Comparing Different Models for How To Deal with Panicky Thoughts. Self Experiment.
Most of the strategies that work for people who have “disorders” like depression or anxiety disorders, also work well for dealing with life in general.
I like to try out the strategies I recommend to clients on myself. I had the opportunity to do this the other day when saying goodbye to someone at an airport. I took the opportunity to try out several strategies that come from different models of therapy, to see which worked best in the situation.
Here’s the results of the experiment
Description of Situation: Just after having said goodbye at the airport, I noticed myself thinking a panicky thought “What if something happens and we don’t see each other again” and feeling mild-moderately panicky sensations (tightness in my chest, butterflies in my stomach, curling up my hands into near fists).
What I Tried
Technique #1. Cognitive Reappraisal (from Cognitive Therapy)
What I did:
Constructed a Balanced Thought:
Reassured myself it was highly unlikely anything would go wrong.
Reviewed the Evidence supporting the balanced thought:
– We’ve been separated lots of times and nothing terrible has ever happened.
– People part from each other everyday and the vast majority of the time, nothing bad happens.
Did it help? It didn’t help much.
Technique #2. Acceptance Of Life Being Full Of Risk, and Risk Being Unavoidable. (from Acceptance-Based Therapies such as ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)
What I did:
Told myself that although there are some risks when someone travels, risk is an inherent part of life. There is no way of avoiding the risk of something bad happening, even by staying home/never parting.
Did it help? Not really.
Technique #3. Using a Self Compassion Approach
What I did: Told myself “Hey I know you’re feeling scared. Those fight/flight physical responses are just your body trying to keep you safe. You’re worried something might happen because you feel such a strong bond with the person you’re saying goodbye to”.
This approach involves staying with the panicky feelings for a few moments, allowing them to exist, rather than immediately trying to get rid of the negative thoughts and feelings.
How it worked: This worked brilliantly!
Technique #4. Physically relaxing and softening instead of bracing against the tension
How it worked: Pretty well. I used it after using Number (3) and think this was a good combination/order.
Technique #5. Self Criticism (not recommended by any model of therapy!)
1 through 4 above reflect the order in which I tried the strategies, but I should also point out that my very first response was that I fell into the trap of self critical self talk
e.g. “pull it together, don’t be a baby, you’ve done this before, don’t be so emotional”.
It’s good to be mindful of this occurring.
Note: If this all seems really over the top, it all occurred in the space of 5-10 minutes. Also, I find cognitive reappraisal (correcting wonky thoughts) to be a great strategy in some situations, just not for this.