Oh, and Firefighters too!
Harry Potter wasn’t raised in the Wizarding world, and so he has no clue that saying “Voldemort” is dangerous (which it isn’t, in general). And he’s actually not that afraid of Voldemort in the beginning of Book 1, either, which allows him to do and say things others can’t.
Dealing with anxiety is really similar, as we’ll see. When you have the flexibility to speak and act more freely, you can find wellness much faster. (Or conquer a Dark Lord or two.)
Anxiety shares a rare characteristic with a few other health challenges: It compounds on itself. Some health challenges don’t do this in the same way—for example, if you break your arm, realizing that you broke your arm doesn’t somehow shatter the other one suddenly. In addition, thinking or talking about breaking your arm in the future doesn’t actually start to break it again (more or less).
Yet, the story I often hear is that a hint of anxiety can spiral into a full-blown panic attack. It’s like you can get anxiety about getting anxiety, which feeds off of the anxiety! And suddenly you’re having a panic attack over the thought that you might soon have a panic attack—”Oh no, don’t panic, not now, not now!” And then that attack adds to the panic and it’s game over. Double whammy.
So how do you approach a topic that you can't even mention the name of? One that exponentially grows at the merest hint or mention? Well, a good first step is to realize and experience that a hint of anxiety isn’t a panic attack—it’s okay to happen, a little.
Like Dumbledore, I think that fearing to say Voldemort (or in this case feel anxiety) just makes it worse.
As we see, when Ron and Hermione become comfortable with saying “Voldemort” by book 5 or 6, they’ve shifted their ability to fight the fight. They’re much more useful and have, to some degree, already conquered him by giving him less power over themselves.
So, I first address this “ramping-up” portion of the issue, the “oh no it’s about to happen” reaction. And although I rarely do psychoeducation (the part where the therapist just drones on about something he or she read in a book somewhere), I think a small lesson on the human stress response is useful here.
So here it goes: Why you don’t have to be afraid of feeling a little anxiety. This analogy was first shared with me by Douglas Flemons.
First Responders (The Firefighter Part)
Stress responses, chemicals, and hormones are like the first responders in our communities. Whenever a crisis pops up, the station assesses and sends an appropriately-sized patrol over to help. When they get there, they can usually do their job and then return to base, ready for the next call.
However, what happens when we interfere with them taking care of the crisis? Well, “crisis not averted,” which those at the command station read as “not enough manpower or womanpower on the scene,” so they send another batch of responders to see if two will get the job done. If two doesn’t seem to bring relief, they’ll send four, and so on. And they’ll keep sending back-up until the signal is “all clear” and the responders can return to ready position back at the station. They’re just doing their duty to keep you safe.
In situations like this one, if your goal is to have as few responders showing up on your doorstep as possible, the quickest course of action might be to greet them when they come, let them do their job, then thank them on their way out the door as they return to the station and their “ready” positions.
And so it is with stress. Oftentimes the first signal of alarm is our wise body telling us that there is a reason—perhaps not even obvious to our rational side—for sirens to sound. It knows it viscerally, instinctively, without decision. By ignoring, rejecting, or fearing that initial alarm, it sends a signal to the brain that more stress hormone or signaling is needed to get your attention. And it will continue this feedback loop of “still no response, send backup” until we embrace the messengers and let them carry out their protocols.
Greeting the first signs of stress in our bodies is often all it takes to send a clear signal to our internal systems that:
“Yes, message received. Thank you for showing up and alerting me; I see you.”
That message allows the stress response to do its job (get you more aware of whatever is happening) and simply exit the scene and return to the ready position.
That’s a common first step in stress and anxiety change—to see the wisdom in and be at peace with anxiety popping up (and not fighting it). Say Voldemort! And realize you can say it and not die. But maybe start with just describing the letter “V” and then say, “Vol” and then check in with yourself, etc. It’s doesn’t need force.
Therapy Is in Session
In therapy this looks like first finding when and how these patterns show up. What things are likely to bring it up? Could you make one happen right now if you really wanted to? What is the very first sign of stress and how do you feel it, sense it, taste it, or know it? I usually like to slow things down quite a bit to see how clearly the pattern can appear in our conversation, allowing us to then see where a meaningful shift could happen.
One of the most useful ways of completing the above steps is in trance, the land of possibility.
In trance, new connections are possible, old rhetoric softens, and involuntary or non-conscious parts of us can have more space to grow and change.
I frequently have one to three sessions with those that struggle with stress or anxiety, and they report that they don’t know why, exactly, but they are now calm and poised in a situation that weeks ago would’ve sent them into a sweaty panic. It’s automatic, in some ways. It makes sense to me that if those internal communication systems can work themselves out, there will be a lot less unwanted first responders showing up at the wrong time.
Sometimes I’ll switch out the details, but the general principles apply to most people I meet with. And when we meet, we find the specific details that fit, because each situation is deeply, contextually unique.
“Thank you Voldemort.” Never thought I’d say that...
Proof in the Pudding
To close, some case examples (identifying details changed):
Stacie reported for fear of dying. Although she’d been married for several years and her kids were almost grown, she gained this fear that she would die and therefore abandon her family. Panic symptoms followed her everywhere she went, including sweaty palms, rapid pulse, racing mind, and inability to focus on what’s happening due the loudness of her fears and the vividness of her daydreams of death.
When asked what she did at the first hint of anxiety, she said:
“I just try and make it stop.”
That’s a pretty normal reaction, right? Stop the bad stuff before it gets out of hand? But it’s also like forbidding the word Voldemort. So I played with what it would be like to feel anxiety a little bit.
She said she’d risk feeling some, and did so. After letting herself feel a little bit, she got very uncomfortable, wanting it to stop, and daydreams of herself dying started to fill her mind. I said we could certainly stop, but if she was willing to try something for a moment, I had an idea: What if the next daydream that comes, you greet it, let it do a lap in your mind, and then thank it?
That’s obviously a really odd thing to say, but in effect it’s like saying Voldemort ten times in a row, so that by the tenth time you can just say it with the same emotional impact you’d have saying the word “banana.” She said she’d give it a go, so as the panic started up again and she daydreamed about being stabbed unexpectedly from behind (even flinching in front of me as the “knife” entered her back), she breathed and gave a nod of greeting to it. Then, not shying away from it, she sent it a little gratitude for showing up. (We had talked about Firefighters and such, so she knew in some way they had good intentions.)
Then a little flash of surprise or confusion came over her face, and she said, “As soon as I said thank you, the knife just started slowly pulling out on its own, and the panic faded…” Wow. That’s pretty dramatic. And then we did it again with two or three other panic-inducing fears. Same result. She got it!
And she realized that she could say Voldemort and be okay. In fact, saying it was kinda important to her progress. Moving forward, she practiced how to greet fears and panic in such a way that let them do their job and move on. And the panic stopped, and she stopped coming to see me, which was just fine with me. Nice work, Stacie. And thank you, Voldemort.
Steve, 16-yr-old guy with an after-school job, steady girlfriend, and overall decent life, reported for consistent panic and anxiety symptoms, including several panic attacks per week, not sleeping through the night, waking up in a terror but unable to get up get out of it, and slipping in his work performance. His relationship with his girlfriend was changing, too, so he decided it was time to really do something about it. They’d been together for a year already and he didn’t want to risk a major rift in their relationship. And his parents supported him coming, too, which helped him.
The first couple sessions were helping him with the Firefighter portion, making friends to some degree with his stress response. After he got the hang of that and could begin to embrace it differently, he started doing experiments when the panic would come up, testing to see how slowly and deeply he could feel it, greet it, thank it.
And that ended up having quite the trickle-down effect on his life—areas of panic that he hadn’t directly addressed (like waking up in a terror) starting shifting on their own, and he’d wake up, realize he should be panicking, but wasn’t. And that was weird in all the right ways.
He cancelled his next session with me and said all was well, and had continued to be well when I checked in with him four months after his cancelled session. He got comfy with The Dark Lord’s name and his flexibility and freedom in life expanded greatly.