Anxiety and excitement are virtually the same emotion. The physiological changes that occur in the nervous system when we’re either anxious or excited - palpitations, sweating, trembling, quickened breathing, butterflies - are almost identical.
Why, then, do these experiences feel so different? The reason has to do with the meaning we give the sensations in the body from one condition to the next. These meanings are called ‘arousal appraisals.’ They
’re subjective stories we construct about the sensations in our bodies. If we tell a different story about the same sensations in our body, we can change the experience from painful to pleasurable, uncomfortable to comfortable, negative to positive.
Consider how we may get butterflies in our stomach when we’re really excited. Because we tell ourselves we’re excited, the butterflies signal something positive and they feel good. However, if we tell ourselves we’re anxious and judge the butterflies in our stomach as a signal that something bad is happening, they feel dreadful - more like scorpions! Apparently there are ‘good’ butterflies and ‘bad’ butterflies.
What this illustrates is that we have a great deal more agency over our experiences than we realise. If we attach a different meaning to our physical discomfort, amazingly, we can radically transform our experience.
Some people become exceptionally adept at reinterpreting the anxious sensations in their bodies to the point that they actually enjoy them. Anxiety and excitement are opposite sides of the same coin, and these people have learnt to ‘flip the coin’ to excitement, to the extent that they actually crave feeling the very sensations that would terrify most people!
Adrenaline junkies are positively addicted to the rush of cortisol and adrenaline that cascades through their bodies. When they experience palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, derealization, trembling and sweating, they never feel more alive.
This is why they perform death defying feats. The prospect of danger is exhilarating. It’s not that they love jumping off cliffs in wingsuits per se: they love the way this makes them feel. They’re after a certain quality of emotional experience (as we all are whenever we do anything).
Now I’m not suggesting you become an adrenaline junkie (although sky diving would be great exposure for fear of heights!), but we have much to learn from these ‘Zen Masters of anxiety’ about coping with panic. Imagine if you, too, could learn to quickly flip the coin from panic to excitement? For starters,
you would never fear having another panic attack again. You wouldn’t even call it a panic attack anymore. You’d call it an adrenaline rush, and it would make you feel alive.
Well, I’m here to tell you that all of this is possible. Genetic differences aside, you have the same basic hardware in your nervous system as any adrenaline junkie. Your brain also has the potential to recondition anxiety into excitement.
To practice ‘flipping the coin’ from anxiety to excitement during a panic attack, begin saying to yourself, over and over:
“I’m excited right now. I’m so excited right now. I’ve never felt more alive. I wish I could have more of these sensations. This is such a rush.” Use your body to help you do this: breathe deeper, stand up straight, throw your shoulders back, and lift your head as you say it. Shout it. Sing it. Do whatever you need to do.
If this is the meaning you attach to the uncomfortable sensations in your body, your experience will change. You won’t believe how quickly and powerfully you can find relief (and dare I say, enjoyment, some day!) from the very sensations that used to terrify you. This is what step 3 - Lean In - is ultimately about: flipping the valence from anxiety to excitement.
Your thoughts have immense power. You can alter your emotional experience by consciously choosing to interpret your panic sensations in a completely different way. How much more freedom we have than we realise! The mind truly is its own place, making a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.
I’m not suggesting that saying this once while you’re panicking will transform your experience from anxiety to excitement. Remember, we need to recondition ourselves by saying this every time it happens. You don’t need to fully believe the reappraisal. It still works. You’ll be astonished at how effective it is. At the very least, your experience will change. It won’t look and feel like the dreadful panic you’ve always known. Trust, let go and be open. If you feel like you’re going to explode, shatter, dissolve or die, then go right ahead. Give it a try next time and see what happens.