Halloween is upon us. Trick or treating, fancy dress parties (online naturally, due to COVID-19 restrictions) and horror films a plenty! As I scrolled through Netflix, deciding what films to watch this year, I was reminded of a mental health epiphany that I had in the cinema (circa 2013), whilst watching the classic horror film, "Evil Dead."
I was struggling a great deal with my anxiety at the time. Intrusive thoughts and disastrous thinking haunted me constantly. I felt on edge and worried about things that I couldn’t control.
“What if my boss realises that I’m actually rubbish and I lose my job?”
“What if my boyfriend gets fed up of dealing with me and leaves?”
Some of these thoughts were really extreme, such as:
“What if everyone I love dies in some horrific accident!”
My intrusive thoughts tend to snowball in that way. Recently, a cognitive behavioural therapist had pointed out to me during a session that I was prone to “cognitive distortions”, such as “disastrous” or “catastrophic” thinking – and I couldn’t disagree.
Once my mind has even the slightest sniff of a problem, it multiplies said problem by a thousand.
Why are mere thoughts so… scary?
Rationally thinking I knew that all of my concerns were either unfounded or completely out of my control. After all, I was doing well at work and my boyfriend and I were very happy. So why did I feel so threatened? The vicious cycle exasperated me, and I constantly tried to either fight or block out the negative feelings, telling myself I was being silly. But this approach rarely worked.
While watching the horror film in the cinema, I flinched and screamed several times. The demon terrorising the teenagers was hideous. I imagined myself in that situation, stuck in an isolated cabin without access to help, and felt vulnerable by proxy.
At one particular jump scare, I squealed, covered my eyes and curled into the seat. This reaction was ridiculous, because obviously I knew deep down that the demon couldn’t jump through the cinema screen and attack me. So why did I feel threatened? Why was my brain reacting this way to fantasy?
The Anxiety Trick
Then it hit me. It’s a trick! A horror film tricks the brain into feeling scared when there isn’t an actual physical threat. As this realisation began to permeate, I likened the experience to anxiety or panic attacks and noticed the similarity. When the intrusive thoughts circulate in my brain, I feel like something bad is going to happen and my body responds accordingly,
even though I know I’m perfectly safe.
Dr David Carbonell writes about ‘The Anxiety Trick’ extensively, claiming that people with anxiety experience discomfort and get fooled into treating it like danger.
It was a strange setting in which to have a psychological breakthrough – with Butterkist popcorn stuck to my teeth and all – but in that moment, I felt euphoric! I was being tricked into maintaining my anxiety.
Now that I understood this, I could take steps to tackle it.
How to defuse the Anxiety Trick
1. Take a moment to really feel the emotion.
From countless experiences, I realised that no matter how hard I try to block out negative feelings, I can’t. In fact, this only intensifies them. As Carbonell says, “The way to disarm the Anxiety Trick is to increasingly spend time with anxiety, to expose yourself to the thoughts and sensations, and allow them to subside over time.” So, allow yourself to experience the emotion with zero resistance and examine how it makes you feel. Make peace with feeling uncomfortable and allow the negative thoughts to subside naturally.
2. Remember: you’re not really in danger.
Remind yourself that just like when watching a horror film, you’ve been tricked into thinking you’re in danger, when you’re not. For example, when this occurs, I remind myself that the threat isn’t real. I might not be able to fight these thoughts/feelings. However, I can at least make myself feel more comfortable until they pass. Breathing techniques are a great way to ease the symptoms of anxiety. Activating pressure points can also be soothing. My favourite is the union valley point (located in the webbing between your thumb and index finger). Click here for instructions.
Other simple things such as making sure you’re sat comfortably and that your clothing isn’t too restrictive can also help. You could also try using a relaxing pulse point aromatherapy oil on your wrists and temples – jasmine is my personal favourite, although lavender is also nice – anything that provides relief.
3. Ask yourself: is the emotion valid?
Once the intensity of emotions has eased, think about whether there is any valid evidence to substantiate the intrusive thoughts. A classic CBT exercise encourages patients to look for hard evidence that either supports or challenges an irrational thought. For example, “I’m worried that my boss is going to sack me”, could be challenged with: “Has your boss said anything specific to imply this? Have HR been in contact? Have people complained about the quality of work you deliver?”
Or, “I think my boyfriend is going to leave me”, could be challenged with: According to my notes, you went out for dinner last night and had a great time. “He was also taking about going on holiday next year. Surely this completely disputes your claim?” More often than not, we lack tangible evidence and rely completely on our emotions. Seeking evidence for an irrational thought is a good way to further highlight ‘the trick’.
Happy Halloween everyone – and beware of the Anxiety Trick!
NPS-IE-NP-00112 October 2020