Simple life lessons that fear can teach.
A true panic attack is one of the most terrifying experiences. I’ll never forget the first time I felt my heart beat so fast out of my chest that I lost feeling in my face, fingers and toes. How my hands shook and my chest ached as my airways tried to gasp their final breath. I distinctly remember the alarm bell inside of my head screaming, “Oh God, you’re dying right now, and you have no idea the exact moment it will all go black!”
Eventually, the worst subsided, and after some time, I was able to entertain the thought I might survive. However, the fear never left me completely. Instead, I was gifted with a heightened awareness that lingered for days, weeks, months, even years. On a handful of occasions, the impending doom would strike again.
It took me three years to see my panic attacks for what they really were. Intense biological responses to perceived threats. Despite how hard it was to overcome them and learn to live alongside them, in hindsight, I’m thankful I went through what I did. You see, without my panic attacks, I wouldn’t have learned some of life’s hardest lessons. Because of the three years I lived in fear, I can now say with confidence that:
No One is Invincible
I, like most people, lived with the delusion that nothing bad would ever happen to me. Other people got in accidents, had life-threatening illnesses and battled with their mental health, but I probably never would. My panic attacks taught me that I was vulnerable. That each day spent in good health was something to be incredibly grateful for. That tomorrow was promised to no one and all I had was the present moment. I have a newfound appreciation for my mortality. I make it a goal to live each day to the fullest because I may not be able to do so tomorrow.
I was always under the impression that I could take on the world. I believed I could do more things faster and better than anyone else. My panic attacks humbled me. In fact, they showed me that there was only so much I could cope with at one time. I had no choice but to slow down in life and much to my surprise, I found I liked living at a slower pace. I didn’t have to work myself to death or overwhelm myself to the point of insanity to accomplish my dreams.
It’s Okay to Come First
Most of us are taught from a young age that it’s polite to put others before ourselves. Unfortunately, some of us are taught this lesson to a detriment. I truly believed that my own needs came last at all times. That putting myself first was a sign of selfishness or worse-weakness. But, my panic attacks made me realize that if I don’t meet my needs first, I can’t really help anyone else. Now, I’m a better mother, wife, daughter and friend because I take time for me.
“Should” Can Do More Harm Than Good
The world “should” used to be one of the most predominate words in my vocabulary. On a daily basis, phrases like, “I should have done _____” or “I should have gone ______” loomed inside of my mind. But what I realized is that “should” is a word that obligates us to be something more than we are. It pushes us to places we don’t want to be and makes us become things we don’t love.
Imaginary obligation causes immense stress and stress goes hand in hand with anxiety. Once I eliminated the word “should” from my internal dialog my entire life became lighter. I was more forgiving of myself and willing to entertain that whatever I accomplished in a day was enough. By allowing myself to take breaks when I needed to, I no longer needed protection from myself.
Fear is a Friend
What I didn’t realize in those dark years of hiding from my anxiety was that fear has the best intentions. It tells us something scary is happening so that we can prepare for it or fight against it. My fear was trying to help me survive, not kill me. As I began to look at fear as a friend, I realized we could work together. In fact, I could teach it. Together we explored a scary world, learning the difference between safety and threat and discovering new limits of bravery.
My panic attacks aren’t gone, but they certainly happen less. My relationship with fear and anxiety has changed to the point where I am grateful for both. The process didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of tears, therapy and emergency room visits. Panic attacks can teach us important life lessons, but only if we are willing to accept that they have a greater good. I challenge you to take a moment to think about what lessons fear might be trying to teach you.