The first time I had a panic attack, I had no idea what was happening. I felt dazed, jittery and silly. I was speaking to a group of co-workers in an informal meeting when my thoughts, which were usually succinct, became all jumbled and my insides trembled. I was clammy and confused. Not more than five fellow teachers surrounded me at the table; yet, those five may as well been five hundred.
My throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow. My heart was racing like I was a contender in the Kentucky Derby, my thoughts zooming so fast I couldn’t corral them. Did I really have anything intelligent to say? Did they want to hear me? What if they didn’t agree with me and if so, could I convince them to?
I wanted to say something that made sense, but only fragments of thoughts became audible. The mish-mash of ideas bouncing around in my head made forming a coherent sentence impossible. Each word sounded like I was speaking under water—at least it sounded that way to me.
I was drowning, but not in water—in fear. Almost a year after this unnerving experience, I learned I’d had a panic attack. According to several experts in the area, one most likely caused by fear of being judged by my listeners, but why now?
I’d taught high school for over fifteen years and known my coworkers for just as long. I was involved in community activities and reveled in the hustle and bustle of work and family life although I’d always shied away from center stage. This ordeal, however, was more intense than a simple feeling of being uncomfortable in the spotlight. I felt like I was going to die or at the very least, tumble into unconsciousness.
The attacks became more frequent as my self-esteem plummeted. Only wimps let their minds spin out of control. Only someone with a weak constitution would feel diminished in the presence of peers.
I felt I could alleviate my problem with self-education, so I researched panic attacks and began implementing slivers of advice from those who had progressed through them and survived.
I identified my lack of self-confidence as the major culprit and my husband’s (ex) verbal abuse as a contributing factor. A few sentences into a conversation with him, and he’d cut me off. My sentences were constantly interrupted, and my ideas shattered with ridicule, making it obvious he didn’t respect me or wish to hear me. With each encounter with him, I felt more hopeless, useless and stupid.
I began breathing deeper before I’d speak up in a group. Often, I’d jot my thoughts on paper which made me feel more prepared. I told myself, my listeners only perceive me as stupid when I don’t believe in myself.
As I applied these strategies, the attacks became less intense, but were just as frequent.
Since I’m an advocate of holistic cures for what ails, I sought the help of a life-coach and implemented the behavior therapy suggested. This consisted of me reading to her and not just reading anything, but reading my own writings—everything from short pieces to short stories. So, I was practicing not only speaking, but sharing my own thoughts aloud.
At first, even one-on-one with her familiar face, as I read, my heart would beat so hard, my head would pound. Heat spread throughout my entire body making me feel like I was in a sauna. The more self-conscious I became, the faster I read, but she never once stopped me. She let me finish in my own time. She’d smile, and we’d often discuss the content, but rarely the delivery. She’d encourage me by simply commenting she could understand me better when I read slower.
As I improved, I realized that the more steadily I breathed, the more eloquently I read. Breathing, also known as “Prana,” which is Sanskrit for “Life force energy,” became a tool for instilling more than oxygen into my cells—it permeated my entire being with calm. Breathing slowly and deeply helped me to feel more confident and to speak more purposely, but my heart still pounded so loudly I could hear the rhythm in my ears, so I started preparing myself by reciting a mantra. “What I have to say is just as important as what anyone else has to say. My ideas are insightful and pertinent. When I talk, people will listen.”
It’s been three years now since my last panic attack. I tackled it face-on, by doing what scared me the most—talking in front of an audience. I volunteered to read every chance I could from small meditation classes to groups of fifty peers at monthly writer’s meetings. I began podcasting online audio of me reading my weekly newspaper columns. I presented a workshop at a writer’s conference last summer.
I accepted an invitation to host a weekly radio show which I call “Life Speaks” because indeed, life does speak to us and we will hear it, when we listen.
The more I practiced, the more I realized that I didn’t need to raise my voice or interrupt others to be heard. All I had to do was respect myself and expect to be heard.
Sure, some people still don’t want to hear me, but that’s okay because I don’t take their lack of interest personally. There are some people I’d rather not listen to either.
Listening to my own inner guidance is paramount to my happiness, and whether I’m the one listening or talking, I am grateful to always hear the message produced through prana.