Phase 4 - Compensating Keeps Us Anxious and Phobic
Panic attacks can become highly recurrent and disabling forms of anxiety. Like other types of disordered anxiety they are aggravated and sustained by compensatory coping modes and their conditional assumptions. As a child Yasuko lived with her father and mother in a rather well to do neighborhood near San Francisco. Yasuko’s misfortune was that her father abandoned her and her mother when they refused to join a religious sect that he converted to. The crisis was not well handled by her mother who became an alarmist fearing that Yasuko too would leave her. Her mother suggested to the impressionable Yasuko that their lifestyle was perilously close to ruin. They might end up homeless and in the street if self-control was lost. Yasuko’s mother incited her to rigidly maintain control of her mind and to avoid thinking of spiritual things or religion.
Yasuko developed a vulnerability schema. The child was overwhelmed emotionally and helpless to do anything about the crisis. There was no emotional comfort from her mother who would regularly “catastrophize” their circumstances. Yasuko reacted to the lingering peril by attempting to control her mind and her environment. Her conditional assumption was: “If I can maintain perfect control, I’ll be OK. If I can’t maintain perfect control, then I’m not OK.”
The panic attacks that troubled her in her twenties took the form of vertigo, fear of losing balance or collapsing. Yasuko never actually fell, she simply was afraid of falling. Ironically the symptoms echoed her childhood fears that her familiar world would collapse. Losing control meant “collapsing” when Yasuko was a youngster. It meant the same thing again as a young adult suffering from panic disorder. The successful treatment of her panic disorder included regularly facing her fears by trying her legs, getting out to work and exposing herself to religious activities. However, it also included relinquishing her compensatory style of coping, which was driven by her fears. By the time she was a young adult, being overly self-controlled was an entrenched way of being. Thus, instead of using control, Yasuko had to learn a new way of coping.
Compensatory coping is antithetical to inquiry. It “runs” from what we fear while inquiry moves towards it. Since the disordered experience is fearful by nature, a degree of courage is necessary to actually work with it. Choosing to work on something as unpleasant as anxiety requires motivation. We may need to be sufficiently sick and tired of this affliction to turn our full resources to it. Not all of us may be ready to do this. We must interrupt the same coping modes we used to help us deal with our fears. We may have become highly attached to motives and ways of being that actually sustain our disordered anxiety. Cherished values like “being right,” “controlling,” being exceptional, or “looking good” will need to be subordinated to the supreme value of inner peace. The practice of inner peace is associated with both the radical acceptance of our mental experience and the reduction of being judgmental. Inner peace entails a suspension of the judgment implicit in our compensatory coping behavior. Mindfulness provides us a way to that end.