by Elizabeth Duke, PsyD
There is a phrase in Gaelic, anam cara, which means “soul friend.” According to the Anam Cara Therapy Center in California, anam cara is:
A teacher, companion or spiritual guide … where consciousness is dulled, distant or blind, its presence grows faint and vanishes. Therefore awareness which brings integration and healing, is one of the greatest gifts of this friendship. As a result, you look, and see, and understand differently. You refine your sensibility and transform your way of being in the world. The Anam Cara is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you (2010).
Even though this passage seems to be referencing a relationship between human beings, I can’t help but think about my relationship with panic and anxiety. It has hardly been a love fest, but they are with me always and have certainly been awakening forces in my life.
I have a number of fears and when I am in their grip that might mean not leaving my apartment, drawing the shades for an entire 48 hours, or wanting to fall tear-stained-face-first into a giant display of teddy bears at Costco. Despite these experiences, panic and anxiety have taught me about the gift of being sensitive, connected me to deep rhythms of nature, and have served as a warning light and guide post. On more than one occasion, panic and anxiety have taught me to see the world through new eyes and invited me to witness subtle yet pervasive disturbances in our culture. They have helped me cultivate intense compassion, empathy, and connection with others. I’m grateful for them, and yet they have profoundly disturbed my life.
I have a bone chilling fear of the internet, some might even call it a phobia. Any time internet security is mentioned, I will absolutely have a panic attack. The widespread use of technology makes it possible to capture and isolate aspects of ourselves, when we are not at our best – and then hold those one dimensional screenshots up for evaluation by billions. Ultimately, I am horrified that something I have said or done could be taken completely out of context and my worth could be appraised according to that one moment. I have spent close to a decade working with this fear and learning what wisdom it might hold for me. My “internet phobia” has taught me how vital it is for me to be able to stand confidently in the story of my life, even the parts that would not stand up to scrutiny if they were recorded and broadcast. It reminds me that vulnerable moments are tremendously human and should not ever be frozen in time, isolated from the immeasurable factors that influenced and co-shaped them.
I have always been highly anxious. I can recall now my first panic attack at age 6. And while there have been years in my life when the panic hung around in the background, panic attacks have often returned to me with a vengeance; especially during six, seventh, and eighth grades, as well as freshman and sophomore years of college, much of graduate school, and for most of today. I recall fighting with myself to go to classes or volleyball games, drowning in gut-wrenching fear of absolute catastrophe, jerking upright in bed as the choking panic took hold, and crying as I left my apartment for the day.
Anxiety and panic are part of me, they are one with who I am. Try as I might have to jettison myself from them (And believe me, I have tried everything.), panic and anxiety always resurface. I do not quite know how to explain that I both suffer greatly because of my panic and anxiety, and also that I accept them as my life companions. It is not because I dig suffering, or because I am some kind of martyr. It is really because I do not want to ever let panic and anxiety take the wheel.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic (2015), she talks about never letting fear take the driver’s seat – she says it cannot even touch the map, or decide what music plays on the long journey… but she says it can come along for the ride.
I feel a little like that. I am the one who decides what my life will look like every day. When I explore and understand my panic, it helps inform my decisions, but my panic attacks cannot make decisions about my life for me. My internet-induced-panic attacks make it difficult for me to have an online presence, but they don’t stop me from using the internet at all. Instead I use it with the understanding that it comes rife with opportunities for misunderstanding and reducing human beings to gigabytes.
More often though, my strategy looks like simply riding the wave. Panic attacks come and go about as often as the weather shifts here in Chicago. I ride them out, I breathe through them. I go to therapy every week and try to better understand what I can learn about myself from them. I honor them as an important part of my journey. But they do not touch the steering wheel.
The point is not to power through, pick myself up by the bootstraps, and not let my emotions get in the way. I want to get to know them better and not be paralyzed by them so that I can continue to learn from them.
My panic attacks are really deeply rooted in some seriously disturbing cultural dynamics that shake me to my core and I feel lucky that my Being ensures that I tune into them. For example, how my fear of the internet reminds me to stand confidently in my own story, even the bumpy parts. My panic attacks are a constant reminder of how profoundly connected we all are and I do not want to lose that sensitivity. I do not want to power through them or ignore them in favor of something more enjoyable.
Honoring the role panic plays in my life is a constant dance. It is always trying to “take the lead,” and I am always trying to join the movement. I know that it has something to show me…but it is not the only part of me, and it does not have a monopoly on what I need/get/want to learn in this life. If I let it totally take over, then I do not get to welcome in other sage parts of myself and others. I become myopic in my thinking, and honestly I am not sure how often I would leave my apartment or try anything new.
I do this by accepting the panic attacks as they happen, knowing they will end, and breathing through them. I take time later to process them while growing tomatoes, playing with my dogs, learning the ukulele, crafting, going to therapy, reading various books/articles about panic attacks, drinking tea, cleaning, talking to old friends, watching really bad TV, and by planning alone time.
I hope I am not coming across as having figured this out. I have not. There have been countless days in my life when I have tried everything not to let panic or anxiety take the wheel. It has, however, driven for months. Lots of times when I make a decision to let it win for a while because I am too exhausted to fight it. And, at times in an effort to avoid letting panic take over, I have made incongruent decisions that I might not have made if I was not trying so painstakingly hard to prove myself.
I try to make good decisions when I know that I am at risk of having a panic attack. I know what sets them off and I prepare for them as best I can. I do my best to ride the wave, breathe through them, and ground myself when they happen unexpectedly. But ultimately I am still learning. I just thought it might be helpful to share what I have learned so far.
Anam Cara Therapy Center (2010). Meaning of anam cara. Retrieved from http://www .anamcaratherapycenter.com/about-anam-cara/4-the-meaning-of-anam-cara?tmpl=component
Gilbert, E. (2015). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
To read more of Elizabeth Duke’s posts, click here.