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Defense Mode How I Finally Found Relief From My Cataclysmic Panic Attacks

The AE Team

The AE Team

5 min read
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This is the story of how I had cataclysmic level panic attacks and my realization of how to stop them. When I say cataclysmic level, I mean I was curled up in a fetal ball on the floor screaming "I don't want to die" while meanwhile it was a bright, sunny day with zero threat. Another time, I was on an airplane and absolutely convinced that, for whatever reason, I was going to fall through the airplane to my death. It was such an absurd notion that I could even logically see that the laws of physics would not change just for me, but my body didn't seem to get the message. So I just sat in extreme panic until the plane landed.

Every night in my apartment in Seattle, as the sun would set, a massive amount of panic would set in, and I didn't know how to handle it. Everything I did seemed to make it worse. I remember being out on my boat with some friends, with everything seeming OK externally, but internally I was freaking out and barely holding it together. It was really bad.

A few months later a group of us went to go see How to Train Your Dragon 2 in theaters, and about three-quarters of the way through the movie, I was wrestling with my own anxiety internally like I always did . . . and then something changed. Before, the thoughts were always "Fight the anxiety, fight the anxiety, fight the anxiety, I should be able to do something! I should not have anxiety. I am feeling anxious. But I shouldn't feel anxious. But I shouldn't feel that I'm feeling anxious. So now I'm just stupid, but I know that I shouldn't feel that I'm stupid, and then just more anxiety. Now, I feel guilty for feeling all of these things. And I'm just stressed out. But I shouldn't even feel stressed out.”

That was my normal loop, which happened pretty much every waking hour. It got to the point where I would be grateful for the first five seconds I was awake, because that part of my brain hadn’t booted up yet and I had some momentary peace.

So anyway, about three-quarters of the way through the movie I remember thinking, “I'm done. I refuse to play this game anymore. I'm not going to do the game of trying to fix and resist my anxiety anymore. I quit. If my anxiety overwhelms me and kills me, then so be it. But I am done." And the weird thing is . . . As soon as I had that thought, the anxiety stopped pretty darn immediately.

The profound realization I had during the movie is that the thing I was calling anxiety wasn’t the sensation of overwhelm and panic I felt. It was the response of me trying to suppress how I felt, and control it, and deny it, and fix it. Once I stopped denying it, stopped resisting it, and stopped trying to fix it . . . the anxiety went away.

I was sitting there in the movie and thinking “There's the feeling, cool. It's getting bigger. It's getting bigger. It's getting bigger. It's getting bigger.”. . . and then it crested, like a wave. . . . and the anxiety was gone.

Think about this for a second. What if the most wise, loving, attuned response that you could give yourself was to do nothing? Not some old, cold, uncaring, resigned “I give up” feeling. But instead a loving, caring, holding response. What if the wisest thing to do is to realize that it is the abandonment of these feelings that causes the anxiety, and to invite them back in, rather than trying to suppress them? To invite them back into you, rather than trying to get rid of them, control them, change them, tweak them, suppress them, ignore them, deny them. During that movie, I realized the answer was to stop playing the game entirely. Stop fighting the anxiety. Realize that, yes, occasionally you’ll have feelings that get a little bit big, but they will never be more than big feelings until you resist them.

The dominant western cultural story isn’t helpful here. It says, “You shouldn't feel that way. Feelings are bad. Feelings are evil. Don't let your emotions get the best of you. Don't feel angry. Don't be sad. Be happy. Don't feel this way. Feel that way.

Some feelings are bad. Some feelings are good. You shouldn't feel the ones that are bad. If you are feeling the ones that are bad, don't. And if you continue to, then it's a character judgment and a moral failing on your part.” But what we've taught ourselves as a society is to just disconnect, drink, take drugs. Do what you need to do, so you don't feel the pain. Look at your phone!

“Feelings are bad. If you have a headache, don't go and fix the headache. Don't figure out what's wrong. Just take Tylenol, and you don't even notice you have a headache. And then you're good,” our culture says. However, the answer to those overwhelmed feelings is to go toward them, and allow the feelings to happen, and let your body take over and do what it does best.

Our body has an inbuilt uncomfortable feeling resolution mechanism. It has a way of emotional regulation that works without you having to do anything. In other words, your nervous system already has a way to deal with and resolve those big feelings.

If you’ve ever watched Scooby Doo, you know what I’m talking about. Shaggy and Scooby are always shaking in fear. So here’s my question to you:

Why shaking? Are they cold? As it turns out, the shaking is our nervous systems way of resolving the pent-up energy that comes from overwhelm. If it is allowed to take its course, then those feelings get resolved. If you’d like to know more, I’d highly suggest reading The Revolutionary Trauma Release Exercises by Dr. David Bercelli and In An Unspoken Voice by Dr. Peter Levine.

We also have another article on the vagus nerve here, which is the physiological underpinnings of Defense Mode.

Note: This is an excerpt from our book "Surviving & Thriving With Asperger's". Get the whole book here.

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