Of all the places to have a panic attack ‘light bulb’ moment, I didn’t expect it to occur while watching a 90s Bruce Willis film, on a random Tuesday afternoon… but there you go. I’m watching ‘The Sixth Sense,’ & I feel scared by proxy, despite having seen it multiple times. Seriously, how gruesome are the ghosts in that film? Not to mention angry. If the woman in the pink dressing gown started chasing me down the hall at 2 am, calling me Lenny & brandishing a knife I’d be GONE. Full panic mode. The house is hers, I’ll just move out!
Panic or rather fear is something that’s fascinated me for several years. It’s a force to be reckoned with, a superpower, one of the great elements of human evolution that enables us to identify & respond to danger quickly. For example, have you ever tripped on the stairs and nearly fallen? Your brain (or rather the Amygdala), doesn’t need to be told what to do, its response is innate. Before you’ve even clocked what’s happening, you find yourself gripping the banister, thereby preventing a fall. This is incredible and something we often take for granted! Humans are hard-wired for self-preservation.
Still, what unites our experience of fear is not appreciation, but rather a desire to forget the whole thing as soon as possible. Why? Well… although powerful, the ‘fear response’ (fight or flight), is overwhelming, making it hard for an individual to think straight, let alone make rational decisions.
Fear, the unwelcome visitor
Fear is an intolerable emotion, right? We don’t like it, we don’t want it & we try desperately to protect those we love from feeling it. It’s unpleasant and we tend to avoid ‘sitting’ with anything unpleasant. So, we ignore it, push it down, (along with stress & anxiety,) hoping that it’ll eventually just go away. This is standard behaviour to an extent, especially where scary films, nightmares, & ghost stories are concerned.
The problems start however if you’re going through a period of mental unwellness. If for example, you’re experiencing prolonged stress that’s preventing you from sleeping or anxiety that constantly clouds your thoughts. The Amygdala is programmed to respond to all threats. In the previous centuries, said threats were largely physical, however, in the naughties, it’s the mental threats that take center stage. E.g. An overbearing boss, work deadlines, social demands, or problems at home. The Amygdala will warn you of danger & It WON’T be silenced.
Cue the kid from The Sixth sense talking about ghosts:
“You’re real still… sometimes you feel it inside… like you’re falling down real fast, but you’re really just standing still…. Do you ever feel the prickly things on the back of your neck? & the tiny hairs on your arm… you know when they stand up? That’s THEM…. & when they get mad… it gets cold.”
Change THEM to THE AMYGDALA… THEY to IT & COLD to HOT & this pretty much describes a panic attack or at least the initial stages. The similarities were uncanny. A physical reaction to an unknown entity.
The emotional gut-punch however, comes later in the film, when after a conversation with Bruce Willis (who plays a shrink), the kid (although still terrified), accepts that the way to make the ghosts stop harassing him is to “listen to them.” As I watched that fragile, but brave little boy approach a ghost who had only moments earlier, scared him to the point of hysteria, I could feel my eyes start to blur.. (& not because the ghost is played by a then child Mischa Barton). “Do you wanna tell me something?” He asks, and I have to leave the room. This entire scene echoed my own experiences with panic years earlier.
Learning to communicate
As someone who spent the better part of a decade trying to suppress and ignore the signs of mental unwellness, I understand how powerful the subconscious can be. I started experiencing panic attacks because I’d overstressed my Amygdala so much, that it could no longer differentiate between a genuinely threatening situation to one that just made me nervous.
It’d been trying to tell me for years that something was wrong, that the pressure was becoming too great, but I ignored all of the messages. Therefore, in November 2011, in a meeting at work, my Amygdala sent a message that I couldn’t ignore…. a panic attack. (In the fear factor stakes, this was the equivalent of the pink dressing gown ghost lady screaming with a knife). It overwhelmed and stopped me in my tracks.
What followed was months of battling with panic and feeling frustrated by the relentless insistence that I was in danger when I wasn’t. I tried CBT techniques, distraction and I sedated myself (with booze & medication). Nothing worked long-term. It’s only when (thanks to some killer advice from Dr. David Carbonell), I finally decided to accept the attacks without argument, that things began to change.
Until this point, I ran from panic because I was frightened by the noise & violence of the symptoms, (think the kid refusing to interact with the ghosts). Yet, my refusal to listen made the Amygdala even more determined to be heard.
The solution? Nothing fancy… one evening I just finally decided to listen. I sat with the fear, embraced the shocking discomfort of the symptoms (heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, sweating, etc) & did nothing. I didn’t argue or try to fight. Even when I thought I couldn’t stand it any longer, I stayed put & experienced everything. ‘I’m listening.‘ I chanted internally, ‘we’re safe I promise.‘ It took five minutes to dissipate, (a long time to spend in Hell I assure you)! Yet, this was shorter than any attack I’d experienced so far. We’d had a discourse panic & I… & we stopped fighting as a result. This was a HUGE moment in my recovery, I’d created foundations, something I could build on & grow in strength.
“9 times out of 10, panic just wants to be heard, then it’ll let you rest.”