Friday, July 9, 2010

Exploring Fear

I used to have panic attacks.

Beginning in my late teens, and continuing until my early thirties, every now and then I would experience sudden, intense fear. I knew, just knew, that everyone noticed and was watching me, which only made it worse. I would get very warm, my heart would pound, and I'd sweat profusely. And my only thoughts would be of escape. Of finding somewhere cooler, where I could collect my thoughts, where people would not be looking at me, where I could breathe again.

My attacks tended to happen in public places, often when meeting new people. At a party, for example. I'd begin to feel self-conscious when I would have to talk about myself. Where I went to school, or what I did for a living. Hobbies. If someone showed an interest in what I had to say, my face would begin to feel flush, and then I would start to sweat. When I would stand in line in a store, I worried about what other people would think of the things I had in my cart. When I was out with my parents (later my mom), and would see people we knew, just the casual conversations would make me feel incredibily self-conscious. I remember a law school exam when my brain simply stopped. Overwhelmed by caffeine, lack of sleep, and the guilt of having skipped most of the classes, I had to walk out.

I never saw anyone about this. I was terrified to talk about it. But I got to know my fear, and the situations that might bring it on, intimately. Routines were okay, but I learned to avoid new things because they made me so uncomfortable. I learned strategies for dealing with it, actions that I could take that might lessen the chances of an attack. Unfortunately, drinking worked. But exercise worked better. Some kinds of deep breathing seemed to help, too. And ultimately, meditation put a stop to it.

I learned much later that my experiments with fear had a basis in science. Fear is driven by the amygdala, at the center of what has been called the "lizard brain." The amygdala releases adrenaline, among other things, as part of the fight or flight response. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins that calm the amygdala. Meditation, or even deep breathing, can do the same, giving us a split second before the fear kicks in. That split second can separate bad choices from good ones.

When we live in fear, much of life is on autopilot. We are driven by the lizard brain, reacting before thought. Our behavior is unconscious and often instantaneous. We often wonder later why we behaved the way that we did. But in the moment, there is seemingly no choice.

As we work with our fear, we become less afraid of it. I am grateful now for all I had to do to become a reasonably functional human being. My attacks were never all that frequent, but they did happen enough to worry me. And when my amygdala finally began to settle down, my life began to change in all kinds of wonderful ways.

I don't think any of us completely escapes fear--the wiring is simply too strong. But we can see it for what it is, and in doing so, open to other possibilities.


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