A few weeks ago I was with a friend who showed me a video of Mel Robbins talking about how she had learnt to transform her panic attacks into an experience of excitement. In my work I am often asked what suggestions I have for applying mindfulness to panic attacks and I was keen to listen to this talk to see what she had to share and see how I might apply it in my own life.
I have never had a panic attack, but I was writing in the last email about the feeling of dread and anxiety on approaching an event where I have to meet people, and how this fear of socialising that I picked up as a teen seems to create a false narrative in my head about what I can and cannot do. Listening to her talk I could certainly see how I might apply it to these situations, and how people might use it if dealing with a panic attack.
In her talk she starts by discussing the limitations of motivativational thinking to get us to do things. She says: “we are not designed to do things that are scary, difficult or uncomfortable. Our brains are designed to protect us from those things, because our brains are trying to keep us alive. In order to change, to build a business, to be the best parent, best spouse, to do all those things that you know you want to do with your life, your work, your dreams, you’re going to have to do things that are difficult, uncertain or scary. Which sets up this problem for all of us: you are not going to feel like it….[because] our minds are designed to stop us from doing anything that might hurt us.” She goes on to say that as a result of this we all have a habit that holds us back, the habit of hesitating.
She then outlines how one technique the brain uses is the spot light effect, where the brain magnifies the risk of something in order to make us back away from doing it. She goes on to say “you can truly trace every single problem and complaint in your life to silence and hesitation”.
Mel then talks about how the sensations in our body are the same when we feel excitement or fear, and that it is this similarity which enables us to reframe how we are interpreting these sensations. She gives an example from her own life: when she is about to go out and give a talk she can feel her heart racing, her palms a little sweaty, her breath racing. If she were to tell herself “I am anxious and frightened of talking” this would create a feeling of fear of going out on stage. Instead she focuses on the sensations as an expression of feeling excited, and this supports her as she walks out in front of the audience.
The root of this approach is based on the fact that the flow of adrenalin is the same if we are feeling excited, or scared. It is how we interpret it that then determines how we think and feel about the physical sensations adrenalin causes.
In her longer talk below Mel describes how she was at a low point in her life, waking up with feelings of dread, and how this would lead to her laying in bed, consumed by panic and anxiety, hitting the snooze button until the morning was turning into the afternoon. One evening she saw a programme about a rocket launch, and as she watched the rocket take off she decided that was what she would do the next morning on waking, she would count down and launch herself out of bed before her brain had a chance to start thinking, working or catastrophising about the day.
As she woke up the next day she immediately started a count down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then got up. Once she was up the debilitating anxiety that would otherwise have kicked in and kept her in bed could then start to be absorbed through becoming active: she started to face the day as it was rather than as it appeared to her as a thought as she lay in bed worrying about it.
Mel then started to apply this 5,4,3,2,1, approach in her waking life. On noticing that she was caught in an addictive behaviour – perhaps prevaricating before going to bed, or moving on to an activity she needed to focus her attention on – she would then say to herself 5,4,3,2,1, and at 1 move on to the activity she had been avoiding and stop the activity that she was wanting to move away from.
“When you count backwards, you mentally shift the gears in your mind. You interrupt your default thinking and do what psychologists call “assert control.” The counting distracts you from your excuses and focuses your mind on moving in a new direction. When you physically move instead of stopping to think, your physiology changes and your mind falls in line.
The Rule is (in the language of habit research) a “starting ritual” that activates the prefrontal cortex, helping to change your behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that you use when you focus, change, or take deliberate actions.” (Ref)
I have started to use this as I wake up, and it really works. Rather than laying in bed with the feeling of dread of the day that is to come, which could easily lead to 30 minutes or an hour of delaying getting up, when I count back as soon as I wake up and swing myself up and out of bed then this mood that might have kept me trapped in bed immediately starts to dissipate, as instead I head to the bathroom, brush my teeth, get a glass of water and move into doing some yoga and meditation. I am also starting to explore using it during the day, at times when I notice myself caught in procrastination, hesitation and avoidance.
To find out more about her method I’ve included her interview below.
Using the 5,4,3,2,1 method for a panic attack
With panic attacks Mel uses the similarity between feeling excited and feeling fear to create a different way of focusing your attention and interpreting the experience. In a panic attack we have no clear trigger for why we feel panic, so there is nothing to move away from. All we have is our body telling us we feel panic and our brain has no idea why. Given that our brains purpose is to keep us safe by helping us move away from danger, this is the most terrifying thing for our brain: the experience of danger with no clear action it can take to escape.
As one of the participants on an 8 week course I was running observed, mindfulness helped them to stop panicking about the panic attack, and that in itself stoped it from escalating. But how to transform a panic attack? Rather than riding it out, which the mindfulness helped this participant to do, is there a way to actually transform the experience. Mel suggests that there is.
At a time when you feel calm and at ease take a few moments to connect with an anchor thought you can use when a panic attack occurs. An anchor thought is an image/thought of a situation where you feel safe, grounded and excited. The example in the video the woman connects with is of seeing her grandchildren.
On first noting the sensations of a panic attack count back: 5,4,3,2,1. Then connect with your anchor thought and say to yourself “I am so excited to….”what ever you anchor thought is. In the case of the woman in the video she would think “I am so excited to see my grandchildren tomorrow”. The effect of this is that it tells the brain the reason for the sensations in the body are not an unexplained terror, but a feeling of excitement at the idea of the thing you are about to do.
Perhaps you like going on a roller coaster, or bouldering, or feel exhilaration on going dancing or are excited to take your dog for a walk. Connect with one thing that gives you a feeling of excitement and that you enjoy which you can then focus on when the panic attack starts. This gives your mind an explanation to then enable it to calm your body down.
Think of the brain as a guard on watch at the city gate – suddenly the dogs start barking, the guard looks up with concern, ready to sound the alarm in case the city is under attack. If the guard sees no reason for the dogs barking he will become more agitated and alert, looking for any sign of danger. In the same way in a panic attack the brain is alerted by the body to danger, but there is no clear danger. All the brain can do is look for danger and attempt to remove you from an unseen harm which gives rise to increased alarm as there is no obvious escape route from an unseen danger. If the guard were then to see a cat sitting on a wall, he would suddenly know that the dogs were only excited by the cat, and there was no need for concern. In the same way, give your mind an image of being excited by your anchor thought and the brain can settle, telling the body it is ok, stand down the alarm signals, it’s only excitement at seeing a cat!
If you experience panic attacks and use this method please let me know how it works for you. As I have not been able to apply it to myself I would like to hear if it does help you interrupt a panic attack, as I will then be more confident to share it more as I teach.
We are meeting again this Monday. Looking forward to seeing you there.