I was approximately 6 years old when I suffered my first panic attack and while that was 30 years ago and the details of this incident are somewhat blurry, the feelings I experienced are not. An unexpected and overwhelming state of terror & fear took hold of me, as though the end of the world was happening right in front of me and there was nothing I could do about it. Except scream! I can still hear those shrill noises that exploded out of me. I was overwrought as I bolted down the long corridor of my parents house & out the back door into the yard. I still remember thinking “I need to get away, I need air”. My heart was pounding so hard I felt like it was going to burst out of my chest. My head was spinning. I felt faint. Once I came to a standstill panting for air in my parent’s backyard, I remember thinking my legs would not hold me up any more. Breathing was painful. I was gasping loudly, after the screaming had ceased. I don’t remember what caused it. I don’t remember what happened in the moments leading up to this attack. What I do remember is my mother and father running to me and holding me, wanting to comfort me. I could see the worry in their faces but the relief of being held by my parents reinforces to this day the profound importance of support and empathy when it comes to mental and emotional wellbeing.
I’ve had a lifelong relationship with panic attacks and anxiety since that day. Unfortunately there have been periods of my life where I have endured several in a day but as I got older I learned to contain them. I was embarrassed and saw them as a weakness or defect within me. It didn’t help that I was teased by other kids for my sudden outbursts of screaming and running away and so I learned to perfect the art of internalising them. You could be standing right beside me and not know that inside I was screaming! While I tried to hide the external evidence of my panic attacks, I couldn’t avoid the triggers, the most powerful of which was to be alone. It was difficult to distract myself when no one else was around. My endless pursuit to distract my brain was exhausting and as I grew older I began to worry that I couldn’t keep it up. Eventually I started getting panic attacks in my sleep, I would wake up in a flustered, frantic sweat in bed or they would creep up on me right as I was about to fall asleep. It became a debilitating, never-ending, cycle of tiredness, anxiousness and panic and I didn’t know how to stop it. Distractions had worked for me for most of my life but how long could I keep that up? Now that I was an adult, how long could I distract myself from my own mind? How could I sustain meaningful and connected relationships when I spent all of my energy avoiding what was going on in my brain and body?
As the years passed I have noticed improvements in my anxiety levels and a further reduction in the frequency of my panic attacks though it has taken me decades of counselling, CBT, Mindfulness, Medication, Life Coaching and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) alongside an array of alternative & complementary therapies to get to where I am today. Thirty years on and I would love to say that I no longer live with anxiety or panic attacks, but that would be a lie. The need (and default setting) to distract myself from how I’m really feeling is still a daily battle and often an avoidance of the things that I know will help me as a result. Life before COVID allowed me to indulge in this. It encouraged a day to day life that was filled with ‘busyness’ though if you asked me now what I filled my time with I’m not sure I could answer you!
Enter March 2020 when the world came to what felt like a global standstill! I was temporarily unemployed with no view as to when I would be returning to work, or when it would be safe to even start thinking about it. Isolated. Idle. Inert. There were only so many things I could do to keep myself busy. Like everyone else I attempted cooking, baking, online courses, yoga, walking . . . So much walking! But with that much time to myself, that much time to think, it was inevitable that I would find myself alone with the thoughts and feelings I continue to (somewhat) successfully run from. My lack of busyness left me confronted with them and with nowhere to go they came to the forefront in sweeping extremes of high anxiety and low depression and a plethora of panic attacks along the way.
Learning to be comfortable with being truly alone with my thoughts is not something that comes naturally to me, in fact it feels the opposite of natural for most people I’ve spoken to who also live with anxiety and/or depression. Bessel Van Der Kolk author of ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ says that those with trauma have a hard time to just feel relaxed and safe and enveloped with goodness. The sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically and with that the ability to truly love and care for oneself. What I’ve realised since uncovering this information is that I have spent my whole life trying to run from the fear and the panic, and in doing so I was unable to truly love, accept and care for myself. Even though I’ve been a big proponent for self care for most of my adult life, I’ve worked within the industry in some shape or form as a holistic therapist and wellness coach for almost a decade and yet if I’m brutally honest on a personal level it felt to me like an impossible task to commit to in the long term. I would stick to my newfound ‘self care plan’ for a short period of time and if I veered off course it was back to square one and ended with me giving myself a hard time for not sticking with it.
These past 12 months have been challenging, unsettling and sometimes harrowing. I don’t know that I believe that there is some higher purpose or learning from enduring a difficult year such as it has been but I do know that I’ve come a long way already and that in doing so I have proven I can do it again in the future. That is where my journey of self love and self care really began; this year. In my learning to accept that my feelings (positive or negative) are normal, they are necessary and it is important to feel and acknowledge them in a safe and supportive setting. In learning that there will be good mental health days as well as the bad ones, especially during a global pandemic, and that going in and out of experiencing them is all part of being human and not something to be ashamed of. It’s the moving in and out of these states that is at the very core of what it is to be human after all; the very thing we all have in common!