Working Smarter

Don't Take the Bait of Panic, Stress, and Catastrophic Thoughts

Posted by Joe Robinson

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You turn your wallet upside down, but can’t find it. Your credit card is AWOL. Immediately, the heart rate quickens and thoughts careen to catastrophes. Is someone running up a huge tab at the local jewelry store? Is your identity being stolen?

Or maybe you just got rejected on a critical sale, one you had told your team was in the bag. The self-talk goes to crazyland. You’re going to lose your job. You’ll be on the street. If you want proof that everyone has a creative side, just look at the worst-case scenarios we all have concocted under the influence of stress and panic. Who needs Stephen King or Wes Craven when we can tap in to the wildest horror movies inside our head?

LUCID TO UNHINGED IN A SECOND

Panic. We can go from zero to 10 on the freakout scale in a second. In an instant, ability to think clearly and use the intellect to solve a problem is blown up by irrational fear and hysteria. Panic is the last thing you want to do in moments like these, so why would evolution select out this over-the-top counterproductive habit?

It's a mistake, just like the stress response is when it goes off and your life is not on the line. Bad gray-matter architecture puts the ancient, emotional brain in charge in times of perceived threat, thereby making us prone to fly off into unhinged territory when something overloads coping resources.

As we discover in my stress management training programs, learning how to manage the panic button and the stress it sets off is a crucial skill we all need. Life is, in essence, a battle to keep the fear down, to not fall for the calamitous alarms of our overwrought security equipment.

Defaulting to hysteria in a difficult moment, not only makes the situation worse, the job worse, the relationship worse, it also is a reaction that is obsolete, built for another time and place 200,000 years ago.

Panic is a sudden shock to the system that jolts all stress response mechanisms into immediate gear for two purposes, neither of which has to do with thinking: 1) fight or 2) flight. Back before humans had the brain organs or ability to weigh pro and con and analyze a potential threat, all we had was the limbic system, the emotional brain, to respond to threats to life and limb.

Early humans couldn’t be trusted to think their way out of a potential mortal jam, so the brain was designed to respond with panic, instead, which would result in either a sprint out of harm’s way or standing ground and battling it out with a caveman stranger or saber-tooth tiger. Panic supercharges the body’s defense system that pushes blood to the arms or legs to survive dangerous encounters.

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The problem is that panic doesn’t work in a world of social stressors, where clarity of thought is needed to solve problems and the threats aren’t life-or-death. The problem is that, even though we have a modern, analytical brain today, we're stuck with the panic response, because stress hijacks the 21st-century faculties of the cerebral cortex and puts the irrational, limbic dolt in charge.

It doesn’t make sense today to run a mile and hide in some bushes when a problem arises, or to deck the first person you see when the 200th email of the day has hit your box and pushes the overload button.

THE STOWAWAY

Panic is an errant stowaway from another epoch that does more harm than good by setting off false alarms that drive catastrophizing, chronic stress, and projected fears that feed thoughts with pure fantasy. We make poor choices, lash out, get in car accidents, because we are not thinking, only acting.

One of the hidden keys to a less stressful and happier life is managing the panic reflex. Don't buy the first disastrous thoughts in your head after something goes wrong. How often have those imagined catastrophes come true? Don’t panic. Process. That’s what the brain is for. It’s a processing center, weighing the facts before a conclusion. Panic removes the modern brain from the equation. We have to prevent that from happening.

Getting it under control means managing reactions. It’s not what someone does or says to you that causes the panic of the stress response to go off; it’s your reaction to those things.

Thoughts triggered by our reactions to setbacks drive the whole stress train. They are false beliefs, since the ancient brain hijacks your modern gray matter with visions that are exaggerated, distorted fiction. The longer panicked thoughts aren’t disputed, the more they entrench in the brain and appear real. Just because thoughts are in our head doesn’t mean they are real. Thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is real.

Panic is triggered by reflex emotional reactions. To manage it, we have to become experts in nonreaction. That means training ourselves not to go off when difficulties arise or catching ourselves when panic strikes.

DON'T FALL FOR THE HARE-BRAIN

We have to learn not to take the bait of stress and fear. Panic and the stress alarms of our ancient brain are cons. They can’t operate without our cooperation. We set ourselves up when we let things push our buttons, and we fall for hare-brained visions of calamity.

When something triggers panic, a racing heartbeat, and thoughts of doom, we need to step back, take a series of deep breaths for a couple of minutes and repeat out loud, “I don’t react.” That brings back the 21st-century brain from the clutches of hysteria. It restores power to you as well as rational thought, and those two work together as your natural smelling salt. The longer a stressor is not disputed and resolved, the more its false catastrophes spiral.

That leads to awfulizing and rumination, or obsessive replay of the event or the fears from it, which turn false beliefs into seeming reality, so it’s crucial to get thoughts out of your brain and on paper or a screen.

Make a list of catastrophic thoughts. How true are they? Now lay out the facts for the most likely story of what’s taking place. Bringing out the facts of the situation and analyzing them restores command to the modern brain. Now tell yourself a new story that reflects your situation and abilities going forward. Say, “Yes, I lost this sale,” or “I’ve got a lot on my plate,” “but I can handle it.”

How we explain why bad things happen to us is crucial, not just to keep panic at bay, but also to create an “explanatory style,” as researchers call it, that promotes an optimistic outlook. Studies have shown that people who use self-talk that frames events in a more optimistic and passing way, as temporary and not permanent, for instance, have fewer major medical issues earlier in adulthood and lead more successful and happier lives.

The counter to stress triggers and the panic that can set them off is control. The more perceived control you have over a given situation, the less stress. Panic is the state of having no control.

That’s a lie. You do have control. You have a choice in how you respond to the situation. You have imagination to create solutions to challenging scenarios.

And you have resilience. You overcome thousands of challenges in the course of your time here. It’s what we do. There’s no need to panic, because we’ve always gotten through it, and panicking wasn’t even one iota helpful in doing so.

The urge to freak out when setbacks occur is an obsolete reflex we no longer need to survive on this planet. The outlandish, catastrophic thoughts that come from panic are for naught. It’s just the roller coaster of life. What can go wrong will. Accidents happen. And we can think before we react.

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Tags: awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, stress management training, stress and fear, panic, managing reactions

The Call of Risk: Fear Is Momentary, Regret Is Forever

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If fear was gold, we’d all be millionaires. Unfortunately, the payoff is mostly less than zero for this ancient and epidemic human emotion. In the epic battle in your brain between the forces of safety and growth, the comfort zone usually wins, keeping at bay a skill essential to the full expression of your non-work life: risk-taking.

You’d never know it in a world of alarmists and nay-sayers, but we weren’t built to cling to the Barcalounger. The biochemistry is designed for the exact opposite, to go where we haven’t gone before. Comfort is your enemy.

Risk is the central piece of forward progress—and the life satisfaction that springs from it. Without managing fears we can’t satisfy the mandate of our brain neurons for novelty and challenge, the keys to long-term life fulfillment, say brain researchers, not to mention avoiding the regrets that rush in when fear squelches our progress.

Without risk, we can’t gratify core psychological needs that require that we step off the moving sidewalk and chart the path we're here for.

ITCHY SECURITY TRIGGER

Fear is the power of what doesn't exist to control what does. It has the upper hand most of the time, thanks to an itchy security trigger from our days back on the savanna and our habit of not disputing the emotional backwash in our brains. If it’s in my head, it’s gotta be true. The research shows we can outfox fear’s vise-grip on risk by modifying our behavior and thoughts and changing the terms of risk evaluation.

What risks has fear overruled for you? Maybe a trip someone convinced you wasn’t safe, an activity you didn’t want to look like a fool doing?Looking back, you’d make a different choice, because, with time you see that the “fears” were false, momentary blips of projected anxiety that stepped on the neck of your life.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Fear is momentary; regrets are forever. The reality is that fears that paralyze us today will be long forgotten tomorrow, and we’ll be left with the after-effects of opting for safety — life unexperienced, progress unmade, a truckful of regret. All because of irrational neuron burps in your brain. For nothing, in other words.

It’s the opportunities we don’t act on that cause the most regret, say researchers, known as “the inaction effect.” Instead of looking back years later at what we wished we would have done, why not look back now in the moment of risk, and use regret to transcend autopilot fears?

IRRATIONAL PROJECTIONS = REGRET

Regret is a built-in insurance policy to make sure we don’t leave too much life on the table. It forces us to see the big picture fear obscures. Think how mad you’re going to be later that projections in your brain of things that don’t exist kept you from the life you could have lived. Instead, let the prospect of future regret fortify your courage to act now.

We pay for the safety default with boredom and stir-craziness, items born of something built into the DNA — adaptation. We’re made to get tired of reruns. This anti-rut device is designed to make us change things up. Core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, can only be satisfied when you demonstrate your capacity to take on new things 

We can improve risk-taking ability by changing attitude, increasing competence and through a process of reframing fears called fear extinction. Researchers have found that people in a positive frame of mind tend to see risk as an opportunity, not a threat. Stress management is key, since stress keeps your brain constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment, i.e., negativity. Intrinsic goals are another way to disarm fear. Acting for the sake of the experience itself removes the expectations that give us pause.

Risk is about managing uncertainty. The more that uncertainty is managed, and the more you feel competent to handle the risk, the easier it is to step forward, instead of back. Competence makes you see potential benefits, instead of threats, say researchers.

Fears can also be weakened by exposure to threatening stimuli. You can change fearful images by altering your memory of them. Each time you recall a memory and add or subtract from it, you are defanging the initial fear.

More of us could take the risks we need by changing the equation from potential loss to gain. Try viewing the unknown, not as a threat, but as exploring, exactly what your brain neurons want you to do.

Researchers call the release of the brain’s party chemical, dopamine, at the mere expectation of something novel the “exploration bonus.” You can get your bonus through incremental risk, one step at a time 

GET TO THE BASE CAMP 

Mountaineer Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb the world’s 14 tallest peaks, made a practice of not looking at the summit when he climbed a daunting peak. Too intimidating. “You see this rock in front of you and say, I’m going to go to that rock and then I’m going to stop,” he told me. His goal for the day is the base camp, not the summit.

In the course of doing a book on the power of engaged experience, Don't Miss Your Life, I met a host of folks who have applied the spirit of exploration to risks in their personal lives that have transformed their lives. Psychotherapist Sheila Gross turned the jitters of performing with a group of strangers into the most important feature of her week — singing in a community choir. Accountant Marty Herman transcended his social fears by becoming an ace salsa dancer in his 50s.

Breast cancer survivor Cindy Roberts overcame her battle with the ultimate fear through the power of dragon boat paddling. She knows the truth behind risk: There’s no such thing as security anyway. “There is no later. Live it now,” she says.

Mountaineers call the initial climb of a peak a “first ascent.” There’s an extra incentive in bagging a “first,” a distinction we can use to turn the discomfort of doing something new to its flip-side: excitement.

What can you do for the first time this week? Next week? It could be anything from trying an exotic fruit for the first time to signing up for a dance class. Consider your “firsts” progress, and the route to a life of no regrets.

If you would like to get fear, anxiety, and stress under control, we offer programs for individuals and companies. Manage demands and thoughts, instead of the other way around. Click on one of the buttons below for more details on our stress management training programs.

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Tags: avoiding regrets, fear, risk-taking and fear, risk, regret, stress and fear

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