I was in college at the time when I experienced my first panic attack. On the outside, everything seemed great in my life and like I had no reason to be anything but happy. I was studying at a good college, I had a good group of friends, I was getting good grades, I was attractive and healthy, my parents and family love me, etcetera, etcetera. Yet, despite going over these factors in my mind, I continued to experience general anxiety throughout every day and night.
I had terrible difficulty sleeping and felt surrounded by enormous fear. I felt so off, like something was so wrong that I must be dying but, I felt ridiculous thinking that and refused to tell anyone about it. I was so afraid this was going to be how I felt every day for the rest of my life. I was in fear constantly and I had no idea what I was actually afraid of.
I felt lost, alone, confused, and very, very ashamed about it – ‘There must be something wrong with me because everything is great on the outside and my life is in order’ but, it felt like chaos on the inside.
I didn’t know who to talk to and I was too afraid of being looked at differently by the people I love most – I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously anymore, or would think I’m crazy or that something IS truly wrong with me. I was terrified to admit what I was feeling. I didn’t want it to be real so I acted like it wasn’t.
But the fear felt all encompassing and like a shadow I could never escape. All I wanted was for it to go away. School helped distract me with the constant studying and doing homework, stressing over papers and exams. But one day I had a panic attack during a lecture. I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
Fortunately, I came across the book “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, very soon after that panic attack. It was the courageously raw sharing of her story, that served as a beacon of light in the storm that I was experiencing. She lived it, the breaking down, falling apart, panic attacks, depression and was still able to look at it honestly and slowly to heal the pieces of herself. I didn’t feel so hopeless anymore. I didn’t feel so alone and I didn’t feel as ashamed. I still didn’t understand my anxiety and experience yet, but I was beginning to accept it’s reality. And that’s what I needed first.
I began a practice of journaling, inspired by Gilbert’s story. It was strange at first. I felt like someone could see my writing and I felt embarrassed about it – shame was creeping in, but I kept writing, I had to. My intention was to begin expressing my feelings, to get them to move outside of myself since I had been holding them in for so long. The built up emotional pressure inside was the cause for my panic attacks, like a volcano constantly on the brink of eruption and exploding with force from the slightest of tremors. Once I began journaling, my anxiety attacks subsided.
To this day, any time I feel a bubbling of emotion, I write it out. Usually I just start a stream of writing my immediate thoughts and feelings. Especially when fear or anxiety is involved, I write down all that I’m feeling afraid of while being mindful of whether or not I’m allowing shame to hide anything.
I can’t always define emotions easily, sometimes I scribble just because that’s what the emotion feels like. Sometimes when the emotion feels stuck I’ll work out to get the energy moving. Sometimes I’ll dance or sing to music that feels harmonious to the emotion. Sometimes I write poems describing the images, the color, the texture, the movement, even a story of the emotion. Sometimes it feels like a storm, with seas churning and spitting, wind howling and taunting. Other times it might feel like honey, smooth and glowing warm.
Nothing expressed has to be beautiful or has to make sense to anyone else, just as long as it feels true to what you’re feeling at that time. It just needs to move and to be seen. Connecting body with mind. The expression feels true to me when I feel a sense of harmony between my thoughts and emotions rather than discord and confusion. I also usually feel a sense of relief or peace in the conscience. My mind and body can rest.
I think it would do the world wonders if authentic expression and time for reflection were valued and facilitated more widely in society. Journaling became one of the most honest and rewarding practices for my mental health. Taking time to express and reflect on my experiences has lead me to a better understand of what my emotions are communicating to me, how to respond to them better, and what actions I may need to take. The better I understand myself, the easier it is for me to share my experiences and connect with others. It is rarely easy to vulnerably share ourselves, but I find this quote to serve as encouragement:
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
– Dr. Seuss
Today I rarely feel anxiety like I did while in college. It doesn’t have to scream as loud as it did before to get my attention. Now it can just give a small knock on my door and I’ll know there’s something I need to see.