About a decade ago, while surfing the Internet, I stumbled on a page written by someone who suffers from panic disorder. She was offering a course on how to overcome anxiety. I read her descriptions of not being able to leave her apartment with a complete lack of understanding. What was so hard about going up and down the stairs? Why did normal, everyday activities fill her with fear? Was she just failing to control small worries before they got out of hand?
Fast forward a few years to one of my first panic attacks. I was walking up a bell tower to hear a Carillon concert with my kids when one of them asked, “How much longer until we’re there?” Suddenly, I bolted and ran down the tower. Because of a stressful job search, I had recently been put on anti-anxiety medications, which, ironically, may have contributed to the attack. About six months later, I suffered a concussion in an accident, which brought a host of traumatic memories to the surface. My physical health began to decline, my family life fell apart, and, despite constant efforts to face my traumas and heal, after a few years, I reached the point where I had several panic attacks a day. I had progressed from the occasional panic attack to a full-blown panic disorder. And I could barely leave my apartment.
When I compare these two versions of myself, one thing is clear: If you don’t suffer from frequent panic attacks, it is nearly impossible to imagine what they are like. And you miss what is perhaps the most important truth of all:
People who suffer from panic attacks are brave. And you should learn this from them, too.
Let me explain.
A panic attack feels like an instant and eternal trip to hell. Imagine that (a) you are trying to run, but (b) you can’t escape, and (c) it will never end. In a panic attack, the part of the nervous system that controls the fight or flight response is triggered (a), at the same time as the part that controls a deathlike shutdown (b), while the region of the brain that sequences events in time goes offline (c). The result is like a frozen scream.
What makes people who suffer from panic attacks different is not their capacity to feel fear, but how often it confronts them. Everyone has their triggers, things that fill them with sheer terror. Mortal fear is a part of the human experience. The difference is that most of us don’t have to face it every day. After all, most of us don’t have to swim with sharks, speak in front of thousands of people, or run from serial killers every day. So, most of us don’t have to face that feeling simply because our triggers remain out of sight and out of mind. It’s not bravery; it’s just circumstance.
Imagine if going to the grocery store felt like jumping out of an airplane – without a parachute.
Because everyday activities trigger mortal fear in people with panic disorder, the mere act of existence forces them to do deep-level soul work. They cannot avoid extreme challenges or bury themselves in distraction as most people can.
Panic attacks are not a sign of fear; they are a lesson in transcending it. One thing people who suffer from frequent panic attacks quickly learn is that trying to run from their fear only makes it worse. It’s the quintessential example of pouring gasoline on a fire. Trying to run just intensifies the fight or flight urge, as the body shuts down even more, and the feeling of timelessness becomes entrenched. You cannot run or hide from a panic attack. There is only one way out: Find a way to soothe yourself, come back into your body, reconnect with the space where you are at, and walk through your fear to the other side. Like all deep soul work, it’s a lifelong practice. You get better at it; the terrain becomes more familiar, but the challenges – the opportunities to grow – persist until your very last breath.
Panic, like most feelings, is contagious. When I yawn, you probably do, too. Humans are still in many ways herd animals, and we share important information with each other through our emotions (including joy). There are important evolutionary and collective reasons to be attuned to each other; after all, if you were running from a lion, I probably needed to run, too.
When you are around someone who is experiencing a panic attack, you may notice that you start to feel anxious, annoyed, or impatient. This is your fight or flight response starting to kick in. You may also find that you slip into fear with them. Even if you are not afraid of the same things as them, you may feel intense distress about how to help them.
Wait! That doesn’t sound like fun! Should you try to avoid them, then?
But in our post-COVID world, can anyone really escape feelings of panic and anxiety? Are we all getting sucked into this together?
We need to get better at facing our fears together. This is where I believe we must take a lesson from those of us who suffer from panic disorder and learn to be brave together. It is not time to run from our fears; it is time to face them. And if everyday things like driving your car and buying food at the grocery store don’t yet cause you to stop and rethink your life, maybe they should. Because here is one more truth that I skipped over about panic attacks: They always have a root cause. Panic attacks do not appear from nowhere. They are not completely irrational; they have their reason.
Just as a person who wants to heal from panic attacks has to look deeply into the life experiences and patterns of belief that shaped their fears, so a society that is on the verge of collapse has to look deeply into the events, patterns, and beliefs that brought us here.
If you do not feel like you are face-to-face right now with your own mortality, are you just running from the truth?
Remember the lesson from panic attacks: Once our fears come fully up to the surface, the only choice is to face them. Any attempt to run from them or avoid them makes them worse.
But what does facing our fears together mean?
Just like a person caught in a panic attack, we must find our way to reintegrate and reconnect. We are a collective body, living on a blue-green planet. We grow through our fear when we stop running and cultivate spaces of connection, when we rediscover where we are, reach out to each other, and work together.
Only then do we truly discover and create what every person in a panic needs to know:
We are safe. We are loved. And everything is going to be all right.