I am a former “sufferer.” Sufferer is a term that David Johnson uses to describe people that experience panic and anxiety. David is a former sufferer and has a clinic in New Zealand to help people that suffer from anxiety and panic attacks.
From the time when I was in my twenties until five or six years ago, I suffered from panic attacks.
Out of the blue, I would feel dizzy. My heart would race. I would feel like I was going to pass out. In a few seconds, I would panic. It was like I had been hit by lightning, but on a day with clear blue skies. I would worry that this feeling would never leave me and I feared that I was going crazy (whatever that meant). After a few minutes (that felt more like hours or days), I would start to calm down and would eventually feel a bit normal. Badly shaken, but normal. After an episode, I would wait in fear for the next attack to come.
I am transgender. For many years, I hid and suppressed my gender incongruities. I tried to be a guy, but that wasn’t me. I did not realize the emotional toll that hiding and suppressing took on me until I started to feel relief as I started to transition. I felt like my inner workings had been wound way too tightly. As I became more comfortable as a woman, I felt like the spring was slowly loosening. All the parts were beginning to work in harmony.
I think the stress caused by trying to be someone I wasn’t contributed to my anxiety and panic problems. Constant stress is not good for you. A nervous system that is tense and constantly at the ready is a nervous system that can overreact to any stimulus. If someone with a gun jumps out of a bush in front of you, your head will feel light, you may go numb, you’ll feel terrified and you will probably fight or run. If you survive, you’ll probably still “feel” nervous for a while after the danger has passed. It would be similar if you get a call that you’ve won the lottery. You might go “weak in the knees” and may even pass out. The feelings will probably be even more exaggerated if you were already feeling nervous.
When I had anxiety and panic, these feelings were always with me.
When I sought counseling because I am transgender, my therapist noticed how nervous I was. But I wasn’t nervous about dressing as a female or transitioning; I was just nervous. She suggested that I look up David’s program. She said that she could more effectively help me with my gender struggles when I got my anxiety under control.
I checked out the program. It is several hours of audio divided into two parts. In the first section, David describes what happens in your body when you have anxiety or panic. He described symptom after symptom and showed how the physical systems are related to panic and anxiety. The second part of the program helps with how to reduce and eliminate exaggerated anxiety and panic.
In the program, David spoke of dealing with the “What-If-Twins”: “What If This” and “What If That.” When something happens to a sufferer, they often add what is called "second fear," the fear that comes after the first fearful thought or feeling. The What-If-Twins discussion helped me realize how much I was focused on “What If.”
I was adding second fear and making things worse. What if the panic never goes away? What if I panic when I am in front of a group or at a client? What if I pass out? What if there is really something wrong with me? What if I am dying? And on and on and on.
The What-If-Twins were constantly with me, and I never even realized it.
When I was in a nervous state, my mind worked overtime conjuring up all the terrible things that might be in store for me. Sleep provided little relief, because when I was sleeping, my unconscious mind was being fed by my exaggerated nervous system and I’d often wake up in a panic, my stomach in a knot.
In order to help me remember the “What-If-Twins” I bought two mark-able dolls to remind me how the Twins were messing with me. I tried to make them as funny looking as possible so when I had a What-If thought, I’d look at the dolls, chuckle and remember that I needed to change my thinking and rid myself of those not so dangerous What-If-Twins. The picture above is of my silly looking nemeses.
When I’d start to have “a thought” I would look at the Twins, smile and remember to practice what I had learned about panic and anxiety. I practiced not adding second fear. After a lot of work, I started to reduce unnecessary nervous tension and I learned how to deal with physical symptoms and panic. I am now a former sufferer. I have some fear and anxiety like everyone, but I am no longer afraid of fear. Even though I have recovered, I am not rid of the What-If-Twins.
While the Twins no longer bother me, I know they still terrify other people.
I also know the What-If-Twins are at play when some people think about, interact with, and judge LGBT people. During the fight that eventually led to marriage equality in the United States, some (and especially the Religious Right) argued, "If same sex couples are allowed to marry, will 'traditional' marriage survive?"
"If same sex couples are allowed to marry, will everyone turn gay?" (I still don’t understand that one!) "How will the children react if they see a same sex couple in public?" "Will society disappear because there are gay people?"
It is similar with Transgender people: "If a transgender person has to pee, won’t that endanger 'real' women?" Though, I always thought it was ironic that they never worry about the health and safety of trans women, and they never even mention trans guys. “If a transgender person is allowed to use the bathroom that matches his or her (some would say 'it's') gender identity, what is to stop a sexual predator from putting on a dress to pretend that he is a woman?"
I’ve already shared my thoughts through song on this made-up bathroom issue, but my point is that this argument is caused by exaggerated "What-If-This" and "What-If-That" thinking.
In my experience, if you respond to every perceived fear by summoning the What-If-Twins, you will become consumed by fear.
And people that are consumed by fear sometimes share that fear so they can scare other people. Many anti-LGBT advocates and religious spokespersons quickly go to the What-If-Twins to spread fear and rhetoric that harms LGBT people. A particularly effective tool is that they may bring the What-If-Twins into the discussion related to children: “What will happen if children have two fathers or two mothers?” “What if a transgender person is in the bathroom with children?” When fear is emphasized, then logic drops out of sight.
So my question is this: are people who work against LGBT people afraid, and under the influence of the horrible “What-If-Twins”? Or are they just misguided bigots looking for a way to hurt LGBT people?
On the flip side—since Trump/Pence have been elected to lead the United States, the What-If Twins are crawling over LGBT people, our allies, and so many others. "What if they reverse our rights?" "What if they change these laws?" "Will people start attacking me, my friends, or my communities" In fact, we know the backlash against people who are different is already happening across the country.
I've found that when I'm overwhelmed with fear, it is most helpful to be aware of the What-If-Twins. I ask myself—am I thinking "What-If-This" or "What-If-That?" In these moments, I am more effective when I separate, as best I can, real threats from imagined fears.
I know that when I focus more on reality and less on the What-If-Twins, I'm less nervous and more effective in whatever I do.
And I believe we must separate the real from the imagined in order to be timely and effective in our work to protect and affirm ALL people.
I am not reimbursed in any way for sharing the anti-anxiety program information, but I try to help sufferers whenever I get the chance. You can find information here.
Photo via JJ Gufreda