“Just…just do it,” she said, looking me straight in the eye.
She wasn’t a Nike spokesperson: She was my therapist, circa 2004, warning me against the dangers of agoraphobia.
“Even if you feel panicky,” she said, “Just go. Go out with that friend or this one. Go to the store. No matter how your body feels, just keep going. Don’t cancel plans. It’ll get worse in the long run if you do.”
Wise words. Did I always heed them?
And my world shrank.
If I could go back in time and have a little one-sided chat with the version of myself that couldn’t leave town, then couldn’t leave home, then couldn’t even leave bed, here’s exactly what I’d say.
LETTER TO A PANICKER WHOSE WORLD IS QUICKLY SHRINKING
Hi. I’m from the future, but please don’t let that freak you out. So many things are already freaking you out, and I don’t want this to be one of them.
Right now, your world is small. Maybe it’s “town” small. Maybe it’s “house” small. Perhaps even “bedroom” small.
Whatever brand of “small” it is, it’s smaller than you’d prefer, right?
I know how scary and panic-inducing it is to push your limits. I know how fast your heart can race when you step outside or step into your car. The sensations are uncomfortable. Your body, it seems, is your worst enemy right now.
It’s a strange paradox: you own your body, but you cannot (currently) control it. Your mind is wearing a bag of flesh that sweats, a heart that palpitates, and a pair of lungs that tighten up without your conscious volition.
But the more you push your limits — the more you expose yourself to the things that truly scare you — the more you can embrace your body as a friend, not an enemy.
It sounds far-fetched, and perhaps from where you’re sitting right now, it is. Even the tiniest baby steps can keep that dreaded circle of safety from closing in on you. Even a walk outside to the mailbox, if that’s all you can accomplish in a given day, is a good start.
Every “scary” thing you do with your body — whether it’s driving your body to the gas station or taking your body for a walk down the street, or even just getting your body out of bed — teaches your mind something. These physical actions teach your mind that it is possible to do, and to go, and to move.
Will panic come? Maybe.
And it might frighten you, and that’s okay. You can retreat, but don’t escape. Leave the grocery store if it’s simply too much for you to handle, but go back the next day and try again. Soon, you’ll find yourself leaving the grocery store and going back later in the day.
Then, eventually, you’ll find yourself able to take a break in the car if the grocery-goings get rough. Soon after, a break on a grocery store bench will do.
Baby steps. Baby steps are beautiful and they add up.
Escape will only teach you that the threat is worth avoiding. Repeated escape will train your mind — and your body — to react to the threat with an off-the-wall pulse rate and a sick stomach.
But is the world worth avoiding?
No. It’s a slippery slope, and you know it because you’ve slid down it before. First, you’ll just avoid that particular grocery store. Once you panic at the next one, you’ll avoid that, too. You know how it goes. It’s an easy trap to enter, but a difficult one from which to escape.
And you’ve set the trap yourself — unintentionally, of course.
So, instead of training your mind that the threat — whether it’s a grocery store, a mean supervisor, or a busy highway — is something that ought to be avoided to save you, train your mind that confronting the fear is what will save you.
Instead of practicing repeated escape, practice repeated retreat. Try to do something that scares you — and stop if it gets too bad. Drive home. Sit down. Stop whatever it is that’s scaring you, wait for calm to come, and try again.
Return to the “scene of the crime”, as it were, and re-write it. Record over the bad memory like you’d record over a bad karaoke attempt on a cassette tape. (Remember those things?)
Go to that place where you panicked, alone or with someone else, and sit there for awhile. Make a positive memory, and paste it over the panicky old one.
And this is how to prevent your world from shrinking any further. It’s not about “toughening up” or “manning up” or anything to do with the word “bootstraps” — it’s just about practice. If you haven’t played the piano in twenty years, what’s going to help you to improve? Manning up, or practicing?
Panic-free functioning, like piano playing, is simply a skill that you have let fall to the wayside. Pick it up again, and do not judge yourself — just do the things that scare you.
Bit by bit, and piece by piece.
Photo: Brittany Greene (Flickr)