Full text of Colin Bien’s talk titled “Breaking the Loop of Anxiety” at TEDxLeuphanaUniversityLüneburg conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Colin Bien – Founder of True Fabrics
This is a cycle. You may have heard about it. Some people also call it a loop or a circle. This geometrical figure tends to appear almost anywhere in the physical world but they also appear in our minds for better or worse.
Four years ago, I experienced something that changed my life dramatically. I remember it was a snowy day and I was attending a workshop for an international conference in Beijing. And all of a sudden, this weird feeling catches my attention. I couldn’t breathe. I mean, I was technically able to breathe but it felt that there wasn’t enough oxygen in the air.
So, I ran outside and I grabbed some snow, I shoveled it into my face but it would immediately melt because I was on fire and I was burning from the inside. And this was my first panic attack.
In Germany, 14% to 15% of all adults suffer from a panic disorder once in their life, and this is often due to a lot of stress.
Now, stress can come from many different sources but it’s often our job that produces the bulk of it. Although, that we know that stress is not good, it seems to be a good thing for a lot of people. Being stressed is better than being bored, being busy seems to be better than being productive. And doing a thousand things a time is better than just one.
We are constantly trying to be better, faster and stronger. It feels that we are restless, and the more I talked about that with friends, the more I realized how common feelings of exhaustion, purposeless and not getting anywhere are. It feels that we are all being trapped in a hamster wheel on our pursuit to happiness. And the common attitude is if we only work enough then we become more happy, but we are wrong.
Science shows us it’s actually the other way around. Ignoring that, we keep on accelerating in this hamster wheel. Although, everybody knows what happens if you run too fast in here. Right, you fall out. And this falling out, it can take the shape of a depression, of a burnout or like in my case, a panic disorder.
I really suffered bad over the course of three years from those attacks but today, I not only haven’t had a panic attack more than a year, I also managed to become less stressed, physically healthy and even happier. And this is not only due to a behavioral therapy I did but a discovery I made that made it significantly easier for me to find the way to my inner balance and be less stressed.
But let’s start from the beginning.
Now, the route to my inner balance was forming new routines and the key to my recovery was to find out how to influence in depth and change them. And I’m not talking about single routines here to gain muscle mass, to floss your teeth or to water your flowers but to enrich your life with a new sum, with a full sum of new routines that work on you.
I’m talking about breaking out of bad loops and implementing good ones that have a positive effect on you. And I see routines only in the first place as a tool to overcome panic but in a more broader sense as an opportunity to create less stress. And now, let’s start from the beginning because it’s essential that you understand what happens if an attack hits you.
You typically realize them through a combination of three things: uncomfortable physical feelings, upsetting thoughts and distressing emotions.
Now, you start to perceive those feelings as a threat, which leads to anxiety and that usually marks the beginning of an attack. In this stage of anxiety, those physical symptoms start to intensify and they actually trigger fearful thoughts such as I’m losing my mind, I’m going to go crazy or I will die in the next minute. And this in turn, can lead to an increased feeling of anxiety again and the vicious circle starts to evolve.
Now, given how frightening these feelings can be, it’s not uncommon for panic attack sufferers to actually fear the onset of a future attack. People with panic disorder therefore often change their behavior in respond to the fear of fear.
For instance, you may avoid certain places or certain situations you believe could bring on a panic attack, but unfortunately, those short routines, they only ease the anxiety in the short run but they actually lead to more long lasting fears. And that is exactly what happened to me in the first couple of years of my disorder.
And let me give you a few examples and let me show you these examples in a two dimensional way, one being the intensity of an attack and one being the time they last.
So, first of all, I got some pills from my doctor and even though, I never used them, I would always carry them around. So, just in case, I get an attack, I could use them. This is called a security signal and it’s likely that it lowers your panic like shown in this graph here.
I tried other things too like calling my mom in the middle of an attack, which is an attempt to escape, likely leaving you with a panic shape looking like this one with high returning peaks. At last, I would isolate each thought I had during an attack, write it down and see how they feel. This is a deflection and it really calms you down for a minute but as soon as you stop, intensity goes up again, leaving you with a shape like this one here.
So, all these routines, they had a certain effect on me but they didn’t help to overcome the panic in the long run. Then, in the therapy, I learned this: The key to get out of those routines was not to avoid them or to flee or to distract myself but to acknowledge and to accept them.
I know this sounds like a no brainer and it’s somehow annoying if somebody tells you, you got to accept your attacks but in the moment, I realized what that meant. It had a huge impact on me.
And as soon as you start to accept, you can actually start to change the reaction to an attack. Now, the more you do that, the more you get used to it and you ultimately end up with shorter, lesser intense attacks.
So, all I did was changing one step in this loop and by that, I broke the vicious circle and created a virtuous circle. And I would realize when I would enter these circles, what the triggers were. For me, a physical routine like dizziness sucked me into that downward spiral that puts you straight into hell. For other people, this might be a certain social situation, an uncomfortable thought or just in temptation.
And then finally, it dawned on me that each attack, I would follow the circular pattern, which constantly repeats, realizing that these loops somehow appeared in a systematic sequence of trigger action and routine, made me realize how to better influence them, how to change them and how to control them.
And not only that, I discovered that I could use those patterns and apply it to different habits in my life. And by that, I established all different kind of routines. Checked them and see how they would affect me, for example, I stopped drinking coffee for over a year, I stopped drinking alcohol for more than six months, I stopped smoking, I started running. I actually just ran my first marathon and most of the exercises were happening at 6:30 in the morning.
Health and nutrition, I started to eat fruits and yogurts instead of toast and croissants. And I also stopped to eat carbs for more than six months.
So, today, I first must have to take breaks. I also implemented a decent timetable, a time management and project management system that lets me set goals every day, reflect on them on a weekly basis and see my progress throughout the weeks.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that eating less croissants and more fruits ultimately leads to a less stressed feeling but the sum of all those routines truly made my life less stressed.
Now, of course, I wasn’t the only one who found out about that. The pattern I just described is commonly known as the Habit Loop. It’s a broadly accepted heuristic firstly discovered by BJ Fogg and more recently used by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit.
In theory, a trigger starts a routine. Let’s say, me desperately looking for a hot energizing drink in the morning. So, I would walk into my kitchen to make a cup of coffee but instead of a coffee I would make a tea, which is the actual routine. And as a result, I would feel that the tea does the exact same thing the coffee would have done. I’m energized and after a while, I wouldn’t even bother about having a coffee anymore.
So, although, I think this is a really nice routine and it explains a lot of habits and routines, I think it’s somehow missing something. The explanatory power comes from the trigger reward system but it leaves a gap on what it takes on an individual level.
Thinking about that made me realize that there are three, let’s call them, individual attributes, I would name to successfully implement a new routine. And let’s have a look at them.
Discipline, in terms of self-discipline regulation to a certain goal or rule. Motivation, in terms of the emotional and neuronal activity in pursuing that goal and seeing the benefit of it. And Continuity, in terms of being able what you want to do over a long amount of time.
Now, where all those three come together, I think it is more likely for you to really establish a new routine, but if you lack one of them things can get quite difficult and let me explain you why.
Let’s say we want to become a vegetarian and stop eating meat. So, if you have the discipline and the motivation but the lack of continuity, then you will probably start but only over a short amount of time. Whereas if you have the continuity and the discipline but the lack of motivation, then you have a lot of potential to start but you probably won’t because you’re not seeing the benefit out of it.
And if you have a lack of discipline, you will probably start but you end up with not eating meat three out of seven days. So, you won’t totally stop.
Now, my panic disorder was one of those seismic events in life, where you actually have a before and an after. And I made these hidden psychological processes and automatisms visible and by that I was able to break out of bad loops and create good new routines and find the way to my inner balance.
Some of these routines, they stuck with me and others vanished, but that’s okay. I would love to give you a step by step recipe to tell you what you have to do to do the same but it’s up to you to find the right combination of what works and what doesn’t.
Stress is really subjective. If you’re telling yourself you’re stressed or if you’re actually suffering from an enormous amount of stress, it has the same consequences. And if it’s ‘stop drinking coffee, watering your flowers or meditating for fifty minutes each day’ that makes you a lesser stressed and happier person, that’s up to you.
Now, I could only touch the surface here of what it means to overcome a panic attack and what it means to establish new routines. But it is my deep hope that you have learned a thing or two today on how to break out of bad ones and how to create good ones.
Whether it’s the hamster wheel or the vicious circle of anxiety, most of us have been trapped in one of these loops. If you constantly seek to change yourself, it might become a new routine.