The other day I was in the car, going to a planned play-date with some friends and their little ones, and of course I was starting to get the familiar ‘I’m-going-to-freak-out’ sensations. I had been getting the little trembles all morning, the shaking hands, the gurgling gut, the disjointed thoughts…all of the fun things that us panic-disorder sufferers get to experience on a daily basis. Thankfully, I’m better at pushing through those sensations (compared to how I was say…two years ago, when a slightly gurgling belly would have me instantly texting to say “Can’t come, sorry!” while sitting on the loo) but of course, it’s still a pain in the ass to have those feelings hanging around. So there I am, sitting in the car, trying to distract myself from everything that’s currently rushing around in my head, and I remember something that someone recently told me called ‘the perspective scale’.
Basically the idea is that you rate what you’re scared of on a scale of 1-100, 1 being not so terrible, and 100 being the most terrible thing you can imagine. If you’re anything like me, the fear of going out and having a panic attack rates at about a 99. I mean, why wouldn’t it? It’s terrifying! You then think of some truly terrible things…for example, losing all your family and friends in a natural disaster, or someone close to you becoming terminally ill, etc., and rate those on the scale. All the things I thought of also rated a 99, if not 100. Then you go back, and consider again the idea of going out and having a panic attack – is it really a 99, compared to the other truly awful things one can go through? Really?
Of course not! When you put it into perspective, having a panic attack really isn’t the worst thing you can go through, regardless of how terrifying it can feel. Obviously, this perspective scale isn’t exactly a cheery method (sure, let’s make a list of all the horrendously awful things that could happen, and rate just how awful they’d be – what fun!), but it did make it clear to me that ‘perspective’ is really quite an alien concept to people suffering with anxiety and panic disorder. We spend so much time dreaming up the worst case scenario, but put into perspective, those worst case scenarios really aren’t ‘worst case’ at all.
Now, if you’re someone who fears that a panic attack will kill you, then sure, it’s extremely hard to gain perspective on that. But let’s throw some fact into that: nobody has ever died from a panic attack. A panic attack is just a rush of adrenaline into your blood stream that prepares your body to fight, freeze or flee. So yes, it will make your hands shake, it will make your heart beat faster, it will make you sweat and lose focus and feel as if you are in danger. But it won’t kill you. And to put a panic attack into perspective – it isn’t the worst thing you can go through. Are you still alive and standing? Yeah, you are.
One of my favourite quotes (which my lovely friend Anna was kind enough to send me in a print that I now have framed on my wall) is “So far you have survived 100% of your worst days – You’re doing great.” I love this quote because it reminds me that out of all the horrible things I’ve been through, all the anxiety, all the panic, all the worries and the fears – the ones that didn’t happen and the ones that did – I’m still here. I’m still standing. I coped, even in those times where it seemed I was barely functioning at a ‘normal’ level, I still got through. And in the grand ol scheme of things, all that stuff was more of a learning curve and growing experience rather than an awful, horrific tragedy.
Perspective is almost like a blind spot for those with anxiety – we just can’t see it. We lay awake at night worrying about tomorrow, or ruminating about something stupid we said several days ago, but we never stop to consider if these are things that really, genuinely matter. And unfortunately, the more time we spend thinking like this, the more of a bizarre concept ‘putting things into perspective’ really becomes. There is a part of me that always wants to defend my anxiety, and if someone had said to me a few years back ‘you know, all the shit you worry about isn’t actually that big a deal in the scheme of things…’ I probably would’ve wanted to smack them upside the head. Of course its a big bloody deal, you ignoramus, I’d be thinking, if it wasn’t I wouldn’t be housebound!! The thing is, however, the more you defend your position, the harder it is to really see things clearly…and see them in perspective. So don’t get me wrong…I’ve lived through panic disorder, agoraphobia, I’ve been in the darkest of places in my mind and at the time, it was a huge fucking deal, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go back there, either. I’m not saying that panic attacks and anxiety disorder is no biggie. What I am saying, however, is that in order to come back from that place, you need to start thinking in terms of what really matters.
For example, when I’m driving in the car and I start to get panicky about where I’m going, I ask myself two questions.
1. What am I afraid of right now?, and
2. Is that really the worst thing that could happen?
Usually what I’m afraid of consists of things like ‘I’m scared I won’t be able to get to where I’m going’, ‘I’m scared I’ll have a panic attack’, or my personal favourite ‘I’m worried I might shit myself from fear’. So, out of the three of those fun fears, one of which has never happened and really has no place being a legitimate fear in my head, when I ask if those are the worst things that could happen, the answer is always a resounding ‘no’. Having a panic attack in the car? Been there, done that, countless times. Not being able to get to where I’m going? Also been there (or not) done that, plenty of times. Lived to tell the tale. Shitting myself out of fear? Hasn’t yet happened, 99.9% chance it won’t. And if it does, well gee, it’s not like I’m doing it on a stage in front of the entire world. I’ll survive (Car upholstery may not).
When you throw a little perspective on your anxiety, it’s like shining a light on all the bullshit you tell yourself to feed your fear, and you can see where you’ve completely dropped the rational ball and just run wild with your what-if’s. It’s so easy for us to get carried away with worries because we’re stuck in our own head. Imagine if you wrote down every single worry and fear that popped into your head over the course of a day, and then read them all out to a room full of people – I’m certain that you’d be able to see as you were reading which worries and fears were just completely and utterly unimportant. And yet we let ourselves run away with these fears and anxieties, sometimes until the early hours of the morning, until we go to sleep to wake up and start the process exactly where we left off.
In order to escape from this exhausting cycle of worry, worry, rinse, repeat, you need to start considering what is really important, and changing the meaning of the things you consider to be important. In five years from now, is it going to matter that you had a panic attack? No. (Actually, the fact that you had a panic attack means that in five years from now you will probably be a much stronger, more empathetic person…but that’s a whole other blog post). Is worrying about events in the future going to change the outcome? No. Are any of the ‘what-if’s’ you fill your head with actually going to happen? Probably not – and if they do, you’ll find a way to get through.
Perspective is a wonderful thing, and a concept I’m going to be trying much harder to familiarise myself with. The next time you find yourself worrying about having a panic attack, or something else – try to remember that in the grand scheme of things, whatever you’re anxious about is probably not the worst thing that could happen, and at the end of your life you’re sure as hell not going to look back and say “Gee, all my worries and fears about X were spot on, I’m so glad I spent so much time ruminating about all that stuff…!”
I’ll leave you with the words of Mark Twain –
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened”