I was sitting on the couch in my living room, listening to an audio book with my headphones on and folding laundry. The kids were at school, and it was just me and my dogs and cats in the otherwise quiet house. I could see colored leaves just beginning to fall from the giant oak tree growing just a few feet from my front door. I love my family, but I also love these pockets of time when I have quiet and solitude, space to just think, reflect, dream, and pray.
And then the doorbell rang.
Immediately that sliver of peace, the serenity of falling leaves and warm clothes right out of the dryer, and the bliss of time alone to think was obliterated. I wasn’t expecting anyone. The Amazon and UPS deliverers were always too busy to ring the bell, and I wasn’t expecting any packages.
Should I answer the door or just let them think no one is home? What if they already saw me sitting here on the couch? Would they wait for me to answer? Would they think I was too rude to answer? They couldn’t have seen me through the window if I didn’t see them through the window, right?
I am being ridiculous. Why did I buy a doorbell for my door if I wasn’t going to respond to it when someone rang it? Why did I sit by the window where anyone walking toward my house would see me? Why am I agonizing over a single doorbell ring? I’m still in my pajamas, and it’s 1PM. No, that’s not why. I am at home during the day because I don’t have a job even though my kids are at school everyday for at least six hours. They’ll think I’m lazy and stupid. That’s not why either though.
I know why. It’s because of the other door in the other house, the one we lived in fifteen years ago. It’s because one time, when I heard a knock, I answered that door and let in someone who said she would help me. But instead she destroyed me. And now, even though it’s been 15 years and I’m in a new house in a new place and that whole situation is done and over with, it’s…..not. It’s not over for me. Because for me, no matter where I am, or what year it is, even now, when someone comes to my door unexpectedly, it’s her. Even when it’s not her, my body and my mind go into defense mode, because when it was her, my guard was down. And I can’t let that happen again.
At its worst, anxiety or panic can become a time machine. Suddenly something happens and a switch flips on in your mind, and BAM, you’re back in a time and place when you experienced something that will never stop hurting you. Sometimes it’s easy to identify what triggered your panic, but not always. The moments in life that trigger panic become places where our emotions are imprisoned in a continuous loop, repeatedly reliving a trauma any time a certain sound or feeling or situation recurs, even though it may have no real connection with your trauma experience. From a neurological perspective, the sound or feeling or sight that “triggers” you has actually triggered your fight or flight response. Fight or flight is a very basic and instinctual brain function that exists to keep us alive. It’s a fire alarm triggered by chemicals in our brain, and our brain responds in kind, even if the dangerous situation it perceives isn’t actually there in reality. It means that there are enough warning signs present to justify shutting down any activity that doesn’t contribute to pure survival.
But that doesn’t mean that, if our mental-emotional fire alarm is going off, we are definitely in danger. It only means that there are enough elements of a past traumatic experience present in a situation to warrant an alarm. Think about the smoke detector in your house. When it goes off it could mean the house is on fire, but it could also mean it’s malfunctioning, or its battery is dying, or you overcooked the pan-fried chicken. Similarly, just because you feel panic doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in danger, physically or emotionally.
Because panic is at the extreme end of the spectrum of degrees of worry or anxiety, I think it’s important to know how to put that instinct on pause and use your critical, thinking, reasoning brain skills to evaluate whether the panic, fight or flight reaction is warranted. When I can recognize that reaction as quickly as it starts, I am better able to sanely evaluate it, so that I don’t overreact to the situation and make both the situation and my emotional reactivity worse.
In the next post, I’ll give you some tricks that I’ve found that help me learn to stop and evaluate before I allow a panic attack to take over my thinking.