Shame and Embarrassment About Panic Attacks
It’s hard to let others know of our problems. First, we can feel embarrassed to admit that we don’t have our lives together as well as (we fantasize) they have theirs. Then, if our problems are lasting awhile, we don’t want others to get fed up with our complaints. Or, we might explain what’s bothering us only to have others say, “I don’t get it. I don’t know what you mean.” Or, worse yet, “What’s the big deal?” In addition, people can start giving us advice on how to fix it and expect us to take action soon. Speaking to someone about a problem doesn’t mean that we are feeling courageous enough to try to fix it. These possible reactions can be good reasons to keep our problems to ourselves.
There are at least two other reasons to be secretive when the problem is panic attacks. The first is the stigma around mental health problems. Think how easy it is for employees to call in sick because they have the flu, or even a migraine headache. But who’s willing to say, “I’m having a bout of depression that’s going to keep me out for a couple of days”? You can tell your boss you have to miss that cross-country trip tomorrow because your grandmother died. It takes more strength to admit you are afraid of flying. A mental health problem can be seen as a mark of disgrace.
Second, failure to control panic can heighten our own feelings of shame and low self-esteem. Not being able to travel in the same circles as our peers, or perform tasks that seem so simple to others and were once simple for us — it’s easy to see how that wears down our self-worth. And as our sense of self-worth diminishes, we become even more susceptible to the influence of panic. For instance, if you believe you are not worth much as a human being, then you will be less likely to try to help yourself. If you believe that this panic simply reflects your lack of basic skills necessary to cope with the world, then you will be less likely to face the stressful events of your life.
I think it is best to address all of these fears — social embarrassment, lack of understanding, stigma — by first addressing our beliefs about our own worth. This will help us touch our guilt and shame, and any feelings of personal inadequacy. I don’t expect to do a complete makeover of your personality in a few pages. However, I do want to instill in you the attitude that you deserve to feel self-respect.
Panic requires that you work on building up your self-worth, self-confidence and self-love, because panic has the powerful ability to wear away at your psychological vulnerabilities, to weaken your resolve. When you feel you have to hide your problem, then every time panic arises, you will begin to tighten up inside. You will try to contain it, not let it spill out, not let it be seen. When you attempt to contain panic, it grows. When you respect yourself, you can begin to make decisions based on what will help you heal, not what will protect you from others’ scrutiny. When you make that change, you starve panic by supporting yourself and letting others support you through this tough time.
Look over this list and see whether any of the statements reflect your negative beliefs about yourself:
- I am inferior to others.
- I’m not worth much.
- I’m disgusted with myself.
- I don’t fit in with others.
- I’m just no good as a person.
- There’s something wrong with me, or inherently flawed about me.
- I’m weak. I should be stronger.
- I shouldn’t be feeling this way.
- There’s no reason for all this anxiety I’m feeling.
- I shouldn’t be having these crazy thoughts.
- I should already be better.
- I’m hopeless.
- I’ve had this problem too long.
- I’ve tried everything; I’m not going to improve.
- My problems are too ingrained.
Such self-critical attitudes support the first stages of restricting our options. We start to limit the way we act around others. If we feel as though we don’t fit in, or that we are not worth much to those around us, then we will tend to protect ourselves from rejection. We will think of others first and ourselves second:
- I can’t tell anyone.
- I can’t bother other people with my problems.
- I have to take care of others.
- I can’t let people see me this way.
- People won’t think I’m OK if they know I’m anxious.
- I must hide my anxiety, hold it all in, not let anyone know my feelings, fight it.
This attitude section focuses on the influences of our beliefs on our daily lives. These include the belief that we are worthy of success and happiness and the belief that we have a variety of positive choices available to us in our lives. These are attitudes that help us solve problems. They are convictions that affirm us.
An affirmation is a positive thought that supports us as we move toward our desired goals. Your greatest internal strength will come from the ways you affirm your worth as a person. There are two kinds of affirmations to explore. The first are beliefs concerning who you are, and the second are beliefs about what you need to do in this life to succeed. Consider the following statements. How might you change your approach to your life if you believed these words?
Accepting Who I Am
- I’m OK just the way I am.
- I am lovable and capable.
- I am an important person.
- I’m already a worthy person; I don’t have to prove myself.
- My feelings and needs are important.
- I deserve to be supported by those who care about me.
- I deserve to be respected, nurtured and cared for.
- I deserve to feel free and safe.
- I’m strong enough to handle whatever comes along.
No one expects you to change a long-standing attitude overnight. But if you can continue to reflect on these attitudes until you begin to believe them, you will be on your way to overcoming panic. Building up our sense of self-worth increases our ability to confront the obstacles to our freedom.
The second kind of affirmation has to do with our expectations about how we must act around others. It reminds us that we don’t have to please everyone else and ignore our own wants and needs, that we all get to make mistakes as we are learning, and that we don’t need to view every task as a test of our competence or worth.
Supporting What I Do
- It’s OK to say no to others.
- It’s good for me to take time for myself.
- It’s OK to think about what I need.
- The more I get what I need, the more I’ll have to give others.
- I don’t have to take care of everyone else.
- I don’t have to be perfect to be loved.
- I can make mistakes and still be OK.
- Everything is practice; I don’t have to test myself.
- I am not ashamed.
These attitudes give us permission to take the time we need to feel healthy, rested and excited about life. They insulate us against the paralyzing poison of shame.
Explore what obstacles stand in the way of these affirmations for you. Sometimes discussing these issues with a close friend or a self-help group will help. Other times the causes of these blocks are not so clear or easily removed. If you feel stuck, consider turning to a mental health professional for insight and guidance.
Once you address those issues that block your willingness to support yourself, then pay attention to these affirmations. Find ways to accept these kinds of statements, then let your actions reflect these beliefs. (You may have to begin by acting as though you believe them — even when you don’t — before you discover how well they will serve you.) In addition to the support of friends and a mental health professional, look for courses in your community on assertiveness training. Such course teach you how to turn your positive beliefs into actions.