Learning to live in the presence of anxiety is not easy. My first experience of debilitating anxiety started in my early twenties when I had my first panic attack. I was in school, away from home, in an entirely new environment when they struck from what seemed to be out of the blue. I could have up to 4 or 5 panic attacks a day. I remember distinctly not being sure if I would be able to get through the day let alone successfully through two more years of school.
My days were spent trying to convince myself that I was not dying of some obscure disease and my evenings were not much better. I kept the lights and television on all night for comfort, watching Field of Dreams over and over in a desperate attempt to reassure myself. The familiarity of Kevin Costner’s voice helped me hold on, reassuring me that I was still alive and breathing despite my brain and body insisting otherwise. This lasted for a few months and when my panic attacks finally subsided, I was desperately glad they were no longer my constant companion.
My second round with panic disorder came around 10 years later. What I learned then was that although I had been living with chronically high anxiety most of my life, I had adapted to that level of stress and it often went unrecognized. But the panic attacks could not be ignored and leveled me in a way that demanded my full attention. It was typically a physical illness that precipitated my anxiety crossing over that threshold into the “I can’t live with this anymore” territory. As a child I had been hospitalized multiple times and the trauma from my early medical history played a pivotal role in the onset of my panic attacks.
This time was different though. They did not just simply disappear after only a few months and wishing them away could no longer be considered a particularly effective coping strategy. They were here to stay, at least for the time being, so I would have to find another way. My felt sense at the time was that I was continually fighting myself, feeling so much frustration alongside my fear, and my constant anger at the universe for the general unfairness of it all was exhausting. I knew it was time for a different approach.
I had recently completed a training in a therapy modality that utilized mindfulness and was fundamental in its principles. Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention and be aware in the present moment in a non-judgmental way. I began to imagine what it might look like if I could incorporate more mindfulness at the very time I was experiencing my anxiety. This required me to totally reconsider my approach, which had largely been one of avoidance. Now I was asking myself to face the monster head on. Could I really have a different relationship with the anxiety that plagued me?
Looking back, I think maybe the most difficult part was figuring out how to slow down and let go of my habitual pattern of running away from my heightened emotional states which were understandably frightening to me. I began to ask myself if there was something I could learn by befriending my anxiety. My first few attempts at this were not ideal. On one particularly challenging night I remember having to go into the bathroom, look at myself in the mirror and tell myself that I was going to be okay and that I would get up in the morning and things would feel different…that I would feel better. And when I woke in the morning they did.
So started my slow evolution to open the lines of communication with those places of intense fear and anxiety. The first step in cultivating mindfulness for me involved finding a steadfast commitment to compassion and kindness for myself. That meant addressing a lifelong pattern of self-judgment and shame. It was a lot of work. Those critical voices I had internalized were so much a part of my inner dialogue that it required a great deal of my conscious attention to notice when they would show up. They had somehow become the background noise in my life. When these voices would come, and they always did, I began to find a way to gently but firmly tell them it was Enough. We had lived with the harsh and unforgiving for far too long and it was my job to help forge a new path.
When anxiety and panic would return and wash over me yet again, there emerged a new voice to comfort those fears. I would imagine talking to myself in a way a loving parent would soothe a frightened child. My new religion became one of softness with a healthy dose of compassion and kindness. In a way, I suppose I was re-parenting myself. Instead of denying, avoiding or excising my fears I found a way instead to increase my capacity to hold close my most difficult places, singing them lullabies and whispering words of encouragement.
When I was finally able to redirect my efforts from trying to banish my anxiety and instead focus on creating more spaciousness within myself to hold what was so uncomfortable and frightening, well, everything changed. Not really the anxiety so much, that is still there at times. But what did change was the new sweetness that came from learning to lovingly hold my fears and my ability to offer unconditional support to the places that needed it most. I wasn’t alone anymore. I could trust the love would be there for me in my darkest hours and that made it softer and somehow more bearable.
As a mother, I know this to be true with watching my own children. I couldn’t always fix the cuts and scrapes or the break-ups and losses, but the magic of holding them close and letting them know I was always there, assuring them everything was going to be okay transformed the sharp edges of their fears somehow. And so, I too, came to believe that the healing only came when I learned to embrace my anxiety and offer it the connection and support it too had been waiting for.