Bella Mackie: What I’ve Learned From Years Of Panic Attacks

19th May, 2021 1:42 pm

What scares you the most? Perhaps not the big existential fears you have at 3am, the ones which hurtle through a dream and jolt you awake and are so truly horrible it’s a wonder you manage to fall asleep again. Maybe just the constant ones that hum in your day to day life. Driving on a motorway, public speaking, spiders, flying. I could list a hundred more. Pick one. People tend to choose one of two ways to deal with these fears. There are those who clamp their hands over their ears and shake their heads and refuse to engage with the scary thing. And then there are those who rush towards whatever it is that is freaking them out, hoping to tackle it head on and get it over with. I am naturally inclined to go with the first option. Sadly for me, those of you who instinctively take the second path are the ones doing it right.

If you ignore a fear, try to squash it, sit on it, smother it, it mushrooms. I had a panic attack on the Tube when I was 18. I didn’t take the Tube again for 15 years. I told myself I was handling it just fine, traversing this sprawling, gridlocked city by bus or on foot, always being late for everything. But all the while, the fear cemented itself. “If you still won’t go on the Tube, then it must truly be a terrible place,” whispered my brain every time I passed a station. Every 45-minute bus ride somewhere when I could’ve been there in 10 reinforced the fear. Justified it. Made it bigger.

I used this useless squashing method until I was 30 and finally realised I was in danger of becoming shut in my flat. Going to the shop at the top of my road felt dangerous in my mind. I was shutting down everything in order to feel safe. I never felt safe. Cue urgent therapy.

Since then, I’ve learnt to rush towards the thing that scares me. Rush might well be an overstatement. I cautiously circle it, put a foot in, send some texts, look around, stretch. What I’m saying is, it takes some practise. It feels horrible. But it works. Tube journeys of precisely one stop until my heart stopped pounding. Then two stops. Then three. Then long trips. Until it was boring. Gloriously boring. Until I could stand with my head under someone else’s armpit and feel only mild annoyance instead of paralysing panic. Who knew a damp and malodorous Tube carriage could make me feel so free?

I took the same approach to flying, lifts, crowded places, hair dye (don’t ask), nuts, driving alone, eating alone, public speaking. The opposite of fear, for me, is not enjoyment. It’s boredom. When you’re used to being highly anxious on a flight, you might never get to a place where you’re having a great time, excited for a tiny gin and tonic which costs £8. Thrilled to sit next to someone else’s toddler whose new thing is screaming a lot. But you can hope to be bored. Bored is great. Your heart rate doesn’t change. You’re not frantically looking for exits (don’t do that on planes, the air stewards hate it), you’re just eye rolling, deep sighing, done with it already. Now I can get on a plane and fall asleep almost immediately because I’m bored of being bored. The blissful feeling of ennui. I took exposure therapy so far that the one time I walked past a trapeze school, I booked in for a session purely because it looked terrifying. And it was. But I did it and it wasn’t as terrifying as I’d imagined. I didn’t want to keep doing it until I was bored though. My legs hurt for days. I have limits.

As with everything in my life, once I think I’ve cracked something, I don’t tend to keep it up. I triumphantly proclaim that I love the Tube (everyone who commutes daily thinks I’m an idiot), and forget I have to keep up my exposure to it. If I haven’t taken it in a few weeks I might start feeling a bit breathless as I descend into the tunnel and feel surprised. I thought we’d agreed, brain, that we had cracked this one?

The pandemic has obviously forced me to stop exposing myself (that sounds wrong) to situations that scare me. And as a result, lots of fears, new and old, have crept into my brain. “Can’t push back on this one, you’ve got to stay in your house!” they screech. And I had to concede, they had me there. I stayed in my house, and my anxieties mushroomed. But the rules are lifting, and I have started from the bottom again. I’m not rushing towards big fears, but really little ones. Go stand in a queue and don’t panic when someone near you is maskless. Do it again tomorrow. Good. Now do it again. Bored yet? Again.

The thing about exposure techniques is that you have to keep them going. Forever, in my case, since my brain comes up with endless frightening ideas. Trudge towards them, even as they look large. Objects appear smaller when they’re in the rear view mirror.

Source: Vogue, May 2021

Categorised in: