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Managing a panic attack is daunting for anyone – even those of us with years of experience and recovery practice under our belts. But throughout my own recovery from panic disorder I have returned again and again to one particular technique that has always offered great power and flexibility – helping me continue to live life to the fullest even when the challenge of anxiety has loomed large.
I first discovered the technique of ‘facing and floating’ whilst reading the world famous books of Dr Claire Weekes. Weekes was a pioneer in the treatment of panic disorder and agoraphobia, and the cognitive and behavioural techniques she developed throughout her career were so radically successful that she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their development.
Her approach to managing panic was to instruct her patients to face towards their panic instead of shrinking from it, and to learn to relax and let the anxiety wash over them until it had run out of steam. For those facing panic attacks for the first time, this approach can seem a little counter-intuitive. But I promise you, it works!
To get your head around the specifics of the ‘face and float’ technique start by thinking about how a person swims versus how a person floats. To swim you have to have all your limbs coordinated and then you have to learn to breath and paddle in time with the water. This is fine when the water is calm, but when the waters are choppy it’s much harder to swim with confidence and keep your head above the waves.
Now floating on the other hand – well you don’t really have to learn how to float! Even a block of wood can float successfully on a choppy sea. All you need to do to float successfully is relax and not get in your own way. You just lie there and let the water take you.
So lets apply this analogy to panic: When panic strikes, do you furrow your brow and desperately try to paddle against your fears, or do you relax and trust your own body’s ability to float? Next time panic is upon you, why not try doing nothing and letting time pass. Don’t try to fight the panic, don’t grit your teeth and try to ‘tough it out’ – just do nothing. Let the panic come to you. Look at it for what it is – a shift of brain chemicals and a shot of adrenalin. It cannot hurt you! Acknowledge that it’s there and then float on through. Get on with the ordinary things you need to do without worrying about the anxiety for a while.
Dr Claire Weekes often described floating as ‘Masterly Inactivity’, that is:
to stop holding tensely onto yourself, trying to control your fear, trying ‘to do something about it’ while subjecting yourself to constant self-analysis.
When I first heard of this technique, I thought that it sounded like a pretty hard thing to attempt. I mean the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling anxious is embrace your anxiety and invite it in… On the contrary, you want to get rid of it as fast as you can. But it’s this fear of panic, and determination to avoid it at all costs that pushes a panic sufferer to start feeling more and more anxious.
As Dr Weekes explains it,
The average person, tense with battling, has an innate aversion to …letting go. He vaguely thinks that were he to do this, he would lose control over the last vestige of his will power and his house of cards would tumble.
But believe me when I tell you, this will never happen!
In reality, learning to face and float through panic is a key stepping stone to learning to let go of the ‘fear of fear’ – and for a panic disorder sufferer it is most often the fear of fear that causes the most distress.
These days the technique has been recognized as being so successful that it now forms a major component of what psychologists and psychiatrists refer to as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
If you want to build a life without panic, you can always start by learning to accept that your panic is here to stay (for a little while at least). Maybe at the moment it still has the power to frighten you, but it certainly can’t hurt you. So stop struggling and battling against it – let it be and simply float.
Many of Dr Claire Weekes books on anxiety are still in print, and you can order them through your local bookshop, or check out her website at www.claireweekes.com.au