If you happened to be walking through a southern college campus 30 years ago you might have seen a man sitting on a park bench apparently wiping his face in the warmth of a Spring day while gazing at the kind of lush green scenery only the South can provide. But if you had been inside this young man you would have seen something different.
He was not actually wiping his face. That was a cover so that he could put his fingers on his neck and feel how fast his heart was beating. To his dismay he found that it was still above 160 beats a minute - a rate only hard exercise could produce even though he had not moved in nearly half an hour. And he was not actually looking at the trees and grass. Instead he was wondering how he could possibly stand up, and walk that 500 yards to a classroom filled with undergraduate faces, and still make sound come out of his mouth.
That young man was me.
Nearly 30 years ago I developed a panic disorder. A productive and successful young academic, I soon found myself struggling to give a lecture, to speak on the phone, or to ride in an elevator. Even sitting on a park bench was a struggle. From the outside I appeared calm - but on the inside I felt I was dying. Literally.
Over just a handful of years, my body became a focus of terror; my thoughts a source of torment. Some of my experiences at the height of this struggle now seem so alien to me that it is only with difficulty that I can imagine the mindset that produced them. I'll share one, knowing for many it may simply seem incomprehensible.
An airline attendant stood at the front of a plane and described how to use the passenger seatbelts. I watched with a sense of amazement and incredulity, as one might gaze at an impossibly skilled athletic feat during the Olympics. I remember thinking "how can she do that without being terrified?!! She has to say all of those specific words, and they have to be right, and do it in front of a plane full of people!" Now this memory seems very strange, but I remember that is was not strange at all at the time. That is how far my mind had carried me.
At the level of content, the problem I was suffering from was seemingly my intense anxiety, and a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. The mode of mind I used to address these problems was logical, sensible, and content-focused. I thought I know what I should be feeling, sensing, thinking, and remembering, but what I was experiencing was far from these expectations. Between these two was a discrepancy that needed to be closed. Like a person lost on the way to a destination, my mind reviewed how I got here, carefully looking for wrong turns and mistaken landmarks. And it looked forward, projecting endless possible routes that might have the desired effect. The discrepancy would be closed and my problem would be solved. My feelings would become normal. My thoughts would ease. I would be myself again.
Unfortunately, entering into this mode of mind turned my life into a problem to be solved, not a process to be experienced. Instead of leading to solutions, it disempowered me so profoundly that I could almost sense my life energy draining away in real time. The instant I applied this mode of mind to myself my worst fear was confirmed. There was something wrong with me. I had to fix it before I could move forward. Life needed to be put on hold while my emotions, thoughts, and sensations were readjusted. There was something deeply, deeply wrong.
I was like a person running a race whose first step was to cut himself off at the knees. I was drawn into the mental whirlpool of panic disorder and agoraphobia. Gasping for a bit of psychological air, one compromise followed another as I avoided more and more. The emotional monster I was struggling took one piece of my life after another until my career, my ability to function, and even life itself was in question. Sitting on the park bench, I wondered if there was a way out.
I think my personal story exemplifies the errors both the helping professions and popular culture have often made in adjusting to a new reality. Modern technological success is a product of our ability to solve problems. In part as a result we have enormously overfed a logical, discrepancy-based, problem-solving mode of mind. It works wonderfully well in many areas but easily creates suffering when it is applied within. Nevertheless, with every scientific and technological advance, a discrepancy-based mode of mind grows stronger, and our ability to be present, aware, and flexible grows weaker. Yet we as a culture seem to be dedicated to the idea that "negative" human emotions need to be fixed, managed, or changed -- not experienced as part of a whole life. We are treating our own lives as problems to be solved, as if we can sort through our experiences for the ones we like and throw out the rest.
In the modern world, the struggles we face are often not logical, they are psychological. As a culture we are not handling them well. Instead of a discrepancy-based mode of mind we need to develop a modern integrated style of consciousness that can take us out of our minds and into our lives. Acceptance, mindfulness, and values are key psychological tools needed for that transformative shift.