6 Smart Tips

Check out our 6 Smart Tips to awaken your competitive edge!

Free Evaluation

Take our free evaluation and test your mental toughness, get an assessment of how mentally competitive you are and what you need to improve!

Important Links

BLOG Archives

Overcoming Anxiety & Panic

It’s estimated that almost 1-2 percent of the general population will experience an anxiety attack in any given year and 5 percent of the population will experience an anxiety episode at some point in their life. In recent years several professional athletes have spoken to the media about their challenges with anxiety/panic disorders. NFL Philadelphia Eagles offensive line-man Brandon Brooks, NBA Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love, and ATP player Mardy Fish, have shared their experience with this mental health issue.

Elizabeth McMahon, PhD is a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people overcome anxiety related issues. Dr. McMahon has been practicing for over forty years. Since 2010 she has incorporated Virtual Reality technology as a tool and works with the National Mental Health Innovation Center to improve treatment options for anxiety.

SZ: What were the deciding factors for you to become a specialist in helping people with anxiety?

EM: During my first years in practice, I treated pretty much everything, but as I kept reading the professional journals, I was struck by the growing evidence of effective treatment for anxiety. The more I read, the more interested  I became, until I ended up specializing. It is so exciting because overcoming panic and anxiety changes a person’s life.

SZ: Have there been break throughs in the last few years that make treatment easier or provide faster relief and healing for clients?

EM: Absolutely. The biggest, most exciting breakthrough is Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT). Combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), VR makes learning and practicing anxiety management easier and more engaging. In VR, clients can face their fears gradually in a controlled, individualized fashion, in the privacy of the therapy office with therapist guidance and support. Facing and overcoming  fears is less scary, more acceptable, and very, very effective.

SZ: In your recently published book “Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide”, you simplify for the reader the two areas of the brain most involved in creating and overcoming panic. Can you give a short explanation of how the Reacting brain and the Thinking brain work in panic?

Self help guide to understanding triggers and patterns of anxiety.

EM: The Reacting Brain is left over from caveman days. It automatically triggers panic when it thinks you face some kind of danger.  It prepares you physically to run or fight and it sends a message of “DANGER!!!” so you focus on finding the threat. This is a life-saving response our minds and bodies are built to have – but it has one big drawback. The drawback is that things other than actual danger can trigger the Reacting Brain. For example unrealistic expectations of yourself, self-criticism, stress, or bad past experiences can trigger this response when you don’t need it.

I think of the Reacting Brain as a Devoted, but Dumb, bodyguard. it is well-intentioned and has fast reflexes – but it is rather stupid!

The Thinking Brain, on the other hand, is Smarter, but Slower. It is conscious, verbal, and logical. The Thinking Brain is what you use to evaluate the situation realistically. You use your Thinking Brain to decide what to do based – not your child-like primitive brain. The more you use the Thinking Brain, the more it calms down the Reacting Brain.

SZ: How are symptoms of worry differentiated from being nervous, or panicked?

EM: Worry, nervousness, and panic are all forms of anxiety. They just differ in intensity and immediacy.

Worry is more focused on the future. Examples of worries are: “What if I mess up?”, “What if I let the team down?”, “What if I am so anxious I can’t play?”, “What if I have a panic attack?”. Worry can range from mild to very distressing. Panic has a more immediate focus. Examples of panic thoughts are: “I can’t breathe!”, “I can’t think!”, “Any minute now I might throw up, or pass out, or go crazy!”, “I am out of control!” The fear is more intense. The danger seems more immediate. Nervousness can fall anywhere in the middle. Worry, nervousness, and panic are all anxiety. Understanding anxiety helps you know what to do – no matter what form your anxiety takes.

SZ: Is there an increased challenge working with 12-20 year old clients as the area of the brain that provides self control on the whole doesn’t communicate well yet with the part of the brain that controls fight or flight.

EM: The higher levels of the brain continue to develop into the mid- or late-20s, so it is true that the Thinking Brain is less developed. At the same time, the Thinking Brain does exist and the more clients use it, the stronger it gets. It may be especially important for 12-20 year old clients to understand that they can do things to strengthen their Thinking Brain. This is why learning about anxiety is so important. Dr. Charlotte Tilson, a child and adolescent psychologist, and I are creating a version of Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide for teens and young adults. We hope to finish and publish this book by mid-late 2020.

SZ: What is your advice to a person thinking about taking first steps to overcome their anxiety/panic cycle?

EM: First of all, congratulations. You can feel very hopeful. We understand how anxiety works and how to make it less of a problem. Learn what is happening and how to break the cycle. Remember that the Reacting Brain is just trying to help, but it is not very bright so don’t automatically believe the anxious thoughts. Use your rational Thinking Brain to question and re-evaluate your fears.

If you have Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide, start with the first section. It will help you map out your personal anxiety cycle. Then follow the step-by-step process to break free.

SZ: Dr. McMahon thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. You’ve written a very user friendly book to help people start to understand and manage the natural process of anxiety, identify individual triggers and how to calm down the chain of reactions when the Reacting brain is set in flight.

Comments are closed.