In this article Steve Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as the word ‘act’), talks openly about how he began his own ‘journey into the hell of panic disorder’. Steve’s openness and willingness to talk about his own struggles with panic attacks is a particularly effective example of how the ACT stance of ‘we are all struggling with our tricky human brain’ helps normalise the experience of anxiety. Steve’s has shared his experiences through a brutally honest Ted Talk, many podcasts such as this, as well as books and academic journal articles, and the subject of this post – How To Deal With An Anxiety Attack.
In this article, Steve talks about how anxiety disorders are some of the most common types of mental struggles with about 20% of the US population affected each year and how there is a ‘widespread false notion about what anxiety is and what can be done about it.’ Steve would like people to know that there is something to be done about it and as a therapist himself who has treated many people suffering from anxiety.
‘To change the unhealthy role that anxiety sometimes plays we need to learn how to address anxiety in day-to-day situations, so instead of running from our fear, we can face panic situations head on.’
Steve suggests a three step model using playing baseball as a metaphor.
Step 1: Let Go of Rules – Of course we need to know the rules before we enter the game – where to run, the correct way to hit the ball – but when you are in the middle of the game you can’t spend your mental resources focussing on and holding tight to those rules.
Step 2: Embrace Opportunities to Practice – We can practice stuff when we are not panicking, but the best time is ‘in the context of a small anxiety storm’. So every flutter of your heart on the baseball field is an opportunity to notice, label and make room for those feelings.
Step 3: Meet Your Anxiety With Curiosity –Can you develop a practice of approaching your thoughts and feelings with the curiosity of a kind scientist? ‘Oh my. I wonder what this interesting feeling is? Wow. I am noticing that my hands around the bat handle are sweaty. Hmm.’
‘The anxiety may go away or it may not. What matters is whether you will show up to your own experience and restart doing the things you care about but stopped doing because of anxiety. Walking that walk is how you regain your ability to say “yes” to life. When you learn how to do that, your anxiety is no longer in charge. You are.’
I know these processes myself. I use them in my own life as a mother, partner, friend, counsellor and professional musician. These processes have changed my life especially on stage when struggling with performance anxiety. I have developed skills to disentangle myself from these constant anxious feelings and lead a more meaningful purposeful life.