It was almost 20 years ago when I had my first panic attack.
I was driving on the highway with a bunch of stuff in the back seat. The car felt heavier than usual, and I began to have a sensation that I was going too fast.
Or were the other cars going too fast?
Suddenly, reality became warped, and I had no control over anything. My heart sped up, and my hands broke into a cold sweat. I had to stop the car; I couldn’t wait until the next exit. I was sure that if I kept driving, I would crash. I pulled off to the shoulder and called a friend 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. The medication made me comfortably numb. I coped well like that for years.
Then the medication stopped working, so I tried different ones. They didn’t work either. I began to realize that I needed a new direction.
Then I read an article online about embracing anxiety instead of running from it. It said to welcome it like a friend who’s trying to tell you something.
At first, I thought that was crazy. I thought anxiety was a disease that needed to go away—why would I embrace it? But this simple advice opened a new world and changed things for me.
Over the course of a few years, instead of running away from anxiety, I started asking what it wanted from me. The answers I received have not been ones I wanted to hear at the time, but they were the answers I needed. I was just resisting them.
Turns out, this resistance was the number one trigger to my anxiety, which evolved into panic attacks.
When I listened to anxiety, it told me things like:
>> You don’t really love your partner and 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 (even though you did it to 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 significant trauma 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 something we think will kill us or cause harm, and it goes around and around until we’re in a panic. Many of these thoughts are not true and our brains may be 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 a matter of physical anatomy and chemical brain messengers, then medication would fix us all—end of story.
But medication does not fix everything. While brain chemicals do play a significant role in anxiety disorders, the story is more complicated than we’re willing to admit. At least, that’s been my experience.
I’d like to suggest that anxiety may be trying to tell us something important about ourselves.
Our lives may be going in the wrong direction, or we’re straying farther away from our true selves. Like fear, anxiety could be a signal or a sign-post 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 begin running around in circles, 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.
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.
When lost in the forest, panic is 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 start listening to your anxiety more, you might be able to see how it nags at you sometimes when you’re going in the wrong direction.
Your inner wisdom might be trying to guide you, but you can’t listen. Maybe you’re too wrapped up in yourself, or you don’t want to face the truth, or you just can’t understand the truth 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 anxiety might be showing us how we don’t have enough tools. Or perhaps we don’t know how to use them.
Anxiety may also be pointing you to places in your life where you need to take action.
Perhaps you need help learning 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 more clear on your thoughts and goals.
Also, 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 other’s, 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.
At the time of my first panic attack, 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.
Can you imagine if I continued running from my anxiety instead of stopping to listen to this wisdom? I’d be sitting there treading water and not getting anywhere.
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—and not the anxiety. But sometimes our bodies have no choice but to advance into a scream in order to get our attention. For me, that was the root of my panic and anxiety. When I finally learned to listen to what’s behind the anxiety, the panic dissipated.
Once we learn to listen to ourselves and honor our truth, we can move out of anxiety and into our authentic selves.