Claws gouge the center of my chest. Half of me is forcibly pulled to the left, half to the right. It astonishes me that such profound pain does not make a sound.
I realize that my lungs cannot sufficiently fill with air. Did the claws puncture them? Maybe oxygen is leaking out before it can enter my bloodstream. Meanwhile, my heart clamors around the splintered vessel that was once my chest. It moves so quickly, and ricochets so erratically, that I wonder if I have suddenly grown three, four, five hearts. At another time, I might have pictured basketballs bouncing, each at their own frantic pace, off a court.
But I do not imagine basketballs now because, in this moment, all I can think of is the fact that I am convinced I am about to die—and I do not want to.
Despite my body’s clenched anticipation of danger, I do not die. In fact, at no point am I even at risk of dying; my anxiety, however, perceives an imminent threat, and prepares my body for it by surging adrenaline through me.
The vise of anxiety, as well as numerous (even more debilitating) panic attacks, persisted for over five years before I received my first insight as to the cause of these feelings. A therapist finally told me, “Anxiety is your body’s reaction to your brain’s message that your life is in danger,” an explanation that prompted both clarification and confusion. On the one hand, I appreciated knowing what was happening to me, but on the other, this information maddened me. Why does something as minor as not being able to find a parking spot, or running out of time to prepare for a meeting, cause my brain to issue these Code Red alerts? How could I have successfully (and happily) traveled to and around other continents–entirely alone–but fall apart if I can’t find my keys in the morning? The moments my mind mistakes as threats baffle me. Loved ones who do not endure anxiety see my fight-or-flight reaction to a seemingly innocuous stimulus and dismiss it as me over-reacting, but try as I might, I cannot just “calm down.” The mere desire to feel better, and even noble effort to rationalize myself away from this state of panic, are inadequate; anxiety easily overpowers both reason, and my physiological defenses.
Mercifully, over the last ten years, my anxiety has downgraded from, at minimum, weekly intrusions to, at most, monthly. Coping strategies I learned in therapy initiated this decline; eventually, anxiety ceased to be instinctive, and other reactions began to take its place: stress, concern, acceptance. Although anxiety is not absent in my life, it is no longer in control.
If it is occasional and fleeting, I can handle anxiety’s grip; I have developed methods to prevent it from escalating, and I know how to recover quickly. But, sometimes anxiety mutinies–subverting my progress, razing my composure–and I question if I ever have had, or will have, power over my emotions. Mind. Body.
The possibility that panic will always be sovereign over who I am, and how I live, terrifies me. Will I ever be able to fully trust myself to remain calm during high-stress situations, or times of transition? How much physical damage is all of this tension wreaking? Why can’t I just feel okay?
Whenever I consider the ongoing presence of anxiety in my life, I first feel fear, then sadness, and often discouragement. Sometimes, the thought of battling anxiety for the rest of my life makes me angry. I imagine needing to talk myself off the ledge of panic attacks at the slightest future inconvenience, and I become bitter. I do not want to spend my emotional energy on anything so trivial. It embarrasses me to become frazzled this easily, especially knowing that countless others chronically endure legitimate hardship.
In fact, during my most recent assault of anxiety, which woke me more than once at 3:00 a.m., leaving me impotent against the downward spiral of my own mind, I was furious. I cursed anxiety for making me doubt myself, and for plundering my quality of life. Anger momentarily invigorated me, but quickly became just another negative force–and I already had enough of those.
Then, in the midst of repeating mantras and taking deep breaths, it struck me: addressing my anxiety from a place of compassion might make it more likely to dissipate. Maybe, if I thanked my anxiety for trying to protect me, but request that it unclench me, I would find peace.
“I know you want to help,” I began. “You want to keep me safe from anything that might hurt me. And I love that you’re looking out, and you’re being so vigilant, and not letting your guard down.”
I paused, realizing how empowering it felt to appreciate even my nemesis. “I don’t think you mean to, but actually, you are what is hurting me. You’re so worried about potential harm that you’re not acknowledging actual goodness.”
“I know you will probably never completely abandon me, but please, let me take some risks. Let me have faith. Let me move forward.
“I’m okay. I promise.”
Then, without fluster or frenzy, I paused to breathe, and realized: my heart felt whole.
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