Last week in Part I of this series on Anxiety Triggers, I asserted that you have to actively look for the thing(s) that might be triggering your anxiety. I’ll remind you again that some triggers are extremely subtle. Also, triggers are often connected to another and you may have to look at several triggers in order to understand how they work together to stimulate your anxiety. When you have all the “clues”, however, then the start and progression of your anxiety will make much more sense. Once you understand what pushes your anxiety level up, then you can take specific steps to lower it.
In my last post I explained the difference between an external and internal trigger, and I discussed the internal triggers of Thoughts and Images. This week I’ll discuss Feelings and Memories.
Feelings that are not acknowledged or appropriately expressed can trigger panic. Think about a big pot of boiling water. If you put a lid on the pot and bring the water to a full boil, it will start to spill out and make a mess on your stove. Alternatively, if you take the lid off, the steam rises into the air and disappears. It is the same with feelings. Feelings that are not expressed are like the water seeping out of the sides of the pot. Feelings do not go away just because we deny that they are there. They have to go somewhere. Like the water spilling over onto the stove, unexpressed feelings can turn themselves into panic.
Alicia* was a client that I saw very early on in my training as a therapist. When she was assigned to me she had been suffering from panic attacks for only about a month. We discussed all the triggers at length, but she could not seem to pinpoint the cause of her panic. We worked on this for a few weeks but seemingly to no avail. Then one day she came into the office and declared that she was sure that her trouble with panic attacks was over. “Really?” I asked with a tone of skepticism in my voice. “Yes” she said confidently and went on to tell me about her 10 year old son who had been diagnosed with a learning disability about 9 months prior. Evidently Alicia was having ongoing difficulties with the school in terms of securing the assistance that her son needed. “I am so angry!” she exclaimed, “but anger is an emotion that I was allowed to feel as a child. I’ve been doing everything I can to just be nice to the people at my son’s school, and I have not acknowledged even to myself how angry and frustrated I am!”
Alicia went on to explain that during the past week she not only realized that she was angry but allowed herself to feel it. “I haven’t had a panic attack since,” she stated, “and I really don’t expect to have any more.” Wow! Alicia’s story illustrates how powerful a trigger feelings can be.
Unacknowledged feelings are not the trigger to everyone’s panic attacks, but for all of us there are some feelings that are easier to express than others. What emotions are easy for you to feel? Is it o.k. to feel happy? Sad? Scared? Angry? Is it not o.k. to feel one of those emotions? Which one? Where did you get the message that it is not permissible to feel _________. What would happen if you did express _________? These may be tough questions to answer by yourself. If you found that you answered that it is not permissible to feel one or more emotions, it might be a good idea for you to speak to a therapist about that.
Many of our memories have significant emotion attached to them. In contrast, much of what we forget is emotionally insignificant. For example, what were you doing on Saturday, March 11th, 1995? No idea? It was probably an insignificant day in the scheme of your life. You do remember? Then what else was going on for you that day? If you remember, chances are it was an extremely memorable day in your life. Perhaps it was your wedding day, or your 21st birthday, or the day your mother died.
Now, what were you doing the moment you heard that the Spaceship Challenger had blown up in the air? I was in a Sears store, passing through the electronics department. I saw footage of the explosion on all the televisions that were on the display in the department. I remember how shocked and sad I felt.
I can not think of any other specific memories of being in a Sears store because nothing else highly emotional has ever happened to me while shopping at Sears. The Challenger explosion, in contrast, was highly emotional.
What do you remember about your high school graduation, a college graduation, your wedding day, the birth of a sibling or your own first child?
Our memories are laden with affect, some positive, some negative. When memories laden with negative affect are brought to the surface of our consciousness, we can do the same things as with the unacceptable emotions, avoid the experience of the memory. Therefore, again, panic can result.
Are there experiences that you’ve had that you or perhaps your entire family “just don’t talk about?” Some of these experiences maybe unresolved or unprocessed and are acting like the pot of boiling water with the lid on.
The good news is that if you work through these memories, feelings, and experiences it is like taking the lid off the pot and the strong affect will eventually dissolve and not have the same powerful effect in your life. If you’d like to look for a therapist to help you work through some feelings or memories, you can look for a therapist on the Psychology Today website or the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) website.
In Part III of this series of SharePosts I’ll discuss more about body sensations as an Internal Trigger and then move on to a discussion of the External Triggers.
Jennifer L. Fee, Psy.D. Psychologist
*All client names and details are altered to protect confidentiality.