Has a lifetime of living with anxiety and panic attacks been all bad?
Of course it’s easy for me to say this now that I am getting better.
In the spirit of hope that everyone who suffers from anxiety will find solutions and peace, today I wanted to share a few life lessons learned from having panic attack for 3 decades. Without further ado, here they are.
5 Life Lessons Learned from Having Panic Attacks
1. That I am Stronger and More Courageous Than I Think.
Anxiety told me that I was weak. My thoughts told me that what I’m afraid of is so silly it’s almost shameful.
I used to fill up pages in my journals with unkind words about myself and what I cruelly called “my extreme cowardice.” I was very, very ashamed of having anxiety and panic attacks.
After all what’s the big deal about sitting in class? Why could I not do this? Why was I tongue tied all the time? Why couldn’t I enjoy- or heck- even just tolerate so called “normal everyday things” like going to church, getting a haircut, shopping, driving, talking on the phone, going to parties, etc?
Why was I such a coward?
In the last few years, around the time I hit age 40, I decided to take a much kinder, gentler approach to doing battle with anxiety. I learned to have compassion and love for myself as well as for others who struggled like I did to live a calm life. This change of attitude made all the difference in the world.
What I have come to know is that anxious people are so SO courageous. Imagine being so afraid of something that you really think it will kill you or cause you great danger- and yet you do it over and over again? (And you beat yourself up in the process too- “damn it calm down!!”)That was me every day– Getting up, going to school, then college, then work, then graduate school, and then work again.
Sure when it got too much or when I was completely overwhelmed sometimes I took a day off. But for the majority of time I always did show up, panic attacks or not.
Anxious people are so strong. We are often scared sh#tless (on a scale that most people could never imagine) and yet- we go out there and do it anyways. We do as much as we can.
If that is not a show of strength and courage, then frankly I don’t know what is.
2. That Everyone is Going Through Something.
Everyone has a cross to bear, everyone has hardship. Be it physical or emotional health, familial, financial hardship, or something else. No one gets through life unscathed.
I remember wishing I could trade in my anxiety disorders for cancer instead. That way, I knew that someday the suffering would end.
I have to forgive myself now for making what I now know was a very distorted prayer request. I know God forgives me.
Look, everyone is fighting some kind of battle. Every one has something that is difficult in their life. It may not be as bad as having anxiety, but it may be. Nobody is floating around all care free for their whole life. And sometimes people that seem the most cheerful are often dealing with very painful life or health situations.
(And you know what else I think now? If someone does have a care free wonderful life- then by all means God Bless! I don’t wish suffering on anyone.)
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” - Helen Keller
My suffering has been profound because of anxiety and panic attacks, and I am not diminishing this fact. But this doesn’t give me the right to complain and bemoan my lot in life. Nor is someone else’s suffering less than mine.
Finally having the grace to realize that pain and suffering are such human parts of our existence has helped me to bear my burden with a lot less self pity and a bit more dignity I think.
The wonderful thing about anxiety is that I always have a choice to get better. I can heal. Yes it is hard, but it is treatable. This is certainly not always the case for people with cancer.
3. That People are More Caring and Wonderful Than I Gave Them Credit For.
I used to believe that if my invisible disability was apparent to others, surely they would judge me and reject me. I lived for decades frozen with fear about what other people would think about me… If only they knew.
I did everything in my power to hide my anxiety from others- and especially later in my life my daughters. God forbid they ever know the REAL truth about their mother.
I have come to learn that anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just an exaggerated human emotion that EVERYONE feels.
I certainly gave no credit to other people or thought anyone could understand much less be compassionate for my struggles. I have learned that most people- even strangers are naturally compassionate.
I remember back to my first room mate in NYC who was my best friend at the time. I loved her but didn’t trust her enough I guess to tell her about my anxiety. Instead I became sullen & withdrawn around her. I reached a low point where I ‘fessed up to her about my deal with panic. She was very supportive but also deeply hurt that I didn’t tell her sooner.
She said something like “Jill I don’t care what you think is wrong with you, I just want to know the real you.”
I used to attend Al-Anon meetings all around town. On many occasions I would have panic attacks at the meetings, even bolting out the door when panic hit me. I remember learning to share about my anxiety with others in those wonderful rooms. And the people – virtual strangers at times- being so kind and caring to me regardless.
I recall on numerous occasions “sharing” – that’s when you talk in front of the group or circle of people at the meeting, and suddenly having a panic attack mid sentence. I remember admitting I was having a panic attack, and I always remember a kind hand on my shoulder, hugs after the meeting, even people saying they thought I was really brave for opening up about my anxiety.
I have a loving husband, 2 great kids, parents, and a brother and sister who, while not having had my experiences, accept, love, and support me nonetheless.
Most people really are wonderful and caring. No one has ever judged me as harshly or as cruelly as I have judged myself.
I wasted so much time and energy I trying to hide myself from people who truly cared about me. Lesson learned.
Learning to let people back into my life has been one of my greatest blessings.
4. That There is No Such Thing as Normal
Oh how for decades I have longed and yearned and prayed and wished upon stars to just be NORMAL. To be like everyone else. To fit in. To not be some freak of nature that needed to go to the hospital if I stood in line too long at the grocery store.
I think one of the main issues that anxious people have is that they are turned inwards and very focused on themselves. I still catch myself from time to time being intensely focused inwards. It is something that became natural over the years. (But life is what happens outside of you… )
But having been this way for so many decades I have also learned to just lighten up about it a bit. To not take myself and everything in life so darn seriously. To relax and just be in the moment.
I learned that normal is a setting on a washing machine, not a way to describe people. I have come to learn and accept that what constitutes “normal human behavior” is one very large berth. And I am included somewhere in there!
So I am highly sensitive and tuned in to my surroundings. That’s my normal. Today I accept myself for who I am – and I am learning to unwind.
What’s normal for me is my normal. There is nothing wrong with me or the way I live my life. As long as I am showing up and doing the best I can for myself and others.
And anyways I kinda like my quirky personality. I really try not to compare myself with others today and think about myself as flawed or less than or abnormal.
It’s nice to feel good about myself today.
5. That the Best in Life is Yet to Come.
Being willing to gently expose myself to the things that used to frighten me so much that I avoided them at all cost has all but given me my life back.
Every day I have things to be thankful for. I know that the things I am doing today are things I only dreamed about years ago. Showing up for work, doing a good job there or even going to the store can give me such pause for joy and inner happiness. Sometimes I really do have to pinch myself. Yes this is real- yes I can drive wherever I need to now. Yes I really can take part in that meeting at work and feel good about it. Yes I can even throw a party.
Had I not taken that first step a few years back to really put forth my very best effort towards getting better, I would still be stuck and miserable and living in a very restricted and sad world. I would still be zomibified on Klonopin and Prozac and feeling tired and dull all the time, yet still incapacitated on many levels from stepping out of my tiny little comfort zone
And the best thing I learned that I can share is that making that decision to get better and simply getting started were truly the hardest parts. Everything gets easier after that.
Progress happens in little increments and little by little your world starts to open up.
Today I say with a full heart that my life has come full circle. Now I live – for the most part- in a pretty good state. I am grateful every day for the blessings of recovery and continue to spread the message that no one has to live their life on anxiety’s terms.
So there it is. A few life lessons that having panic attacks for most of my life has taught me. Do you have any words of wisdom to add?
I wish you peace,
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