It’s not quite as dramatic as the full-blown panic attack that sends me to the ER gasping for my last breaths, certain that my heart has attacked and killed me, but isolation seems to be a key ingredient of my panic and anxiety disorders.

Sometimes I find myself either mad at the world, or vicitimized by the world, alone, misunderstood, and baffled by the experience. Most of the time I view myself as pretty positive and pleasant, a person who tries hard to get along and “play nice,” and as fairly intelligent. So it is with surprise that I ask myself how did I end up all alone at the far end of some opinion, isolated from my fellows and nursing hurt feelings?

I think it has to do with anxiety, and it is one of the more subtle features of my disease. Over many years I have learned that anxiety can spread in an almost invisible mist over my whole psyche – and, indeed, through an entire crowd of strangers. It masquerades as common sense, a well-thought-out-opinion, a core-belief or even as a sum-of-my-experience. This giant boulder of anxiety builds itself with tiny, imperceptible bricks of “fact” – this is right, that is wrong, he is mean, she is hurtful, this pain is serious, that behavior is dangerous. I may convince myself that I don’t swallow some idea whole, but over time I may swallow enough little pieces of things to stuff myself on an anxiety-producing belief. Then,
I act on these beliefs and avoid certain activities and people. If I collect enough of these beliefs, and avoid enough people and activities I can find myself alone, and boxed in to a very tiny mental space. All in the name of self preservation.

For instance, flying is a good example. If I read enough news articles, books and stories, or watch enough TV and film versions of plane disasters, I can collect images and beliefs that flying in airplanes is dangerous – and even stupid. I can avoid traveling, going places I love, accompanying people I love, and attending functions I love. I can convince myself that I’m safer if I just stay home. Over time, I realize I have missed out on weddings, vacations, musical and artistic performances; that I have missed out on the opportunity to live life at its most abundant. Yes, I’ve been safe, but I’m now also alone, bored, resentful and misunderstood. I get sad. I get depressed. I am anxious. I think I’ll have a panic attack.

This goes with people as well. I can collect hurt feelings like other people collect pennies in a jar. And then one day I’m full of hurt feelings and so I avoid all those people, that situation. I’m alone. I’m sad. I’m bored. I’m resentful. I get anxious. What is wrong with me? Is that a pain in my chest? I think I’ll have a panic attack.

Of course I don’t consciously choose this line of thinking – nor do I consciously choose to have a panic attack. But if I allow myself to go down these many (sometimes inviting) roads of judgement, avoidance and isolation, I can find myself back to the very familiar place of a full-blown panic attack. Part of, maybe a HUGE part of, my recovery is to pursue self-awareness, in order to recognize the subtle clues that I may be putting myself in place to get slammed by the disease. I’m coming to believe that knowing and avoiding this is my responsibility.

But these warning signs are quiet and small. They are good at disguising themselves in “normal” clothes. Maybe 95% of all people would say that this person is a jerk, or that flying is dangerous. Maybe they’re right. However, I need to be careful of this kind of thinking. Like caffeine, it may be fine in small doses and it doesn’t necessarily CAUSE a panic disorder. But it is the kind of anxiety that, for me, can build into a full blown attack.

And I need to remember this about myself. It is up to me to choose something else.