Losing it isn’t pretty. Losing it when everyone else is losing it too is never going to go down well, particularly if you’re the one person they’re depending on not to. We consulted Martin Goodyer, an on-air psychologist for the BBC and a long-standing member of the Professional Speakers’ Association, on how to cope when panic hits us. Martin is also the author of new book WTF Just Happened? How to make better decisions by asking yourself better questions. And here’s what he said…
Panic happens when your brain jumps to a conclusion that you’re under threat; Tiny squidgy bits deep inside your head squirt out chemicals that cause your heart to beat rapidly, your breathing to speed up and become shallow, and your focus to narrow. It’s evolutionary biology that’s causing your defence mechanism to kick in, – your flight or fight response. Which would be good news if you were trying to make it back to your cave while being chased by a sabre-tooth tiger, but in today’s world where threats can come from missing an important report deadline or worse still, having to choose between attending your kid’s nativity play or a business meeting, the chemistry happens but there’s nowhere to run to. In the absence of something specific to flee from your brain treats everything as a threat, ramping up the chemical cocktail and causing you to feel even more stress. All of which is why panic ‘attacks’ and is horribly difficult to get out of when you’re in it.
There’s good and bad news
The bad news is that there’s nothing you can do to stop it from happening. The brain is complicated, which is why so many attempts to mess with it by taking pills fail when these extra chemical interventions don’t always go as planned. There are plenty of drugs that will slow this process down but they will often also have the side-effect of causing you to feel like a zombie or simply make you sleep, a lot! The good news is that you don’t need to take extra chemicals to change the chemistry. All you need to do is change the way you think. There’s no need to get all psycho-babbly or go into detail about which chemical does what. However, knowing that you have the key to change the chemistry in your brain is powerful knowledge, very powerful indeed. Without that knowledge, your potentially brilliant capacity to unlock the secrets of the universe is useless. A fabulous tool that you have no idea how to use is about as much use as a chocolate fire-guard; Imagine trying to operate your laptop without knowing which keys to press. Frustrating, eh? Is it any wonder then that we feel frustrated after the initial panic subsides? It’s annoying as heck to have been effectively immobilised by panic at precisely the time you could have been swinging into action and saving the day. As squillions of panicking Americans might be saying after their election, ‘it sucks’!
Changing the chemistry happens when our brain detects that we are in control of events rather than at the mercy of them, – enabling us to switch from chemistry that paralyses to a mix that magically enables us to deal with things calmly and rationally. It happens when the triggers stimulating norepinephrine, the stuff that gets adrenaline pumping through the system are switched off. Instead, the brain experiences a hit of serotonin. In turn that leads to the stimulation of our dopamine centres, and then without having to think a thing, we find ourselves feeling unaccountably good. It feels like magic, alchemy, or invisible technology but it’s not. It’s simply nature at work.
Change your internal chatter and you change your internal chemistry, which then changes the way you feel
Here’s how you do it. You must ask yourself a question and refrain from speaking to yourself in statements. Honestly, it is that straightforward. Shift from statements to questions, and make sure the questions are good ones.
We speak to ourselves all the time. We can’t help it. Listen to yourself, you’re doing it right now! Chatter goes on inside our heads whether we like it or not, we don’t have any choice about that. However, we do get to choose what conversation goes on. We get to decide if we say things like, ‘Oh no, not this!’ or ‘Ah interesting, if I were to do something useful what might it be?’ The trouble is that most of us have made a habit of making useless and damaging statements in our heads when caught off guard, which is why it feels inevitable it’ll always be that way. So, to switch over to asking questions requires practice. The more you get used to asking yourself better questions in all manner of situations, the more likely you’ll be to make questions your ‘go to’ state of mind when challenging or unexpected things happen.
That’s why I wrote ‘WTF just happened?’; a collection of stories that reinforce the message over and over, that the way to make better decisions is to ask better questions. Reading stories about other people allows you to practice, practice and practice some more without realising that you’re doing it. Some have described the experience as a bit like hypnosis without the swinging watch, soothing voice and sleepy bits, because the practicing of asking better questions and taking control of your thinking seems to happen on its own, just by reading the book.
Changing your chemistry and taking control so that panic is much less of an issue requires practice however you go about doing it. However, the practice is worth it. To be able to keep your head while everyone around you is losing it is a gift worth giving yourself. If you want to improve the way you handle your own ‘WTF just happened?’ moments, then get used to asking yourself better questions. The more you ask, the better the results you’ll get.
- ‘WTF Just Happened?’ by Martin Goodyer, – how to make better decisions by asking yourself better questions, is now available from leading bookstores and on Amazon here.