Tom was never afraid of flying. He actually used to enjoy floating above the clouds with nothing else to do but to lean back and relax. However, this all changed from one day to the next: “It was just a short two hour trip. Nothing extraordinary happened. I was sitting in the back of the plane, when all of the sudden I felt dizzy, tense and shaky. At first I was concerned that I was having a heart-attack. But then I realized that it was ‘just’ a panic-attack, because my chest didn’t hurt. Ever since then, I don’t want to go on a plane. It isn’t so much that I am afraid of the plane crashing. I am more worried about having another panic attack and being trapped in this aluminum-can with only strangers around me.”
If you ever have been dealing with a phobia or suffered from a panic attack, you know how overwhelming and powerless your emotions can make you feel. Whereas with phobias, you carefully avoid whatever you are afraid of, such as planes, elevators, spiders or simply other people, with panic attacks you almost want to avoid yourself. The fear of another sudden onslaught of anxiety can became all-consuming and turn itself into a phobia of your own emotions.
But are your feelings truly out of control and not to be trusted? Tom was told that there was no cure for his anxiety and he would have to live with it. Not willing to accept this verdict, he started working with me. While we focused on a variety of aspects and root causes of his anxiety, here are three crucial steps that helped Tom, and many of my clients who had suffered from phobias and panic attacks, to overcome these challenges.
1. Make sense of your emotions
Fear and anxiety are natural emotions, which we all experience at different times in our lives. Phobias and panic attacks just appear especially challenging, because of their intensity and sudden onset. As irrational and illogical fear and anxiety may appear, there is wisdom and meaning at the root of our feelings. One of my cardiology professors once said to me, that the biggest risk factor for a heart attack is denial. People often ignore their physical symptoms until a full blown cardiac event forces them to see a doctor. Many of my clients, who started working with me because of panic attacks, admitted that they had been in denial of their often long-standing struggles with anxiety and insecurity, because they were either too busy or too scared to seek out help. You could argue that their panic attack forced them to no longer ignore their emotions.
Just like any other form of fear and anxiety, panic attacks and phobias are in generally caused by unresolved deeper root causes. Tom’s panic attack on a plane came during one of the most stressful times in his life. He had just moved to another country, had started a very demanding job and he was grappling with the news that his mother had fallen gravely ill. But rather than acknowledging how stressed he was, he chose to ignore his emotional and physical needs and distract himself through hard work and bad food. Tom realized that the panic attack was the emergency brake of his nervous system, urging him to better manage his stress and get back into balance.
2. Look who is talking
One of the most interesting and powerful aspects of the messages of our emotions is, that what triggers them can gives us important information on their deeper root causes. Tom grew up in South America. When he was 7 years old, his mother moved to the US in the hope for a better life for her family and left her son in the care of her sisters. For several years, the little boy could only see his mom during summer break, which you can imagine was for his young mind quite a mental and emotional roller-coaster. “First, I had to say good-bye to my aunts and then fly all alone to New York. The whole plane ride, I was vacillating between missing my relatives, feeling scared of being alone and being excited to see my mom. And then, a few weeks later, I had to say good-bye to her and go on another traumatic journey. At some point, I didn’t know any longer where my home was, because I could neither settle in with my aunts, nor with my mom. ”
At the time of his recent panic attack Tom’s life was similarly challenging and stressful as the traumatic events during his childhood. The combination of uncertainty about the future, feeling uprooted and unsettled, and the possible loss of his mother brought up all the unresolved emotional baggage of the past. “The little boy inside of me was scared. And rather than comforting him, I was trying to ignore him.” Through our work, Tom was able to heal the traumas of his childhood and build a comforting and reassuring relationship with his younger self.
Anxiety can make you feel small and trapped, as if a negative force or a monster attacks and controls you from within. However, if you imagine your anxiety coming from an inner child, who just wants to be reassured and taken care of, you will not only feel less afraid of your emotions, but also more inclined to step into the role of the comforting and compassionate adult.
3. Strengthen your calm mind
While identifying and addressing the deeper meaning of panic attacks and phobias is key to overcoming these challenges, it is equally important to strengthen your ability to shift your emotions. Yet, most people wait to practice relaxation and centering techniques until they are in the midst of a panic attack, which is similar to waiting for black ice to learn how to drive. There are certain “bail-out tools” that can help you stop a panic attack, which I will talk more about during my upcoming Empowerment Radio show. However, to truly heal and outgrow phobia and panic attacks, you need to commit to a daily parasympathetic nervous system activating routine. A strong parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of resting, healing and digesting, acts as a balancing counter-force to the sympathetic nervous system, which gets activated during panic attacks. This way, you will easier stay in a place of peace and calmness.
Such daily mind-strengthening routines can include breathing or writing meditations, visualizations, chanting, spending time in nature and techniques such as self-hypnosis and autogenic training.
Join me on Empowerment Radio, and learn more about what causes phobias and panic attacks on a subconscious level – and how you can address and overcome these emotional challenges. If you have a question or comment that you would like featured on the show, please leave a message below or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. Tom enjoys flying again and has been putting his healing work to the test by taking a long trip to see his aunts. He told me afterwards that both he and is inner younger self had a fabulous time.