We all have our challenges, and certainly, mine are not as difficult to fight as some that many of you are battling. But I also believe that facing our challenges is how we as humans grow. Something Drew brought up to me the other day, as I worried about this newest challenge I’m facing is a quote from one of my favorite movies. In The Princess Diaries, Princess Mia’s father writes her a letter before he passes away and part of the letter reads “Courage is not the Absence of Fear, but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear. The Brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all” I’ve been repeating this mantra quite frequently lately as I faced one of my biggest fears this week.
For me, the scariest kind of challenge is not heights, speed, or even spiders, (Although I’m not particularly fond of spiders…) no, one of my biggest fears is spending all day in a classroom. I am currently taking a 3 week real estate course, and on the first day, I had an awesomely impressive Panic Attack. I wrote the following while in the grips of the attack, and wanted to share with the world, the inner workings of a Panic Attack mind. Because I want to preserve the rawness of the moment, I haven’t edited, meaning it may jump around, or not be written in perfect grammar. Sorry about that in advance, but I think it helps to get across how a Panic Attack mind works in the moment. Hopefully you find it helpful, either as a fellow anxiety warrior, or as someone who loves one.
Today is the first day of my real estate course, and my preparations began last week. I began working on my strategies for being successful in the class, such as getting enough sleep, going to the gym, sitting in the back of the room, and having good, realistic success goals. Classrooms are scary for me for many different reasons. First, a lot of my anxiety comes from feeling trapped. While I know classrooms have doors, and I’m not physically trapped, there is an expectation that you stay in class, in order to get the attendance points. I can’t leave without losing these points, which are what I need to pass.
There’s also the social aspect of it. I don’t want people to think I’m flaky, or be concerned about me being sick. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. So getting up to go to the bathroom, (to breathe and deal with my anxiety) 16 times is a little attention drawing, and is therefore out as an option.
Another issue is that I am sitting still. Classrooms don’t really offer the option to move about, walk around, sit on the floor, etc. My anxiety is kept at bay often by the act of moving around, at home I’m always fiddling with something, doing chores, walking the dog, etc. Many people say they can’t believe how busy I am, but what they don’t understand is that busyness is what keeps me sane, often. So in a classroom, I’m not allowed to move around, (understandably, because it would distract other people,) but that makes my anxiety ten times worse.
Finally, this class is especially rough because it is 8 hours long. I’m there from 8:30am to 5:00pm. Which makes for a very long time to fight the monster that is my anxiety. As I’ve said before, I’m always fighting off my anxiety, but sometimes it gets the best of me. So the longer I fight a heightened anxiety level, the harder it is to starve off a panic attack. Classes this long tend to push the limits of my “magic” abilities when it comes to keeping my anxiety in check.
With all that said, I think my first day was rather successful. Part of living with anxiety is setting realistic goals and being kind to yourself. My goal for today was to go to the class, and stay for the whole time. I told myself it was fine if I had a panic attack, but I hoped I wouldn’t.
I did just fine until about 2pm, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly the room spun around me, which shot involuntary panic up my spine. Anxiety attacked full force in that split second of panic, and suddenly I was dealing with a cold sweat, dizziness, nausea, a racing heart, and a clenched stomach. In that moment, I was taken from the defensive line, straight to clean-up duty. I began with a trip to the bathroom. I used the facilities, and then spent a few moments doing jumping jacks, to get some energy out, pacing, to move my body and relieve the adrenaline factor, and put some wet, cold paper towels on my neck and forehead to cool off. I also took my jacket off to get cold, because that usually helps.
Once I had a bit of the edge off, I returned to my seat and began to use some of my other coping mechanisms. First, I pulled out my phone and texted my friend, Rachel*, who is in this anxiety warrior battle with me. I asked if she had time to text with me and help me get through the rest of the class. She, being the wonderful human being she is, responded with coping reminders, and pictures of puppies.
Next I switched from actively learning to listening, and writing out how I was feeling, hence this dialog. I followed along in the book, but did not take notes on what the instructor was saying. While I know this is not an ideal learning style, after years of trial and error, I have learned that it is much better to figure out how to remain in class and just listen than it is to leave class and let anxiety keep me from my education. I can study hard at home tonight and ask questions tomorrow in class when I have recovered. As long as I sit in class, all day, no matter what notes I take, I count it as a successful day.
While doing these things I kept my breathing steady and deep. I also tried to focus on all things I know to be true, and wrote these things down. “My anxiety cannot kill me, this is just a phase in my day, I just have to sit here and do nothing else, I can leave it I choose to, my anxiety is not me, there is no immediate danger,” writing these things out, over and over, helps convince my brain that they are true.
At this point, class ended and I was able to go home. But I would like to talk a little bit about some reflections I did after I got home that day. I think reflecting on what caused the attack and what i could have done to help myself be even more successful is very useful in this life-long battle.
First, I made a seating mistake. Normally, the best place for me in a room like this is to sit in the back. That way I don’t have people sitting behind me and I don’t worry about not being able to see those people. I also try to sit on edges so that I don’t feel as trapped. I violated both of these rules on Monday, by sitting near the front of the classroom and on an inside seat. I felt weird being the first person in the room and sitting in the back row. In other words, I let the judgements of others limit my success. Don’t do that people. Do what you need to do to be successful, and don’t let the judgements of other stop you.
Second, I drank coffee. I know better, but the room was so cold, and the warm coffee looked so good, so I had a cup. Caffeine and anxiety do not go well together. At all. If you have anxiety, I HIGHLY recommend you cut off all caffeine intake as soon as you can. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much better you feel on a daily basis. I switched to de-caffeinated tea and water about 2 years ago, and once the caffeine headaches went away after about 2 weeks, I have never looked back.
It was about an hour after I drank the coffee that the full-blown attack hit, so I think that just pushed it over the edge.
In short, I survived my first day of school and the next few days, I made sure to only drink echinacea tea, I took an calming herbal supplement in the mornings, and I brought my stress-ball to class. But the best part of this story, and the part I want you to remember, is that I STAYED IN CLASS, and I SURVIVED! You can to. When you face a situation where you think your anxiety is going to get the best of you, FIGHT BACK. My Mom, in her incredible wisdom, always told me “You can do anything anyone else can do, you just have to do it differently.” And being different is what makes us all so special. Remember that “Courage is not the absence of fear.” I challenge you to be courageous and face your fears. You can do it.
Let me know in the comments what battles or challenges you are facing or have faced, or if you have any questions about my coping mechanisms. I would love to hear from you.
*Rachel’s name has been changed to protect her privacy