"I'm dying. Right here on this sidewalk. Alone. I'm going to die."
That was the narrative running through my mind during my first panic attack when I was 20 years old. I had been enjoying dinner with my family at an Italian restaurant, when out of nowhere the restaurant started getting darker, and my peripheral vision was blurring. My heart started racing, my hands and feet turned ice cold. My whole body began shaking, and my jaw clenched up and trembled. I couldn't breathe. I stood up from my seat and hazily made my way out of the restaurant and to that harrowing sidewalk, where my mom found me and drove me to the emergency room.
As the doctor on-call that evening explained, my symptoms were mental health related. He would try to offer some reassurance by stating, "it was just a panic attack." That one word, “just,” would stay with me for years. When I began to experience a phobia of restaurants for fear of another panic attack, I would just push through the fear.
Somehow, despite this downplay of the most terrifying experience of my life, I searched for more answers. I saw a therapist for the first time, and in conjunction with my primary care physician, was finally diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. With a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, I have learned that despite my anxiety and panic disorder, I can live a fulfilling life full of adventure, joy and resilience.
I have learned that facing my anxiety and pushing through my fear each day — going to a restaurant even when I’m afraid — is a form of courage.
With Anxiety, Every Day Life Takes Courage
When I became a mom for the first time at age 32, it didn't take me long to realize that my daughter was, inherently, a highly anxious person, too. She startled easily, had unwavering separation anxiety and struggled with sleep. As she grew into a toddler, I'd notice her resistance to trying new things, her caution and her keen observation of the world around her. When she entered preschool, we struggled with her unwillingness to leave me, and eventually, her refusal to attend school altogether. We learned through much patience and supportive conversation, that her reluctance was fear-based, often rooted in unrealistic (but all too real for her) scenarios.
My daughter, now 10 years old, has learned to navigate life beautifully. Through formal therapy, and tireless work at home, she has learned the tools necessary for facing uncomfortable situations head on.
Parenting an anxious child is a gift. It's also exhausting. I will never claim to have all the answers, or to have made peace with all the struggles. Rather, I have learned to embrace my daughter's mental health issue as an opportunity to teach her about courage. Had it not been for anxiety, I may have never come to understand that courage is subjective. That for her, sometimes going to school is not just going to school — it is feat of bravery.
With Anxiety, Speaking Up Takes Courage
Fearlessness isn't necessarily something to strive for. I believe that a certain amount of fear is healthy. Fear forces us to take pause, to assess the situation, to weigh the risks and determine the best next steps for our own well-being. Sometimes, we have to push through the fear in order to move forward. However, my daughter has taught me that courage also comes in the form of honoring the fear enough to say "no."
I often tell my daughter that she is brave even when she decides not to push through the fear. She is brave when she has the courage to tell others around her, those who are cheering her on to take that hard step forward into the unknown, that she isn't ready yet. She is brave when others promise her that fun is on the other side of her fear, and still she opts out of discovering that for herself. I let her know that she has the power to say "no." She has the power to say "not yet." She has the power to say "not this time." Courage is self-advocacy and the strength to stand up in the face of others and say "I'm just not comfortable with that."
If I can teach my daughter that anxiety serves as her super power, equipping her with a steady inner compass, maybe she will be brave enough to push through her fear or brave enough to stand up for herself when the fear is too much. Maybe she will be brave enough to stand in solidarity with so many others fighting for mental health awareness, for people to understand that anxiety and panic is more than just a little fear – that many of us who experience these disorders are among the bravest of us all.
Gina, a former primary school paraeducator, is the co-author of Katie Not Afraidy, a children’s book about overcoming anxiety, and is a certified Anxiety & Stress Management Specialist through American School Counselor Association. She has spoken at mental health conferences and teacher education workshops. Follow Gina on Facebook and Instagram @GinaMPerkins.