Fighting off your debilitating panic attacks often seems like the only option. But is it? Struggling with chronic anxiety is like living in a boxing ring with an invisible opponent. You don't really want to be in the ring, you can't seem to find a way out, and you're not sure how you were dragged into this fight. But here you are again facing the familiar rapid pulse, shallow breathing, and intolerable dread. The harder you fight off the panic attack, the more you suffer. Each blow is more damaging than the last. Even when your opponent isn't landing punches, you live in constant fear of his looming presence. Your opponent only gains strength as you grow more mentally, physically, and emotionally depleted during the days, weeks, or even years of fighting. The opposite of fighting is surrendering, and accepting defeat does not make you a winner. Or does it?
While in counseling for my anxiety, my therapist, Ken, taught me the key to conquering his own panic attacks 30 years ago. During one of his most brutal attacks, Ken writhed on the ground, heart pounding and head spinning.
He said to himself, to God, to anyone who would listen, "I want this panic attack to be so extreme that it kills me -- because I can't do this anymore!" He gave into his panic attacks -- and in doing so, they lost their power. The invisible opponent Ken had been fighting for so many years faded away. By granting himself full permission to have panic attacks, they stopped.
Of course, I doubted Ken's method. I had already tried a variety of methods to conquer my panic attacks, including medication, but nothing eased my suffering. The idea of mentally giving myself permission to have a panic attack seemed absolutely crazy, but I was also out of options. After living in a state of "fight or flight" for nearly a year, I was starting to feel crazy, so why not treat crazy with crazy?
The next time I felt the familiar foreboding before a panic attack, I said to myself, "Go ahead, have this panic attack. It's been a stressful week and this is your way of dealing with it. Nothing bad will happen, it's just going to be uncomfortable and will only last a little while."
I actually cheered myself on, encouraging my invisible boxing opponent to do his worst. And something magical happened -- I didn't have that panic attack I was so looking forward to. As quickly as the racing thoughts and unpleasant physical symptoms had come, they disappeared. I was left sitting in complete, peaceful awe. Where I had felt helpless before, I now suddenly felt empowered.
Over and over again, this practice of acceptance proved successful -- and still does to this day. I did not eliminate my anxiety by accepting it. I ended my panic attacks by accepting both them and my anxiety. I will always have anxiety. But for the first time in my life, I don't see it as a weakness. It's a part of my personality that makes me unique and interesting. Now I view my anxiety the same way others do their shoe size or hair color. It's neither good nor bad; it just is. Because of this shift in perspective and my willingness to let go of control issues, I no longer suffer.
Have you heard the saying "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional"? I believe the key to not suffering, regardless of circumstances, is acceptance. We are told to accept what we cannot change, but what if, instead, we genuinely surrender to our circumstances until change ensues?
The last time I had a panic attack was three years ago, the same day I decided to willingly invite them into my life. Consider this: What if all that keeps you trapped in that invisible boxing ring is the belief that you have to keep fighting in order to win? It can be absolutely terrifying to sincerely accept whatever type of invisible boxer you are fighting. But achieving freedom might be just that simple. Try it yourself. What will happen to your opponent if he suddenly has nobody who will fight him?