We can feel fine in the morning and go about our normal routine and then think to ourselves, 'what if I get anxious today. What if I panic?" And our ever ready anxiety answers our questions for us. We react, by thinking 'why does this always happen to me ?' and round and round we go, not realising or being aware of the thoughts that trigged our anxiety.
Even when we do finally accept that we are having panic attacks, we still draw on the memory of our first and subsequent ones. I remember a conversation I had with a woman who had been housebound for a number of years. She was making slow progress in her recovery. When I queried why she was not able to extend her graded exposure program beyond a block from her home, she replied that the memory of her first panic attack, was as fresh as the original experience, and the terror she felt as a result of this memory, kept her close to home.
While our memory of our initial panic attacks, can be very vivid and real, they are a memory. They are not happening now. What is hidden from view, is these memories contaminate the present moment and contaminate our future. They do not give us the opportunity to learn and to break through the conditioned reactions of our thoughts.
In drawing on past experiences, we are not dealing with the present moment as it actually is. When we learn to be mindful, our attention is in the present moment. This then allows us to see our habitual thoughts and our reactions to these thoughts. And as we become skilled in mindfulness, we see that rather than automatically react, we can make a conscious choice about how we react.
For example, many people have morning anxiety. Most people report, that as they wake, they have no anxiety. Suddenly, for no apparent reason they can feel anxious. And in feeling this anxiety their thoughts react, "oh no, not again. Why won't this go away. How am I going to get through the day?"
What they are not aware of, is that their anxiety was triggered by a thought. One of the things that many people do as they wake, is 'turn on the internal radar' and begin to scan for symptoms. The moment we think to ourselves, 'where is it, how do I feel this morning ?', the anxiety throws of its covers, stretches and begins our day for us. "Here I am !" And our thoughts react to this, which causes more anxiety, which causes our thoughts to react and round and round we go.
When we think, 'where is it', we are not being present to the moment. And in that moment we did not have any anxiety. Rather than allowing ourselves not to be anxious, we go looking for it. When our anxiety begins, rather than being in the moment with it, and dealing with it, without reacting to it, we perpetuate it. "Oh no, I can't feel like this, I hate this, what if.."
Or we can feel fine in the morning and go about our normal routine and then think to ourselves, 'what if I get anxious today. What if I panic?" And our ever ready anxiety answers our questions for us. We react, by thinking 'why does this always happen to me ?' and round and round we go, not realising or being aware of the thoughts that trigged our anxiety.
Some people have commented to me, that they can have a panic attack at a certain time every day or once a week. Someone once said to me, "I always have a panic attack at 7.30 pm on Sunday nights. "
Right on cue at 7.30 pm on Sunday night, they have a panic attack with all the accompanying thoughts and fears that go with it. After the panic attack subsides, their thoughts begin to move to the following Sunday night and their next 7.30 pm attack. "I don't know why this happens like it does. I can't stop thinking about it because it always happens." . What the person is not realising, what is hidden from view, is once they can stop thinking about it, the 7.30 pm Sunday night panic attack won't happen.
What about our anticipatory anxiety ? Our thousand and one 'what ifs' thoughts. While we may know these are causing our distress to some degree, we are not aware that we are not being present to the moment. When we 'what if', we are projecting into the future, whether that be five minutes or five months away. Not being present to the moment, means we do not see what is hidden. Our 'what if' thoughts are creating our anxiety, which fuels further 'what if' thoughts. Not being present to the moment, also means that we cannot see the choices we have in how we react to our 'what if' thoughts and the anxiety they are causing.
The practice of mindfulness allows us to step back and observe our thoughts without us being being caught up in them. We can then begin to investigate and explore the intimate connection between thought and feelings. We will be able to see how our ongoing distress is being created moment to moment which then allows us to learn to control our thoughts and our reactions. As our mindfulness skills develop, we will also see our other habitual thought patterns and our other habitual ways of reacting to any experience or situation that happens in our lives.
(1) From 'Power over Panic' by Bronwyn Fox. Copyright Pearson Education Australia July 2001.