Imagine, just for a second, what would happen if life, as you’ve been living it up to this point, completely stopped in its tracks. I don’t mean it in the sense that you’ve hit a dead-end or that you need to take a moment to catch your breath. The road’s still quite visibly in front of you, full of its intersections, pathways, and decisions to make, and you’re not tired. You’re not needing to rest a bit and get on your merry way. What I mean by saying your life “stops” is that you are paralyzed. Fear, doubt, and confusion are nailing you to the floor, and all you can do is sit there and stare in awe at how fast everything else is going, and at how stale, boring and useless you’ve become. For some, this process could last mere moments, for others, some months of getting used to, and for unlucky fellows such as myself, it can be a long lasting struggle. Having now come out on the “winning” side of the whole thing, I believe I can speak with some confidence about what has happened and how it affects many of us.
Something I consider to be very important is understanding the concept of “anxiety”, and how it can work differently for different people.
Anxiety disorders are, according to the CDC, the most common class of mental disorders amongst the general population – and yet, none of this information ever makes it to school, to conferences or even – God forbid -television.
Only in recent years can you sometimes spot the odd coverage of an isolated incident in some early-afternoon talk show, right in between the usual prize segment and the one dedicated to that one bloke who still hasn’t found the perfect slice of pizza, or some other food-related nonsense. This is because of what I believe to be a “taboo” approach to issues which affect the mind. People believe that if they don’t talk about it, maybe this won’t affect them or may just go away on its own.
It is not limited to anxiety, things such as depression get the exact same treatment. They’re “awkward to talk about”, they get people uneasy and bring uncomfortable stuff to the table. Physical ailments are all fine and dandy, but the second that something like anxiety gets brought up at any social occasion, you always get those side-glances and those “yeah, pack it in” kind of looks. I do have to admit that discussion has been broadened on that front, and people are much more open currently to having a conversation about these things than when I first started experiencing them, but seeing as it’s something still worth improving (and critiquing on some regards), allow me to take you on a small(ish) trip back in time with a much younger me.
I was about eighteen years old when I first experienced a panic attack.
For the aforementioned reasons, the definition of anxiety or even its consequences were something entirely alien to my juvenile and carefree mind, which due to the overwhelming sense of adrenaline being pumped through my system felt much more inclined to tell itself that I was having a heart-attack.
Only later in life would I completely understand what happened during those moments and what mechanisms triggered it. The first time a doctor uttered the word “anxiety” at me, I remember feeling both a bit relieved and entirely confused. How could something I considered being so ordinary, be the cause of such distress? Everybody had been anxious at one point or another. Either due to an oral presentation or asking somebody out. But not quite to this extent. At the time, everything seemed too broad to be understood. Hardships would seem like impossibilities due to these false feelings of dread my own system was using against me.
I have heard someone once describe this kind of anxiety as a self-diagnosed terminal illness – and as dramatic and shocking as it may sound, I can’t help but feel like there is some truth to it.
You cease to believe in yourself and you stop feeling able to do things that you normally would, in that sense a feeling of “life-as-you-knew-it” has ended settles in, which does go hand in hand with the idea of life being over.
Taking the train? Too hard, too many people. Attending a party? Too many variables. Just going out for a walk? Too risky, what if you feel a panic attack once more? What if you pass out and fall over, or even worse, what if you just lose your mind and things stop making sense, leaving the whole world to tumble around you. It’s these kinds of thoughts that slowly build themselves in your mind until they erect a kind of mental prison for your precious and fragile self.
This gets me to my main issue with the whole deal: The solutions. Or as doctors would put it, the medication. Now, to make something absolutely clear, I am not against medication at all and consider it in many cases a valuable help and resource. What I feel strongly against is the overreliance on medication that chooses to ignore all other aspects of a healthy lifestyle.
Exercise, socializing, dating, reading, studying. These are all part of the solution, yet most of the time you are given the medication and sent home to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, without realizing that it is your lifestyle that needs to change, not your brain chemistry.
It was during one of my many therapy sessions that I got acquainted with what is known as the “Fight-or-Flight” mechanism. A theory developed by Walter Bradford Cannon to describe primitive animal behavior. It is also applicable to how our brain functions in a perilous situation. Your entire organism gets ready to deal with a stressful situation, secreting several hormones and putting you in a position where you can either choose offense or defense as a means of solving your distress. During panic attacks, I was very used to try and find a place to retire myself to. The Flight option, if you will. Up to this point in time, I had been an expert in avoiding social interactions or situations that would put me on the spot when it comes to dealing with anxiety. I would rather pretend I was too busy or was sick than to have to face my own friends and let it slip how horrible I was feeling. How incapable I was of being happy and going out and “seizing the day” as all youngsters should. Many people do this when suffering from anxiety – they hide, and run, and find a place they deem safe to live out their days. I still do it from time to time, avoid going to a crowded place or avoid a big event, because my anxiety and panic might act up and I’ll have no safety nets. I remember clearly that I had many opportunities to be invited to parties, which in all honesty seemed fun, and would be well spent with people who meant something to me, but which I had to decline due to sheer fear of how my organism might react. But it’s at this very moment I would like to bring the other option out into the mix. Fight.
Most of us associate Fighting with violence, with an aggressive action. Coming from me, whom I have always considered being a pacifist of sorts, the idea of fighting might seem a tad preposterous.
The truth is, after years of experimentation with pills and not feeling like I was getting anywhere, I needed a new strategy, a new outlook on life. And if the “usual” ways weren’t doing the trick, then I would need to go off the grid for a while.
It was around this time that I got heavily into Martial arts. Be it in movies, anime or even real life. I made a decision. I decided to drop the lifestyle I had been living up to that point in time and to try out what the “Fight” side of things had to offer. I joined a Martial Arts club, got healthier, also slimmer and faster. Within weeks I was able to contain my anxiety in ways that I hadn’t been able to in years. And if I felt like a panic attack was about to happen, I wouldn’t run. I would choose to stand my ground and face it. It is a very tricky thing to be on a social occasion and pretend like everything is fine, whilst feeling like you are about to explode from the inside. But once it’s mastered, it can actually be one of the most useful skills in life. Self-control is key when dealing with delicate and complicated situations. I can live a normal life now, one which sometimes requires a bit more effort, but nobody said living was easy. Everybody has their own demons to battle.
I have decided to share this story not just to those who, like me, suffer from anxiety – but to all who face hardships and struggles in their personal lives. I think there is value in learning to Fight.
Sometimes through physical means, like the ones I employed, but most of the times through the embodiment of the concept itself. By not letting yourself stay down, by choosing to fight your fears on your own terms. It isn’t really something groundbreaking to admit one needs to fight to stay alive, but I would take it one step further. It’s not that you need to fight, it is that you need to learn how to do it, efficiently.
There is an art to fighting, one that all generals, all philosophers, and all leaders are acquainted with. To struggle and shake your fists up in the air is not the same as evaluating your position and defining a winning strategy.
The greatest enemy you will ever face is always staring at you from across a mirror and the people who manage great things in life are the ones who are able to face it head on with the tools they have acquired in their previous defeats.
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