A Lesson in Leaning in
It came out of nowhere. I was in the middle of a consult with a potential new member when it started.
That morning, I'd woken up feeling a little weird. I was in a good mood and life was good... but something was off. Then when we were sitting in a consultation (which is a totally normal daily occurrence), I felt a sensation that I'd never experienced come over me. I was suddenly panicky—as if something was really wrong. I felt this strange wooziness like I was going to pass out. I could no longer focus. It got so bad that I had to leave the room.
I was terrified. My thoughts were racing. I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The people around me could see me but had no idea what was going on in my body. I felt like running away and I had no idea where I was going.
I excused myself, leaving Dr. Dangovian to continue the consult, and walked out into the hallway where I proceeded to pace back and forth. When being inside became too overwhelming, I went outside.
I needed air.
I needed something.
Nothing This Extreme
After pacing around the building outside I had this overwhelming feeling that I needed to leave. I went inside and told my brother Curtis (our office manager) that I needed to leave, I was having a panic attack, but I was going to be fine. Then I went to my car.
I started driving. I didn't have a destination in mind. Instead, I just felt like I needed to go somewhere. I kept telling myself if it didn't pass I would go to the emergency room.
After I had been driving for a few minutes, Curtis called me and asked if I could walk him through how to finish up paperwork from the consultation I excused myself from. I started explaining to him the steps and then told him I was going to come back to help. He asked me if I was sure, and I said yes I can do it.
It was such a strange feeling. I had a heightened sense of awareness of my thoughts and the sensations in my body but I had no idea what was happening or where it came from. I was able to distract myself from the feelings and thoughts when I focused my energy on a familiar routine, but as soon as I allowed my body and mind to become still, the overwhelming feeling of panic came back to me. I was sure my blood pressure was through the roof. I was sure my heart was racing.
If you have felt this you know exactly what I am talking about. And if you haven't you will never fully understand what this experience is like.
I'd experienced episodes of anxiety in the past, but nothing this extreme.
Dr. Dangovian called me right after the consultation ended. He wanted to check in with me because I would never just bail on a meeting. He was worried that I'd had a family emergency. When I told him about the experience, he said, “What if we took your blood pressure right now and it was normal?” I told him that I knew it wouldn't be normal. He replied that he knew exactly how I was feeling.
“If it happens again,” he said, “don't try to run from it. Instead, lean into it.”
That thought hit home with me. Built into us is a “fight or flight” response. When I started feeling this overwhelming sensation that I was going to pass out... I got up and started pacing around to “run away” from the feeling. When my thoughts were racing in a circle of “impending doom”... I distracted my thoughts by diving into a daily routine.
I was not allowing myself to feel what was going on. I was too afraid of what feeling it would lead to.
But, I knew he was right. I also knew that if he thought something life-threatening was going on, he would have taken action. This gave me the reassurance I needed to lean into the thoughts and sensations.
The sensations of panic started to disperse the moment I began to allow myself to feel them. The thoughts kept coming, but I just observed them without judgment.
For the next few weeks I had moments of heightened anxiety, but to be honest, I felt grateful for them. I started viewing each moment as a blessing.
Why? Because my body was telling me to pay attention.
I allowed myself to really experience all the sensations. I started listening to my body at a completely new level.
Some background: for as long as I can remember when things are going exceptionally well... I freak out. It seems counterintuitive... you should freak out when things are in crisis, but that's just not how I am wired. In the weeks leading up to my panic attack, things weren't just going well—they were going GREAT.
My Dad had some minor health issues come up, which is stressful and scary, of course, but we took care of everything early, which, over the long term, is a blessing for his health. Everything we were going through was even strengthening our relationship. Business was going great. We were in a steady flow of expansion. One of our team members would soon be going away to school and our other team members were stepping up into new roles and doing amazing work. With all that was going on, I couldn't have asked for things to be any better!
In the past, I would start feeling moments of that “impending doom”... like, what if this all goes away and I lose everything? I would isolate myself for a day and then dive back into work to distract my thoughts. I would make myself so busy that I didn't have time for that feeling.
Luckily for me, my work allows me to help other people which is extremely rewarding. The downside to that is... it is very easy for me to justify sacrificing my well being to help others. (I am always working to achieve that healthy balance).
When I had the panic attack, it was almost as my body was saying I AM GOING TO BE LOUD ENOUGH THAT YOU CAN'T IGNORE ME!
The second one was far worse than the first. I was getting ready for bed after a relatively uneventful day. Suddenly, the feeling came back. And it was even louder. My heart was racing. That nameless dread was back, this time with a vengeance. This time, I felt like I needed a non-biased opinion that this was, in fact, anxiety and not something worse.
I drove myself to the emergency room without telling anyone I was going. The whole way there, I tried to take Dr. Dangovian's advice. I tried to lean into the fear. I tried to force myself not to fight it, but instead let it wash over me, fill me, let it do whatever it was that it was doing and then (hopefully) pass. But no matter what I did—no matter how hard I tried to lean into the fear—it only got worse.
The attending doctor finally confirmed my suspicions and said that yes, it was a panic attack. His aloofness about what I was experiencing actually made me feel calm. He essentially said, “All you need is Xanax.” Now, of course, I wasn't going to take it! There are natural ways to deal with anxiety, but knowing that it was anxiety—and that I was experiencing a panic attack—allowed me to feel peace.
Since then, I haven't had any full-blown attacks. But I still feel one kind of waiting along the periphery sometimes. Overall, both experiences were terrible.
But, here's the thing...
I am super grateful for them.
I learned something significant.
I've talked to members who've struggled with anxiety in the past. In those conversations, I was able to speak reasonably intelligently about causes and solutions. But now I understand that I didn't understand their experiences. Not really.
It's the same thing with friends and family members who've had heart problems. They'll express their apprehension about getting a stent put in, for example, and since my business partner is a cardiologist, I'm able to describe exactly what's going to happen and reassure them that it's a relatively simple, relatively low-risk procedure.
But I didn't understand their fear. I didn't understand their worry. I didn't understand how it feels when you think you're dying. But, now I at least have an idea. For all the terror, for all my inability to just lean into the fear and embrace the experience in that moment, I got something very valuable out of it.
I have more empathy. And for that, I'm eternally grateful.
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