By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about panic – how heightened states of panic and fear can affect our mental health, why it happens (both at an individual level as well as a collective level), and more importantly how to handle it for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.
I’m writing/recording this episode on March 20th , and you would have to be living under a rock not to be aware that, so far, 2020 has gone a little bit off the rails. You only have to step foot anywhere near a supermarket to become aware of the fact that people are acting like it’s armageddon – the real type, not the overly long and painful Michael Bay movie from 1998.
We’re currently seeing some extreme behaviour across the world as people struggle with the panic and fear caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re also seeing some amazing examples of human kindness as people come together to support one another through these trying times.
I’ve been particularly focused on this stuff from a mental health standpoint for the past few months, as we here in Australia have gone through more than five months of severe bushfires following more than three years of drought and all of the devastating consequences those events have had, and which then has led straight into the outbreak of widespread panic over coronavirus fears.
Not only am I passionate about the work I do in mental health and wellbeing but I also live with anxiety, so I find myself reading the news online and having emotional reactions (as I’m sure many of you are) and then challenging myself to take a step back and look at why things are the way they are at the moment, both in society and even within myself as an individual (in other words, why I react with anxiety to the things that are going on in the world). I know that makes me sound like I’m psychoanalysing everything, including myself, but I’m not… I’m just genuinely fascinated with understanding the ‘why’ behind things like what’s going on now, because I find that it then challenges me to take a more rational viewpoint and to respond to things in a more thought-out and calm way rather than just reacting.
Anyway, because of all of that, you get this episode which is me exploring this topic and, more importantly, providing some practical advice on dealing with panic, which is advice you can apply to this current situation as well as any kind of crisis or difficulty you might be facing in any area of your life.
Defining ‘panic’ and mental health
What is panic? Panic is defined as “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behaviour” (thanks, Apple Dictionary function!) and I wanted to share that specific definition because there’s some stuff to unpack there.
First, “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety” is a very good description of how rapidly the massive hysteria has happened over the past few weeks thanks to the global spread of COVID-19, and it’s been a real snowball effect. I mean, it’s understandable why people are panicked – even if our rational minds are telling us things will be alright, it’s terrifying to go to the supermarket and see shelves stripped bare (which then can trigger our own self-preservation reactions, no matter how rational we might normally be).
The second piece of that definition is “causing wildly unthinking behaviour” and I think that is the most challenging and potentially dangerous part of panic: the unpredictable and irrational way it can make people act.
When panic takes over, we act based on instinct rather than logic; our fight/flight/freeze response takes over and we experience a range of physical and mental effects (if you’d like to learn about some of the different physiological reactions, read this article by Anxiety Canada that breaks down the physical symptoms: https://www.anxietycanada.com/articles/fight-flight-freeze/). We’re seeing that now with people stocking up on toilet paper for a disease which does not cause gastrointestinal issues – the fear of running out of toilet paper is completely irrational, but the panic is all-too-real.
Why is panic such an issue for mental health? Well, the thing about panic is that it takes away your control, because when you allow fear to control you then you are far more likely to make decisions that don’t necessarily consider the full range of consequences of your actions. So being able to get yourself out of panic and back into logical thought as quickly as possible is essential, because that will enable you to make more rational decisions (and I’ll cover some techniques to do that shortly).
The other thing to be aware of is that panic can tend to be contagious; which is why you need to be conscious of what situations you put yourself in, be vigilant about your mental health when talking to other people or going on social media, and choose to focus on the positive.
There is no question that these sorts of challenging times make it difficult to focus on the positive. But what good does giving in to panic do us, individually or collectively? Panic, fear and hysteria serve no purpose other than to create more panic, fear and hysteria – it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. I was talking to an older lady in the checkout line at the supermarket the other day and we were discussing that we’re both taking the position of not giving in to the doomsday-style shopping people are doing because all that does is add to the problem… she was so lovely, I just wanted to give her a hug but, you know, social distancing!
When things are happening in your life or in the world that are scary and confronting, you have two choices: yield to fear or hold on to hope.
If your own health and wellbeing – both mental and physical – are truly important to you, then you’ll know deep down inside that the only way to get through a crisis is to calmly make your way through the situation one step at a time. If you tear out all of your hair and run screaming down the middle of the street, you’re not doing yourself or anyone any good (and you’re just going to have to wear a wig later on).
We panic because we are afraid. It’s a heightened state of emotion born out of a fear of loss and a fear of being without control. However, as I’ve said many times before in this program, control is an illusion – the only things you have control over are your words, your actions, and your feelings. So when it comes to things that are going on around you, either in your life or in the broader community, you can either react with panic or react with realism. There’s a saying by an unknown author that goes, “Things don’t happen to you, they just happen”, and with the current coronavirus crisis going on that saying is more true now than ever before, just as it will be the next time you face a crisis in your life. Things happen; it’s up to each of us to respond in a way that makes the most out of the situation so we don’t end up making it worse.
Some people will over-react, some people will under-react (like the people who are complaining about the clampdown on social gatherings because they can’t go to the football or whatever). It’s up to each of us to find the happy medium between over-reacting and under-reacting, and instead of just having a reaction it’s about responding; responding to the situation as it is, because ‘reaction’ takes on all of the emotion.
I know it’s hard, but don’t judge. How people react is their own issue to work through, and if they’re not enlightened enough to realise that they’re behaving like arseholes then that’s on them. I know, I know… that doesn’t get you toilet paper or canned food, but we are not running out of food – it’s not the zombie apocalypse, and things will settle down eventually.
This is something I say a lot in Let’s Talk About Mental Health – you can’t control what happens, you cannot control what is going on; all you can control is your own contribution to what’s happening (i.e. Your own words, actions and feelings). So, in a crisis, if you choose to act and speak and feel sensibly, then you have full control over what you do with whatever comes your way.
Whether it’s global panic or it’s panic about something going on in your own life, say with your immediate family, you can either go into meltdown mode or you can calmly and rationally take things one day at a time. Either way, you can’t control external factors so don’t make the situation worse by taking on board external drama that serves no purpose other than to increase your blood pressure and make you stressed.
Look, nobody’s perfect: I woke up on Friday morning feeling incredibly anxious and it only got worse because I had to go to the supermarket to buy stuff for the weekend, but the trick is to recognise that it’s happening and to work on detaching yourself from the emotion. I know that, for me, I tend to be very susceptible to how people are feeling around me (I’ve talked many times before about how contagious energy can be) so I needed to gently remind myself that I was feeling that way because of the environment I was in, and once I got in my car and was driving home I was able to calm myself and reset.
So, on that note, let’s look at what you can do to deal with panic and manage your mental health in a crisis.
Dealing with panic in a crisis or difficult situation
First, educate yourself. Whether it’s something crazy happening in your town or country or the world, or just something happening in your own life, put on your rational thinking hat and choose to take the time to get the facts. And I’m not talking about getting the facts from a tabloid magazine next to a story about how Michael Jackson was just seen at the 7-11 buying a burrito. I’m talking about real news, based on quality, scientific evidence. If it’s becoming difficult to find impartial and objective news sources that don’t have 43 hysterical articles about whatever is happening, then go to a better source – for example, with coronavirus I’m finding that reading updates from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) is helping me to keep across what’s happening globally with less impact on my anxiety than going on the regular news sources, so think about where you’re consuming your information from but do take the time to educate yourself.
If you’re dealing with some type of panic-inducing trauma in your own life, educate yourself about what is going on: for example, if it’s a medical issue for you or a loved one, get the facts rather than jumping to conclusions. In late 2016, not long after a good friend of mine died from breast cancer, I found a lump under my right nipple and I freaked the hell out. I googled the symptoms – worst thing you can do – which made things way worse (because of course Dr Google said ‘cancer’) which sent me into a spiral and delayed me going to the doctor because I was terrified. When I finally did, weeks later, and once I got the results back from my scan, it turned out I just had a nasty case of being fat (that was what started me on the very long journey to losing weight). My point is: whatever it is that’s going on, don’t jump to conclusions and don’t be alarmist. Get the facts and work from there. And for the love of puppies, don’t bury your head in the sand either because that little voice in your head still knows that deep down you’re actually shitting yourself over whatever it is, so get the facts quickly so you can respond to whatever it is.
A “what not to do” item I want to flag here specifically for big events and crises (like what’s happening now) is that under no circumstance should you sit and watch the news, especially not the 24/7 news channels. I distinctly remember the first Gulf War in the early 90’s – it was the first big conflict that was covered non-stop on the news and I would often end up at my friend’s house and we would just watch it for hours on end, and it was like a car crash; horrifying, but something that was nearly impossible to look away from. Consume news thoughtfully and mindfully. Avoid the news channels and tabloids completely, and instead get your news from reputable sources – like I said before, I’m relying on WHO and UN for major stuff plus government updates in my country and my state, and I only read a national news site that is fact-driven and impartial in its reporting because I don’t need anyone adding their anxiety on top of my own – I’m pretty good at working out every worst case scenario possible on my own, I don’t need any help in that department! If you need to take a break from social media, then do so. I know that might seem counterintuitive when you’re dealing with isolation, but I’m finding that social media is actually adding to my anxiety at the minute because everyone is sharing theirs. Make the choices that feel right to you.
Because prevention is better than cure… get plenty of rest and self-care (and it’s never too late to start). There is a saying by an unknown author that goes, “I am exhausted from trying to be stronger than I feel” and the reality is that many of us become emotionally exhausted when there is a major crisis on. Sometimes you need to give yourself time and patience, and take some time to rest so you can ride it out and recover – pushing yourself might be too much. I know that, for me, when I have particularly bad anxiety attacks, often the only thing that works for me is being curled up on the couch under a blanket and watching something on TV that calms me down. That doesn’t mean that you should necessarily withdraw from the world every time you feel a bit anxious, but identify what works for you at different levels of panic or fear or anxiety, and bear in mind that the way you deal with mild panic will likely need to be quite different than how you look after yourself during severe panic episodes. Take plenty of time for self-care and make it a daily practice – have a listen to (or read) Episode 6 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health for specific advice on self-care.
Next, take the time to understand why you feel panic. What a surprise that I would tell you to dig into the why – I say it basically every single episode/post! And with good reason; if you just deal with the emotion rather than its cause, you’re not dealing with the actual problem. Is it fear of something specific happening? Is it loss of control? Is it uncertainty? Is it fear of losing someone close to you? Uncover what’s going on within yourself, because panic is a response to fear.
Feel what you need to feel, but choose not to give in to it. You are in control over whether you respond to a crisis with panic and fear (which creates more panic and fear), or calmness and rationality (which creates more calmness and rationality). The choice is always yours, regardless of how bad the situation is. Acknowledge how you’re feeling and recognise that it’s your mind trying to make sense of a frightening situation, thank your mind for trying to protect you and breathe slowly through it to settle your mind. Count to ten, twenty, thirty… whatever you need.
Speaking of… practice breathing exercises. Probably the most well-known and effective one is square breathing (breathe in for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, repeat), so if you’re feeling panicked then take time to just breathe and recover your composure before doing anything else.
Find the humour where you can. Regular listeners/readers will know by now I have a bit of a dry sense of humour and today was no exception; I went to buy chicken stock and every brand of the low-salt one was sold out but nobody was touching the full salt stuff, and it just made me laugh out loud because, even in the midst of all this craziness, people are still like “Hmmm, better not have too much salt in my diet.” I don’t know why, but I found that hilarious. Anyway…!
When there are big crises going on – like the current COVID-19 pandemic – make sensible decisions. Have a daily routine and stick to it (especially if you’re stuck at home), don’t abuse alcohol or substances, and focus on doing healthy things that make you feel good. As I said before, refer to the tips in Episode 6 for advice on self-care activities.
Choose to be accepting of others and choose to be kind. Do not take your fear or anger out on people just because they belong to a specific group (which is pretty much a rule to live all your life by if you don’t want to be a complete arsehole). Be respectful of other people and their fears, but keep a safe emotional distance. I have a family member who tends to dump their emotional baggage when I speak to them, so if I’m not prepared before the conversation then I walk away feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck. You can choose what to take on board and what to deflect for the sake of your mental health.
For further advice on coping with challenging situations, there are a few past episodes of Let’s Talk About Mental Health which you might also find useful because they contain practical suggestions for things you can do to tackle other aspects of panic and fear – I covered over-thinking in Episode 4, self-care in Episode 6, stress in Episode 8, fear in Episode 10 and last week was resilience in Episode 23, plus you might also find the priorities episode (Episode 3) to be helpful. There are many things you can do to manage your mental health when you’re faced with a crisis, and as always I remind you that the big one is to ask for help when you need it; you do not need to handle things on your own nor should you, because a problem shared is a problem halved.
Summary and three main points to consider
To summarise: when we’re dealing with major challenges in our lives, it can be difficult to avoid panic and remain calm. However, letting ourselves be controlled by fear and panic will just serve to generate more fear and panic. What we need to do is find ways to calm ourselves so that we can focus on taking things one step at a time and one day at a time, which will enable us to make rational decisions that are in the best interest of our wellbeing.
To wrap up, here are my three main points for you to consider:
- Panic is a protection mechanism, and if we allow it to take control of us then we are less likely to make rational decisions
- Taking the time to educate yourself on what is happening (from reliable and objective sources) as well as seeking to understand why you might be feeling panicked is one approach that will help you to work through things rationally
- Remember that you are never alone – there is always someone you can talk to and often you will find people are going through similar experiences, so connect with others to work through what’s going on
As always, I’m going to close out with a quote I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means for you. This week’s quote is by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it is:
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.“Ralph Waldo Emerson
So, that’s it for this week! For more content, go to:
- Website: Head over to www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for more information about Let’s Talk About Mental Health and to sign up so that new posts/newsletters will land in your inbox, and you can also find all past episodes on the website (click here to jump to the Episodes page)
- Podcast: You can listen to the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast via your preferred platform (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and others) as well as an audio-only version on the LTAMH YouTube channel
- Social Media: Connect with me on social media – you can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamhofficial (I post extra content daily) – I also do a daily ‘The Simple Truth Is…’ series on my other Instagram account which is @jeremygodwinofficial
Next week I’ll be talking about uncertainty. Given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the effect it is having on the global economy, it’s time to look at how uncertainty impacts on mental health and how to deal with it. I’ll be talking about how to manage your mental health during times of uncertainty, whether big or small. I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand/Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland/Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.
On Friday I’ll be sending out the next issue of the Mental Health Talk newsletter, which is a weekly round-up of articles and resources focused on good mental health and wellbeing – sign up at the Subscribe page on the website to have the newsletter land in your inbox every week.
If you’re looking to work with an experienced coach who specialises in mental health and wellbeing, I offer coaching services to clients anywhere in the world via video conference – have a look at the ‘coaching’ section of the website for more information and my rates. Visit: www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/coaching
Have an absolutely fantastic week! Until next time, and now more than ever before, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – because you get back what you give out. Take care and talk to you next time.
PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know because word of mouth is a great way to help other people find Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform). Thanks!
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