I posted this on a subreddit for panic disorder. If applied to all fight or flight responses, however, it should massively help in getting the perspective needed to trigger the ego avalanche.
I’ve found this to be the most effective way to handle a panic attack, or any anxiety situation, during its peak.
I’ll highlight the practical technique in bold, but it’s super important to understand the theory behind it as well. Not just to understand it, but to look at what’s going on from this perspective.
If you have any kind of anxiety disorder, you’ve certainly come across similar techniques before. But if you’re anything like me, sometimes it takes hearing about the same thing from tons of different perspectives to make it click.
Plus, I think there’s huge potential to apply this in a much wider scope – done widely and consistently, it can permanently reveal core elements of your ego (false identity) to the point where it can no longer fool you into being locked inside a narrow, fear based perspective. Feels like ego death. Sounds intense, but uh, that’s what I found. It’s trippy and good to do.
Anyway, the “Do Nothing” response to fight or flight:
Anxiety relies on two main elements to sustain itself: the feelings (the adrenaline / fear) and the mental narrative around it.
Sometimes it’s obvious which one pops up first, sometimes is a chicken-and-the-egg thing. Doesn’t matter for this purpose. When there are intense feelings of fear, your mind is doing more than just “looking for a reason for the fear”. It’s also using the fear to build a narrative – it incorporates that narrative into its conception of who you are.
Your self image becomes one of “I’m a person suffering from a panic attack!” or “Why is this happening to me?” or “I’ve got to overcome this.” There is a certain compelling quality to all of these – they portray you as an innocent victim to which a terrible thing is happening. And that may be true – but that’s not the point.
The point is that there *will* be some part of you, some part of your brain, that will want to resist the “do nothing” technique because it is getting some hit of pleasure from the moral innocence that these narratives provide. This isn’t a judgement, it’s the way our brains work, and it’s the thing we’re trying to stop (along with the “looking for a reason for the fear).
So, the technique:
When the panic hits, you want to stay with the feelings themselves, and *as best you can*, resist the urge to narrativize.
You don’t need to intensely feel the feelings – think of it as lightly holding onto a handrail/banister while going down the stairs. Keep some attention on it, and when your thoughts start to panic (and especially when they start to create an image of you as someone who is panicking), gently put your attention back on the feelings.
Stay with them until a shift happens – until you no longer feel an urge to craft a mental narrative around them.
What this does is severs the feeling element of anxiety from the narrative element. This, firstly, has the effect of activating your “rest and digest” response, which should significantly cut down the length of the panic attack. The feelings will still be incredibly uncomfortable, but they can just kind of sit there, and lessen, and pass.
But, it also has a much more permanent effect:
When the urge to narrativize dies down, you’re proving to your mind that it’s not necessary. It becomes far easier to disengage from it the next time, and the next time, until it’s second nature.
Also, you start seeing your panic from a different perspective. When not narrativizing, you can look at the compulsion to do so much more clearly. You can see how there are core parts of your identity which have, against your will, developed around the addictive quality of the narrative, and which have constricted your perspective through fear.
It’s like widening your perspective beyond the one defined by your ego. There will start to be some peace around the whole thing, even in the middle of the storm. You’ll be able to bear the feelings much better, and let them hit you with its full force, without reacting or getting sucked into that fear based perspective. It’s a rush.
If you do this with other triggers of the fight or flight response, especially arguments, or anything that threatens core beliefs or elements of your identity, this expansion of perspective can become permanent. You’ll become far less shaken by people giving you crap, essentially. But that’s later. Right now, try it with the panic. Stay with the feelings, and as best as possible resist the urge to create a narrative or self image around it.
Also, remember that this technique shouldn’t be used to “beat down” your feelings of anxiety – that will just make you panic more, because you’re essentially telling your brain that anxiety is a problem that needs to be solved. Once you are able to feel the feelings fully, the next step is to do whatever you would be doing if you didn’t have them – engage with life as if you weren’t anxious. Demonstrate to your brain that it’s okay to go out and do things even when the uncomfortable feelings are there.
Fight or flight is never a binary choice. It’s always “fight or flight or do nothing”. Give it a shot, and please let me know how it works.
*All credit for this perspective goes to a friend. I can just share my personal experiences with it, and how it helped me. Another excellent resource is Vacate Fear on YouTube.