Monday, April 23, 2012

Treating Anxiety/Phobias with Cognitive Techniques

I came across a post on a beauty blog recently which really made me think. This beautiful young girl named Zoe openly shared on her blog that she suffers with panic attacks. From her description, her anxiety interferes quite a bit with day to day life. I thought she was so courageous to share her story with the world that I thought I'd write about the topic as well. Her post is here. Many women and men suffer with anxiety. However, statistically, more women suffer with anxiety than men. I could spend hours theorizing about why that is, but won't. I, personally, suffer very mild panic attacks when I am in the position of speaking publicly in front of crowds. My heart begins to race, perspiration increases, and many times, my body begins to shake. Generally, my vision blurs and I'd probably fall over if I didn't fixate on something in the back of the room. Sometimes, I end up racing through what I needed to say, or, worse yet, go blank in front of a room full of people and forget what I was going to say to begin with. (I have learned to make bulleted lists to bring with me as a reminder of important points.) I'll write a little bit later about what I do with myself in order to become calm when these attacks occur. But, first, I thought I'd share a few interesting tidbits about anxiety and phobias which I have learned in school. I am nearly finished my with Master's Degree in Counseling. I have had the pleasure of learning from many fantastic teachers. They have taught me things which may not be common knowledge and may actually help someone who suffers with anxiety related challenges. Before I continue, I will announce that I am no expert on anxiety. It takes far more years of study and specialization to claim such an accomplishment. However, if my writing could help one person, I would be happy.

For those who are interested, I will begin with a few tidbits on the research of anxiety and phobias. Some experts would contend that phobias are learned. My professor told us the story of Little Albert. I was a bit outraged when I heard the story. In a moment, you'll see why. As a brief synopsis of the research, a small child was classically conditioned to fear rats. At the onset of the project, the child was fascinated by the small fuzzy creatures. However, he was conditioned through the use of loud noises and eventually associated the rats with frightening sounds. The poor child was never deconditioned and unfortunately died at the young age of six. Despite the obvious ethical ramifications, scientists use this case as an example of how we can begin to fear that which we may have previously enjoyed.

So, what does this mean? Is it possible that my alter-ego loves public speaking. Does she confidently stride up in front of a crowd and give eloquent speeches? Possibly so. If so, where is she and how can I find her? If I think back far enough, I can vaguely remember my earliest experiences of being on show. There she was, little "Jewels", strutting in front of an audience in a little tutu. I was the one little ballerina who went the wrong way during the show. According to mom, I loved it. I was so small that embarrassment wasn't an issue. Alright! Moving on a bit forward in time. Perhaps, it was the piano recitals? Ah, yes! I remember that one quite vividly now. I was asked to play the piano in front of the church. I had played the piece a million times over again and, during a part that I knew the best, I went blank and botched the notes. I was so embarrassed that I turned around and announced my apologies to everyone in the church.

So, there you go. Somewhere along the line, I learned to associate being in front of a crowd with embarrassment. I fear public speaking because I keep thinking that I will embarrass myself and that I will embarrass those who support me. I psych myself out so much that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. So, what is so terrible about being embarrassed? There are far worse things out there. I was taught that, when using a cognitive approach with a client, that I should tunnel down to find the core belief. Basically, find the hidden meaning behind the fear, the deepest possible meaning behind the fear. In my case, I believe that I will embarrass myself in front of a crowd. Not so bad. But, what does that mean about me? Perhaps, people will think I am stupid. Is that so bad? I'm 31 years old. Who cares what people think? Well, if people think I'm stupid, then maybe I am stupid? Clearly not. My current GPA is a 4.0, not that it matters at all in life, it just goes to show I am not stupid. But, if I were, what would it mean? Possibly, that I will always be stupid, that nomatter how hard I try, I will always fail. Well, that one really sucks! I think she's found it! My core fear is that I will always fail nomatter how hard I try.

Nowadays, when I am about to speak publicly, I remind myself that this one experience is merely a small tidbit of my life. So what if I'm a stinky public speaker? So what if I will always be a stinky public speaker? I am good at so many other things. Sometimes, I mentally list out my accomplishments. I also use a few behavioral relaxation techniques in conjunction as needed. If anyone ever reads this, and would like to know more about these, let me know and I'd be happy to share. I've droned on and on for long enough, I think.

In conclusion, what are you afraid of? If the problem is severe, always always seek professional help. There is no reason to continue suffering. If your anxiety is mild like mine, perhaps, try my method. What is your worst fear when panic begins? Dig deeply, for, if you stay on the surface, it won't work. Once you know what your core fear is, it is much easier to dig yourself out of the hole. Any questions? Just let me know. I'd be absolutely thrilled to know that someone actually read this. :-)

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