That’s what a panic disorder does – it strips you of control and leaves you at the mercy of an invisible force that strikes at random. You feel completely powerless, completely at its mercy. (I know I did.) Panic is calling the shots. Panic is pulling the strings. And you have no say in the matter.
That’s what I believed too, and then, something happened. It wasn’t something I learned from one of the exercises in my panic workbooks. It wasn’t something I’d talked to my psychiatrist about. It just happened. And it changed everything.
It was Christmas time (my favorite time of year), at the end of a day, which was when the symptoms of panic usually hit me the hardest. My heart was racy. I felt edgy and anxious, fluttery in my stomach (and not in a nice way). My vision was a little blurry and I couldn’t draw a whole breath into my lungs. Not a panic attack, just how I felt the rest of the time, between attacks.
Carols played in the background, and the lights on our Christmas tree glowed softly in the dim light of a crackling fire. This is (generally speaking) as good as it gets for me. This is my happy place – a setting that has always inspired me to feel deeply happy, calm, and safe. But instead, I was consumed by all the uncomfortable symptoms of panic and none of the joy and warmth I would expect this scene to inspire in me. I felt empty and devoid of emotion. Panic, it seemed, had taken this from me too.
I let my gaze rest on the soft lights of the tree. I breathed calm, slow, deliberate breaths. A classic old carol, sung by the Ray Conniff singers was playing in the background:
“When we’re worried and we can’t sleep,
we’ll count our blessings instead of sheep,
and we’ll fall asleep counting our blessings.
And when our bankroll is getting small,
we’ll think about the time when we had none at all,
and we’ll fall asleep counting our blessings…”
For some reason, these words penetrated, striking a chord somewhere deep inside me. I was hit by the realization that for all time people have had troubles, worries, and fears. To struggle is human, I was reminded. And, instead of feeling shame for all my inadequacies, I felt, suddenly, connected to the shared human experience of hardship. It was ok to struggle, and in struggling, I was connected, somehow, to all of humanity – past, present, and future… I was not alone.
Over the previous months, panic had closed me inside a bubble of my own fear and misery that cut me off from the world and from people – even those standing right beside me. But that night, the feeling of connection wafted right through the separating glass as if it wasn’t even there. I felt reconnected to humankind and the continuum of human struggle and suffering. I was profoundly comforted by this feeling and these thoughts.
I sat in the flickering firelight, and breathed, feeling connected to all of humanity. For the first time in a long time I did not feel alone. And I felt my anxiety begin to ebb. My heartbeat slowed and began to even out. The edginess was softening. The breaths I drew were deeper and fuller and expanded nearly the whole of my lungs. I didn’t quite believe or trust what was I was feeling at first. I didn’t speak or move, afraid the moment would crack and fade. I just continued to breathe full deep breaths that filled my lungs, allowing a feeling of calm and connectedness to flow through me.
For long minutes, I just basked in the simple joy of feeling good – something I hadn’t felt for months. Did I do this, I wondered? It seemed unbelievable, and yet, I felt quite sure that it was my thoughts that had driven the panic away. A tiny warm glow started in my stomach, and though it was no bigger than a pea, I could feel its warmth radiate through me. Power – rich and fortifying.
So, I thought – this panic is not as all-powerful as it makes itself out to be! I am not completely powerless against panic.
Maybe that seems insignificant. But at that time, it was momentous. It was big, like Yoda mind-power big, lifting starships out of the slimy bog with just the power of my thoughts. It was a spark of hope in the darkness.
This was my first inkling (since my initial panic attack had struck months before) that I could have some modicum of control over this thing that had taken over my life. I was struck by the sudden realization that just the direction of my thoughts could impact my body’s physical response to panic.
That was a game-changer.
And though these first feelings of power and connection were transitory (they would come and go in the months ahead), to have felt them at all let me know that it was possible. If I could do it once, I could do it again. I just had to keep believing in my own power and remember that the All-Powerful-Panic-Demon is a fake! Yeah, you heard me, Panic Demon. I said FAKE, as in F-A-K-E! A ruse. A show. One just has to peek behind the curtain.
I don’t know what will be a triggering concept for you, but bear in mind these things going forward:
You are not powerless against panic.
You are not alone in your struggle. (Others are going through it too.)
You will feel joy, and excitement, and fun again. They are waiting for you.
Believe in your own power.