Person to Person: Festival of fear


When an upcoming event makes Deidre nervous, she easily slips into panic mode: “Oh My God! Oh My God! Oh my God! What’s going to happen? What if it doesn’t work out? What should I do?” With an alarmed mind, an anxious voice, an agitated body, it’s no wonder that she can’t think straight.

The first thing Deidre needs to do in such situations is to calm herself down. Now Deidre’s not stupid. She knows she needs to calm down. But when she’s feeling distressed, she can’t just “chill out” as her husband keeps advising her to do.

Instead, the more he tells her to chill, the more upset she becomes. Why? Because she feels that he just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t appreciate the looming threat. He’s denying the truth. He’s siding with the kids. He’s patronizing her with an “it’s no big deal” attitude.

Rather than calming down, Deidre becomes even more agitated. She feels alone, misunderstood, misjudged. Her nerves become stretched to the breaking point. What can she do except run to her room in tears or lash out at those she loves?

Neither of these alternatives are productive. So, what can Deidre do to calm herself down? Here are three suggestions:

1. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. I can’t stress deep breathing enough. When people are in panic mode, they either breathe shallowly or hold their breath. Hence, not enough blood flows to the brain. The upshot: whatever is frightening becomes terrifying; whatever is difficult becomes a Herculean challenge. When Deidre feels the fear building, she needs to retreat to a quiet place and take three slow, deep breaths. Then another three. With each exhale, she needs to tell herself “it’s going to be ok.” Or, “I can deal with this, even if I don’t know how to right now.”

2. Once Deidre feels a bit calmer, she needs to reframe the situation from “I can’t do this!” “It’s not fair!” “It’s just too much!” to “Ok, this is a problem, what’s my next step?” Reflecting on what options she might take would be helpful. Calling on a valued resource might be beneficial. Reminding herself how competent she really is will be reassuring.

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