During a panic attack, the anxiety that a lot of us already carry in our minds every day and that is typically content merely gently to corrode away our lives, promptly changes tack and decides it really wants to kill us, once and for all – preferably very soon. The key thing to remember is that it can’t and it won’t. And at the same time, that we’ll be utterly convinced that it will. That’s the duality we have to cope within those dastardly episodes we call panic attacks.
How do these things feel? Imagine that the airplane doors close and we realise that we won’t be able to get off for six hours, that we can hardly move our legs without touching passengers on every side, that the air we’re breathing has passed through the lungs of two hundred other people and a couple of jet engines too and that we’re about to be a few miles off the ground – and the whole situation suddenly seems wholly surreal, tear-jerkingly cruel and deeply unsurvivable.
Or we’re at a business meeting, surrounded by colleagues and prospective clients and we’re made aware that our bowels are about to open or our stomachs to heave across the table, and that we’ll be publically reduced to a pure emanation of noxious sludge – after which it would evidently be best not to try to continue with one’s life and instead to be taken away, done in and never mentioned again. What are we to do at such moments? What could the most well wrought philosophy do for us when we’re about to shit ourselves or start wailing uncontrollably at the back of a tightly packed Airbus? There are, in spite of all our feelings of chaos, a few bits of solid advice to hold on to:
Though this seems like the oddest and most embarrassing thing ever to have unfolded, it happens all the time, even to good, decent people who are worthy of respect and will enjoy a lengthy and dignified old age. People don’t talk about these episodes of course and you can see why – because it threatens to be humiliating and an ejection from polite society. But in the process, we make it worse for everyone.
Part of what getting through panic attacks involves is rehabilitating the whole concept of losing control to fear. Don’t add shame or embarrassment to your worry. These episodes are neither a punishment nor weird. They’re an essential part of being a sensitive thoughtful human in a chaotic, complex and disordered world. If you are prone to attacks, do the opposite of hide the tendency: tell the world – and let the light of public playful confession chase away the shadows of shame.
Accept the fear; don’t fight it. It threatens very seriously to kill you but it won’t and can’t. No one has ever died from fear alone. You should look at the situation as if you were out at sea trying to wrestle with the current. Rather than agitate further, it is best to let the waves carry you this way and that and know that they can’t tear you apart; they’ll tire eventually and then set you back on shore.
Never struggle against a rip tide. Similarly, accept the worst that the terror can do to you – and stand defiant. Maybe the speech won’t happen, you might faint in your airline seat or be forced to run out of the office. So what. Refuse to be humiliated by the panic. You don’t have to be competent all the time. Everyone is allowed to fail, very often and this just happens to be one of your well-earnt fiascos. Welcome to being human.
Thirdly, when calm has returned, try to think all this through, ideally with a kindly friend or therapist. The fear is to do – perhaps in part, probably – with a baseline sense of unworthiness. People who think they’re not worth much fear the worst. Maybe you don’t, at some level, feel it’s allowed for you to give a speech and impress a hundred people or succeed in your career or go off on holiday somewhere nice.
Maybe, in your unconscious, this might make someone (a parent?) feel jealous or inadequate – and it’s kinder, therefore, to stick with being small and unobtrusive and afraid of everything. To which the answer is to reassert, in the light of day, the basic truth that you – you beautiful crazy worrying human – have every right to exist and draw pleasure from this life, that there is nothing illegal about being alive and working a positive effect on others, that – whatever indications you might have received in your past – you are allowed to be.
Also, consider that the panic might have to do with a memory of long ago having been appallingly controlled, hurt and not allowed to get away. It’s an airplane door that has just closed but in the unconscious mind, it’s a perhaps also return to other situations of powerlessness that were unmasterable and that continue to haunt.
To which the answer is to go back to the past, understand it fully and drain it of its power to upset the present. The memories need to be heard and the trauma digested but the plane is going to take off and the doors will eventually open again and you will be free to go wherever you want without being oppressed, because you are now an adult, with all the agency and liberty and light that that word should imply to you.
Or maybe what powers your terror is a feeling that you have to impress other people and won’t be forgiven if you don’t. To which the answer is that though it’s always nice to achieve a bit more, frankly, you’re more than OK just as you are; the days of having to impress others are over; you need to prove nothing at all. There is no need to let your commitment to self-contempt keep tearing you apart.
Fourthly, at the height of the fear, it can help to get deeply but redemptively pessimistic about everything. Though it seems like everything matters intensely, gloriously, in truth, nothing matters at all. Almost every human on the planet is entirely indifferent to you; out in the Mojave desert, scorpions are scuttling among the rocks; an eagle is soaring above the Korakorum pass, up there in the universe, the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, are completing their orbits.
You will soon enough be dead, properly inert, and it will have been as if you never existed. You are but a blip in eternal cosmic time; whether your speech unfolds well or badly, or you soil your trousers or not is a matter of sublime, beautiful indifference to planet Kepler 22b, 638 light-years from earth in the constellation of Cygnus. Keep in mind the eternal wisdom of the medieval proverb that says of the waxing and waning of all things: THIS TOO SHALL PASS
Lastly, don’t avoid everything that scares you; don’t let the panic reduce you. Don’t accord the fear so much respect that you start to listen to its tyrannical dictates. Answer the aggression within every panic attack with its opposite: with a deeply unconditional love for you, fear’s unfortunate, blameless, worthy and hugely loveable calm-deserving innocent victim. ALL THIS TOO SHALL PASS. We can learn the skill of being calm. Not through special teas or slow breathing. But through thinking.
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Credit: The School of Life