“I spent the next 20 years trying to avoid another panic attack. Unfortunately, avoiding fear also meant reinforcing it. ”
Fear is an unseen enemy that can emotionally cripple and turn your life into a nightmare unless you learn, as I did, how to stage your own “anxiety rescue.”
I suffered from anxiety, panic, and fear for most of my adult life. It started in college when during marathon studying, I suffered a panic attack. I had been smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and stressing over final exams. I felt incredibly afraid, and my heart burned. I thought I was losing my mind. I sat on the couch holding an empty bottle, thinking that if I started going crazy, I’d hit myself over the head to knock myself out. Somehow that was a comforting thought because it meant I might be able to stop these awful feelings. Eventually, the scary attack subsided and left me drained, frightened, and feeling bewildered. I wondered if it would happen again.
I spent the next 20 years trying to avoid another panic attack. Unfortunately, avoiding fear also meant reinforcing it. Over that I became too afraid to leave my home city, trembled when having to cross a bridge, and began to avoid more and more things.
A physician gave me sedatives, but I was too afraid to take them because I feared they would make me feel odd. Eventually I found a wonderful cognitive-behavior therapist. She helped me understand how to restructure my perceptions, label my discomfort, and take steps to challenge my fears. But I was a time- and financially strapped single parent, so I had to quit therapy. I gave up for awhile and just lived the best life I could, but I also avoided things that might trigger upsetting feelings.
As my kids grew up, and I had time to work on myself, I began to understand how my own thinking was working against me. I also learned to better hear my inner chatterbox that was incessant and negative; it fed me dialogues filled with fear. “This might be frightening, don’t do it…that could be a problem, tense up!”
Becoming more aware, I identified two “characters” who directed most of my life. I called them EARL and PEARL, and finally realized that I needed to disengage them.
EARL, for “easy angered, rigid and limiting,” remembers anything that ever hurt or scared me and doesn’t want that to happen again. Blaring loudly, EARL is my voice of protection, my personal police force whose motto is to serve and protect. I mostly heeded those thoughts and automatic reactions.
But I also identified a quieter more peaceful energy that I called PEARL, for “peaceful, earnest, adventurous, resilient, and loving.” PEARL whispers, while EARL shouts. I found that both voices were valid and necessary aspects of my life. Yet when I only paid attention to the voice of fear, my world began to shrink.
Learning to hear EARL and choosing reactions other than anxiety and fear was my largest step forward. It let me know that all is well and that I’ll be able to handle whatever comes along. As I began to challenge my fears and do the things I felt I could not, I overcame my crippling fears.
I have just returned from the Bahamas, where I flew by myself to visit my sister. A few years ago, I couldn’t even get 45 minutes beyond my home. Now I can go anywhere and know that I will be safe and able to handle whatever comes along. My fears taught me that you can do the things you thought you could not do, and you begin by doing them one small step at a time!