Authors Note: This post is meant to share my own personal experience, and is not meant to be a substitute for seeking help from a doctor or licensed mental health professional.
Panic disorder is a special kind of hell.
Once you have your first panic attack, the original trigger (heights, closed spaces, etc) doesn’t really matter anymore. Your primary fear becomes the experience of panic itself, and the horror that it can happen any time, any place.
When the source of your fear lives in your own mind, no place is safe. This is what causes some people to develop agoraphobia — which many mistakenly think is the “fear of everything,” when in reality, it’s the fear of panicking in public.
I am fortunate enough to live a mostly panic-free life for the time being, after suffering quite a bit in my 20’s.
But the possibility of panic is always there — it can never go away. Every now and then, a little voice inside of me likes to whisper, “Hey! How about now? Wouldn’t this just be the worst time for your adrenaline to surge and your mind to go completely blank?” Fun stuff!
One such incident happened earlier this week when I was speaking in front of a small group. I recovered quickly, and no one noticed. This happens from time to time, and although I am good at accepting it, having self-compassion and moving on, I tend to feel a bit disturbed the rest of the day, and sometimes longer.
That night, I woke up around 1:30am feeling anxious. Alone, in my bed, in the dark, I thought about the incident. The voice started up again: That was weird today…what if it starts happening more often? What if you stop being able to work or function? What if it happens right now?
I could feel the familiar tingle at the base of my spine. My mouth went dry. I squirmed under the sheets. I thought, as I have many times, Will this be the moment my disorder takes over again? On this day, when my life is so good?
Genuinely not knowing the answer, I took a deep breath and mentally said the only phrase that has ever helped with my panic and anxiety:
May I never turn away from my own experience.
Through fear and doubt, I committed to staying present no matter what happened in my body and mind.
I felt the adrenaline tingle in my feet and legs. I continued to speak to myself:
Watch it like you would watch a flower blooming.
I will stay no matter what happens.
May I accept myself as I am, no matter what.
May I watch my experience unfold no matter what it feels like.
May I never turn away from my own experience.
Stay, stay, stay.
I don’t remember falling asleep.
I learned the phrase from a psychiatrist named Dr. Steven C. Hayes, who personally suffered from panic disorder for years — even while he taught psychology as a professor at a university.
He hit rock bottom when he was curled up in a ball on his living room carpet, prepared to dial 911 because he felt like he was dying (he was having a severe panic attack).
In a moment of clarity, he realized his own mind could make him suffer greatly, but the one thing it could not do was make him turn away from his own experience and be willing to accept and feel it as it is. This was the beginning of his recovery.
We went on to be the founder of a therapy framework called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which has been used for years to help people with everything from anxiety to depression and chronic pain. It’s what set me on my path to recovery as well.
The next day, after my brush with panic in my bed, I woke up feeling wary but peaceful, and proud of myself. Facing the ever-present possibility of chronic panic, disability and the shame that comes with it is extremely tough. But I felt that if could keep that steadfast presence and acceptance of myself no matter what condition I am in, no matter how ugly or embarrassing, I could truly get through anything.
Dr. Hayes says, “When you stand with yourself in a self-compassionate, kind, loving way, life opens up.”
I agree. Life opens up because when you create a solid foundation of unconditional love and acceptance for yourself, there is no longer anything to fear. There is no need to hide and be ashamed of your very human struggle. There are always loving arms to return to — your own.
By sharing my “simple phrase” with you, I don’t mean to make it seem like my struggle with panic has been easy — I have used both therapy and medication for years. I share the phrase because it represents the core philosophy of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which has had a profoundly positive affect on me.
If are experiencing pain, anxiety or panic that seems absolutely unbearable, may you have hope, and may you find the courage to seek help today in whatever form is right for you.
And may you choose stay by your own side, no matter what.
To learn more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and to find and ACT therapist near you, visit this site.
Click here to view Dr. Haye’s powerful TED Talk.
Image Credit: Fizkes via 123RF