how I’m learning to use my panic attacks for good

I want to talk to you about how I’ve learned to deal with panic attacks and anxiety.  To do this, I’m going to describe what a panic attack feels like. Then, I’m going to talk about, you know, fear in general. These days I’m healthier, braver, and a lot less afraid–thanks to ever so much help, medicine, love and unabashed fun.

photo by Maryam. Me “dancing” while sorting out our Skye hillwalking roadtrip stuff on the side of the road

But panic attacks? They completely and utterly suck. If you know someone struggling, hopefully this gives you a bit of an insider’s perspective.

The day usually starts off with a vague but unshakable sense of unease. Nervousness. Edginess. Maybe a bit of crankiness. I don’t really know why, but it’s there, a low and persistent hum in the back of your head.

Then, all at once the pressure and fear build and I feel a mounting sense of dread. Something terrible is going to happen, I’m convinced. I don’t know why I’m panicking so much, but I’m confused and disoriented.

Everything around me feels like a threat and I feel like I’m probably going to get hurt, or someone I care about is going to be badly hurt, or that I’m going to die. The physical sensations of fear overwhelm me; my hands can’t stop shaking and my legs feel very weak; my heart pounds. Sounds and lights are oppressively lurid.

My chest tightens and I can’t breathe. Sometimes this suffocating feeling last just for a minute as the panic attack peaks. Sometimes, especially if I start sobbing, I ebb back into that unease and the shaking, only for waves of panic to peak several times over. I need things to be quiet and I need to be alone to calm myself down.

Rebekah DePretis Photography

Last year, these panic attacks happened between once and several times a day, usually in the mornings.  I would need lots of extra sleep each night just to recover from the stupid amounts of adrenaline. Now, they only happen anywhere between once a month and once a week. In short: better, but still a difficulty.

I used to feel like a total idiot for dealing with panic attacks. I go to university on another continent and love hitch-hiking and narrow ridges, but I become terrified for no reason whatsoever? What kind of sense does that make?

They only really improved markedly when a realisation hit me about five months ago: “As someone who’d love to do first ascents and lots of anthropology fieldwork, I’m being routinely confronted with inordinate amounts of fear. This sucks, but it also means I have a unique opportunity to get good at dealing with fear in one of its worst forms.”

See, I believe that many of our problems as humans boil down to the fact that we don’t often take the time to slow down and try to define things carefully. “What do I mean by that? What’s fear, anyway?”

Obviously, many things will mean many different things for different people. But if you don’t ask what you mean by fear, happiness, love, joy, challenge, or pain, chances are you’ll miss out on a chance to live in a healthier way.

I missed out for years with fear, until I asked I changed my mindset and asked that question.

a photo I took when on my own on the Isle of Arran, looking out towards Kintyre

I also then realised that, on mountains, I rarely saw fear as helpful. If I was in a shit situation, getting all worried was just going to make my thought process shakier, so I literally just decided to not be afraid. Instead, I just tried to be “rational” in a fit of radical anti-anxiety. This led to sometimes suppressing legitimate fear to an unhealthy extent–after all, panic attacks were way worse, right?

However, when I sat down and tried to define fear, this is what I got: “Fear is an emotional, physical, and instinctual response to perceived threats in one’s environment. It often expresses information or assumptions one would otherwise overlook.” Simple as that.

This changed things. It meant that I could accept fear as a legitimate feeling that I could reflectively examine. I didn’t need to feel ashamed. After all, fear was just telling me a little more about what it thought it saw or what my assumptions were. If my assumptions were wrong, I could be grateful that fear pointed that out. If fear brought accurate information to the surface, all the better.

In other words, my definition never pretends that I don’t feel fear or shoves it out of mind. Fear either gives me the opportunity to change my assumptions or to build common sense. Most importantly, this definition reminds me that I’m responsible for dealing with my own fear. Only I can ask myself what I see as a threat. And only I can change how I see the world.

This totally altered the game for me. It might not be the perfect definition (if such a thing exists), but it’s a powerful one.

I didn’t realise how radically this simple act of defining “fear” would completely change my life. Not only has it drastically reduced my panic attacks, but it has helped me make smarter decisions on ridges, be less nervous for first dates or job interviews, be bolder and happier around strangers, and not stress the small stuff so much. It takes some work to put it into practice, but doing so is a hell of a lot easier than dealing with panic attacks.

Please, if you have someone in your life dealing with panic attacks or anxiety, show them patience. Hell is dancing inside their head and lacing their ribs together. The last thing they need is extra pressure or to feel like an idiot for struggling with legitimate mental health issues. Tell them you believe in them–that you know they’re stronger and more resilient than they think, and that life and adventure is out there. Above all, show them love. Dostoevsky once said that love is the opposite of fear, which is a topic for another time and another post.

4 thoughts on “how I’m learning to use my panic attacks for good

  1. “Hell is dancing inside their head and lacing their ribs together.”

    Man, I love this line. You’ve described what anxiety feels like to me in such clear and artful terms. I used to now know what this feeling was. Didn’t have a name for it until this year.

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