*NOTE: Thank you again, everyone who has read this far. This week was hard for me because of sickness and being really busy. I decided to post this today instead of yesterday, because this chapter is very important and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved. If you came to this blog for answers, this is probably the chapter you want to read. I of course can’t promise that these are “THE ANSWERS!!” *cue angelic chorus* for everyone, but the three lessons I discuss here were the pieces of advice that have most directly helped me and made the past year the best one I’ve had in a very long time.
Just as a reminder, this is a long narrative told from my personal point of view. I will be using language in here that might suggest that I’m telling you the only correct viewpoint or path to go down, but I’m not. Every sentence that sounds like that should be prefaced by “In my personal experience…” or “In my case…” or “I think but may not be correct that…” I am not writing this story as a method of forcing anyone to believe what I believe or do what I did. This is all an opinion piece that I hope some people may identify with.
Potential triggers in this chapter have to do with talking to a therapist, struggling with your own thoughts, and having to let go of control. I wouldn’t classify any as too severe, but again, use your own discretion and proceed with caution if you feel these might present a problem.
And as always, I am not a trained medical or psychological professional. If you are experiencing a true emergency, please dial 911 or your local suicide prevention/mental health hotline.*
CHAPTER 7: Therapy is a Girl’s Best Friend, Or, Why You’re Probably Reading This At All
Where to go for therapy is a big decision. There are many factors involved in deciding what kind of treatment you need, how far away it should be, etc. For me, the main concerns were that I had no money to spend, no insurance that worked in MA, and no car. I needed a place that was free and right around the corner.
So I went to my school’s mental wellness center. My first meeting there, I was still pulling myself out of my last panic spell, so I was very tentative. Thinking back on it now, though, it may have been a good thing. Whenever I had tried to talk to someone about my problems before, I had always stopped. I was never able to completely tell them about my panic or the reasons behind it because I always got this feeling that I would end up scaring them and maybe causing other people to start having panic attacks too. It would make me feel really guilty to find out that I had done that to someone who had previously been happy, so I always bottled it up.
The first moment I sat down with Dr. C, however, I was in such a bad place that I just let everything spill out. And it’s a good thing I did. Turns out, people who are trained to handle these sorts of issues ARE TRAINED TO HANDLE THESE SORTS OF ISSUES. That was a bit of a “Duh” moment for me, when I asked him, “But aren’t you scared and panicked now?” and he simply replied “Not at all.” It took me a minute to realize that he probably had studied about these exact same issues, and probably had to come to terms with them himself years ago. Scanning the books on his shelf, I saw that he was clearly already well-versed in anything I could throw at him. I was relieved to hear that I hadn’t just ruined someone’s life by having a complete breakdown in front of him. Not only that, but he was able to take me from mid-attack and totally bring me back to the present. And it wasn’t that hard, either.
Normally, when I would have a panic attack, there was literally nothing that could be done to stop it apart from just waiting it out and curling up in a ball of sadness and fear. And so, when Dr. C asked me to explain why I was there, and I could start feeling the cold sweat creeping up my back, I figured this was going to be just another episode. And then, Dr. C did something that made me actually wonder for a second if he was a wizard. Despite my best efforts to hide the panic, he looked me in the eye point-blank and said “I can see you’re having a panic attack now, just talking about this.”
Unable to hide my symptoms under obvious scrutiny, I broke down and started going into shaky shaky mode, now feeling bad on top of everything else because I was probably going to end up wasting a good five minutes or so of the hour we had. But Dr. C had an answer for everything.
Lesson #1: Stay in the Present
Panic attacks are often full of morbid thoughts concerning the future, immediate or otherwise. The first step to pulling yourself out of it is to become very preoccupied with the mundane details of what is going on around you at exactly that moment. And I do mean mundane.
Dr. C had me shut me eyes as soon as I started breaking down, take in a deep breath, and put my hands on the arms of the chair I was sitting in. He then told me to concentrate on the feel of the arm chair, the carpet under my feet, even the physical symptoms I was currently feeling. The catch, he said, was to examine these all as clinically as possible. This means not focusing on the fears and thoughts, but on the physical feelings of the moment. After a few moments of chanting to myself things like “The armchair feels really rough under my fingers, but not itchy” and “My scalp is still prickly, but not as tight feeling,” I did notice that the bad thoughts seemed to have moved on for the time being. A few minutes later, when they creeped in again, Dr. C very patiently did the same exact thing with me. This time I focused on the pattern of the carpet, making geometric patterns and getting myself too absorbed in making a maze out of the rug’s lines that the panic had nowhere to go. I lapsed a few more times that day, but it took a significantly shorter amount of time to pull me out of it each time.
Of course, as useful as this method of detachment and present awareness was, it was only helpful once I had already started having an attack. I needed something to prevent attacks. I told Dr. C that I wanted the bad thoughts and feelings gone forever. And that’s when he told me the single most important thing I had ever heard.
Lesson #2: You can’t control your thoughts and feelings, but you CAN control what you do about them.
This was a verbal slap in the face for me. What do you mean I can’t control my feelings?! I don’t want these dark thoughts in my head! They cause panic!! I want them gone, and now! If I can’t control my thoughts and feelings, then I’m weak and can’t control myself at all.
After a few seconds of me obviously struggling with hearing something like this, Dr. C explained further. Very roughly paraphrased, he said, “Our brain can be our best asset, but it can also seem to work against us sometimes. If you try to fight your dark thoughts and your fears in a battle against your brain, your brain is going to win every time. Just by the fact that you’re fighting the thoughts, you’re letting them stay in the front of your mind and take over you. The truth of the matter is that you may never stop being afraid. You may be 40 and still have the same fears and worries that you do now. But that doesn’t mean they have to dictate your life.”
It took me a while to come to terms with this. I had never once considered this alternative way of thinking. But, when I really thought about it, it made a lot of sense. I never tried to make the bad thoughts creep in; they just did it on their own. And the more I focused on them, and the more I tried to tell them to go away, the stronger they got until I was in a full-blown attack. And it wasn’t just with panic, either. The more I tried to fight with the thought that I couldn’t juggle all the responsibilities of the day, the easier it was to go into anxiety mode. Whenever a thought of worthlessness crept into my head, I always tried to yell back at it, but then the depression bully just got stronger and stronger. (As a note, for the rest of this article, you can pretty much switch in anxiety or depression when I write panic, since these rules really have helped me in all three respects).
And the longer I sat there, the more I realized that no, he wasn’t telling me that I had no control of anything. He was telling me that I had been trying to control the wrong things. A fear response can come from the subconscious, and that, by definition, is something that we can’t actively control. However, as he went on to elaborate, we can actively decide what our physical reaction to the feelings will be if we focus in on it right away.
What I needed to do was ask myself, as soon as I felt the first symptoms of panic creep in, “How is having an attack going to help the situation? Will it really cause things to get better, or am I just doing this because I feel like I can’t control the situation?” The answer, of course, turns out to invariably go along the lines of “No…freaking out doesn’t actually solve anything. I would be much happier if I didn’t have an attack right now.” It’s a very odd and particular mind trick that I did have to practice before I could get the handle of it, but once I did, my God did it feel good to say “No, a panic attack is just really inconvenient, so I won’t have one” and then proceed to not have one.
His advice was so effective, that the first time I thought I was having a panic attack, a few hours later, I heard his voice in my head, saying that mantra over and over again. “You can’t control your thoughts and feelings, but you CAN control what you do about them.” Hearing that in my mind was enough to jolt me out of the spiral I was about to go down and I was able to stop the attack before it got off the ground.
Since that day, I haven’t had a single full-blown panic attack. And, while that may seem like a victory in and of itself, there was still one thing bugging me. Ok, sure, I wouldn’t have panic attacks anymore, but that didn’t make the bad thoughts go away. I could keep the physical response down, but I was still having mental struggles with the feelings that were know swirling around my head, trying to get some sort of rise out of me.
So I went back to Dr. C and begged him once more to teach me how to make bad thoughts go away. And, predictably, he reiterated the fact that I could never just force the thoughts to go away, because just the act of trying to make them go away meant that I was thinking about them. However, he did help me develop the last weapon that I needed in my arsenal.
Lesson #3: When the bad thoughts and feelings creep in, give them a tip of the hat and move on.
This seemed like a difficult concept for me, because despite trying to be Zen for the most part, it’s very difficult for me to just let things be, especially when I don’t like them. So, we worked on some very important visualization techniques.
(Warning: Mega Involved Metaphor incoming!)
Dr. C explained to me that negative thoughts were like “that guy” at the party that nobody really wants around, but who you can’t really force outside because you don’t want to touch him. We called him “Joe the Bum.” Normally, he said, your mind is like a party of thoughts, all hanging out and mingling and doing thought things. But sometimes, Joe the Bum sees the party and wants to join. He doesn’t really belong, so he shuffles in, smelling bad, and stands near the punch bowl.
Now, there are two ways to react. You can get really mad and try to kick him out, but then you cause a scene and everybody at the party starts to pay attention to it. Not to mention the fact that you will start to become overwhelmed by Joe the Bum’s stink, and just the fact that you’re giving him attention means that he’ll be unlikely to leave, because it gives him something to do.
The better way to deal with him is to just acknowledge that he’s there, because there really no way to ignore him when he’s standing right by the punch bowl, and get on with the party. Pay attention to your happier guests (thoughts) and get involved in some party games (other mind-occupying activities). If Joe the Bum tries to follow you around, don’t actively engage him, but just keep maintaining a distance. In this way, you make him bored and send a clear signal that you’re disinterested, causing him to eventually wander off.
Now, eventually I got the hang of this little visualization technique, and whenever I feel bad, I conjure up images of Joe the Bum hanging out in my house, just standing at the punch bowl, while I go off and do more pleasant things. However, this can be a very tricky visual to get the hang of, so Dr. C gave me a simpler one to start with.
Imagine, if you will, a stream. Just a very calm, peaceful, winding stream in the middle of the woods or a meadow, or anywhere that makes you feel good. On that stream, little leaves are floating downriver. Whenever you are troubled, instead of trying to force the thought away, just place it on a leaf and let it be carried away gently on the water. You don’t even need to stay and watch it. Just place the thought on the leaf and let the water wash it away naturally. If another thought comes, or if the same one comes back, you can just put it on another leaf and repeat until your mind gets the hint that you’re just not going to concern yourself with these transitive feelings. During this time, you again want to preoccupy yourself with other things. Acknowledge your bad thoughts going downstream and go off and do something else.
Now, visualization is not the easiest for everyone, and that’s ok. In my next post, I will go over other methods of mental management, but for now, focus on the three lessons that Dr. C taught me. Don’t worry if they don’t come to you right away; in fact, they probably won’t. It took me a long time to get the hang of them, and I certainly don’t expect you to be a master of your mind in just a few days. The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to lost control of yourself. Even if you feel like you’re losing your grip, remember the all important mantra:
You can’t control your thoughts and feelings, but you CAN control what you do about them.
Yes, you can.