This week’s episode is a question and answer session. I cover three awesome questions that cover a variety of important topics. As always I’m impressed by the bravery in posing these difficult questions and I hope that I do a good job of being sensitive AND realistic in my responses.
Congrats to Twitter user @bdmitch21 for winning this week’s free book! If you’d like to win a print copy of one of my books for free, all you need to do is share your favorite quote from this episode on any social media platform and tag me. I pick one random winner each week!
Coping with anxiety after your first panic attack
So about 5 months ago I had my first ever panic attack/ weekend of just what if’s taking over and I even went through depersonalization for the first time ever. I’ve gotten a lot better since then but I’m still feeling general anxiety on a regular basis for no reasons what so ever. I honestly feel like I’m more scared of the anxiety itself then a certain thing I’m feeling anxious about. I’m trying to change my brain and talk to myself change my belief systems I’ve created. I also am constantly checking in to see if I’m feeling anxious.
So I guess my question is can anxiety just show up out of nowhere? How do I stop thinking about the anxiety and obsessing over it? Am I stuck feeling this way forever? I’ve been going to therapy but don’t feel like it’s doing much. I don’t want to take meds so I’m trying to beat it on my own but I’m so confused on how this has just come out of nowhere in my life. I mainly feel confused on why this has happened and how I can go back to my normal self. Thank you.
First off, sorry that happened to you. It can be so scary to have a panic attack – especially for the first time. You have no idea what’s going on and that can really throw you. It seems like you have a lot of insight about the way that your brain is playing tricks on you. The language that you are using gives me a lot of hope that you are going to be able to move past this well. In particular, I feel like your statement that you feel more scared of anxiety itself than a certain thing you’re anxious about is really wise. It’s usually the case that anxiety itself is not the problem – it’s your reaction to it. When you let the feeling of anxiety dictate what you do with yourself or how you are able to function, that’s when it becomes an issue.
One interesting exercise to illustrate this is to look at the sensations that are generated by anxiety and consider when in your life you have also felt those feelings. For instance, when you go to sleep the night before a big holiday or when you have your first kiss. Many of the sensations and feelings are going to be nearly exactly the same, but you interpret them differently because of the context. Again, it’s not the actual sensations of anxiety that are the problem, it’s how you react to that anxiety.
As to the question of whether anxiety can come out of nowhere – it definitely can. Usually there is some sort of trigger, but it often isn’t something big and meaningful. For your situation, you have never had chronic anxiety problems before, but now you are struggling with it more often since this big panic event. That’s pretty common – one way to think of it is that you’ve basically developed a fear of panic attacks. It’s very much like being in a car crash and then being tense and hypervigilant afterward for a while.
This does not necessarily mean that you are going to struggle with significant anxiety more times than not for the rest of your life. It may take some time to adjust to this and get back to what feels like your normal life. I think it has you jarred because you realized that you are someone who can have panic attacks. That doesn’t mean that your identity needs to be a person who has panic attacks. So let’s talk about what you can do to deal with it.
I’ll give a little plug here and mention that I have a ton of content on coping with anxiety already, the best of which is my online course called Kick Anxiety’s Ass. Basically it takes months of therapy and takes out all of the fluff. It’s just practical coping skills, helpful information, and exercises to help you out.
Making anxiety less important
The main goal when dealing with anxiety is to make it less important. Right now, anxiety holds a really important place in your brain. It’s one of the main forces that you consider when making decisions about what to do with yourself. You have built it up as something to be feared and avoided. Start with the baseline knowledge that anxiety is inconvenient, but not dangerous. No matter how shitty it makes you feel at any given moment, it’s not going to hurt you. It doesn’t have that kind of power. It’s just a gross feeling like other gross feelings that you may have had in your life.
You need to prove to your body and mind that anxiety is not in control, but rather that you are. So rather than avoiding the sensations that come along with anxiety, you might try inviting them to show yourself that it doesn’t necessarily have to cause you to have a full meltdown and that you can go ahead and live your life with anxiety just as an annoying passenger that is sometimes in the back seat. This is called exposure and I have an entire episode about it https://www.duffthepsych.com/episode98/.
If you can identify some type of consistency to when you feel anxious, you can also use that. If you can look at what the situation is, how it made you feel, and what your thoughts, assumptions, or beliefs were about the situation, you can use that information to challenge those assumptions. Like for instance, you might think about the last time that you felt anxious and apprehensive. The trigger was going out to the grocery store. Your feelings were anxious, nervous, and a sense of impending doom. You can push yourself to try to think of what your interpretation of the situation was that made you feel that way. Maybe you assumed that you might have another panic attack and you would have to abandon your shopping cart and come home. That’s great information. You can work with that.
Is that the only course of action? Of course not, there are many other things you can do. For one, has that ever actually happened? Is it actually a valid fear for you to have based on your own experiences? Even if it does happen, aren’t there some other options to abandoning everything and fleeing home? You could go to the bathroom and leave your cart outside to splash some water on your face and take a few deep breaths. You could put in your headphones and basically just pretend you are somewhere else.
The point is that you can use that knowledge to call anxiety’s bullshit. Anxiety wants you to give up and avoid and your job is to say, “okay. I’m feeling like things are dangerous or risky, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. Why do I feel this way and what can I do to work through it?” Again, I have made a ton of content about anxiety. If you go to my website and click on the anxiety topic or simply go to the start here page, you will have blog posts, books, podcast episodes and other resources that you can use to learn more coping strategies.
Confronting A Family Abuser
Short question: how can I cope while being around my abuser (dad, who would expose himself to me growing up)?
I’m now 25 and finally working through my trauma. Dad still wants to be in contact with me and stay at my house when he visits from out of state. I don’t want to cause drama in my family, and I don’t feel brave enough to answer any questions about the abuse from others. Yet when he has visited he has touched me inappropriately. It was quick but it happened. I’m 25, but around him , I feel like I’m a frozen child once again.
This is a really unfair situation for you to be in. My beliefs about this are that protecting yourself is the most important consideration. That may be emotionally uncomfortable in some cases, but you need to weight that against the deeper psychological impact of having encounters with your abuser or even potential physical safety risks. I understand that it’s a tough situation for you to navigate, so I want you to know that I don’t blame you at all for having confusion about what to do right now.
It’s your decision
First of all, I want to say that you are the one who gets to decide what sort of contact is appropriate or not. You have been abused by this man. That takes away his right to dictate what should happen in your relationship if you decide to keep a relationship with him. You do not have to keep a relationship with him. That’s your choice.
I’ve talked about my opinions about this before, but I don’t think that someone being family gives them any special consideration as to whether you should try to repair the relationship with them after abuse. Family is just coincidence. It can definitely be more complicated and there might be more confusing, intertwining feelings due to the person being a family member, but as far as I’m concerned, they forfeit the right to be family when they abuse you.
Lay down some boundaries
You are going to do whatever you have to in order to lay down some boundaries. Like I said, this may be very uncomfortable, but avoiding drama in the family is not more important than you keeping yourself physically and psychologically safe. It is exceptionally common for people to have a hard time standing up for themselves or advocating for themselves with their abusers, especially in person. I wouldn’t expect you to suddenly be able to stand up and say “No. Do not touch me. Leave my house.” That is a lot to ask and honestly part of the programming when someone is abusive is to make them feel powerless. It’s totally understandable that you feel like a helpless child again when you are in the situation.
BUT the thing is you are not a helpless child. You wrote in this question, so you are obviously looking for some sort of guidance and a change. You also clearly have more clarity when you are not directly facing him in the moment. You can use that clarity to your advantage.
It may be possible that you need to enlist the help of someone else to help you set boundaries. Is it appropriate and safe for him to be at your home at all? Are you interested in having a relationship with him or are you simply feeling guilted into allowing him to contact and visit you? It IS hard to talk about your abuse to other people, but it may be what you need to do. If you can’t do it in person, maybe you could write a letter or an email to one of the people that are closest to you sharing what happened. In that letter you could say exactly what you just told me and then ask them for help in laying down the boundaries and ground rules. If you don’t want to talk specifically about your abuse, you don’t have to. That is your right. You could simply say that you don’t want him staying with you.
Work through your thoughts and fears in therapy
You mentioned that you are working through your trauma – does that mean you are in therapy? If not, that might be a great resource for you. You are inevitably going to have a lot of fears and possibly some unrealistic assumptions about what you can and can’t do in this situation that you could work through in therapy. You may need to challenge your assumptions and your fears in a safe space like that.
I can’t tell you exactly what to do about this. Nobody should dictate that. But it might be helpful to sit down with a notebook and write down exactly what you would like to happen if by some miracle you weren’t scared of him anymore. What actions would you take, what boundaries might you draw, who might you get involved etc. From there, you can use that as an ideal action plan and see what you would need to do to make progress toward any one of those items. If you can’t do it yourself, what sort of help could you get? Could another friend or professional help you or take care of something for you?
This is your life and your body. You deserve to feel like you have control. It is going to be hard to find that sense of control when the emotional wound is being opened again and again. Each time he forces his will on you or touches you in a way that you don’t want, he is trying to remind you that he is in control. He is not in control. He has played his game with you for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be that way forever.
You have choice. You have agency. And you have help should you need it. Do what you need to do.
Repairing or calling off an engagement
Thank you so much for all you do on your podcasts, I know you have a lot of questions so I will try to be quick : We are in a major crisis with my fiancé, I moved in America for him but as time passed I couldn’t see his care or love, and ended up having a breakdown and moved back to France.
The main issue is that we communicate a lot but apparently not well, because despite all the words we exchange we don’t seem to understand each other. I tell him my needs, my fears, but nothing in his behaviors change and he is convinced he understands me when all he says and does proves the opposite. I am exhausted of explaining myself all the time and being sorry for how I am, because he reproaches me to have given up on us.
Is it better to just stop talking with him and focus on myself (I suggested it and he is against it)
Or should I keep trying over and over?
This is a sad situation and it’s a shame that you’re going through it. First I want to say that you haven’t done anything wrong by having a hard time with this. Marriage is not how it is in the movies. We see the aftermath of people who move forward with a marriage even when there is bad communication, resentment, or mistreatment at the very beginning. Many of those people wind up divorcing or simply living with a lot of sadness due to their relationship.
So it’s absolutely alright that you are taking a step back and evaluating things in this way right now. I understand the desire to make something work with someone that you have invested a lot of emotional energy in and I think that it’s good for you to try. However, there have to be limits to everything. How much should you try before deciding to move on?
Explore your feelings
One question that you may want to ask yourself is: What could he do to prove to you that he understands you and is capable of treating you the way that you want to be treated? Really take some time and think about this. You guys know that I am a big fan of pulling out a notebook and brain-dumping my thoughts. This would be a good prompt for that kind of brain dump. Explore your feelings about this and identify those necessary behaviors or pieces of proof that would show you that you would get to have the kind of future that you want with this person.
From there, you need to ask yourself whether any of these things are realistic. Can you see him actually changing in these ways? If not, that could be an indicator that it is not worth it to keep investing in something that is such an uphill battle. If on the other hand, you can see some pathway to these changes, these might serve as the boundaries and guidelines that you both talk about and work toward together in your continued attempts to make things work.
Seek an outside perspective
If you are going through this in a vacuum, I don’t think that you should be. By that I mean that it can be very helpful to gather perspectives from other people that know you and care about you. None of them should be dictating what your actions will be, but it’s easy to ruminate on these issues inwardly and miss out on some obvious signs that are readily apparent to other people looking at things from an outside perspective.
It’s easy to blame yourself when there is discord in a relationship. The way that I see it is that it’s often an issue with the couple, not with one individual. There is not something wrong with you and you did not do something wrong to feel misunderstood and not cared for. There is something wrong with the relationship that is generating those feelings in you. I say this to hopefully ease the burden of the guilt that you might be feeling. You’re allowed to be exhausted by this and tired of explaining yourself.
There are many ways to go about moving forward. If it’s clear that this is simply not the right person for you now that you have had the experience of living together in the same place and you want to simply call it quits, that is okay. If you want to invest heavily in the relationship and try to use that brainstorming we talked about as a means to work on your communication, possibly with the help of a therapist, you can do that. If you want to break up with the possibility of getting back together when you have both had a chance to work on yourselves and take ownership of your own happiness, that is okay too.
No one of those options is inherently better than the other. Taking into account your own feelings as we discussed and the opinions of those that care about you can help you balance your options.
Regardless of what you do, I’m proud of you for not just accepting a bad situation. I think that’s really brave.
Thanks for listening!
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