I was recently speaking at a conference in Surrey, around one hundred people sat before me in the lecture theatre. As I worked my way through the presentation, I suddenly had an out of body experience. What the f**k was I doing here? Not in a bad way, completely the opposite. The Claire of 2013 could barely get through a meeting without nipping to the toilet at least once, to have a panic attack in private. At the time, I was at the beginning of my Exposure Therapy. It’s sounds clichéd, but if you’d have told THAT Claire she’d be regularly speaking in public, well she’d quite literally have shit herself.
To say that the journey wasn’t easy is an understatement of the colossal nature. I can still remember the escalator journey at Charring Cross station. It was my first day back at work after being absent for a month. The panic started in my legs, turning them to jelly and then it spread to my stomach. “I can’t do this.” My brain sparked furiously, looking for danger. The thought of everyone staring at me, as I rejoined my team and sat at my desk was too much to bear. What would I even say? What if the panic sparked again and I had to leave? “I can’t do this.”
However, I remembered that this reaction was completely normal. My brain had been fooled into believing that I was in harm’s way and it was trying to protect me. It’s a trick, nothing bad would actually happen, I would just feel uncomfortable. I did some belly breathing and embraced the panic. When I reached the top I put one foot in front of the other and stepped forward…. and this has been my strategy ever since. Accept and acknowledge the fear, breathe through it and keep moving. Being kind to myself is a work in progress, but I’ll get there!
To be clear, that first week back was really hard. Even though my boss tried to protect me, people still wanted to know why i’d been off, it’s natural. The Director at the time (he’s since been fired, HA) who I didn’t like, made a big show of asking how I was. Sitting on my desk, face hovering above mine. *Cringe.* “We were all so worried Claire,” he said waaaaay too loud. “Fuck off, you had no idea who I was four weeks ago.” (No I didn’t say that).
The panic attacks still happened and sometimes I really thought they’d defeat me, but they never did and with each one I became stronger.
Do I still get nervous before events? YES. Christ on a bike at Christmas, you should’ve seen me before my talk at Stylist Live! I used the facilities no less than seven times in an hour! I’m pretty sure that I asked my mum to hit me over the head with a chair at one point too. Still, as always I got through it and I actually really enjoyed the talk.
These days the usual fears dance through my head before I present. “What if I’m shit?” “What if I humiliate myself?” “What if they heckle me?” I’ve kind of made my peace with them, we all live together in my body. Although in fairness, I did get heckled recently, (but I’ll save that for another time).
My point is that doing something you’re afraid is bound to spark a reaction, it’s important to remember that this is a good thing! It means you’re human and it’s also a great opportunity to learn more about ‘your panic.’ How does it affect your body, what thought pops into your head? The more knowledge that you acquire, the easier each step will be.
If all else fails and you worry about being mocked, just remember what my Grandma said to me.
“Chin up love, hopefully they’ll swing and miss.” I still have no idea why she thought this was appropriate….
Like most things, although brutal, panic attacks can be managed with practise and patience.