Anxiety and the power of perception

Robert had a panic attack in 6th year and shares his experience

Written by Robert Johnston


I had a panic attack in 6th year. During an assembly for the whole year, each of us had to await our name and collect what we were given. Waiting for my name to be called was torture. I had to wallow in the angst of waiting, knowing that once I stood up it would only get worse. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. My face, neck and head felt like there was a searing hot laser burning through them as if the embarrassment would be forever etched on my skin. My stomach squeezed so tightly, nearly every breath made me want to gag. My vision started to become blurred, it felt as if I had blinders on and what I could see was so unclear because of what seemed like steam coming from my heavy breath.

I remember gripping the edges of the table so tightly that my fingers began to ache and sweat profusely, but I couldn’t let go; I thought I would faint. It was like being on one of those amusements at a carnival that spins you upside down and you grip so hard to whatever you can but you know that there’s nothing you can really do to control whether you fall or not; other than squeeze and pray for it to be over. My whole body began to shake. It was excruciating.

I had social anxiety day to day, but that was the worst of it. I know some people like to say that when people say things about anxiety that it is self-diagnosed and isn’t really anxiety, but whatever name you put on it, what I felt stopped me from enjoying my life. Sometimes the feeling would even spill over to when I was with my best friends, family, and even when I was by myself.

 Every day was like walking with my laces untied. I feared falling over after every step. I could never go very fast or do very much; I was trapped in the routine of fear. I began to acclimatise to the pain. After that day in assembly, I knew I couldn’t go on feeling that way so I decided to make a change. I deserved better, and would finally try to tie those laces that had constrained me for too long.

I think people give too much power to the outside world and certain circumstances. We inherit habits from the contexts we find ourselves in and get so used to them we say that’s who we are. But it isn’t, we are not defined by the circumstances we find ourselves in and do not need to be burdened by pernicious habits. Who we are and what we do is made up of both the external context and our internal mindset. It is how they interact that makes us who we are at that time. I figured I felt so bad that day because I wasn't in control. I was wrongly putting the control onto my external situation. I was being subjected to external circumstances and that was controlling how I felt, thought and behaved. I had no say in the matter, someone else was making me stand up and forcing me to be subjected to what seemed like a hundred burning glares. So I decided to take control by making it so that I was choosing to stand up and that I would be looking at everyone, and they were only seeing me because I wanted them to.

I volunteered to do a reading at the graduation in front of the whole year, our teachers and parents. I got up on stage and read in front of hundreds of people. Because I chose to do it, it was no longer what was outside my mind that controlled how I felt, but what was inside. I was in control. I did not fear standing in front of everyone, I did not feel how I did during the assembly. But really, when you look at it there's no difference in the external circumstances. Both times I was standing in front of hundreds of people. The external context didn't change the internal did, and that made all the difference.

Once you realise that changing how you view a situation can completely change the situation you no longer have to live in fear of losing control to panic. If you keep doing this it will become a routine, just like the fear once was. Take control and face your fear head on. It will no longer be something outside you that scares you, but something inside that you control. Once that happens your laces are tied and you can go anywhere you want, as fast as you want. You won’t fear falling over. You’ll be free from contextual constraints and can make happiness your habit. 

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