“You are not disabled”.
Some of the most useful words ever spoken to me by a psychiatrist.
My first reaction? He’s wrong. I AM disabled. Look at how hard it is for me to leave my apartment and go to class every day, to socialize, to do spontaneous and unexpected things.
Then I took a step back, and thought about it.
Anxiety is a disease (literally, dis-ease) of the mind. Though I may fear or experience many unpleasant sensations, thoughts, and emotions, none of these are actually preventing me from accomplishing anything. I have trained myself, out of fear and discomfort, to not want to do certain things, but no physical problem is standing in my way.
That’s not to say that any of this is easy. In fact, it can be very hard. The good news is that it can never be impossible. Anxiety has interrupted my daily life for so long because I have allowed it to do so. This isn’t to say that my altered lifestyle is my fault, or that it means I am weak and cowardly; anxiety is a legitimate disorder that causes real, awful sensations. It demands treatment, self-acceptance, and work. The newer, more rational parts of the brain, the “higher self”, is locked in battle with the older, more primitive part of the brain that, when it’s triggered, says “FLEE!”. This fight-or-flight response will do its very best to convince you that you are in mortal danger. When your own mind is telling you that you are going to die, right here, right now, it’s hard not to listen. The good news: YOU WILL NOT DIE. Not here, not now. No matter how awful you feel in the moment, these are just thoughts. Observe these thoughts from the vantage point of your higher self. Take a bird’s-eye view of the situation. Each thought, when viewed from this perspective, is an interesting new experience. It can’t consume you or take control of your life. Take a moment to feel that really bad feeling that your body is giving you, and appreciate the massive power of your own mind. This power, though currently misplaced, is always yours. When you aren’t panicking, this vast resource can be directed to much more pleasant ends: love, learning, acts of compassion.
Of course, I understand that all this isn’t easy to remember mid panic-attack. Your body is being flooded with a cocktail of hormones, your thoughts are racing, and nothing feels right or ok. With practice, though, you will be able to remind yourself of these truths, and panic attacks will feel less and less threatening. Think of each new panic attack as an opportunity to practice, to observe your symptoms, knowing they can’t actually harm you, and admire the trickiness of the most ancient levels of your consciousness. Sometimes, a cue word or mantra can help: instead of trying to have a complex argument of reason with your distressed and racing thoughts, simply obliterate them with a calming, powerful one: “I can do anything”. “Thank you, you can go now”. “You cannot control me”. “I will outlast you every time”. Above all, revel in the fact that you are free to do whatever you allow yourself to do. If you have physical limitations, they are separate. I remember so clearly the feeling of liberation as I wanted out of the doctor’s office and all the way home, thinking: I am not disabled! I am not disabled! I am free! Anxiety can make us all feel absolutely crippled, but that is all it can do. Recognize that it is trying to fool you, laugh at yourself, and start bravely moving forward– as many times as it takes.