Robert F. Mullen, PhD
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This is a draft of Chapter Nineteen– “Coping Mechanisms for Unexpected Situations” in ReChanneling’s upcoming book on moderating social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities. We present this as an opportunity for readers to share their ideas and constructive criticism – suggestions gratefully considered and evaluated as we work to ensure the most beneficial product to those with emotional dysfunction (which is all of us to some degree). Please forward your comments in the form provided below.
Coping Mechanisms for Unexpected Situations
“If you do not expect the unexpected,
you will not recognize it when it arrives.”
More sage advice from war strategist, Sun Tzu: “Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack.” In recovery, our coping strategy attacks our fears and anxieties by devising a plan that considers all contingencies. We face two combat scenarios that call for combined and distinct strategies. We engage, knowing the terrain and logistics in advance, and we defend against the surprise attack. Both demand a planned and practiced counteroffensive. Logically, our campaign is more structured when we know what to anticipate. The unexpected requires a more presumptive approach. There are effective coping mechanisms for both situations, and those more adaptable to one or the other. Chapter Twenty-One focuses on coping mechanisms for anticipated and recurring situations. This chapter focuses on those mechanisms that help us cope with the unanticipated. For that, we assemble what we will call our emergency preparedness kit.
Since adaptability is not one of our strengths, we start with workshop activities that are easier for us to handle, then work our way up to more challenging responses. This form of recovery is called Graded Exposure or systematic desensitization. We challenge our feared-situations in structured, less threatening environments before moving onto real exposure. This allows us to build up our confidence slowly by familiarizing ourselves with coping mechanisms through practice and repetition. We keep the training wheels on our bike until we have achieved the level of comfort and competence where we can ride safely with two.
An emergency preparedness kit contains essentials like food and water, first-aid items, and shelter options. It might include prescriptions, utensils, extra clothing, flashlights, a compass, blankets, and tools. We do not know, in advance, the specific nature of the emergency, so we do the best we can by preparing multiple rational options. The same theory applies to our unexpected situation. We fashion our coping mechanisms to cover the multiple contingencies.
Space is Limited
The bad news is that there are as many feared-situations as there are imaginations. From barbershops and family holidays to social events and the public swimming pool, the situations that arise in workshops are personal and distinctive. Where are we when we feel its impact? What are the specific set of circumstances – the facts, conditions, and incidents? Who or what provokes our stress? None of this is knowable in unexpected situations. The good news is there are a limited number of symptoms to consider. Social anxiety disorder offers less than a dozen. The following list is provided by the Mayo Clinic. Others vary in presentation or description, but the symptoms are the same. I have provided this list before, but there is a lot of information to digest in this book – a subtle reminder of the importance of repetition.
- Fear of situations in which we may be judged negatively
- Worry about embarrassing or humiliating ourselves
- Intense fear of interacting or talking with strangers
- Fear that others will notice that we look anxious
- Fear of physical symptoms that may cause us embarrassment, such as blushing, sweating, trembling, or having a shaky voice
- Avoidance of doing things or speaking to people out of fear of embarrassment
- Avoidance of situations where we might be the center of attention
- Anxiety in anticipation of a feared activity or event
- Intense fear or anxiety during social situations
- Analysis of our performance and identification of flaws in our interactions after a social situation
- Expectation of the worst possible consequences from a negative experience during a social situation.
This is a short list. Admittedly, the symptoms have broad implications, but when the box only has twelve crayons, there are not a lot of colors to pick from. Recognizing our symptoms is not difficult; distinguishing the triggers is challenging – the who, where, and why? Once we know those, we can associate our fears and corresponding ANTs. Even though we cannot know the specifics of an unexpected situation, we have enough information to determine the coping mechanisms best suited to accommodate and challenge the unexpected.
Coping mechanisms are designed to fulfill one or all of our three recovery objectives. Cognitive and behavioral mechanisms replace or overwhelm our life-consistent negative thoughts and behaviors with healthy ones. Positive affirmations, rational response, and other positivity techniques produce rapid, concentrated, neurological stimulation to change the polarity of our neural network. Recognizing and emphasizing our strengths, virtues, and accomplishments regenerate our self-esteem. Healthy coping mechanisms are adaptive – positive contributions to our emotional well-being.
Cortisol and adrenaline. We briefly touched on the significance of our fight-or-flight neurotransmissions. Scientists have identified over fifty of these chemical hormones in the human body. They are the messengers that control our physiological functions – our metabolism, homeostasis, and reproduction. Their distribution is precise. Even slight changes in levels can cause significant disruption to our health and emotional well-being.
Cortisol and adrenaline trigger our fight-or-flight response – our instinctive reaction to stress. Produced by our brain’s amygdala, cortisol helps to regulate our blood pressure, circadian rhythm, and digestion. Adrenaline, transmitted by our adrenal glands, causes our air passages to dilate, redirecting more oxygen to our muscles. It relieves pain and boosts our body’s immune system. When these hormones are transmitted into the bloodstream, our body experiences a heightened state of physical and mental alertness. Blood vessels contract and send blood to the heart, lungs, and other major muscle groups. Normal amounts of cortisol and adrenaline are necessary to our basic survival, and in most cases, beneficial to our overall health and physiological well-being. Conversely, in stressful situations, the sudden influx of cortisol and adrenaline contributes to the physical and emotional symptoms that aggravate our fears and anxieties.
Chronic stress induced by our SAD symptomatology causes a higher and constant neurotransmission of cortisol and adrenaline into our system. Not only does this increase the risk of health problems like heart disease and stroke, but it contributes significantly to our anxiety and depression, causing problems with memory, cognition, and sleep patterns. Coping mechanisms dramatically reduce the influx of these neurotransmissions.
Coping Mechanisms for Unexpected Situations
Some coping mechanisms are so familiar and simplistic, we tend to reject them offhand. It is important to be mindful that our social anxiety compels us to resist healthy ideas and concepts. Just as there is no one right way to do or experience personal recovery, so also what helps us at one time in our life may not help us at another. It is prudent to consider all coping skills and have them available in all situations, and then utilized the ones that bring you the most relief in a particular circumstance. As the saying goes, if you refuse to sample the items on the menu, do not blame the chef when you go hungry. Anyone successful in their recovery will tell you these coping mechanisms are clinically trusted and highly effective. The following are useful in any type of feared-situation.
I begin with Slow Talk because it is one of my favorite coping skills. One annoying symptom of our social anxiety is our fear of physical betrayal. We have the tendency, in stressful situations, to reveal our anxiety through excessive blushing, sweating, or trembling, not to mention the very real possibility of disorientation and fainting. When we engage in conversation, especially with strangers, our voice often trembles and stutters. We speak unassertively, lowering our voice to a whisper, and speaking rapidly in a subconscious effort to minimize our presence. Slow Talk alleviates this concern and is effective anywhere or anytime we feel stress in personal interaction. Speaking slowly and calmly slows our physiological responses, alleviates rapid heartbeat, and lowers our blood pressure. As an added advantage, hold back any response for roughly five seconds. That deliberate delay not only reduces the flow of cortisol and adrenaline but also makes us appear thoughtful and confident.
Small Talk is informal conversation that does not cover any functional or transactional topics. It is succinct, non-confrontational, and mundane communication that connects us with others in a stress-moderate environment. Small talk is practiced in a workshop as a part of graded exposure. This coping mechanism is an important asset to those of us who find it challenging to initiate or join a conversation.
Nerves are bundles of fibers that use electrical and chemical signals to transmit information from one body part to another. The vagus nerve is the longest in our body. It originates in the base of our brain and extends down our neck and through our diaphragm, heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It controls our heart rate and keeps our nervous system in check. Research shows that just as we proactively reconstruct our neural network, we can also prompt our vagus nerve to decrease the flow of cortisol and adrenaline and release GABA and serotonin for calm and relaxation. Scientists tell us that the simplest way to manipulate our vagus nerve is to practice controlled breathing. This abbreviated controlled breathing exercise takes roughly a minute. We can secretively perform it in a hallway or restroom without revealing our anxiety.
Place one hand on your abdomen, just above your navel, and the other hand in the center of your chest. If you are worried about being observed, eliminate the hand gestures.
- Open your mouth and exhale your breath. Allow the muscles in your upper body and shoulders to drop down and relax.
- Hold your breath for roughly six seconds.
- Slowly inhale through your nose for six seconds. Expand your stomach as you pull air in.
- Pause for a few moments – as long as is comfortable, then open your lips and gently exhale through your mouth while pulling your stomach in.
- Repeat at least five times.
Distractions and Diversions.
Distractions are stationary physical elements we identify when confronted by an unexpected feared-situation – a picture on the wall, a vase, mirror, or light fixture. Diversions are activities that fulfill the same function, e.g., becoming a greeter, dancing, or doing a survey of the guests’ reasons for attending. We establish items and preplan actions to divert our center of attention from the emotional distress of our anxiety to a physical action or mental reaction. The availability of distractions and diversions is only as limited as your imagination.
Obviously, devising distractions and diversions is easier in anticipated situations where we have some foreknowledge of the logistics. We know the locale, the agenda, and the personnel. We have the time to decide what stationery items to focus on, and what activities will work in our favor. This is not easily accomplished when we suddenly find ourselves thrust into a situation, assaulted by the rush of cortisol and adrenaline. The unanticipated emotions of our anxiety make it difficult to concentrate. It is an acquired mental process we learn through graded exposure. There are concentration exercises designed to achieve this level of spontaneous concentration. It is prudent not to go overboard on our destination and dissertations. Three of each is more than sufficient. With additional recommended coping mechanisms, we will have enough on our plate as it is.
Positive Personal Affirmations.
If we are working, assiduously, on our recovery, we have three, active PPAs in our repertoire at all times. We are repeating them throughout the day, accelerating and consolidating our neural restructuring. Utilizing them in stressful situations moderates anxiety and its physical components. It is common sense.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR).
Like controlled breathing, PMR takes less than a minute and can be performed surreptitiously in a corner of the room, a hallway, or a restroom. Each component of the exercise is held for roughly 10 seconds.
- Raise your shoulders toward your ears… tighten the muscles there. Hold. Release.
- Tighten your hands into fists. Very, very tight… as if you are squeezing a rubber ball very tightly in each hand. Hold. Release.
- Your forehead – Raise your eyebrows, feeling the tight muscles in your forehead. Hold. Now scrunch your eyes closed. Hold it. Relax.
- Your jaw – Tightly close your mouth, clamping your jaw shut. Your lips will also be tight. Hold it. Release
- Breathe in deeply through your nose. Hold it. Release the air through your mouth. Repeat at least three times.
What is the difference between PPAs and Rational Responses? Positive personal affirmations are self-motivating and empowering statements that focus on the general aspects of our condition. A rational response is situationally specific. It is designed to rebut the automatic negative thoughts that correspond to our fears and anxieties in a particular situation. They focus on those stress triggers that impact us at a particular time in a particular place.
Rational response is a mental response to an emotional challenge. When confronted by our fears and corresponding ANTs, we ask ourselves, “How logical are these fears?” “ What is the worst that can happen?”The answers to those are our rational responses.
Example: Recently promoted, Nancy is required to participate in a company strategy session. She recognizes it is a feared-situation. She is anxious because it will include her more experienced contemporaries (mostly male) who are unfamiliar. She needs to make a good impression in an alpha-male competitive environment. She fears her more knowledgeable counterparts will recognize her shortcomings, criticize her, and reject her as one of their peers. Her corresponding ANT is “I will be judged and criticized.” Her rational responses might include, “I belong here as much as anyone, “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t qualified,” and “I am equal to any person here.”
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Do not be fooled by the simplicity and familiarity of these coping mechanisms. Our first reaction is to dismiss them as unproductive because of our resistance to rational concepts and our general sense of futility. Nothing has ever worked before, why should we expect that to change? Of course, the answer is, we have been doing all the wrong things. If something feels right to a SAD person, you can count on it being counterproductive. SAD is clever and manipulative. I tell my clients, “Trust your instincts. After you’ve spent a few weeks in recovery.”
We are not limited to the coping mechanisms outlined, but it is important not to overwhelm ourselves. One of the general principles of war is simplicity. Our strategy should be clear and concise, utilizing mechanisms that are personally productive, well-practiced, and comfortable.
In Chapter Twenty-One we will focus on coping mechanisms that are geared towards moderating our fears and apprehensions of anticipated and recurring situations.
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Comments. Suggestions. Constructive Criticism.
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