There is probably no more disturbing or unsettling experience that one can have in life worse than a panic attack. A panic attack is a period of intense and out of control fear or anxiety that is accompanied by racing heart, dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, and the feeling that one is losing their mind. This horrifying experience lasts anywhere from a couple of minutes to a few hours. If you ever experience these, or witnessed someone having one, you know how terrifying that it can be. While I have written numerous articles about how to cope with anxiety, this article is about a simple action that each of us does multiple times per day that can disrupt the chain of cognitive and behavioral events that we call a panic attack. This simple action also interrupts less destructive emotional reactions, such as anger, confusion, frustration, and milder forms of panic. The action? Take a drink of water.
David Grossman is an American author and psychologist who specializes in the psychology of killing and post traumatic stress disorder. He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army, a former psychology teacher at West Point, and the author of two books on the subjects, “On Killing,” and “On Combat.” He is also a former Army Ranger and parachute infantryman. Although he readily admits that he is not a psychotherapist, his resume indicates that if he is talking about the subject of anxiety and panic, those who experienced these emotions probably ought to listen.
Grossman teaches that post traumatic stress is the linking up of a memory with an emotion. The memory, if not properly processed, reoccurs and triggers the same disturbing feelings that the original event had. The memory triggers a feeling that one is literally back confronting the troubling event. There are many behavioral strategies that have been used with a fair degree of effectiveness to bring these feelings under control, the most used one being to stop and take a few deep breaths. In the debriefing of hundreds of first responders, Grossman has found that asking them to take a drink of water is more effective. He admits that he has no solid research supporting the utility of this, but swears by the technique and says that he’s never failed to see it work.
In Neurolinguistic Programing there is a behavioral strategy called the Pattern Interrupt, where a person in a feedback loop of repetitive behaviors or thoughts is pulled out of that pattern by something unexpected. Asking them to do something that makes no sense in the context of what they’re experiencing is often enough to break the pattern. Something unexpected and non-threatening is presented to the person and their pattern is broken. You’ve probably done this instinctively when you’ve got someone to laugh during an argument, ending the argument. Grossman’s take a drink of water strategy is brilliant in its simplicity. He argues that taking a drink of water triggers a response that everything is going to be okay, as taking a drink of water is necessary for the survival of all animals, including humans. “If a deer is being chased by a wolf and it becomes thirsty,” Grossman says, “does it stop for a drink of water? No! It doesn’t want to get killed! When the threat is over, then it will stop for that drink.” By stopping for that drink of water a person’s brain receives the signal that the threat is over, I am not experiencing it now, and I am safe. He also notes that it is impossible to take a drink without taking a deep breath. He says, “The act of drinking sends a message to the midbrain that things are going to be okay. Separating the memory from the emotion is the path to healing.”
Grossman has used this strategy and others to debrief thousands of first responders who have witnessed horrific events over the past 20 years. He is often called in as the expert to debrief police, firefighters, and soldiers. He believes that the increase in instances off PTSD among American military personnel is because of modern technology and the way that soldiers are so quickly reintegrated into society after being exposed to trauma. “A soldier can be killing someone in Afghanistan and back in the United States within two days,” Grossman says, “this does not give him time to process and separate his emotions from the events. Until 100 years ago, soldiers had weeks and even months to process traumatic events during the long march back to their homes. They had evenings of eating and drinking around a campfire to process with their comrades what they had been through. When they got emotional during these discussions, they processed and took a drink, separating the events from their emotions.” These weeks and perhaps months, Grossman asserts, are necessary to appropriately debrief one who has been exposed to trauma.
Certainly the treatment of PTSD is far more complicated than this, but Grossman’s research provides some solid advice for all of us. Whenever we are in a pattern of destructive thinking that leads to feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, or any other emotion where we are engaging in repetitive thinking or behavioral patterns, it makes sense to stop and change those patterns. We can stop and take a breath, remove ourselves from the situation by taking a walk, or disengage in order to regroup. Grossman’s strategy is brilliant in its simplicity, particularly if you are trying to calm down someone else. Asking someone to “take a drink of water” may be enough to return them to more rational ways of thinking. Grossman calls this strategy “just a tool to have in your toolbox” of coping strategies. It is by no means a solution to extreme anxiety, panic, or PTSD. It is, however, a simple tool to keep in mind to help yourself or others regain control.
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