Several years ago, I experienced a panic attack (yes, psychologists can get them too). I was sitting in the middle of a packed movie theater with friends when another movie goer had a medical emergency that was very scary and yucky (I'll spare you the details) and involved 911 and several medical professionals. The scene played out in the theater and blocked the only non-emergency exit. Faced with sights and sounds of the other person as well as being in the middle of a row with people on either side of me, I panicked.
Panic attacks occur very suddenly and sometimes can feel as if they come out of nowhere. Other times, we are able to identify an event that sets it into motion. Let's break this down using my panic attack example. The trigger was the medical emergency. The way that I interpreted this event ("I'm trapped," "are they going to be ok?" "why hasn't the theater stopped the movie and gotten us out of here?" "what's wrong with that person?") affected the way that I felt (nervous, sweaty, breathing rate increased, dizzy, tingling). The cycle of panic continued. I then interpreted the feelings as being more severe or dangerous ("I'm going to be sick," "why do I feel like this?") and then the feelings intensified (sense of derealization, heart rate increases, lose feeling in hands, stomach upset). Thankfully, I recognized the symptoms as a panic attack and was able to utilize coping skills to break the cycle and prevent symptoms from getting worse. I was able to stay for the remainder of the movie, rather than leave once the scene was cleared. If I left, I would have reinforced my anxiety by escaping the situation.
For a long time after this experience, I struggled with returning to that theater. This is called avoidance. The problem with avoidance is that you feel better in the short term (e.g., "good thing I didn’t go to that mean and scary movie theater because I feel better now") but the longer we avoid, the harder it is to go back. Family and friends would invite me to go, but I would work hard to get everyone to choose a different theater so I could avoid going back. This was the wrong thing to do!
Once I finally decided that this was ridiculous and unhealthy, I went back. This is called exposure. The first time was pretty uncomfortable. Over time, it became easier and easier to go to this theater. This is because I had to actively work on breaking the connection between the movie theater and having a panic attack and/or witnessing a scary medical emergency. The more I went and nothing scary happened, the easier it was to go. I also paired the exposure with relaxation techniques. This is to help replace the scary environment with a relaxing one.
If you are avoiding a situation that has an uncomfortable memory for you and is a place where you should be otherwise safe in, I invite you to decide to change this. A psychologist can assist you with the necessary tools and skills to regain the courage and the strength to return to your movie theater, wherever that may be for you.
It feels great to be able to see movies in this theater again, and to be able to share this story with you (which is another form of exposure, by the way).