By Gus Watkins
Beginning winter of 2013, I endured wicked panic attacks that occurred daily for five months. It was an emotionally brutal time for me. The panic attacks were a waking nightmare: “Something is wrong, and I don’t know what, and I can’t stop it from following me everywhere.” I hated them. I hated whatever was inside of me that caused them to happen. I hated myself for letting literally nothing disturb me so deeply.
=According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults (18% of U.S. population).” It is absurd that so many individuals should feel a sudden, inexplicable fear rise up from within, unbidden, unwanted, and often without knowing why. Or is it so absurd? We are born afraid, after all, and for good reason: the world is terrifying and we are helpless. We need each other. There is plenty to be afraid of, from disease to car accidents to war to the unexpected loss of someone we love.
When it became clear to me that that my anxiety attacks weren’t going to go away, I began to research and consider the nature of fear. What does it mean to be afraid? Psychologists define primary and secondary emotions, primary emotions being more primal, and sometimes hidden. The theory goes that one must work through their current feelings to delve into their actual underlying emotions, for instance, when anger with your spouse is actually caused by unprocessed feelings from your childhood. I propose to take this concept a step further. I believe that all negative emotion is fear, and all fear comes from the fear of death.
To illustrate, let’s start with an innocuous negative feeling, like embarrassment. Why should we be embarrassed about mistakes we make? The fear of losing face in front of others may cause them to ostracize or even turn on us, and since we know instinctively that human beings can’t survive alone, the monster looming behind embarrassment is actually the fear of death. What about grief? I believe that behind the pain of loss is a fear that our own survival was somehow linked to the now-absent person or thing, and we will die without them.
Then there’s anger, the other part of the fight-or-flight instinct. Anger comes from a reaction towards something we feel threatened by, along with a desire to eliminate that threat. Anger, too, is the result of something inside attempting to save our lives.
I believe we experience emotional pain similar to the way we experience physical pain. Our bodies are highly tuned. We react strongly to things that would never actually kill us, or even seriously harm us. Think about a bee sting or a toothache. These things are not typically lethal, but boy do our bodies signal us like mad when they happen. Biologists theorize that experiencing pain helps us adapt so we know not to put ourselves in harmful (or lethal) situations.
Is emotional pain so different? Things that would never actually kill us still feel terrible, and that terrible feeling is a signal from our highly tuned selves to avoid a situation that could potentially turn fatal. Imagine if you’d never experienced physical pain before, and then one day you felt it. It would be shocking, and deeply disturbing. But learning that the reaction was designed by your body to keep you from harm might help you think positively about that pain.
As the panic attacks continued to happen every day, I became less concerned about them. Of course, I still wanted them to stop, but after continuing to endure them, I began to see that my anxiety wasn’t lethal. Despite the senseless fear I felt, I forced myself to get my work done, pursue things I enjoyed, and to spend time with people I cared about and who cared about me. In short, I stopped fearing the fatality behind my anxiety.
And so, I learned to live with anxiety. Anxiety wasn’t some unknown force attacking me, it was coming from within me. It was a part of me. It was me! This profound realization still amazes me. Once I began to think about my panic attacks as something inside of me that I must learn to appreciate, I stopped hating them. They were a part of the miracle of my existence, and a brilliant way for me to know I needed to help myself. I found a way to actually love my fear.
I finally realized that in some long-forgotten hallway in the house of my consciousness, a part of me was grieving for the loss of who I was, and fearful of the changes to come. There, I became alarmed. I was trying to warn myself, trying to help myself. “Things are changing,” I was shouting inwardly, “and you should fear it!”
“No,” I learned to say back, “you do not need to be afraid, because you are not dying. You are living.”