This is a chapter of a new book I’m working on. I’m writing as much as I can everyday for about an 1h and I decided to share the unedited versions here on the blog. If you’re on Twitter and you need motivation to write, I’m hosting a virtual writing session (#ShutUpAndWriteTwitter) from Monday to Friday at 10pm, London time.
I always thought that panic attacks were something really weird and not a ‘real thing’. I thought it was just a good excuse for people to run away from their responsibilities and life. I didn’t think they had panic attacks on purpose, of course, but I did think panic attacks were more of a mental fabrication than anything else. At least, until I experienced them.
I had my first panic attack when I was transitioning to the third year of my PhD. I sat in my office and in a matter of minutes my breath became shallow. A few seconds more and I suddenly knew I had to run away from there. I couldn’t stay sitting and I couldn’t focus. A weird feeling of anxiety mixed with fear was running through my veins. I simply couldn’t stay there – or worse, I clearly knew I didn’t want to be in there.
It took me a long while to understand what was really happening. I knew what panic attacks were – what psychologist is not familiar with panic attacks? -, but I wasn’t able to identify them in myself. Knowing and experiencing are quite two different things. I had also met people in my personal life who struggled with panic attacks, but I always felt they were some sort of mask, a symptom of something else. Today I think I can say that panic attacks are a serious, dramatic condition, and yet they are also a cover up of something else.
I started having panic attacks because I was stuck and dawning in a life that I hated. The panic attack was just a natural alarm to wake me up to what I was doing to myself. It was a way to make me reflect and face a couple of hard questions. When would I ever be courageous enough to be myself? When would I finally admit to everyone that I was hating my job, my social network, and the several houses I had been living in with strangers? For how long would I keep smiling and nodding, unaware of my true feelings and needs? Until when would I keep pushing myself to hide away the suffering of living in a country that only brought me a box of isolating experiences?
My panic attacks were a reflection of my multiple overwhelming feelings about life. I felt trapped and when we feel that way everything seems to be falling down; we feel like the biggest loser. Thoughts and feelings escalate to a point that a part of us knows we need to stop the madness. That’s where panic attacks come in – they are like a natural attempt to push the reset button and force things back to a more balanced state.
The tricky thing is that, when we are having a panic attack, we are rarely conscious of its reasons. In fact, part of the reason why we have a panic attack in the first place is exactly because we have been unconscious for a long, long time. We didn’t see the signs and it’s hard to admit. It’s also hard to admit that sometimes we don’t know what to do with ourselves and our life. We can’t figure out what to do and where to start.
My panic attacks decreased once I decided I wanted to live life according to my own terms and not to what it seemed to be expected of me. I was expected to endure my PhD and expat life. I was expected to meet deadlines and accept other people’s insensitivity. I was expected to smile to the friend who would put cakes under my nose, knowing about my food addiction and regardless her twenty years of experience with addiction treatment. I was expected to smile to my landlord who would host parties on weekends without giving me any notice or have a home cinema experience until way past midnight during weekdays. I was expected to ignore the fact that my family never found a way to come visit or that my mom wouldn’t pick up the phone to hear my voice and know how were things going.
At some point, I broke down really hard and I felt the need to throw all the expectations through the window, one by one. The hardest expectations to throw away were, however, the ones I held towards myself. I expected me to be strong and endure whatever came my way. I expected to be more tolerant and more resilient. Life was all about suffering for so many people in the world, so why would I be so special and saved a little?
What I didn’t see is that life doesn’t have to be only suffering. Actually, we are here to find a solution to reduce suffering and live happier. We are here to find contentment in being, not to destroy ourselves in the name of readiness, money, and social status. Once I let go all the expectations and opted for living a simpler life, my panic attacks disappeared almost immediately. Today, anxiety may kick in more harshly sometimes but when that happens I remind myself that life is far more precious than any first world problem. I remind myself that I’m only human and that I must give myself permission to just be that – human.