I was 7 years old when I first understood that one day I would die. I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean at home with my parents and there was a scene where you could see a lot of skulls on a cave or something to that effect; I got up, went to hug my dad and started crying, I said “Dad, I don’t want to die”.
I remember the feeling stuck with me for a long time. When I went to play with my friends all I could think is how we were all going to die one day. Probably a strange thing for a 7-year-old to be thinking about, but more common than you think. I carried the fear with me throughout my life but never really dealt with it.
I think I put it on the back burner during my teenage years, but in my early adulthood, it came back strong. I began to have panic attacks, overall high levels of anxiety, I could not go for a walk without worrying a car was going to hit me, or I was going to meet some sort of violent death. I couldn’t go on planes without taking medication. I had to have control over everything in my life. Looking back, I was a mess, but I was not aware of what was causing this, how it was all related.
Despite this, I just kept going, I pushed myself very hard to go to university and then onto my master’s degree. All throughout suffering from depressive episodes and all those symptoms, I mentioned before. I didn’t listen, I was too busy to listen to what they were trying to tell me.
I finally finished my master’s degree and unsurprisingly, here was death knocking at my door, trying to get me to listen one more time. In February 2021, I had several panic attacks again. The thought of ceasing to exist one day sent me into a horrible spiral, I would drop to the floor, crying, not being able to take a breath, tumbling around the room not knowing what to do.
After my third panic attack, I was left in a constant state of severe panic. I was terrified of absolutely everything. I would be under a blanket on the sofa trembling, my body was so tense it hurt. I was just constantly shaking and crying. My boyfriend said it was as if I was possessed. I could not eat or drink, I was paralyzed. It was clear to me, I didn’t have a choice this time around, I could not put it aside any longer, I had to deal with it once and for all.
I am very lucky that my brother went through something similar and that his friend, a very gifted therapist, agreed to talk to me. I was very lucky that my boyfriend would carry on bringing me food, even if I only ate a spoonful, and that he would take me out for very short walks around the neighbourhood every so often.
I joined a few Thanatophobia groups on Facebook that allowed me to get in touch with people going through the same fear. In one of them, I was recommended the book “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön. I cannot recommend this book enough, it really got me through the worst of it. I began to have a routine in order to get through the day. I would wake up in terrible fear and panic, but I would stay in bed rather than getting up and I would use a visualization and breathing technique my therapist suggested:
Stay in bed, lie down and take a deep breath. Imagine you are in the middle of the ocean, with every breath in, imagine a giant wave coming to hit you, like the fear, it hits you, but with every breath out imagine the wave passing you by, as you are anchored to the ground so it cannot knock you down.
I did this over and over again. At first, I didn’t feel any difference, but as time went the fear slowly decreased in the morning. I would have herbal tea in the morning, and I would take CBD oil. I would put lavender oil drops on a scarf my brother gifted me which I would carry everywhere with me, I would wrap myself with it and I would sit down to read Pema’s book.
I would always try to fit a small walk everyday even though it terrified me to go out. I would cry throughout most of my walks. I would see a dead flower, I would see an elderly person, all I saw was death, everywhere, only death. It was incredibly challenging.
I felt so much grief. My brother suggested I start to write down how I felt, my thoughts. I started a blog to record my process and whatever was going through my mind. This really helped process what I was feeling, and I would recommend to people that they keep a diary of some sort or use any creative exercise to give form to what they are feeling and thinking. I think this creative force is very important and if you deny it, it will be harder for your mind to process what’s happening.
Connecting closer to nature was key for me. Sitting in silence, touching the grass, feeling the rays of sunshine or the rain, listening to the birds, touching the leaves, watching the insects flying around me. Connecting to the present moment was and is the most important part of my healing. Even if the fear wants your mind to run into the future. The important part was to bring myself back to the present moment, to carry out my daily tasks in a mindful way. To use my senses in order to bring me back to reality, rather than the reality my thoughts were creating.
I would say to myself over and over again: “Right here, right now, you are safe”
I surrendered completely to the present moment. I surrendered completely to the wisdom of nature. I called my brother crying and said “I just put my trust in nature, that when the time comes, nature will be by my side and will give me the courage to cross over”.
Surrendering was terrifying. I had lived under the pretence that I had control over everything in my life, I was an anxious mess, with OCD and agoraphobia symptoms. Death knocked at my door to open my eyes and made me reflect on how I was living. It forced me to surrender and put my trust in something bigger and I can tell you once you are on the other side of it, you will be grateful.
To live comfortable with the unknown, to be brave enough to jump into the abyss because you trust everything is as it should be. To be okay with change. To learn how to manage your emotions and understand that grief, sadness, and pain are just part of the spectrum of human emotions. That you don’t have to do anything about them but just listen to them and giving them the space they deserve. It’s refreshing.
So my advice would be to surrender, stop fighting against it, make sure you have a support network to hold you as you fall, a support network that understands what you are going through and will not be too scared themselves to hold space for your pain. Take every breath as it comes and try to stay with your feet firm on the ground, feel the Earth hold you. Try to stay in the present moment as much as possible. Cry, shout, despair as much as you need to. Be patient and kind with yourself as you grieve.
And don’t do what the fear wants you to do. If it wants you to hide away, get up and go for a tiny little walk. If it wants you to stop eating, take a small bite. Don’t let the fear win, as hard as it is at the time, don’t let your fear tell you what to do.
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