I couldn't breathe. I thought I was developing Asthma in my early 20s, so I asked a few people I knew who had it about their symptoms. Apparently, what I was experiencing was different. How could a doctoral student in counseling psychology not know she was having panic attacks?
I lived with anxiety for many years before it escalated to that level. It began in high school, mostly surrounding relationships with others, and not being able to cope with imperfection and setbacks. Worrying felt like control. If I thought about things that might happen in the future, and replayed all possible scenarios, maybe I could prepare and get things right. Somehow I didn't notice it wasn't working.
By the time I got to college, I had severe lower back pain, but didn't know why. Going from being at the top of my high school class, to earning my first D during my initial college semester didn't help. And getting involved in a long-term emotionally abusive relationship added plummeting self-esteem to an already festering anxiety issue.
I filled my voids by shopping. Although afterwards, I'd just feel guilty. I wondered how others had things together when I didn't. I felt envious of students in class who had the guts to raise their hands and speak, got As and had healthy relationships. Why were they so lucky and I wasn't
When I reached graduate school, in addition to back pain came neck pain, sleep issues and a dislocating jaw. I stressed over everything -- relationships, school, work, money, the future, the past. I thought that when I finally had all the things I wanted, like my degree, a great job, lots of money, a big house, then I could finally be happy. In the meantime, I berated myself for every mistake I made. And then all of the sudden, I couldn't breathe.
The panic attacks initially came once every few weeks. They were heavy pressure on my chest, I couldn't get my breath and my heart would race. Within two years, they were happening several times a day. When I recognized it wasn't Asthma, I finally allowed myself to know what it truly was.
As a counselor in training, I understood I had to help myself before I could effectively help anyone else. I went to counseling and it helped, but I needed something more. I went to the bookstore searching for wisdom. On the shelves I saw Louise Hay's Gratitude: A Way of Life. Something about it made sense to me and I bought it. That was the beginning of an entirely new life.
When all you see is what you don't have, trying to see what you do have is not easy. At night, I'd try to think of things I was grateful for that day and couldn't come up with much. But, I was looking for big things. I had to start looking at the little things -- a driver that let me make a left turn, a person that held the door for me, a nice conversation with a stranger. Over time, I saw more and more things I had to be grateful for that I'd taken for granted -- wonderful family and friends, education in a field I love, an opportunity to help people. How could I have missed all of this when it was always there?
Eventually, I found gratitude in all the challenges that had come my way. They gave me wisdom and strength that not only enhanced my ability to thrive in the world, but helped me impart that wisdom to my clients. I saw beauty in the past and learned to live happily in the present. Gratitude also gave me hope for the future. I no longer felt the need to control the future and gained faith that life would evolve positively. With gratitude, I was able to give up envy. I no longer felt I needed what others had, because I had so much of my own. I also learned that happiness cannot be purchased in material things, it's found in experiences, connecting with those we love, and in giving your gifts to others.
I've been practicing gratitude for 15 years now. When you realize all you have, what you have keeps multiplying. Today, I find myself grateful for loving parents, a caring husband, wonderful in-laws, fantastic friends, the opportunity to write about gratitude and positive psychology, and the chance to teach gratitude and positive psychology to my students at Rutgers University, community wellness groups, and my coaching clients. However, what I'm most grateful for is that now I practice my daily gratitude with my 6-year-old son, saying our "thankfuls" together at bedtime. It is my greatest blessing to give him the gift that gave me my life back.
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