Feeling the panic ebb and flow

A reader shared this awesome adventure he took his brain on recently:

I can experience anxiety and panic attacks pretty regularly. They used to control my life. Any work meeting, restaurant, confrontation, exercise, bodily sensation would send me into an hour long panic. I dealt with this for years-not knowing what was going on with me. I’ve never really been an overly anxious person but after my daughter was born my brain and my body hit their limit. I had to change my life. I lost about seventy pounds and limited the amount of projects I was doing (running two film festivals, making short films, writing for a newspaper and magazine, radio show, working full time as a motion graphics artist and trying to be a new dad and a good husband on little sleep). I decided to focus on my health and my family and got into therapy and started doing yoga and meditation after trying every form of self help, traditional/experimental therapy  and some medications with mixed results.

The only thing I’ve found useful is to face my fears head on. If my brain tells me no out of avoidance I must say yes. So today when I woke up I went for a short walk at the gym. I got dizzy and my skin became itchy and I could feel my chest getting tight with each lap around the gym. But I promised myself I would do a full fifteen minutes before work, no matter how I felt. If I fainted, so be it. If I had a full nervous breakdown then that’s just what was going to happen but I was not negotiating with my brain. It was hard and sometimes scary. I did a little more than planned because I was feeling confident but not much more.

Later at lunch, my coworker asked me to come on a hike. I planned on working up to a hike—afraid of elevation and being too far away from my comfort zone—and I wasn’t wearing the right shoes. I told him perhaps tomorrow. He left and immediately. Something inside of me said I should just do it. I wasn’t even wearing Nike’s but I decided to go for it and not overthink it. I tracked him down and told him, why not.

This part of my story could be triggering to those sensitive to details of panic and somatic or body anxiety but it ends well, I promise.

Once on the trail I was feeling a little tense but the chance to disappear into nature was more alluring than my fear of running away from discomfort. As we got further out I started to feel my muscles quiver and almost turn to jelly. My mind wanted to race with all sorts of projections of undiagnosed syndromes and maladies of the body. So I just kept focusing on the trail. Soon as we went up a small hill I felt my heart racing. Should I tell my trail partner to slow down? Would he be freaked out? Will I have to be helicoptered off the easiest trail at Pinnacle Mountain? I’ve had all these fears and worries before and I knew if I gave in it would keep the cycle going. I pressed on. My head felt like it was being squeezed by a tired giant. A slow throbbing rhythm punctuated by sweat dripping into my eyes. My arm started to convulse a bit, almost raising up to my chest involuntarily. I did my best to keep it objective and let it all happen. But damn it was hard. I wanted to run and scream and hide and give up with every footstep. Deep down I knew I could do it. It’s just a small hike but to my mind it was a road to the unknown. Each bend we rounded threatened to be the last thing I saw before my vision went blurry and I passed out. But I don’t negotiate with threats from my brain (or terrorists). I thought about my mentor Mark Freeman’s words as I hiked on “sweat more today so you can sweat less tomorrow” or something like that. My head was kinda foggy.

I wish I could tell you a small raccoon knocked me out of my anxious stupor or a woodland elf rescued me from my impending doom but it was much simpler and less magical than that: I just felt the adrenaline and panic ebb and flow out of my system while doing something that frightened me. This marked the first time I’ve had a severe panic episode without sitting or lying down to catch my breath or let it pass. What a confidence boost going forward into building healthy associations! It was only about two miles but two more miles than I had done previously. I didn’t even tell my coworker I had suffered a panic attack on the trail until we were back near the car because I didn’t want him to coax me into leaving the walk early. He didn’t seem to mind all that much; asked me a few questions about what may have triggered it and then we continued talking about the socioeconomic makeup of the people who lived near the mountain. I thought they may have all been farmer-doctors like in Little House on the Prairie but I had no concrete evidence. But I do have concrete evidence that I can go for a hike and even when I’m terrified I might die and have one of the most adrenaline-fuelled internal freak outs, I can keep going.

And so can you. 🙂

– Levi



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