My first panic attack happened in my early twenties. I was driving on the highway with some furniture in the back seat. The car felt heavier than usual, and I began to have a sensation that I was going too fast. I feared that if I had to stop abruptly, the heaviness of the car would catapult me across the ashphalt.
Suddenly, reality became warped, and I had no control over anything. My heart sped up, and my hands broke into a cold sweat. I was sure that if I kept driving, I would crash, so I pulled off to the shoulder and called my partner who helped talk me down.
This was the first of many panic attacks. Every one of them has been terrifying and beyond uncomfortable.
The panic attacks led to deep depressions which prompted medications and therapy sessions. As a former mental health nurse, I had no problem accepting and taking medication. At first, the pills made my anxiety worse, then they settled, and I felt a comfortable numb. I coped well like that for years.
Then the medication stopped working, so I tried different ones. They would take the edge off, but I was still depressed and anxious. How could the pills work for years and then suddenly stop?
One day, years after that first panic attack and years into many medication trials, I read a book about how to embrace the anxiety. The book spoke about anxiety as a kind of teacher or friend who’s trying to tell you something.
At first, I thought that was crazy. At that time, I thought anxiety was a disease that needed to go away, so why would I embrace it? But I decided to give it a shot, and after some time, this simple advice changed everything for me.
Of course, there were many things I did to get better. Recovery from anxiety and depression requires a multi-faceted approach and it's different for each person. But definitely, the day that I embraced my anxiety, is the day I turned a corner.
Instead of running away from it, I started asking what my anxiety was trying to tell me? The answers I’ve received over the years were not the ones I wanted to hear at the time, but they were the answers I needed.
When I listened to my anxiety, it told me things like:
- You don’t really love your partner, and you’re not happy, you need to leave (even though it will cause a lot of trouble and difficulty).
- You’re not happy with your nursing career, and you need to do something else (you just did it to try and feel better about yourself through “fixing” others and by getting a “career” that would make your parents proud).
- You need to stop drinking (even though you think it helps, it doesn’t).
- You don’t know yourself (even though you pretend you have it all together).
- You’re hanging on to control way too much (even though it makes everything fall apart instead of feeling better).
- There’s something deeper behind your fears that you need to see (even though you desperately don’t want to remember).
It’s common for people with anxiety to get swept up in irrational fears.
We get fixated on things we think will cause harm, and it goes around and around until we’re in a panic. It’s true that some of these thoughts are not true and our brains are caught in a chemically imbalanced loop.
What feeds this imbalance is what we haven’t quite figured out. The medical community says that we have a genetically altered nervous system that makes us prone to this imbalance. I don’t refute that considering everyone in my family has anxiety and depression. But if it were only a matter of physical anatomy and chemical messengers, then medication would fix us all, end of story. But medication doesn't always fix everything.
What I'm suggesting is that anxiety may be trying to tell us important things about ourselves.
Maybe our lives are going in a wrong direction, or we’re straying farther away from our true selves. Maybe anxiety could be a signal that you may not be authentically present in your life.
Unfortunately, once you get lost in anxious thoughts, it can feel so out of control that you’re not really willing to listen anymore. This makes you more and more lost.
Think of it this way, you’re out in the woods, hiking on your own. You’ve got some food, survival gear and warm clothes in your backpack. You’re deep in thought about your life, the woods, your goals, and other random thoughts. You make a turn even though something nags at you to check the map. But you’re too much in your head to do it; besides, you’re pretty sure this is the right way. A few hours later, you’re lost, and you don’t know how you got there.
You start running around in circles, you walk back another half hour, and now you really don’t know where you are. You descend into panic. You wonder if you should keep running to find your way out or if you should just lay down and accept whatever fate may come. You’re sure you will die here though, so you crumble into a ball.
This is what panic feels like sometimes. You’re lost in yourself, and you don’t know how to get out. It becomes a loop where you can’t trust any thought that comes. But as any good survivalist will tell you, when you're lost in the forest, panic can be a killer. But taking a moment to ask yourself some good questions without judgment or impatience, will help you get out of the woods, little by little.
Once you release the claws of panic, you might be able to see how anxiety nags at you sometimes when you’re going in the wrong direction. It might be trying to talk to you, but you couldn’t listen. Maybe you’re too wrapped up in yourself, or you don’t want to consider the truth, or you just couldn’t understand at the time.
We also don’t realize that we have tools available to us in our backpacks that can help during stressful moments. But maybe we don’t have enough tools. Or perhaps we don’t know how to use them.
Anxiety may be pointing you to places in your life where you need to learn something. Perhaps you don’t know how to listen to your feelings, or you’re harboring a secret that needs to be spoken, or maybe you need a practice that helps you get clear on your thoughts and goals.
And for those of us who’ve sustained severe trauma, not only do we lack tools, we have little trust in the ones we do have. And we often don’t trust our own, let alone others, efforts to guide us to safety.
Once I learned to listen to my anxiety, I was able to recognize that in some cases, it was my friend, not my enemy.
Years ago, I lacked both the tools and trust in myself to help navigate my life. I also had little understanding of who I really was which is the number one tool we need when making big life decisions. Anxiety helped me understand all of this, which then prompted some much-needed change.
What if anxiety is a bubbling up of the truth and wisdom that lives in us? The thing we fear is likely the change that these truths are screaming at us to make, not the anxiety itself.
But once we embrace it, we learn about ourselves and get on the path that’s truly right for us.