I had my first anxiety attack in my early childhood.
I worried. About swimming achievements, grades in school, whether my parents (if they left) would come back, about whether my friends liked me, about whether a nuclear disaster would strike in The Netherlands as well as in Ukraine. I worried. About everything. At school and at home, people told me that I was a “worrier” and I thought it was part of who I am.
I learned to mask my fears and insecurities with a big mouth. Feigning self-confidence went. Attack, I learned during my adolescence, was a good defense for what might happen. Countless possible versions and scenarios were thought through in my head. I always had an emergency plan. Always a plan ‘B’,’C’ and ‘D’. With a plan I was safe. So, I chose to believe.
In my late thirties, life sent me the lesson I desperately needed to learn in the shape of a psychopathic narcissist. He, as narcissists do after an initial phase of enchantment, fed all my insecurities, magnified them, and played with my mental and physical health. I, allowed it to happen. I wanted to believe in the fairy tale that the supposed prince, while making his entrance into my life, had presented. At the first glimpse that this prince might be a frog, I ignored all the signs. The narcissist always had good explanations for what seemed wrong. It turned out to be me, he quickly made clear. According to Prince not so charming anymore I had ‘totally misunderstood’, I was ‘too sensitive’, I exaggerated and quite frankly also, I was a bit naïve……. unlike the other women he used to date. The longer this scenario unfolded, the more doubts arose in my mind, about myself. Was he right about me? Was I really that immature and hyper sensitive? People warned me, but my fear and ego had also formed a couple by now. Suppose my friends would be right, then so would he. Then I would indeed have been wrong and deceived. How stupid and unworthy would I prove to be? So, there I went in my downward spiral. The anxiety and increasingly shrinking self-confidence manifested in my body as well, until I froze and lost myself. The relationship escalated completely and I had an absolute meltdown.
It was when the fog of the smoke screen eventually lifted that I came to realize that it was my habits that had brought me here. I had by now elevated the habit of panicking and worrying to an art, leaving me in a constant state of paranoia.
Now, after a situation I never thought possible, I somehow understood that self-confidence had to be not a personality trait, but a skill. Many extroverts are essentially insecure. I was one of them: always going forward, present and dominant to disguise insecurities.
It was then when I began to see self-confidence as a competency one can learn, as a trait that takes you from thought to action, that step by step I became a more confident person. Self-confidence is not a guarantee for success, it is having the courage to take action and go for it. That’s what I’ve had to learn.
The most important thing is the realization that you can learn to control your thoughts. Everyone is capable of preventing panic attacks and overcoming fears.
From the moment we open our eyes in the morning we have flows of thoughts. When we are not paying attention, they control and we begin to worry. This often develops into a habit. There are exercises to unlearn that habit and make room for alternatives. I tried all sorts of things. It was the ‘counting back’ method that worked for me. It works like this: In the second you notice yourself telling b*llsh*t you immediately start counting backwards: “5,4,3,2,1”. This causes you to ‘shift’ in your mind to another part of your brain, from your ‘basal ganglia’, where your habit circles are, to your ‘frontal cortex’, the rational part of your brain.
Now you have disrupted your pattern of behavior and your mind is ready to receive other thoughts. This is the que to apply your mantra. A thought that makes you proud and happy. I repeated over and over “Every day I become, stronger, braver and happier” and finally that’s what I became.
Counting is crucial. Positive thoughts alone are not enough. Forcing yourself in panic moments, to think positively, only reinforces your anxiety. You can’t switch the channels in your mind, like on your TV. You have to interrupt the broadcast. Turning the ‘device’ off first and then on again.
Do you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts? “5,4,3,2,1.” Reset yourself and come back to the vision you have for yourself. If I could learn it, so can you. Panic and fears are just constant thoughts that swirled out of control. Self-confidence is a skill!