Anxiety is a hum of fear that vibrates underneath your every day experience and blows up into visions that can derail your day and your life.
A client told me it was impossible for her to use an elevator because her fear strangled her. She vowed never to step into one. She once had to walk up 20 flights of stairs for an interview. She was sweat-soaked and disheveled and didn’t get the job.
My friend who works in the entertainment business told me that when he had experienced panic attacks his therapist taught him to think of his obsessive fears as a horror movie he was playing in his head.
The therapist said, “You need to take your horror shows and re-shoot them so that they’re romantic comedies, old-time musicals, or just quirky home movies.”
I shared this technique with my client who had elevator terror. She argued that she could live her life without elevators, but I pointed out that claustrophobia and other specific anxieties spread if they’re not dealt with. She admitted that it was already happening. She avoided crowded rooms, movie theaters, even outdoor picnics in popular parks. Anxiety and panic go viral.
When I asked her about the horror movies she played in her mind she said, “Elevators are deadly. I might get stuck in one for days. My air supply would be sucked up by other people. I could die.”
She smiled sheepishly as she told me her fears. She knew they weren’t realistic. Her new movie needed to be a stuck elevator romance, or a life-long friend saga that begins with a city-wide blackout. We laughed.
Dealing with anxiety may involve a simple process, but it’s not easy. The only way to break out of the prison that panic builds around you is to expose yourself to your fear. The first step is to change the movies in your mind.
When my son attended an upstate university 225 miles away from my home on Long Island, I had my own chance to practice what I preach. Anyone who has to drive through New York city traffic and onto the island knows that a 3 1/2 hour trip can easily become a grueling 5 hour nightmare.
My son chose to come home for winter break in the middle of the night. He’d leave campus all alone at 11 PM and drive through snowstorms, on icy roads and lonely stretches of highway, traversing mountains and valleys. There was often no cell phone service and no other cars.
My horror movies played. Skidding off the road. Car breakdowns in the dead of the frozen night. A late visit to my door by police officers with bad news.
I couldn’t sleep. I begged my son to leave earlier. He said, “I’m more nervous driving in the crowded city traffic and getting exhausted. I’m well rested at that time and it’s an easy drive. When you worry, I worry, but I’m still coming home at that time. Please accept my decision and trust my judgment.”
The next time he traveled home I ran a movie in my head that went like this: He walked into my house in the middle of the night and hugged me. We shared a cozy breakfast the next morning. We went to the mall, visited the city, and took an impromptu trip to South Beach, Miami.
With those blissful movies in my head, I quickly fell asleep. My son came home and we did all those delightful things together.
I’ve practiced that movie technique many times, in many different situations. It works for me, for my friend, for my clients. If your anxieties are particularly tenacious, you sometimes need help from a psychotherapist to face them. I’ve gotten my own help and I’ve given that help to others.
Don’t give up.