Part 1 of 2 The room was spinning. There were hundreds of people. Intelligent, impactful people. As I stood on the platform in front of the crowd, everything went blurry, out of focus, as though I was being sucked into a vortex. Blood rushed to my head and I couldn’t think. I couldn’t speak… something had to come out, but language evaded me. I leaned into the microphone. I tried to conjure up a string of words that would make sense, anything, just to release me from this state of panic. I desperately wanted to escape, as though it were a night terror that I was helplessly trying to snap myself out of; only I knew waking up wasn’t an escape, I was already awake, I could feel everything too vividly. There was no way of getting out, I was stuck in the mess.
This was one of many #PanicAttacks I personally experienced over several years. I’m not sure when they first crept into my life. I’ve always been a bit shy around people I don’t know, but I’d done plenty of public speaking over the years, which I could handle fine. But, the day when I stepped up to the microphone to accept a business award, I was riddled with stress – it was a hideous experience. #Anxiety simply had gotten the better of me.
I had been thinking about that awards night all day. It was a constant tug of war in my mind, wanting to win our business category, but dreading the idea of an acceptance speech on stage. Looking back, it’s easy to see the stress I had all around me – some of it I can stem back to key events, like when my 4-week old son went into emergency heart surgery, and the PTSD that followed. And for whatever reason, I can also be just a bit of an anxious person – I like to be perfect, but never meet that lofty standard. That night, in that season of my life, the two of those things well and truly collided and formed a lethal combination, breeding panic attacks that were becoming more regular by the day. #Claustrophobia of the mind. You freeze. You’re stuck. You can’t go backward, you can’t go forwards. There’s nothing you can do about it… at least, that’s what I believed at the time – that I was simply at the mercy of this malicious mind which showed up as it pleased. It was becoming more regular, and it was a lonely place. Most of all, it was a scary proposition living with the thought of future panic attacks – you begin panicking about panicking – how stupid is that! So you go to what comes naturally and avoid situations prone to giving rise to panic, perpetuating further anxiety.
I remember the conversation vividly. My wife and I were attending a course for families who had suffered from significant stress as a result of their child’s chronic heart condition. In a private conversation, I asked the psychologist hosting the course whether there’s anything you can do about panic attacks. I was surprised by how succinct her answer was. She simply said you can do two things. Reduce your daily life stress from a 9 to an 8. And, breathe. I’ve since learnt to add one more – gradual exposure.
1. Reduce Daily Stress
2. Deep Breathing
3. Gradual Exposure
Here’s the thing. If your general stress/anxiety levels are running at a 9, and your mind decides to hit that big red panic button, there’s not a whole lot of room until it gets to a 10 – panic territory. A speech, a social situation or facing something which caused #Trauma in the past. You think the event is the problem, hence you begin to avoid it. But if you take a good hard look at where your general stress levels are running at in life, and you work on dialing it down just a notch or two, you have wiggle room. Sure, your stress will still spike, but not usually to the point where panic attacks reside.
And Breathe. It’s so simple, but it’s one of the only things we have control over, and it makes a monumental difference. Put simply, we breathe faster when we stress, it’s our bodies natural way of getting more oxygen to our muscles, ready to run. This comes in handy when we’re being chased by a whatever. But when there is no real threat, just our mind wreaking havoc, we can manage panic by controlled breathing.
Fast forward a few years…
The auditorium was full of people. It was Father’s Day and I was speaking on a Q&A panel. It was about 3 years since the night I’d experienced that panic attack at the awards night. But… I was exercising regularly. Meditating. Sleeping regular hours. Slowing down. Being kinder to myself. And importantly, I’d been slowly exposing mysel