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When Fear and Panic Win: How to Deal with Anxiety

Panicked man

“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.

Fear wins.

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!

About Varonica Frye

Varonica is a writer and coach who believes that we don’t have to let fear stop us from being our true selves and doing whatever our heart is calling us to do. Visit her at hugyourfear.com to get the free guide, 10 Ways to Be Stronger than Your Fear.

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  • Livelife364

    Hi Varonica

    First off, thank you so much for this article. It is a confirmation for me also that I am doing the right thing.
    I am currently going through a major life change. And while I welcome it, there are many fearful moments involved in that process. What has helped me through it is essentially the same thing you are saying:

    1) Face the fear. The fear has come up because there is an underlying message. This could be a sense of worthlessness, not feeling loved, not being good enough, etc. So really, it’s an opportunity to examine our core beliefs, especially the ones which no longer serve us.

    2) Be VERY kind and compassionate to yourself. As you mentioned, if we see someone else in a fearful state, most of us just want to reach out and help. Yet we judge ourselves harshly when we feel fearful. Like you said, we’re human, and having to deal with fear is a part of this rich experience

    3) We are not alone. Reach out to family and friends. They want to help and be there for you. We all need each other.

    Thanks again for courageously putting your message out there. I believe many people will be grateful to you for it.

    All the best on your path.
    Gunter
    :>)

  • Great post, Varonica. You’ve given me some new ideas!

  • sian e lewis

    I’m so glad you’ve mentioned something I’ve always felt to be vital- no one ( at least no one with a grain of sense ) would judge us for having physical illness, so why on earth should we judge others or ourselves for having a mental or emotional illness.

  • Hi Gunter! Thanks for commenting! It sounds like you have all of the tools needed to pull you through your major life change! All the best on your path too! 🙂

  • Thanks, Holly! I’m glad you found the post helpful!

  • Exactly, Sian! That is something that didn’t make sense to me. It’s nice to know there are more of us out here seeing things this way! Thanks for commenting!

  • Tea

    Yes, facing it is the key! And in my experience mindfulness meditation, that I practice twice a day is helping me tons when panic comes. You have to become able to observe the sensations in the body without reacting to them, and that’s what meditation teaches you 🙂

  • Kathy

    I’m learning to deal with a driving anxiety and another less severe one in crowds. I thought I’d conquered it, then it came back this week. It’s really unpleasant. The hardest thing was that my partner (who is soon to be my ex) didn’t support me in the fear but rather criticized me for it. I was more compassionate toward myself than he was. But I think I still chided myself for my weakness, thinking why couldn’t I be like everyone else who has no problem with driving? I took some calming pills the next day and they really helped. I told myself not to feel like a failure for taking the pills. They don’t always help, but they often do. I will do everything I can to help as it’s most unpleasant and scary.

  • Thanks for mentioning mindfulness meditation, Tea! I’m not the biggest meditator, but I have definitely found that the observation principles of mindfulness really help to deal with panic when it comes up!

  • Thanks for sharing, Kathy! I’m glad you’re making space in your life for more supportive people. It can be so hard not to be down on ourselves when we have a moment of anxiety. There is so much pressure to always be strong and have it all together and to judge yourself by that standard instead of being compassionate and loving to yourself just because you exist, warts and all! As a writer I like (Esme Wang) says, “Keep going. You’re doing great.”

  • alexbahus

    Thanks you for sharing, Varonica. It’s absolutely terrifying to be able to articulate what’s afflicting us because we feel like everyone else will judge us just as hard (if not harder) as we judge ourselves.

    Today I had an anxiety dump when I had all these swarming thoughts over my career, relationships and future. I thought of a car metaphor which helped put things in perspective for me: Before I have a chance to take the car on the road and run errands, drive to work, joyride, etc., I need to make sure my car is okay. Its fueled, its tires are full and all the fluids and lighting are up to par. If they’re not, then I have to take care of them because the drive doesn’t happen (or it won’t be a safe drive) until the car is functioning properly. And my life will not be where I want it to be when it comes to my career, physical health and relationships if I’m neglecting to take care of my mind and emotions first.

    Take care of your car and watch where it takes you 🙂

  • liz

    I had a severe panic attack driving, side of a busy highway. I built up of things I was mentally ignoring. It was the started a journey of recovery. I would recommend a book “feeling good handbook” by David Burns, cognitive self-help through facing your fears and underlying circumstances. I am still on meds after 2 years through loss and acceptance. Not something to be ashamed off. Be kind to yourself as much as possible. You can and will get through this.

  • Yes! I second the Feeling Good Handbook. That book is one of my favorites! Another good one is Hope and Help for Your Nerves by Dr. Claire Weekes. Thanks for sharing, Liz!

  • I love the car analogy, Alex! It’s such a great one! I will definitely be adding that to my toolkit! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Anxi

    Thank you so much Varonica for coming up with solutions for fighting with this curse.In my life, i have been gettting these panic attacks for many years. i feel paralyzed at the moment. I feel so alone but i am fighting with it.And knowing that its pretty normal and many people experience it, is making me feel stronger
    Remember me in prayers/

  • You shared this so courageously and with great tips for others dealing with anxiety, Varonica! I’m glad you were able to take something so difficult you’ve experienced and have shown us all the ways to view it as an opportunity and lessons for learning.

  • Kathy

    Thank you, Liz. I’ll take a look.

  • Kathy

    Thank you!

  • Kathy

    Thank you! 🙂

  • Kris Davis

    Such a great article Varonica, I began to experience panic attacks several years ago and of course since I didn’t know what was going on it made the episodes that much worse. The tight chest, the dizziness. All I could do was drink a ton of water and walk endlessly. Luckily I found out what was going on and began to take steps to stop the madness. So a few years later , I’m happy to say that I hardly ever have them but when panic does set in I know that it will be ok and just ride it out. Its such a blessing to know you’re not alone. Again great article!

  • dyslexictrio

    Thank you for your insight into a world that is foreign to me. Also, Bravo, for your vulnerability! That is the courage that makes changes in this world.

  • Aelio

    Thank you, this helped me gain perspective and remind me of how I should be treating myself.

  • Thanks for your kind words, Vishnu!

  • Thanks for commenting Anxi! You are definitely not alone! Keep taking steps and be kind to yourself throughout your journey!

  • Thanks for sharing your story, Kris! I’m glad to hear that you found a way to work through the panic and come out on the other side. Like you, I’ve found that understanding what’s happening in your body when panic happens can help you move through it with a decent amount of success!

  • Thank you for your kind words! I’m glad you found what I shared helpful! 🙂

  • Thank you, Aelio! I’m glad you found it helpful! 🙂

  • Mia

    Dear Varonica,

    Thank you for this. I have been battling anxiety for many years and many times it’s gone away. When it comes back I get so scared as if it’s the very 1st time I’ve had it. I always think I should know better by now but anxiety has a way of letting the fear win as you described. Hopefully I will remember this.
    Many thanks,

  • The best approach for healing anxiety attacks is to develop a meditation practice where we meditate on the anxiety and the anxiety-producing thoughts directly. We have to break free from the habit of becoming identified with our anxiety and thoughts. This requires training, which is meditation. We do not meditate to empty the mind of thoughts, but to free ourselves from identifying with thoughts and emotional reactions. Most of my students see immediate benefit from changing their relationship to thoughts and emotions in this way.
    The Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • Vanessa

    Thanks Veronica, and how apropos as we just got back from the theater, Harvey, which was one long panic session for me. I do always tense up in a theater quite simply b/c I am supposed to sit quietly and not bother the other patrons. I can usually accept that and work through those first few moments, but this play was awfully nerve-wracking and I got caught up in it. It’s sort of a wacko comedy from the 1940’s, which I thought would be benign because it was written so long ago. Wrong. My best strategy is to know the play before I go so I can anticipate any tension and how it is resolved before I am stuck in a seat, watching it unfold. Over the years my best theater moments have been at plays where I could almost recite the next line for the actor. Ugh, what a night. I didn’t give in and leave but I so wanted to, and it does deflate the ego, that wanting to run.