Last week, I got stuck in a lift.
It wasn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds: the outside wall of the lift was glass, overlooking a wide open expanse; the lift never moved so I was just stuck on the ground floor, not between floors; I was only in there for 5 minutes; and the alarm button was extremely loud in a crowded building. Also, I don’t have a phobia about lifts. (Actress Rebecca Front has written about her lift phobia in a new book, 'Curious: True Stories and Loose Connections' and there is a great interview with her in the Independent.)
However, a few years ago, at a time when I was dealing with several stressful situations, I regularly had panic attacks. These were usually associated with being in large, crowded, formal spaces such as theatres, cinemas, concert halls, conference rooms, from which I perceived I wouldn’t be able to easily escape. Luckily for me, no-one ever knew about these attacks, because I got very good at keeping myself out of situations where they might occur. However, trying to deal with this on my own, secretly, over a period of 6 years was going to come to a head at some point and when it did, I went to the Doctor to ask for help. He gave me Betablockers (which in the end I never took, but it was nice to know they were in my bag if I needed them), and sent me off for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. (Interestingly, I also started learning tango at the same time and it was fascinating to see the connections between learning a positive mindset and learning the dance, but that is a whole other blog!)
Over the intervening years, gradually, my panic attacks have subsided. Admittedly, when I go to the theatre, my long suffering friends know I still need to be on the aisle and/or near a door. I have moments when I can feel the beginnings of a panic attack, but I now have the techniques to try to stop it. And on rare occasions, I might have what Rebecca Front calls in her book a panic about having a panic, but hey, it is just part of who I am.
So what is the point of all this soul bearing?
Panic attacks are not pleasant; however, they don’t have to stop you from doing what you want.
How do people cope who do have a phobia of lifts? They take the stairs, live on the lower floors of apartment blocks, specify they can’t be above the 3rd floor when they book into in hotels… How did I cope with my panic attacks? Okay, I gave up on the cinema and theatre for a while, but in my professional life, I had to find other ways around it. I found coping mechanisms.
For example, I had to go to a three day conference for my employer, at the end of which I had to give in a report on current trends, opinions, contacts made. I was anxious but, as I always did, told myself it would be fine. It wasn’t. I went into the first session (aisle seat, back row next to the door) and spent the whole 45 minutes gripping my seat to keep me from running. And I was looking at three further days of this. Something drastic had to be done.
I checked that the speaker notes from all the sessions would be made available by email after the conference. I picked up all the literature which was available. During the coffee breaks and lunch breaks, I worked the room like there was no tomorrow. I talked to as many people as I could, asked them about the sessions they had been in, their thoughts on trends in the sector, their sources of information, collected their business cards… After the breaks, I disappeared into the hotel coffee shop, typed up all my notes and made a list of next actions, things to follow up. For the three days, I didn’t go into another single formal session but still went back to my employer with a very comprehensive report. They got what they needed and I did it in a way that worked for me.
The point is, whether you have panic attacks, phobias or any kind of fear which holds you back, don’t let it stop you. I am not saying, “man up, just break through it” - I know from personal experience that is not how it works. However, again from my own experience, I know that it can be possible to have panic attacks and find ways to work around them.
There is a quote in the Rebecca Front interview which I love and with which I totally identify: "I don't want to be defined by being scared of things. I want to be defined by all the things that I can do.”
So, what can you do?
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