Jeff Breece explains the concept of disaster thinking and shares 6 tips to walk away from it.
A few years ago, I had a heart attack, which led me to struggle with anxiety and depression. Since then, I have spent a lot of time and effort building coping strategies. This included working with mental health care professionals.
My panic attacks can be triggered by the mere thought that I am having a symptom of a heart attack. It may take hours, sometimes even days, to regain my equilibrium. That's my "normal."
But when the global pandemic burned through the world, destroying lives and livelihoods in its wake, nothing was "normal," We're still catching up to this day.
Panic, it seems, has found us all.
This post is about the skills and tools I've built to manage my cardiac anxiety. These techniques served me well over the coronavirus disaster, and I'm still using them now.
There was a moment when I was in the hospital with chest pains, the day before my heart attack, when I was in denial that anything was wrong. I remember talking to a nurse about my plans for the next day and through the week at work, and she stopped, looked me in the eye, and said: "You are looking way too far ahead right now.”
She meant for me to focus on the immediacy of not just the situation I found myself in but to scope my worldview to a single 24-hour period. That was my first lesson in changing my perspective. One that led me to later understand the concept of disaster thinking and how to walk away from it.
Disaster thinking is when you fully expect the worst possible outcome to come to light. It feels like something inevitable that can't be escaped. But when you scope your time to smaller increments and use inversion, you can gradually pull away from it.
What that looks like for me is compacting my routine to a single day. Using this daily schedule, I can move from hour to hour, knowing what comes next. This helps with the uncertainty of what a disaster would actually present.
When I hear a statistic, like, "people who have had a heart attack are at a 25% higher risk of a second event," I invert it. Inverting it means 75% don't. I'm purposely taking a "what can go right" view of the world by actively envisioning it.
The following items are in my toolbox to manage disaster thinking and focus on the here and now:
This does not have to be anything heroic or gladiator-style. All you need to do is follow the guidelines like taking a walk every day, doing X number of steps, or climbing stairs. For me, it's running, lifting some dumbbells, riding my exercise bike, and doing a yoga session every week.
No gym? No problem. Use what you have.
Now, this was something I really struggled with. I used to be a traditional guy – not someone warm and cuddly... Meditation just seemed, well, too soft. But I read it can help with survival in addition to reducing anxiety.
I now do this every day. Sitting on the floor, or wherever, listening to my breath, letting my brain go haywire, but always coming back to the breath. That's how I practice meditation. Over time, it has helped me take my focus off the raging fire life can be sometimes and onto calmer scenarios.
Practice mindfulness techniques to help reduce anxiety.
Again, this was not one of my fortes in the past. But working with a therapist over the past five years has helped me with this. I had to learn how to become vulnerable and open – not only with my other male friends but with female ones.
I found that some of my friendships had withered from neglect. It took time to grow them back to health, but it was entirely worth it. During the pandemic and self-isolation, re-booting old friendships was my lifeline.
All you have to do is pick up the phone and reach out to someone. Listen to what they say with compassion, empathy, and honesty. That's all it takes. As with meditation, we tend to get better at actively listening with practice.
This is another tough one but completely worth it. Even now, there are options for online counseling out there. Some are free. Others are not. Regardless, having the courage to admit you need help is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
When I started working with my first doctor, I had to get comfortable with talking about my emotions and being open with my feelings. I didn't want to at first, but over time it got easier. Now, instead of bottling things up, I am more prone to talk with someone than I used to be. It helps.
I spoke about this one earlier. I do this by narrowing my focus on my routine. At one point, I even made a color-coded schedule for myself with markers on my calendar. It helps when your brain is overwhelmed.
I was experiencing pure uncertainty after being released from the hospital after my heart attack. My whole life changed in two weeks.
The same principle of reducing your focus to the here and now works for times like these. Your routine might include getting up, showering, making coffee, getting dressed, reading emails, and so on… Just keep doing that. Do it with focus. It will help to give you a sense of continuity and normalcy even when you find yourself in alien territory.
Using supermarket pickup and reducing risk for essential workers.
This is another thing that sounds simple. But when you bolt awake in the middle of the night, terrified of chest pains, being unemployed, or getting sick, that's when it gets tricky.
I usually do my meditation before bed to slow down my breathing and heart rate. It helps set the mood, so to speak. I also don't bring my phone to bed or use my computer after 9 p.m. This reduces my exposure to blue light, which allegedly wreaks havoc on our ability to sleep.
People who work from home - put away the office stuff when the “shift” is over!
Again, a combination of little things set up as a routine helps you gradually improve your quality of life. I used to sleep between four and five hours a night.
Now my watch tells me I am averaging seven to eight hours a night with a good balance between deep, light, and REM sleep. I also found that my heart rate lowered as my sleep health improved.
We owe it to ourselves not to give up hope. Whether it’s after a heart attack or during a global disaster. We can choose to allow things to overwhelm us, or we can choose to take control back. To take ownership of our lives, so to speak. Is it hard work? It can be. Is it worth it? Most definitely.
Find what works for you by analyzing your life in terms of a single day. Keep your routine and your balance. Start small and make changes only as you can do so. There is no rush in any of this. Over time, you will feel more grounded, as I have, and life will resume with less fear and more fulfillment.
Good luck, everyone. Even in the darkest hours, don't give up hope.
The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen.