“Handling our suffering is an art. If we know how to suffer, we suffer much less.”Thich Nhat Hanh
In November of 2020, I started having daily panic attacks. This was new for me (thanks 2020!).
A panic attack is different from an anxiety attack (which is when your anxiety reaches its peak level). It’s a sudden, seemingly random episode of intense fear with a strong sense of impending doom. It feels like immanent death, like some internal wires have been crossed, and your body is responding to some serious–but non-existent–threat.
Imagine you’re hiking, and you round a bend to discover a 700 lb. grizzly bear stalking the trail ahead. How might your body respond to something like that? Would you shake? Start to sweat? Would your heart begin pumping blood to your extremities to help you run faster? Would you get tunnel vision as you focus in on the only important thing in your life at that precise moment?
Yes and yes. Remove the grizzly, and there you have it: a panic attack. The sudden awareness that your life is at stake (when it’s not).
The Importance of Embracing Discomfort
It doesn’t do any good to spend our lives avoiding pain. For one thing, it’s futile. To live it to suffer.Psalm 34:19 says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous . . .”
This truth sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But how much time, energy, and money do we spend on avoiding suffering and other forms of discomfort? Some of us spend our entire lives unconsciously making every decision, even the smallest ones, with comfort in mind.
Humans love the easiest way forward, the thing that feels best in the moment, the berry (or cookie) that tastes the sweetest. The path of least resistance.
We are constantly making decisions that we know are worse for us in the long run because it temporarily immobilizes the monkey in our brains or the pain in our bodies.
Meditation is good practice. It trains us to embrace discomfort rather than chasing highs and avoiding pain.
In the Buddhist tradition, Dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction) is one of the four noble truths, which is to say it’s present in all of us.
So how do we manage this pervasive suffering that is somehow built into the human experience? If not by self-medicating with alcohol and food and sex, how does one navigate this really obnoxious reality that every human finds themselves born into (this ability to think about the future and the past and to constantly suffer)?
It begins with recognizing that you will feel discontent in this life, and that is normal. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you. Congrats!
When you’re meditating, even for a short while, say ten minutes, you will have an itch below your eye. Or on your arm. Or you’ll think you feel a spider crawl across your neck.
You’ll want so badly to release yourself from this discomfort. It would just require a quick swipe of the hand. But in staying focused on your breath, in viewing your body objectively and identifying with it less strongly, you can simply let the discomfort pass.
What a metaphor, right? When you’ve finished meditating, and you’ve let all the small irritations and interruptions pass, you feel sort of peace that is far greater the relief you get from swiping at imaginary spiders.
When I find it in myself to let the itch exist, some of its power is taken away. The same goes for my fear about tomorrow’s big meeting and my anger about the way someone spoke to me earlier today and my fury about the guy who cut my off in traffic then flipped me the bird.
Letting myself feel what I feel is the first step to finding peace.
Suffering won’t go away because you tell yourself you need to stop feeling it. It goes away because you embrace it and let it exist while simultaneously turning your focus inward, on your breath, on your body, on your surroundings.
The first tip I received concerning my panic attacks was from a therapist I know. “You have to ride it out, to let it run its course,” he said. It sounded like the worst advice I’d ever heard.
“Give me a fix,” I told him.
When you’re experiencing a panic attack, it’s common to want to run away. I literally told Em one night (at 10pm) that I was going for a run, because I felt such a strong urge to escape something–whatever that something was.
She convinced me it wasn’t a good idea. And she was right. Google “how to manage a panic attack” and you’ll see this advice: ride it out. Let it be. Don’t fight it. Don’t run. Just breath.
Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said it like this: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”