JERILYN ROSS, author of Triumph Over Fear, describes one of her patients,
Lorraine, who had been experiencing panic attacks but didn't
know what they were. Lorraine thought something was terribly
wrong with her, but had no idea what it might be. She only knew
she was overwhelmed by negative feelings of terror, seemingly
at random. Her doctor didn't know what was wrong with her either,
so he recommended a neurologist. Ross wrote:
With total disbelief that she could
even think this way, Lorraine described how while she was waiting
for the test results, she found herself almost hoping that she
had a brain tumor: "Then at least there would be an explanation
as to what was wrong with me!"
Lorraine wanted an explanation. She craved
an explanation. Daniel Wegner, one of my favorite researchers
and the author of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression,
Obesession, and the Psychology of Mental Control, says that
our minds have a strong drive to explain feelings of anxiety.
I remember once taking an aspirin, and later feeling very anxious.
I made an assumption about what caused my feelings. I didn't
try; my mind naturally and automatically came up with a reason
why I felt anxious. The anxiety is like a puppy with new teeth
that needs something to chew on. The mind searches around to
find the most likely thing, the most blatant worry, and latches
onto that and starts ruminating about it.
I had been talking to someone about a tense
situation, and I assumed our conversation was causing my anxiety.
I found out later the aspirin contained
caffeine and the anxiety was artificially-induced. But the same
thing happens with naturally-produced adrenaline. Something gives
you a shot of adrenaline. Let's say you almost hit the curb when
you swerve to avoid hitting a log in the road. It scares you
a bit, but now it's over. The adrenaline, however, is still in
your bloodstream. It doesn't go away after the mini-crisis. And
if you later feel some anxiety you'll explain it, quite automatically
and with no conscious intention on your part. You might have
forgotten about the log in the road. So your mind will come up
with something to justify your feelings of anxiety, which
of course puts your mind on troublesome, worrisome things. Which,
of course, can cause your body to produce more adrenaline, keeping
the cycle going.
Many times I've solved one problem after
another, only to have my mind search around for another worry.
In other words, the adrenaline can come first. We already know
that a scary or worrisome circumstance or thought can come first
and it can produce adrenaline. But it is also true that you can
have extra adrenaline for some other reason coffee, an
suspenseful movie, intense rock music and then the adrenaline
causes your mind to search for a bone to gnaw on (trying to find
a reason for the feeling), finds something and starts worrying
about it, producing still more adrenaline rather than letting
it naturally drop back down.
One of the things I've wondered is why
I like loud rock music, intense action movies, and coffee. Obviously
those aren't what my system needs. I already have too much adrenaline
in my system. Why would I seek out things that give me even more?
With this understanding of how the mind works, it seems I must
get some relief from worry because while I'm feeling high strung,
I know what's causing it and my mind is relieved of its obsession
for finding a cause to attribute the anxiety to. If I have a
feeling of anxiety, I immediately think, "It's the coffee,"
and that's the bone for the puppy. The mind's need to explain
is satisfied, and the explanation is nothing to worry about;
the caffeine will wear off. And my mind is silenced, at least
for a little while.
It is only a temporary relief, though,
because these things are causing my body to produce more stress
hormones, whether I have a temporary explanation or not. My mind
may be satisfied, but my body is still wearing itself out with
hyperarousal. Doing things that make it worse is not the answer.
The method here is simply to remind yourself
of this fact: Your mind has an automatic response to adrenaline
it needs to find a cause. When you feel anxious, remind
yourself of this fact. It helps.
And watch what you entertain yourself with.
Does the music you're listening to make you feel tense? Does
the movie pump adrenaline into your bloodstream? Be careful about
doing even fun things that produce adrenaline or cortisol. Movies
with tension or violence or suspense. Drinking coffee. Playing
intense video games. Certain kinds of music. There are maybe
a hundred CDs you would enjoy listening to. Some will cause tension
in your body and others won't, but you enjoy them all, so choose
the ones that will cause the effect you want on your body. Try
to get your enjoyment without the tension. Alternatives might
be uplifting or inspiring movies. Calming, soothing music. Drinking
chamomile tea. Playing tennis, golf, softball.
Remind yourself your mind automatically
tries to explain feelings of anxiety.
Choose ways to enjoy yourself
that don't increase stress hormones in the blood.