Maybe you've heard me mention The Path to Panic Free on Facebook, Instagram, or maybe you've seen some talk about this plan in my weekly emails. If you haven't, I want to take some time here right now to tell you about what this path is and what it isn't.
Back in March when we began this time of social distancing, I also began creating an online course for teenagers who deal with underlying, constant, overwhelming anxiety. If this is something you've experienced in your own life, it's not something I need to explain. If it's not, allow me to give you a sneak peek into life with underlying anxiety and panic attacks.
Anxiety is waking up to sunlight streaming through your window, barely opening your eyes, and feeling a heaviness for no reason. It's a crocodile under the water, just waiting to spring an attack. Anxiety is not being able to concentrate, but also not being able to stop the fearful thoughts, the worry, or the constant feeling of dread that has no explanation and no rational basis. For some people, it's not being able to stop thinking, analyzing, and replaying thoughts.
Now, imagine being sucked into a whirlpool of darkness where you can't swallow, your arms and legs are tingling and heavy, and your shaking from the inside out. When you finally move through the panic, you're so tired you have to sleep off the feeling and hope (often without actual hope) that you'll feel better once you wake. When you do, the sun is shining, and the crocodile is waiting...
My anxiety started all the way back in elementary school. It was the 1980s and I was living in a small town in Indiana. No one spent much time talking about anxiety or depression. This wasn't specific to Indiana but to the country as a whole. Mental health simply wasn't a topic of concern in the way it is in 2020. As a third grade student, I often spent time in the sick room at my little school - feeling tired, sick to my stomach, and wanting to go home. I knew I didn't feel good but I also knew I wasn't "sick". What I didn't know is that I was anxious.
Fast forward to middle school when I had my first panic attack. I can tell you exactly where I was sitting in the library of my same little K-8 county school. I was reading a magazine article about Ryan White. (If you’ve never heard of Ryan, he was a teenager from Indiana who died from the AIDS virus he had contracted during a blood transfusion.) This was a brand new disease that we didn’t know much about. All I knew was it was scary, you caught it from other people, and you would not survive. So began an intense phobia of AIDS and a host of other scary health diagnoses as well. I sometimes joke that I've had every disease out there but none of them at the same time. And, in true anxiety fashion, I've never been a germaphobe so try to figure that one out! I'm not afraid of germs and I hate hand sanitizer.
That moment, at least to the best of my memory, was the first time I could pinpoint my anxiety, even though I didn't know much about it. Since then, I've had numerous rounds of anxiety revolving around diseases. The funny part about anxiety is that even when you’re afraid of something so deeply that it causes you to lose your ability to be rational, you sometimes dig deeper in to try to feel better - or that was the case with me. The more I tried to learn about various diseases, the harder it was to stop the compulsion and the worse my anxiety became. I was trapped in the cycle of anxiety and panic with no idea how to escape.
I had other coping mechanisms as well. My best was to call my parents and ask them to tell me I was being stupid. I also asked for the reassurance of my friends that I was just being a hypochondriac or that I was being crazy which helped me to feel oddly better in the sense that I knew they cared about me and would certainly be fearful of my having a terrible disease if it were true.
By the time I was in high school and college, I tried medicine that made my anxiety worse and caused depression, I tried a brief time in counseling learning a few CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) techniques that didn't help much at all. I tried "forgetting", and freaking out. I prayed everyday that my anxiety would go away and even begged God to just let me die!
This was my life. I spent years trying hit or miss techniques or medications to get anxiety under control with no lasting success. The more I tried, the more defeated and anxious I became. Sure, I had a lot of fun and some peaceful times but that feeling of anxiety was always right there under the surface just waiting to rear its ugly head.
Fast Forward to Today
After nearly 30 years of trying different medications, mantras, and techniques, I am FINALLY free! Sure I still have anxious times, but there is a difference. Now I also have new habits, new skills, and a new mindset. I have support and accountability that I didn't have before thanks to the emphasis on mental health and how anxiety manifests in people's lives. Make no mistake, my parents did everything they could do to help me feel better but what we didn't have in terms of understanding about anxiety and depression then, we have now. We have HOPE and we absolutely can end the cycle of anxiety and panic.
I never, ever want another teenager to live with panic and constant anxiety the way that I did for as long as I did. When I tell you that I know how you feel, you can rest assured that I truly do remember the feelings. The good news? You don’t have to continue to live exhausted, afraid, held-hostage, or small.
How You Can Start Walking on The Path to Panic Free
Here is what I want you to know, the goal of The Path to Panic Free is not to cure your anxiety. The goal is for you to make peace with it.