Adult Mental WellnessChild and Adolescent Mental WellnessStress Coping Strategies

Panic Stricken

It all began when I was 9 years old and I choked on a piece of meat.

Fortunately, my Dad, sprang into action and dislodged the obstruction from my throat. Having now been turned off the rest of my dinner, I was excused from the table.

Consciously I was a little shaken up by the incident, but the days and weeks to follow revealed a deep trauma that had actually occurred within me. When I attempted to eat anything solid, my throat clamped shut like a spring-hinge. Feeling not terribly hungry anyway, I resorted to liquids (juice, water, and creamy soups). After about three weeks of this, I began to be quite hungry, and the notion came over me that I could handle boiled chicken.

“Boiled chicken?” my Mom questioned back. “Who eats boiled chicken!” But she knew that anything crispy, hard or dry would be simply repelling to me, so she boiled me up some tender chicken, which I mashed a little and managed to swallow without too much difficulty. Eventually I must have eased back into eating anything and everything, but I was soon to discover that a change had come over me, outside of eating, that would paralyze and immobilize me unexpectedly for the next 19 years to come. This fear would grip me any time I felt that I was in a life-threatening situation of any kind, real or imagined.

And as it turned out, I grew up being deeply fearful of being focused on and picked on publicly. I had always felt uneasy in situations where there was the potential for someone to point and laugh at me. I had been the butt of jokes and the recipient of public mockings at the hand of someone I had trusted deeply to protect me during my developmental years. I had not realized, at the time, the degree to which I had become petrified of being singled out and put down. Following the choking incident, panic started coming over me in certain situations where I felt deeply threatened, such as when I was out in public. The panic didn’t happen all the time, and so I never could predict its arrival, which made it all the scarier for me.

The panic attacks continued, ninja-style, unannounced, throughout all of my teens and most of my twenties, until I was twenty-seven years of age.

By that time, I had built up a significant wall (no, it was more like a fortress) behind which to hide, so that no one could see the real me. I was unaware of this protective wall, but took every measure, sub-consciously, to have it on duty at all times. It was not a conscious decision I had come up with, to conceal myself. It was a built-in, natural defence mechanism to protect me from public humiliations that felt like death to me. My psyche had determined that protecting me was of life-or-death importance, so the stakes were very high.

Now, to a rational, self-aware human being, it would appear logical that being embarrassed publicly would not result in death or anything near death. After all, what is the worst that could happen? You’d feel like an idiot and then move on, right? Pretty simple.

The trouble was, I was not self-aware, and so lived in the grip of terror, not knowing what was inducing the fear, or why. Panic Disorder involves the triggering of the body’s autonomic system, releasing adrenalin and other hormones into the system in preparation for the body’s fight-or-flight from a perceived perilous situation.

When real danger is present, the body needs to be able to react with beyond-normal speed, strength and intuitiveness. Yet when the danger is merely perceived, the body receives the same signal from the brain, that triggers the outpouring of the same amount of adrenalin as in a truly perilous situation. The amount of the hormone arrives in overdose quantity, sending a chain reaction to all the body systems, elevating the heart rate, and sending power to all the extremities, so that the person can run, kick, fight, and in any way, get away. Blood, and hence, oxygen, are borrowed from the brain, the heart, the lungs and from any organ that can surrender it temporarily, leaving a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and the inability to think straight in the moment.

And all this, because of a perceived danger, that the unconscious mind has picked up on, but to which the conscious mind is not privy.

One thing is certain: the unconscious mind, responsible for all of this, believes there is something HUGE at stake, that is life-threatening. My task was to figure out what that was, so I could reprogram my mind to process the same situation as non-life-threatening.

The answer for me came about all quite by accident. I had sat with several trusted women to whom I had grown very close and trusted deeply, and during one of our times together, we were sharing about how transparency in relationships enables the iron closet of hidden secrets to be purged, the conscience to be cleansed, forgiveness to be sought, and relationship bonds to be strengthened. We all shared, one by one, about the deepest, darkest, most rotten, dirty little secrets we had stored up in ourselves throughout our lives, no matter how embarrassing or humiliating. I poured out every last sordid detail I could think of, of every single moment I had lived. The cleansing felt unbelievably scary, but I had no idea at the time that the reward would be as monumental as it turned out to be.

It was perhaps months down the road before I began noticing that certain settings that would have triggered a panic attack in the past, were no longer doing so. I continued to walk in my new mindset of transparency, allowing who I truly was to be seen, so nothing new would get stashed away and build pressure like before our of fear of being exposed. Miraculously, no panic attack ever struck again.

What I will say, though, is that there have been moments when I have felt the precursors to a panic attack….that uneasy, tense and guarded feeling of high-alert and an unreasonable sense of fear (in comparison to the real danger at hand) when I have been in certain public situations. As soon as I pick up on those signals, I now stop immediately and consciously remove the protective guard, that mask that I hid behind for so many years, thereby allowing myself to be consciously vulnerable to potential embarrassment and even deep humiliation. What if someone laughs at me? What if I do make a complete moron of myself? What if people look down on me and gossip about me? What is the worst that will happen? I am still a human of great worth, and my true friends deeply love me.

This self-awareness and willingness to be completely transparent now calms me profoundly. I let the embarrassment pass through me, picturing myself opening the front door and letting the wind flow right through me, and right out the open back door. I no longer lock and latch and press on that front door, trying with everything in me to keep the intruder of humiliation out (a defensive action that triggers the fight-or-flight response). Instead, I now invite it in, like a best friend, to come and linger inside me and spend time with me. The more I invite it, though, the less power it has over me, and so it slips quietly out the back door.

If you or someone you know has ever existed in the prison of fear, dread, or panic, whether fear of heights, fear of flying, fear of anything perceived or real, I welcome you to visit the site of Dr. Reid Wilson, who has a free program on overcoming fear, Panic Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. You can work on the online program at home, at your own pace. His site,, is located at

You can also reach out to me, and we can work together to help you understand and release your deep anxieties and fears.

(Original post: February 28, 2010.)

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