Have you ever had that feeling where suddenly the room turns upside down, your facial muscles freeze into awkwardness itself, your heart begins to beat at maximum capacity, hands sweating, shaking, while you’re unable to keep up any semblance of normalcy, all eyes watching you melt down into a pile of human rubble, usually triggered by something completely innocuous?
If so, then you, my friend, have had a panic attack. Of course, this isn’t the official definition of panic, or probably even the most common form. I’m not a therapist so I can’t speak to this condition at that level. But I can talk about this from the point of view of someone who has had many, many experiences with this, and also, someone who has finally found a way to break free.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, during my twenties, I went back to school to finish my undergraduate degree. During this period I began experiencing panic attacks, although in the moment I didn’t know what was happening exactly. I went to a school therapist to discuss the issues I was facing and he told me something surprising, something I will never forget. He said “panic is the result of feeling different on the inside than what you are trying to portray on the outside…”
And now, even though I’ve been to a handful of different therapists, that simple sentence has stuck with me in a way that a bunch of other advice has not. But I’ve never been able to truly crack the code on what he meant. Not really. Oh yeah, I get it on a intellectual level. Yes, we need to be authentic. We need to be truth-tellers. I’ve always thought of myself that way. While I’m human and do twist the truth from time to time like everyone, I wouldn’t characterize myself as a distrustful person, or someone that is purposefully trying to lead anyone astray.
So naturally, the deeper meaning behind this statement has been elusive to me for a long time. But somewhere deep inside I just knew that if I could figure out what he was saying, in a deeper, guru-on-the-mountain kind of way, I might find the freedom I was looking for.
Fast forward to now. The other day I was thinking about an upcoming speaking event. I began to feel a twinge of those familiar feelings of anxiety. Chest tightening just a little, things closing in a tiny bit. I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack for years, but every now and then I get the smallest touch of those well-known symptoms. Even though today, all of the symptoms added together are like a small buzz in my ear, rather than a firehose of unhandled stress and anxiety, knocking me down and to the side.
Yes, I can manage these things with relative ease now, but still I’ve been interested in finding a way to get further to the bottom of this personal thorn in my side. I am now aware that the school therapist from all those years ago was probably talking about cognitive dissonance. And further, I’ve identified that feelings of dissonance can be traced to my family life, to the bundle of experiences and the atmosphere that I was raised in.
You see, my family was always very secretive. Not because we had anything secret to hide (that I’m aware of). But more a kind of systemic secrecy that seems to have stemmed from an extreme religious environment. I remember being told a story by my parents many years ago. I’ve rolled this story over in my mind like a stone from the beach, over and over, looking for clues, to the point that I was certain there was nothing left to discover.
In a nutshell, the story goes like this: My parents were involved in a very strict, fundamentalist religious group when I was young. This group would have prayer meetings on a regular basis. They were told that they were required to bring their small babies with them to the quiet meetings. But if the babies cried, they were to take them out and spank them until the babies stopped crying. I was one of those babies.
Yes, let the horror of that sink in for a moment. I’m struggling with even writing this down. We went the opposite direction and carried our babies in a sling, tended to each of their cries and subscribed to the parenting style called “attachment parenting”. If you’ve heard of Dr. Sears, you’ll know what I am referring to. This is our philosophy.
And even though my mother told me this story with tears in her eyes, I think that this is one of the bedrock experiences that I’ve needed to sweep clean of dirt and debris, like a personal paleontologist, looking carefully, expectantly for small but important answers in the soil of stories like this.
This was not all. If we were in public places and began to speak loudly, we would always get shushed. We would be told to keep our voices down, that people might hear us. Of course, as kids we went along with this. We didn’t understand the strangeness of such a request or the damage that was being done to our personalities. For brevity and also for the sake of those involved I am not telling the full story. Someday I will tell these stories in more painstaking detail. For now, it’s as if I’ve got a few chunks of plaster-encased bone and earth back in the lab, working on broad strokes, the big outlines. But I do imagine a future where the finest bones are all put back into place, and I can publicly show the skeleton.
Let’s just say that my family life was stifling in many ways, with a constant religious overtone and a secretive, almost paranoid undercurrent. This was the air that we pulled into our psychological lungs growing up.
But like the air from a forest fire, the smoke and the particulate matter eventually pass, and the adult version of yourself gets to sift through the aftermath, making discoveries, putting things back together. The importance of this process cannot be taken away or prevented, if there is to be true understanding and growth. The new saplings of a blackened forest shoot up from the ash, sometimes nourished in a strange way by the minerals that were made available by the fire.
For me, one of the most important saplings to come out of the minerals of my past is the decision that I will not hide anymore. And that brings me to my point. I’ve finally found a way to fight back against panic and anxiety with a weapon that I’ve never fully known how to wield until now. This weapon is vulnerability and openness.
Once I discovered that vulnerability was the key to unraveling the power of shame, I began to make progress on the panic and anxiety like a rebel jumping to light speed in an old rickety starship.
The other day I went to do something that many years ago would have thrown me into a huge panic-stricken pile of mush. But this time I reminded myself that I am an open person. I reminded myself that I actually want people to know who I am on the inside. I realized that those physical feelings of anxiety, the tight chest, the non-relaxed face, losing the ability to be myself and laugh, loosen up and be in the moment — those are not legitimately my feelings. That is not my fight. That is the fight of someone who is trying to hide. That is what someone should feel when they are trying purposefully to keep others out.
But that is not me. I’ve always wanted to get closer to people, to have deeper relationships. And it’s been elusive for many years. Until I realized that I’ve been dragging around someone else’s problems. I don’t need or want those problems. They aren’t a part of my life or my future.
And then it hit me, that when I feel those physical feelings creeping over me, these should be a signal that I’m closing off, that I need to open back up to the moment, to whoever I am with. Flipping this around, I can now view these feelings of anxiety as a kind of warning bell for the person that I want to be. If I sense this alarm going off, then I know I’m starting to turn the wrong direction, and I need to get back on the trail of openness.
When I began to think of things this way, the panic and anxiety seems to have almost completely left — vanishing like a mist getting stripped off a mountain side by a dry summer breeze.
And now, armed with this new warning system, this antidote for anxiety attacks that I will call the “panic-dote”, I believe that I am now equipped to walk into a profoundly better future. A future of openness, deeper friendships, more compassion and love.