“Anxiety happens when you think you have to figure out everything all at once. Breathe. You’re strong. You got this. Take it day by day.” ~Karen Salmansohn
As much as I believe that you can move through fear to do whatever it is that you want to do, sometimes fear wins.
Sometimes, try as you might, you can't push yourself forward. You retreat, worn, battle scarred, banged up, and with your tail between your legs.
You wave your white flag. You surrender.
But it is in this moment of loss that you can learn some very important things.
Let me explain.
Earlier this year, a friend invited me to a play. Looking forward to it, I got dressed, ate lunch, and headed out to take the train.
On the train to the show I had a panic attack.
Sometime along my teen years, I developed a phobia called emetophobia (the fear of throwing up). It manifests itself most often as panic attacks, usually in confined spaces like trains. It had been better for years, and that day on the train the panic came back.
Through sheer grit, distraction, and tears I made it to the theater, pulled myself together. and tried to pretend that I was okay (to my friend and to myself).
We made it to our seats in the top row in the corner and panic began again. About five minutes into the show, the panic returned, and all I could do was hop out of my seat and book it down the steps and out into the hallway.
I tried to wait it out. I went to the bathroom, paced in the hallway, went downstairs, but I couldn't go back inside. I sent a text to my friend to tell him that I wasn't feeling well and needed to go home, and then I left, absolutely defeated.
Still feeling too anxious to get in a moving vehicle, I decided to walk, or rather I just started walking. I walked almost 1.5 miles (or 2.4 kilometers) home wearing heels. About halfway home, I called my mother to tell her what happened and began to cry hysterically.
What a sight. Fear had won. I had lost.
Shame, disappointment, and self-hatred poured into my psyche from all angles.
“What's wrong with you? You're defective. You're unlovable like this. You're a failure. How can you write about fear when you can't even master your own?”
My mind hurled insults faster than I could catch them, and by the time I got home I was so exhausted that all I could do was go to sleep.
After I woke the next day and in the weeks after, I began to journal about my experience and speak to people about what happened.
I learned some things that have made a profound difference in how I experience and deal with anxiety now and I'd like to share them with you.
1. You are not alone.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 18 percent of adults in the United States experience an anxiety disorder. That’s at least 50 million people! And when you add in what’s likely to be similar rates around the world, that figure grows even more.
When you're struggling with fear, it's easy to feel like you're alone and no one else goes through what you go through. Anxiety is way more common than you think, and while it’s sad that it affects so many people, you can use that knowledge to lighten up on any judgment you make of yourself.
2. With that said, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Fear, anxiety, and panic don't make you defective or broken; they make you human. When I experienced a panic attack, I would find myself feeling ashamed. Like I was wearing a scarlet letter, branding me as a worthless person.
Ever notice how people who suffer from a physical challenge like arthritis or poor vision or a broken leg don’t often feel ashamed about their condition? It's just something they're dealing with. They are not lesser people because of it. It's the same with fear-related struggles.
There is nothing wrong with you if you struggle with fear, anxiety, or panic attacks. It’s just something that you’re dealing with.
3. Sometimes fear wins, but it's how you bounce back that matters.
If I've learned one thing thus far in this journey of life, it’s that there’s always something to work through. This means that while you might be accomplished in dealing with fear in one area (for example, I've developed the ability to go to social events by myself, in spite of fear), you might come across other areas that you want to work on, and that's just life.
The power comes in recognizing this, acknowledging that you've had a setback and then picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and trying again some other time. In that way, fear may win a small skirmish, but not the long-term battle.
4. Sometimes fear wins, but it's what you learn that matters.
Again, fear doesn't win for long or at all if you learn something about yourself or life through the process.
When I panicked on the train and at the theatre and immediately went into self-hatred and judgment, I realized just how much I was loving myself with conditions. When things went well, I felt pretty good about myself, but as soon as I felt anxious, I snatched that love away.
True self-love comes from accepting yourself as you are, not from waiting until you are perfect. It’s about loving yourself in spite of what you feel might be wrong, and not because nothing is wrong. Let those things that you find lacking in your life make you love yourself more.
Learning to use the panic attack as a signal to love myself more has made me feel safe in my own body to experience whatever it is that happens to come up.
5. And in addition to self-love, learn to treat yourself with extreme care and kindness.
Pretend you're dealing with a small child who is terrified. What would you do? Probably not yell, judge, or berate the child. You would likely give the child a hug, offer to buy them a treat, play with them, or try to make them laugh.
Pretend you are that child. Give yourself what you would give that child. In many ways we all carry around our child self, even when we become adults.
6. Who you have in your corner outside of yourself also makes a difference.
Fear can be so isolating. It's easier to retreat to the safety of your own known thoughts than it is to chance being exposed or judged by another. At least that's what I used to believe.
I now believe that fighting fear completely alone can be so much harder. Having at least one person in your corner who you can talk to about your fears and your bouts with anxiety can help you keep moving forward. Someone who can say to you the things that you have a hard time saying to yourself. Someone who is kind and caring and can help you learn how to be kind and caring to yourself by internalizing their words.
7. And finally, panic feeds on running.
It's the running that makes things worse, so find ways to stay with what’s happening.
I've been learning more about what happens in our bodies when we have a panic attack, and it's essentially a fear-symptoms-fear cycle.
You feel or think a scary thought. Your body responds with the fight-or-flight response, causing your heart to race, your breathing to quicken, your hands to shake, your stomach to feel weak. You interpret those physical symptoms as something being wrong and then you get more afraid, furthering the cycle, until you're in a big panicky mess.
The most effective way to deal with these feelings is to understand what is happening in your body, know that it’s not dangerous, accept that you feel those things without trying to push them away (being fully able to admit how much the feelings are uncomfortable), and then just wait and let them pass. In time, they inevitably will.
As much as I resist this, I've since tried this approach many times, and while uncomfortable, I've seen it work enough that I'm convinced that there’s something to it.
The more you can view your panic attacks as an opportunity to learn about yourself and practice unconditional self-love, the less you will feel like a victim in your life. And when you feel empowered to know that you can trust yourself to move through any scary situation that comes your way, in the end you will have won.
I'd love to hear what you do to support your journey when fear and panic win. Please share your tips (or questions) in the comments below so we can all support each other!