Is your ego user-friendly?
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Practical steps to overcome anxiety and panic attacks.
Is your ego user-friendly? Practical steps to overcome anxiety and panic attacks.
Let’s face it; many of us do not have a user-friendly ego. You too may be walking around with an obsolete software that instead of serving you well, it brings you anxiety, panic attacks and generally makes your life not such an easy ride.
The good news is that you can replace your old unhelpful device – your ego – by an updated version, better suited to your needs. By ego I mean a conscious mediator between your unconscious needs and a self-critical conscience, reflecting social standards learned from the parental figures and society.
In a more simplistic way, what I call ego in this instance is a self-esteem that allows you to operate well in this world, strongly connected to your authentic needs whilst being conscious of the societal norms.
Sometimes we forget that we are the users and the ultimate authority in controlling our minds and reactions. Several approaches and philosophies, including mindfulness, teach us we are more than our thoughts and emotions; that we do not need to identify with them. This assumption can come in handy, especially when you experience a panic attack and/or anxiety.
Classis symptoms of a panic attack disorder are heart palpitations, sweating, trembling or shaking, feeling of choking, shortness of breath, depersonalisation and visceral feeling that your perception is out of the frame. Panic attacks or anxiety disorders are often a sign of something in the communication between your ego, your unconscious desire and the internalised societal structure is not working well and needs your closer attention.
Having options seems impossible when you are in the middle of a panic attack....I advise my clients the importance of working on their user-friendly ego outside of the situations that provoke anxiety and panic attacks, i.e. in a moment they feel safe.
Because when a proper panic kicks in, the survival runs on its high and sometimes the best strategy to cope with an acute panic is to distract yourself. In a long run, it is vitally important to question your user-unfriendly ego and build a healthier one. You may go ahead on your own or use a professional counsellor / psychotherapist who will guide you on your journey. So where to start with the process? The answer is: with mindfulness.
Mindfulness is something of a buzzword. But what is it? I like the definition by Happify in their: Why Mindfulness is a Superpower - Mindfulness is the ability to know what is happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it. It is a buffer between the stimulus and reaction.
When we are not mindful, we cannot pause and take a moment to breathe (literally and metaphorically) between an action and reaction that is often automated and shaped by our conditioning, i.e. experience. We run on an autopilot and do not bother with the fact that the route or speed are unfit for us. In a wider context, the autopilot helped us to survive but did not aid us to thrive because our brain is first and foremost interested in survival. With an obsolete autopilot, it is like driving a car in 2020 and still using an old road map book despite having a modern GPS ready to be installed.
To become mindful, start with questioning the source of your thoughts, their validity and whether there are any benefits your thoughts bring to your overall well-being. Developing mindfulness is to recognise when your inner critic, pouting child or anger has taken over. Mindfulness allows you to reject your debilitating perfectionism that often leads to a vicious circle of procrastination, inability to decide, finish a project and ultimately feeling guilty.
Take small steps at first. It can be just as long as five minutes a day when you pause and look into what has happened during the day, going through the moments like through a filing cabinet. Whilst doing it, it is important that you let your critical voice outside. Now it is not time to use the five minutes break to scold yourself for what you should have done or should not. First, when it comes to mindfulness and mental well-being, you should start by throwing the word ‘should’ from your vocabulary (pun intended). Try it; I guarantee that if you follow through, you may end up feeling amazing.
After watching moments of your day on your imaginary screen, you will become an observer and start seeing repetitive patterns that are the building blocks of your autopilot.
Understand your automated reactions
With an increased ability to dis-identify from your autopilot, you will begin to resist operating from a triggered position. When our survival brain deciphers a situation as threatening, we react in a more or less self-destructive way–we fight, fly, freeze or fawn.
For instance, a colleague asks you when the presentation you supposed to deliver will be ready. You may unconsciously decode the question as them labelling you as incapable, because in your experience you have been overly criticised and you may read their impatient tone of voice as criticism whilst they are impatient because they need to leave and go to fetch a prescription for their sick family member.
Because you are not being mindful of your inner autopilot, you may respond overly defensively, i.e. fight back, and remind them of their failure to meet a deadline in the past (Voila, you have a new foe). In a similar scenario, when a colleague or a boss asks you about the presentation, you may work extra hard, staying at work until midnight to be able to show them your polished gem first thing in the morning, although in reality you feel you should have told them that the deadline was too ambitious in the first place. In that case, your ‘fawn’ reaction is to please, to ‘survive’. If you tend to ‘freeze’, you will probably not be able to concentrate, and focus your brain on finishing the task. A good example of a ‘fly’ reaction would be you try to avoid the situation altogether and will call in sick the next day to shake off the responsibility. Someone else will have to complete your presentation, and you will most likely feel very guilty the next day before you turn up at work.
I advise my clients, who come to see me for counselling, to improve their breathing. Such a simple step, like taking a few deep breaths, changes the neuro-physiological dynamic of your brain, causing a relaxation response. It will redirect your blood flow up to the pre-frontal part of your brain you need to handle the situation in a more effective way. After decreasing over-reacting, you will achieve a good balance between the opposites, e.g. you will find a healthy balance between the fight or fawn mode, i.e. between asserting yourself too much and compromising your needs. With flight and freeze, it will manifest as an improved equilibrium on the scale between doing and being.
Ability to be vulnerable
Being vulnerable is important for creating deep and meaningful relationships. However, it is often hindered if the surrounding environment is not safe enough. With the previous steps of mindfulness and recovery of the overdrive of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system caused by being in a survival mode for a long period, we can achieve a sense of feeling safe.
This will lead to the capacity to be more authentic and vulnerable in trustworthy relationships. The relational part is a key building element of psychotherapy and you should follow your gut feeling and seek counsellors whom you feel safe enough with. It takes time to establish trust in relationships, but a good psychotherapist or counsellor should bring empathy, confidentiality and unconditional positive regard.
Letting go of an unhelpful fantasy about perfection
Part of being human is to err. As Stephen Hawkins said:
“One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn't exist.....Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist”.
I believe him. He was a smart man. Coming to terms with our own and others’ imperfection is essential to well-being. By accepting our flawed nature, nevertheless at the same time, protecting ourselves from abusive and toxic patterns of others (and ours!), we can create self-compassionate, self-soothing and user-friendly ego.
Keeping the survival on and feeling constantly unsafe in situations that realistically are okay, is an exhausting way of living. It comes with a lot of anxiety. I work with anxiety as an information we use in the counselling session to learn more about clients' autopilot whilst teaching them helpful coping strategies. Sometimes, when we get to the roots of the survival mechanism, clients has the need to retract to their comfort zone or previous stage (e.g. co-dependent relationship, addiction or pleasing pattern despite their obvious destructiveness). To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, children always choose safety over the desire to discover and conquer. This is not compare clients with children however being in therapy is learning and developing awareness, discovering new ways of thinking and living. Aren't we all (at least part of us) children learning along the path, anyway?
A good counsellor is therefore a navigator on the edge between a new, scary world and the known, often no more functional comfort zone.
If you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, get in touch via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone.
Photo credits to Juan Chavez on Unsplash