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Cut to the Chase - write about it!

Lessons from PANIC ..

Part III

This article could go by loads of names. You could call it my thang about counter-intuitive therapy, you could call it what finally worked for me.

It could also be called "cutting to the chase".

It could be called when I finally learned to quit running and get on with my ACCEPTANCE of anxiety. This item has gone through MANY changes in recent days.




Panic to me is an inner call to WAKE UP and smell the coffee, so to speak. It is my body's way of telling me that it's time to shake out my sillies and take a good, hard look at why I am DISTRESSED. In another, future article I am going to post all the notes from the psychiatric community as to what EXACTLY they label as anxiety disorder(s), panic disorder(s) and such. But I thought I should really touch base with you all as to what I think it is.

I believe as I do because PANIC, anxiety and fear is nothing new to the human race. People used to have it but they didn't have labels or drugs to use. And they wrote long and hard about it, too, trying always to come up with solutions to it. Plato, for one. And it is very prevalent in the Eastern mystical traditions to deal with it, too. It interests me that currently most of the suggested therapy is coming from Eastern traditions. Recently, in North America, going to native shaman has become the "in" thing; maybe because it works.

Having been a sufferer of EXTREME panicky states, I realize now that all the writing I have done about it has been my best therapy. And there are good reasons for this.

Have been sitting in the cave, resisting these states, I got nowhere. I felt like a "victim" of Catch-22, as in the novel by Joseph Heller. The more anxiety I "produced", the more anxious I became. The more my anxiety alienated others, the more anxious I became.

They say "confession is good for the soul", but I found that even well intentioned therapy didn't help all that much at the time. In all honesty, I doubt if I could have continued the way I was without REAL therapeutic help. I had repressed, suppressed and denied too many things. Plus the well-educated therapeutic community was "hip" to some things about my existence that I had NO IDEA might be causing me to be so .. so ... anxious. Being a motherless daughter was one of those things I really couldn't have figured out on my own. Dealing with the rejection of my body, was another. I gave up my Theatre Arts major at University because I could not STAND being viewed on stage. I was unable to handle people watching me!! I ended up in radio. Therapy did help me through that transition. I was able to finish school, get a job and become self supporting.

The upshot of my experience is that I have learned to WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING THAT MAKES ME ANXIOUS. By "objectively" telling myself what is causing me so much anxiety, I can start to deal with it. It may take me quite a while to get it all down. I found that writing with a pencil is best - it flows along nicely that way. The feelings begin to surface. Writing on a computer is TOO LINEAR, it is designed for narration only. A pencil is the BEST tool for me.

And that leads to the second step (see the picture above ... Ascent to Sunlight!). I just do the hard part which is get to grips with the FEELINGS. I write them down and look at them. My feelings, or as some like to call them, emotional tones, are what keep me "in the loop". I used to joke .. "but I don't DO feelings". I would rather do 3,000 word essays about feelings than to have them. But when I take a good "look" at them, when those feelings come into focus, I can DO something about them.

They just don't see so damned important in the light of day on a page. They seem pretty NORMAL, really. I am just struggling, like everyone else, to cope with life, death, the instability of the world ever changing and me sitting around being STATIC. My writing always, always changes this. Studies have shown that writing about anxiety (or journaling) is probably the most effective way to deal with panic and anxiety that has ever been proposed! No wonder workbooks on anxiety, fear and panic are such BEST sellers! It's obvious .. ya gotta write it down.

My original self-inflicted "therapy", taught to me in a workshop -- two decades ago -- was to simply take responsibility for any and all problems that cropped up in my life. This would reduce any urge I had to get into blame, finger pointing, resentment, guilt, arrogance and/or manipulation I was pulling to create "situations".


The exercise I use goes like this:
  1. On a piece of paper I would write down my "problem". I mean really DEFINE it, in terms I understood. Didn't matter how much blaming of others I was doing or "reasons" that I "would" have certain problems, I took the responsibility on as "my" problem.
  2. Then, I would write the following: The reason behind me, Virginia, having the problem whereby ______________ and here I would fill in the blank with what was causing me anxiety or emotional PAIN.
  3. Then I would write, in Capital Letters IS ...
  4. I would then write every single idea that came into my head about WHY I had created this problem. After each "reason", I would write IS again and put down the next thing about the problem that popped into my head. And that would get followed by the "IS" and so on.
Okay. It is a real sad thing to say, but I could come up with at least 20 reasons I had created the problem! Sometimes 50! But the heart of the matter would always emerge .. or the multiple "reasons" would emerge -- some old, stale way of thinking that was keeping me STUCK. One idea that might be "the one" would be that there was simply the "old" belief that it wasn't okay to feel bad. The STUCK would have made me panic, but not when actually examined. One reason would somehow just "feel" like the right one, though. Do you know what years of doing this accomplished? I've always finished the exercise realizing that I was "okay". That what I felt was perfectly within human reality and not so unique and unrealistic at all. I would always find out that I am a member of the human race and still lovable. Wow! I usually finished the exercise by doing my favorite of all affirmations, "I am enough, I have enough, I do enough" And I would take as big a dose of that affirmation as the situation required.

One could say that this exercise was my little dialogue with a God of my understanding -- the page was my confessor, so to speak and the exercise sure took me into the light each time I did it. It returned me to sanity. I have made lists over the years answering the same three questions on paper, over and over ... Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going ...? Amazing to go back and look at the answers and realize how much I have grown and find the seeds of self knowledge that came later. I do left handed portraits of myself every six months, but that is a tale for another time.

I did have one other "trick" and still do. I simply make a cup of herbal tea. It makes me see that taking everything a step at a time will make the horrible moment pass. But during a panic attack, making a cup of tea can be quite an undertaking. I do it anyway. and I BREATHE.

I took a look at a pile of books that have come out about anxiety, phobia, panic .. I think this one is pretty good Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick. It's a workbook. I am not so sure that all the attention it gives to making sure you have a "label" is necessary. Having a "label" is not necessarily going to reassure a person predisposed to intense anxiety. Still, the author does make four extremely good points right at the beginning of the book. The quiz that defines your exact label might actually reduce your anxiety level!! Right on the Amazon site, you can read the four things he asks you to do before you buy or read or work the workbook.

I love the fact he tells you to "get a buddy" as No. 4. It reassures me that he really gets it. A problem shared is a problem halved, at the very least. I used to take my written exercises into the therapist to discuss them; that served as my buddy. Dr. Carbonell is helping you establish that you are part of a community before you even begin. I have had Panic Disorder with agoraphobia. It happened when my landlord threw away all that I owned. I simply could not trust anything would be there when I came back if I went out anywhere during the next three months so I didn't want to leave my home. This workbook could have been a big help to me. This workbook will be a godsend to anyone newly "diagnosed".

I have had amazing results from James Pennebaker's books. If you're experiencing anxiety, panic or other emotional problems these books could TRANSFORM you entire life.

In the time since I read the first one, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, which convinced me my writing it all out was the thing to do, Pennebaker has produced a workbook, Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval. I have met people who were helped by him, especially as it relates to panic and anxiety. They all go on to do amazingly well and that to me is an important criteria. He hands them the tools and they are motivated to use them! Other books on therapeutic journaling often get criticized for being somewhat "cultish" and not showing examples of what did NOT work. The "cool" thing about these techniques is that they put a "therapist" at your fingertips, even when you feel no one is listening. I once had a conversation with Julia Cameron about The Artist's Way (which I'll write ALL about another time) and she said that using daily pages was a way to get out all the griping and whinging so one could get back to doing what humans are here to do ... CREATE! Time has shown that her techniques produce powerful results. If you are looking to find something you can do that isn't as structured as Daily Pages, then Pennebaker is your man.

Pennebaker has helped I would guess millions free up their inner selves to the light of day as he was taken "seriously". His book is accessible to the lay person and makes deep therapy much richer and useful. He's "done his homework" by having done convincing research that shows that writing reduces all the physical symptoms associated with PANIC, anxiety and all those other greedy little emotions that plague us. He has had a lot of influence on many therapists; many have never heard of him but employ his "techniques". He was one of the very first to understand the mind/body connection in therapy and then went on to come up with practical ways for people to use this knowledge.

My own personal experience is that much of the literature on how to work through panic is worthless, because the writers have no personal experience of panic. It just doesn't fit what REALLY happens to us, nor does it suggest how we can get to be at peace with ourselves because we all have such individual experience to work through. I would love your feedback, because I know different things work for different people.

Dispelling the myths surrounding how we act and feel will go a long way towards getting public understanding of what is a debilitating condition UNTIL WE DEAL WITH IT. But the first step is always acceptance of our own experience. Since, as Cervantes said "the pen is the tongue of the mind", I think writing it all down as a step to acceptance will be around for a looooooong time.

I am curious as to what has been the most helpful to anyone that reads this.

What has YOUR experience been? What suggestion have you taken up that really makes a difference? For me, besides learning how to BREATHE, writing has been the focal point of my recovery.

I have been in situations where the daily stress and uncertainty was so bad that I took meds. I lived for eight continuous years in what is known as a "psychiatric void" - a place where I had no control over my future and thus could not plan what I wanted or needed to do. I needed medication, I went to a real professional that I trusted had my best interests at heart when the medication was prescribed. I am not saying medication is a bad thing, but my experience is that working on my authentic self is what works for me.

Keeping my head and heart and hands working together as allies is the REAL work. It is challenging, but once I learned, I found I could just keep writing about it.

What has been effective for you?

If you had the chance to help someone literally suffering from panic attacks, what advice would you give them ..?

This is the third in a series of Lessons from Panic

Related Stories:
Lesson 1: Inside panic and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Lesson 2: Learning to set reasonable goals and deal with PTSD
Codependency – When Caring Becomes Self-Destructive
Do you worry too much? Check whether you are at risk of Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Lady Broadoak or Virginia Simson


  1. have you tried stephanie dowrick's book on journaling? i quite liked it

  2. No, but I shall surely check it out.

    I think journaling should be regularly revisited, but then I would think that, eh?

    I have some GREAT journaling templates that are easy to use; one is designed for those who are on the internet. It's great for people on the go, who don't like staring a blank piece of paper in the face. I don't personally mind that blankness but some do. I'll write on ANYTHING that is close to hand.

    Thanks for the tip, Maddy. I'll take a look.

    As to the others who commented, the comments before sorta died as we re-edited again. But I read them and thank you. It seems that each touched on another aspect of the body/ mind connection.

  3. I make for being such an easy victim...I forgive easily and forget easily...but as others mention "people 'go after' me because I let them. When at home, I journal events that have caused me anger, that have caused me anxiety, that have stressed me, that has led me to anxious states of mind, it helps, but, it never really gives me "solutions" to the problems or situations, just articulate insights and I keep writing away.


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