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Skipping the Rabbit Hole: choosing a path away from catastrophic thinking and panic

I love the story of Alice in Wonderland, probably because I can relate to it so well. Alice chases the white rabbit through the rabbit hole and lands in Wonderland. A mysterious and strange land where generally nothing works out the way it should, and Alice never follows her own advice. She meets interesting characters to say the least, is faced with bizarre situations and even faces the penalty of death before escaping to where she had always been, lying under a tree safe from any actual harm, in a world that generally makes sense.

This is an analogy I often use when working with people who are living with anxiety and panic. Our minds, if we choose to let it, will take us down the rabbit hole every time. I have been living with anxiety for most of my life. When I was young I was told I had an active imagination and indeed I did. I could dream up any story in a way that felt so real that often times reality and imagination melted into one. As a young adult my imagination became something of fear, always following the white rabbit to the worst case scenario. In counseling we often refer to this as catastrophic thinking. And I, like many others with anxiety and panic know all too well the emotional and physical impact that this journey has on our minds and bodies.

So there it is, it happens and people who have a pattern of catastrophic thinking find it incredibly difficult if not impossible to not follow that thought or the white rabbit as the case may be, into their deepest fears, real or imagined. We are often told by people who love and support us, to stop doing it, that everything is fine, there is nothing to worry about, you are safe, you healthy, you are…you are… you are. The rational portion of our brains knows that we are actually okay, however, the part of the brain that protects us and ignites the fight, flight or freeze mechanism doesn’t get the message. All it knows is that there is danger lurking around every corner in the macabre wonderland that we have created. We say these things to people because we want to help them be calm, eliminate undue fear, and to sustain our own beliefs that we are safe. And to all of those supportive people, I say thank you, I love you and now don’t think of a pink elephant. You can’t, because even as you sit and say to yourself, “don’t think of a pink elephant”, you are in fact thinking about not thinking about the pink elephant. It is still there in your mind, even though you are trying hard to remove it.

For those of us who frequent our own wonderland, we can say, “don’t think about this”. However, the thought is still there, and we try to fight it or run away from it or freeze in absolute terror. So, what do we do? It is so tempting and easy to chase that white rabbit wherever it may go and face endless battles of terrifying images and possibilities, no matter how impossible it may seem.

We need to see the white rabbit, recognize it for what it is, and ask ourselves are we ready for Wonderland. This gives us the control and permission to make a decision about the next step in our journey. Sometimes the answer is yes, because though in a panic with hearts racing pumping what feels like air into our veins, we can find a sort of comfort, because we know this land and the endless anxiety that awaits. When asked to not follow our thoughts, we are asking ourselves to change. And as humans we do not like change and often times do everything in our power to keep things exactly the same, we yearn for homeostasis, even if it is harmful to us.

However, if we want to skip these adventures in Wonderland we have to choose to change even if it is uncomfortable, frightening in its own way, and completely unknown. We have to choose to recognize our thinking for what it is, use whatever healthy methods we have in coping with the strange anxiety that comes from not chasing the white rabbit. Either way, we will be anxious, but the difference is, once we practice allowing the thoughts to run by, and not jumping at the opportunity to hold on to them, judge them, follow them, or force ourselves to just no think about it, we get better at it.

It takes a lot of practice and even after years, we may find ourselves in Wonderland, less frequently and less intensely but the possibility is there. However, if we use tools like journaling, meditation, guided imagery, counseling, cued muscle relaxation and whatever works for you that is good for your body and mind, we will have a map on how to get back to the place where we are lying under that tree, safe, and in a world that generally makes sense, well more sense than Wonderland.

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