, here’s Rule #4:
Describe what is happening. Notice what is really happening in your body right now…not what you fear might happen.
WHY THIS IS SO DIFFICULT
Look over my little elevator monologue. Only one of my thoughts comes even close to describing the “what is.” The rest only describes the “what if.” (If you had trouble picking out the single “what is,” I’ll point it out: “I’m already feeling tense…”)
If you’ve been playing the “what if” game forever, it’s not easy to shake. It’s automatic. My brownie girl scout handbook told me 22 years ago to be prepared, and I’ve taken that lesson to heart.
WHY THIS IS SO EASY
But here’s the thing about being “prepared” (and yes, if you heard me read that sentence aloud in real life, I would do air quotes for “prepared”): it’s not always good to be prepared for everything.
Yes, you heard me right: sometimes, being prepared is not a good thing. Sometimes, being prepared can take us away from the present moment.
It’s a great idea to prepare for a job interview. It’s also good to prepare for, say, an outdoor walk in the summertime (by dressing properly, by putting on sunscreen, wearing a hat, and so on). It’s helpful to jot down notes and prepare when you need to make a difficult phone call to your insurance company.
You should prepare for real things. Real events. Real situations…not fictional ones.
Can you tease out the fictional story in my inner monologue on the elevator? Here it is again, just in case you missed the first half of this post:
Immediately, my mind went off into a world of made-up scenarios: what if this guy tries to talk to me? What if he’s creepy? I mean, I’m already feeling tense and nervous being here in this tiny elevator. And now, it’s a longer ride because we’re going to stop on the 4th floor too — what if I can’t handle being on the elevator for that long? What if I have to stumble out on the 4th floor and then watch this mean watch me as I feign confusion and head to the stairwell? He’ll wonder why I’m headed down. And what if he asks me what I’m doing? Or tries to correct me? What if I get lightheaded and I can’t answer? What if I start to over-breathe? What if I feel like I’m going to pass out?
WHAT IF = FICTION
In this little work of fiction I created, I walked onto an elevator and a random man followed me. He was pretty creepy and he tried to talk to me in a way that I found threatening. I was tense and nervous and couldn’t handle the elevator ride, so when the man stepped out at the 4th floor, I followed suit, lightheaded and out of breath. I felt like I was going to pass out and the only thing I could do was escape out of the building and go outside. I bent over and stumbled toward the stairwell.
The man yelled something about how I’m going the wrong way — how I’m heading down and going back to where we came from. I want to explain myself, but I can’t. I am too embarrassed. I feel like I don’t have enough air in my lungs to speak. I walk down the stairs, holding the banister tightly, sweating, and praying that I’ll make it down to the first floor.
I’ll say it again: work of fiction. It’s fake. It never happened. I didn’t even want to write it into existence…yet it teetered on the edge of my brain for the entire elevator ride and I found myself preparing for unlikely events. Not a job interview…not a phone call…not an outdoor adventure. I wasn’t preparing for real things. Instead, my mind was preparing for a story that I’d whipped up.
The real series of events went something like this: I got on an elevator. Then, a man hopped on too. He stopped at the 4th floor. I continued riding until I reached the top floor, and then exited.
See the difference between those two stories?
Our minds are so powerful.
If I could rephrase Rule #4, it would go like this: stop writing fiction.
Beretsky, S. (2012). 10 Rules for Coping with Panic: Rule #4 (Part 2). Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/panic/2012/05/10-rules-for-coping-with-panic-rule-4-part-2/