Powerlessness is one of the first words people usually use when talking about an experience when anxiety or panic takes over. There is a sense of vulnerability in feeling this 'thing' take control; often anxiety and panic are experienced and perceived as though they aren't part of the self. As the pulse increases and the breathing becomes impaired, pressure follows...
Pressure to look a certain way to those around you and wishing to get over it in private without anyone else picking up on it. What is important to say, is that the thoughts that follow, of wanting to stay composed and wishing it was over, are not merely responses to the overwhelming sense of anxiety but are active contributors to how overwhelming it feels. The difficulty then is not that you’re unwell, but that you’re unwell and want to seem well.
It often seems to go something along these lines: If I pretend I don’t feel overwhelmed, I won’t be overwhelmed. This might work, at times. The risk however is that in those moments you seem well to friends and colleagues, but it isn’t your lived experience, and so it becomes a fragile performance. A desperate attempt to not let people, and yourself, see and experience a part of you that is vulnerable.
The importance of your response to anxiety and panic
Both myself and the people I work with as a therapist find it useful to try to make a distinction between what you are actually aware of in your body and the thoughts that follow. The thoughts – ‘I need to make it stop’ or ‘when is it going to end’ or ‘I hope no one realises how anxious I feel’ – are often what prompts you to spiral into overwhelm.
One of the tools I recommend to help make that distinction is to notice what is happening and staying with that. Instead of trying to jump ahead as if it weren’t happening, make it clear to yourself that it is happening and it is okay for it to be happening. When you begin to feel as though you’re losing your footing and your breathing is becoming uneven, try not to make it stop or forcefully slow your breathing. Rather go along with it with awareness, don’t try to go slower or faster than your symptoms, just go with them, keep them company. People often tell me this helps to take the pressure off and make it a more bearable experience. They express that paradoxically what makes it go away is to try to not make it stop.
The importance of letting others respond to your anxiety and panic
Often there is fear: If people knew that I was suffering then they’d realise that I’m not as together as I want them to think I am. Actually, sharing your struggles with people often helps them relate to you and gives them a chance to surprise you with a response that you weren't expecting. This isn’t always the case though, so first try taking small risks: being seen by people you trust and building on these experiences, because these are the very experiences that will take away some of your anxiety’s power. Then you can begin to build more authentic relationship with others and own your experience.
How therapy can help with anxiety and panic
All of us feel anxious, to different degrees, at different times. Although these experiences share common qualities, counselling and psychotherapy can help you unearth the unique ways and contexts in which you encounter anxiety and suffer from panic attacks. Therapy can support you to uncover your deeply seated ideas of how you should be seen by others and how you shouldn’t be seen. By exploring your own relationship with vulnerability you can come to an understanding of how that shapes your relationship with people around you. Doing this work is not in an attempt to try to change you, but to support you to know yourself more so when anxiety kicks off you’re better equipped.
Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris