A friend was telling me about a panic attack he had.
As is often the case, he didn’t share his experience in a matter-of-fact, isn’t-that-interesting, what-do-you-want-to-talk-about-next kind of way.
I could feel the emotion in his words. The fear, the confusion, the struggle to make sense of his experience.
I felt him trying to connect dots that don’t actually connect—speculating about how what he was doing right before the surge of emotion might have played a role, how his growing stress at work may have played a role, noting how unexpected it all was.
Listening with compassion—with no judgment or fear for him and zero question about his underlying health and safety—it sounded to me like he was describing sneeze.
It came from out of nowhere, did its thing, and then faded away. There was no warning, no sign of an impending sneeze. He just felt that funny feeling in his nose and before he knew it, the feeling rocketed into a sneeze. Then, the feeling faded and calm resumed.
But while his panic attack and a sneeze seemed awfully similar to me in that moment, they surely didn’t to him.
One thing particularly stood out in his story. It was when he said this: “I had it in my mind that I was past having anxiety attacks”.
On the one hand, that is just about the most human statement ever said.
And on the other hand, that is the problem. The only problem.
Any experience is possible at any time. Every experience is safe and temporary. And nothing we feel is a meaningful statement about who we are or how we’re doing in life.
In a world where people “have” issues…where our experience says something about our health or our psyche, where thoughts and emotions look stable and meaningful, where labels and diagnoses rule…it makes perfect sense to assume we’re either “in” or “past” something.
But there’s another truth here. A more fluid, far more accurate way to see life.
We’re in the moment we’re in, experiencing what we’re experiencing. Then, it’s on to the next moment and the next experience.
Our brains will always try to label things and predict the future, that’s just what brains do. It’s nice that our brains try to reduce our complex inner and outer worlds to a few statements and predictions, but it comes with downsides when we take those labels and predictions seriously.
You can easily see how an innocent little thought like “I’m past anxiety attacks”, taken as truth could create a bit of a ruckus in my friend. Here he is thinking this-is-so-unexpected-not-okay-it-means-something-about-the-state-of-my-health. But none of that was actually true.
The simple truth is that he experienced some thought + emotion and that thought + emotion came and went. It left him unscathed. It was his interpretation of that experience that created any kind of residual disturbance and concern.
We’re never truly past the possibility of any experience just like we’re never stuck in any experience. Life is fluid and always changing.
Do your best to let your experience move through you with a minimum of interpretation and story-telling. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.