This morning I woke to a near debilitating panic attack. I was delirious, exhausted, and my mind and my heart were racing. Oh! and I was scheduled to deliver a keynote within the next two hours. Good morning to me!
Those of you who have been with me for awhile know that I am passionate about advocating for mental health and work to be transparent about my own challenges with panic disorder. You can hear me share a bit more about my story in a video I made for The Healthiest State Initiative “Mind Matters” project.
I’ve worked to manage my panic for the past six years. Once I got over the hardest first year, I’ve been able to keep it regularly in check with the needed amounts of self-care, awareness, and a healthy amount of non-judgmental curiosity. I went from having panic attacks daily to weekly, to monthly, and eventually only one or two episodes a year, if that. In fact, the entire first year of running my business I didn’t have a single episode. This is a little curious given it’s the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.
Cut to today. For whatever reason, I had a very unsettled night of sleeping. Something that is important to understand about panic and Anxiety is that it isn’t always conscious. I feel great, love my life, am inspired by my work, but clearly my brain is processing some unconscious stress which will often reveal itself during my sleep. Yes, it’s possible to have panic attacks while sleeping…they are about as fun as when you are awake.
After only having a few hours of restless sleep, I woke up this morning with my heart racing, brain exhausted and the sense of impending doom looming (yes that’s a technical term). My mind was in a fear fog and I needed it to lift quickly. This keynote to 150 people wasn’t going to deliver itself!
I went into the full arsenal of my tools – self-talk, deep breathing, connecting with others, and reminding myself this is temporary. Somehow, I was able to shower, dress myself, feed the dogs and make it to my location on time.
One reason I am sharing this with you all is because I think it is critical people understand that those of us with mental challenges are MASTERFUL at hiding it. But please know that even if we show up and get the job done there is still a little app running in the back of our brain that is keeping us from totally being our best selves or fully present.
Here is where the story took a turn I wasn’t prepared for. During my presentation we did a partner exercise and I partnered with a young woman. As she started to share her reflections, I noticed her eyes started to well with tears. I paused our conversation and asked her what had touched her in that way. She bravely shared that partnering with me and doing this work was triggering her social anxiety as tears streamed down her face.
Imagine, here we are in a sea of 150 people and she is revealing a very vulnerable truth. Whenever tears show up when I am with someone, I immediately shift to helping them understand that they don’t need to apologize for their tears and once more, their tears don’t make me uncomfortable.
When someone tears up with you and they default to apologizing, I challenge you to not give them a tissue right away, but to look them in the eyes and say, “the tears are here because this is important. What are the tears telling us?”
I could sense the tension in her as we explored what she needed in that moment. I finally looked her in the eye and told her “What you don’t know about me in this moment, is that less than an hour ago I was experiencing a full blown panic attack and wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to show up today and do this work. I was full of fear, shame, and worry. I am not telling you this to say I know what you are feeling, but to let you know that how you are feeling doesn’t make me uncomfortable and I will hold the space for whatever you are experiencing right now.” The tension in her shoulders started the release and soften. Eventually we were able to complete our work together where she came up with a damn powerful why statement for herself, “I make the impossible, possible.” Amazing.
Please know that sharing your fear, shame, hurt, or worry with another person isn’t a weakness. These moments allow us to shed surface level communication so we can connect on a deeper, human level. It’s amazing that in times of our greatest discomfort we can find the strongest connections.
The next time someone opens up to you about their fear, shame, hurt or worry, let go of your own discomfort and let that person know what they are experiencing is normal, ok, and most importantly, safe with you.
Today was another reminder that experiencing our own pain and discomfort gives us the capacity to hold space for someone in their own pain and discomfort. That gift makes it all worthwhile.