Dr. Romance writes:
There is always something in the news or on TV to scare us. Hysterical articles in the media sell papers, and attract eyeballs to websites, but are usually exaggerating the facts. If you listen without evaluating what you’re being told, it’s easy to become frightened. There’s a reason why I don’t usually waste time and energy on panic and drama.
In my office, I see the negative results of panic every day. People get upset, they’re afraid of emotional consequences, and they overreact, which can actually create the consequences they fear. Panic is an overreaction to a real (or even imagined) problem. Frightening yourself beyond the real need to deal with a problem puts your body into "fight or flight" mode—as though your life were immediately threatened. Emotional panic can create a shutdown of feelings—so you’re in a state of shock.
In this state, you cannot think clearly, or make good responses, choices and decisions. In panic, we do not retain information, absorb what we hear, or accurately assess the situation. Panic is the worst thing you can do in a real emergency, and if the situation is not dire, panic will make it worse.
Panic is a natural startle reaction that gets exaggerated and becomes prolonged. People often learn to panic because, in early childhood, panic can get us out of responsibilities. Freaking out, crying, throwing temper tantrums, or shutting down are all panic responses small children use which cause some competent adult to take over and become the hero. This can be okay once in a while, but as this pattern repeats, it becomes rescuing and codependency. Panic creates drama—unnecessary and damaging exaggeration of the problem—which leads to dysfunctional responses and overblown family drama.
We admire people who don’t panic. Our President is admired for being “no drama Obama” because he retains his ability to think clearly, take his time, and make effective decisions even when the people around him are panicking. People who can stay calm usually come out OK, because they think clearly.
So, what do you do in a scary or upsetting situation? Teach yourself how not to panic, so you can think clearly and handle the problem effectively. Practice these techniques to teach yourself to stay calm when the situation is threatening or the people around you are obviously in a panic.
To learn to calm down, you can follow these simple steps for resolving your fear and anxiety:
1. Learn to recognize the signs of your own panic. If you feel the telltale signs of panic—a racing or pounding heartbeat, flushing of the face or body, and mental confusion—you are in a state of panic. If you are shouting, saying unreasonable things, or just saying whatever comes out of your mouth, without thinking about consequences, you are in a state of panic. Stop what you’re doing, and follow the rest of the steps here.
2. Take some deep breaths. Deep breathing will calm your body, and burn off the adrenaline that’s been released in the panic. Slow down, count to ten, focus on thinking clearly and factually rather than reacting emotionally.
3. Take responsibility to figure out what you’re afraid of. Unless you’re in immediate, direct danger, what’s scaring or upsetting you is probably not as urgent as you think. Make a list of what you’re afraid of. This will help you move beyond free-floating anxiety, and begin to think more clearly.
4. Check the facts. Is what’s on the news really true? Is what you’re afraid of actually happening, or is your fear creating false "facts." Does the source you’re listening to have something to gain by putting you in a panic? Are they trying to sell you something, get federal funding, or get elected? Are you reacting to someone else’s panic? Get some facts about whatever is frightening you. Is there a real, immediate threat, or is it just wise to be cautious? Is your partner actually going to abandon you, or is he or she just angry about something?
5. Make a decision about what to do about each fear. If it’s a health fear, perhaps better hygiene or a talk with your doctor will resolve it. If it’s a relationship fear, finding out what your partner is really thinking (instead of guessing) will probably make more sense. If it’s the news, taking a break from nightly news and checking out facts can be calming.
6. Take some action to resolve the problems or threats you’re facing. Get a flu shot, go for relationship therapy, check the facts, or have a good talk with your partner or family member.
7. Sell yourself on a positive outcome. Think of all the possible great outcomes of the changes you’re making. Consider what you will learn, and how much better your life and relationships will be without the panic.
With a calmer outlook, you’ll be able to make better decisions, and create a more successful outcome. I wish you peace, within yourself, within your family, within the world.
For more information on learning to manage your feelings, It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction has information, exercises, and case histories to help you learn the skills.