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A Powerful Lesson From My Most Recent Panic Attack

“Be Gentle. You are meeting parts of yourself you have been at war with.” 

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On Friday December 11, I made what would become the last Artidote post of 2020.  The next day, I experienced something I hadn’t felt in years: the surge of a major panic attack. 

And although this story has a happy ending with a profound lesson at the end, I feel the need to go back to that day for a moment and contextualize what prompted my recent online absence and, more importantly, where today’s Gentle Reminder is coming from.

 

Inner Weather Report

December 12, 2020 was what most people would consider an “ugly” day in Munich, Germany; it was very cold (0°C), windy, the skies were covered in gray and there was a light drizzle. Nasty weather.

Normally, peeking at the outside world from the comfort of my bedroom window would bring an odd sense of safety and coziness; that feeling of being glad I was indoors and not experiencing the nastiness “out there.”

But that particular Saturday, this wasn’t the case. 

Inside, in the “comfort” of my room, I was feeling miserable. It was an inner feeling that had been lingering inside of me for weeks. In an earlier phone conversation with my therapist, I told her that I had been spending a lot of my waking hours trying very hard not to get anxious; that I would go throughout the day experiencing various micro-triggers that would shoot up stress throughout my body and would make my compassionate inner voice repeat the words, “Don’t get anxious, don’t get anxious, everything’s okay, don’t get anxious…”

“Yep, that’s a sign of anxiety…” my therapist calmly said, as if she had heard that story countless times from other people experiencing the same.

During that phone call, I finally accepted it. I had been dealing with anxiety for the past few months. Furthermore, I revealed to her that I had also developed a deep dissatisfaction with my current state of being. After 10 months of enduring the Pandemic’s new normal, being thrown into debt because of it, not knowing when AND IF I would see members of my family again (they’re living in Mexico & the US) and struggling to help myself as I attempted to help others (I was in the middle of running my Four Fellowships course while also running The Artidote), my coping mechanisms had become depleted.  

Yes, my daily meditation practice and the bi-weekly hour-long conversations with my therapist were greatly helping my mental hygiene. And so were my core friends and pillars of support whom I fully confide in. But somehow, the financial instability that I currently find myself in brought my Shadow to the surface. And it kept reminding me of my core wound: the fear of not being enough, of not doing enough, of not being sovereign onto myself and independent enough to take care of myself. The Shadow, that part of ourselves where our fears live, would unexpectedly show up to tell me, “Look at you. How dare you pretend to take care of others when you cannot even take care of yourself. How dare you show up online as a pillar of support when you can’t even support yourself offline. What a fraud.”

Our shadow can be ruthless.

And you may be thinking: how could someone that helps so many people with their emotional & mental health ever feel not good enough?

The truth is: none of us can bypass working on ourselves through helping others. I will repeat that sentence, it’s an important one: none of us can bypass working on ourselves through helping others.

That was perhaps one of my biggest lessons from 2020: that no matter how much praise and love I receive for my social work, it will not rid of me the work I have to do on myself to be able to love myself wholly and in a sustainable way. 

The Great Wave

In the weeks leading up to December 12, I would sometimes experience debilitating waves of worry.

A couple of times a week, when I would begin thinking about everything I lacked at the moment (family, money, freedom), I would begin to feel physically tired. A sudden feeling of I-don’t-want-to-do-anything-nor-talk-to-anyone would overcome me as I would lay down. Once in bed, a feeling of shame for “being lazy” would crawl over me, only matched by an intense and paralyzing sense of worry about the future. I would then curl up in a fetal position and, unable to withstand my dissatisfaction with life, I would just go to sleep. A short time later I would wake up continue about my day, exhausted and uninspired.

The last time I went through a similar phase was years ago—way before I began my daily mindfulness practices that, despite my initial hesitance and skepticism towards them, allowed me to effectively regulate my nervous system. Meditation, Yoga and breathwork  made me believe—and truly feel— that I was doing “the work” necessary to sustain a healthy mind, heart & spirit. 

And yet, 2020 and its unprecedented challenges had finally taken a toll on me. That nasty Saturday, I began to sense a great wave of worry approaching. My Shadow was about to pay a visit. My mind began to run. “Don’t get anxious, don’t get anxious, everything’s okay, don’t get anxious.”

But I couldn’t help it.

When I looked out the window, somehow the nasty weather outside didn’t seem as bad as what I was about to experience inside.

I then looked at my bed. And I knew exactly what would happen if I laid down: nothing. Nothing would happen. I would only curl up, wait for the paralyzing sense of worry and helplessness, sleep and then get up drained of energy. It was a predictable cycle by now.

But thins time, I didn’t want “nothing” to happen. This time, after going through this painful cycle for weeks,  I felt that I’ve had enough. The energy that was building up inside me wanted (read: needed) an escape. I couldn’t simply wait for the predictable wave of my Shadow to come, throw me in bed and remind me how much of a failure I am as it put me to sleep. I got tired of my Shadow’s bedtime stories.

This time, as my mind was racing, I felt like running. Literally. It’s as if I wanted to match my mind with my body.

So I put on some running gear to bear the weather outside and, after procrastinating for about two hours doing random stuff in my room, I finally laced up my shoes, opened the door and left the house. 

Outrunning My Fears

I’ve never been a runner. As a matter of fact, I hated running. Especially in cold, rainy weather. What kind of masochist would do that, right? 

That day, however, I didn’t care about the outer weather. I just knew that I had built up enough energy inside that didn’t have a form of expression. And I knew that when we let that inner storm brew without giving it a release, it will slowly wear us out to a pulp. Any place outside in the open where I could release that energy and face it head on felt safer than holding it inside the confining and limiting walls of my bedroom.

And so I started running. Even though I quickly discovered that I was SO out of shape (I couldn’t even run 1km without stopping twice in between to catch my breath). But I still continued and ended up going for more than 5km that day.

It made a difference. Not only for that particular day, but I would discover also for the rest of a very, very long time. More than the temporary endorphins I was picking up along the way, I also felt that I was crafting something much deeper, stronger, sustainable and long-lasting.

It was the decision of being proactive towards doing something that would challenge my Shadow’s fears. On that first run, it did feel like I was having a very heated argument with my Shadow through a much more raw version of myself that showed up to greet it. I remember thinking to myself, “This is SO hard. So, so hard. This is perhaps the hardest thing I will do today. Can I even really do this? Let’s see.” And I kept running to find out.

A couple of days later, once my muscles recovered, I ran again. And a couple of days later, one more time. It wasn’t the first time I attempted to run consistently. Years ago I attempted the same feat in order to start getting physically fit, but I didn’t follow through with it (physical aesthetics felt superficial and I couldn’t sustain the commitment). This time, however, it felt completely different. I felt as if I was going out there to greet a badass version of myself I had been ignoring for so long — a version that was savage enough to brave the weather. Outer and Inner. I began to sense that it wasn’t physical but mental fitness that I was after. Let me explain.

Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Those initial runs in mid December also coincided with one of the Quests (challenges) within The Four Fellowships, my online course that I was leading at the time. In one of the course’s modules, I challenge my Fellows to take up a chore/task that makes them uncomfortable. Some people pick up cooking, others cleaning, others exercise (the usual suspects). Then, in one of the writing prompts of the module, I invite them to write down why is it that their chore creates discomfort in them. I ask them to express this in a purely subjective manner, only focusing on their feelings towards the activity. This mental exercise allows us to not only validate our emotions but to dig a little deeper in order to understand better where the  discomfort is actually coming from and how it manifests itself in our everyday life. 

The way we deal and handle the little things reveals so much about the way we approach the big things in life. And this simple activity can be such a revelation if approached with an courageously vulnerable heart. 

To lead by example, I go through the Quests myself. This time, I had chosen running as my chore Quest. It was something that made me sooooo uncomfortable. Yet I never bothered to dig deeper than accepting the surface reason that it was simply “boring for me, too much unnecessary work and I wasn’t the sporty kind anyway.”

This whole story has been leading up to what I’m about to share with you next

It was in the middle of my third run that I gathered the courage to work on the writing prompt for that week’s Quest and reveal to myself why I hated running (or why it made me so uncomfortable). During one of my pauses to walk and catch my breath, I reached for my phone and recorded a one minute video. What I recorded surprised me. Without thinking and just letting my feelings speak, I said something that I had never revealed to myself before. Something that, once I finished saying it, felt as if I had encountered a monumental gem of a revelation. Something I knew would definitely alter the way I viewed my running, myself and my life. 

I’ve transcribed what I said in that video below. Hidden within this message is the Gentle Reminder that I was so eager to eventually share with you. It’s subtle. But see if you can spot the revelation:

I hate running. The thought of it makes me… afraid. Afraid of the commitment of putting my entire body in motion towards a goal that may not be so clear to me. But to be in full motion… that’s scary. That type of commitment is scary. And I think I also dislike it and it makes me afraid because it reminds me of my vulnerabilities; of my insecurities. I’ve always been insecure about my body. About my belly fat. I’ve always had it throughout the years and I never really committed to getting rid of it. And so it makes me ashamed to think about whether I’m ready for that commitment. And… sigh… that’s my rant.

I then semi-smiled, turned the camera off and continued running. 

 Did you catch it? I didn’t at first. Only after re-watching the video did I notice that I repeated a word four times: commitment.

Commitment Is Healing

It’s been over a month since I’ve had a panic attack. It’s also been over a month since I started running. As of today, I’ve put over 150kms on my legs since December 12. Today I run an average of 5kms daily as I continue building my endurance. Whether it’s raining, shining, or even snowing (January is the coldest month of the year in Munich) I’m out there hitting the trails around the Isar River. Those wooded trails have become my training ground.

I’ve invested in proper running gear; I educated myself on the importance of moisture-wicking base layers in conjunction with breathable outer shell-layers to balance body temperature and moisture (sweating in the cold can be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst). I’m also figuring out effective ways of stretching pre and post runs and how to take good care of my muscles, joints and ligaments in order to minimize the risk of injury. I’ve also invested in my first proper pair of running shoes—after weeks on the search for something that fit my needs, I finally came across an amazing deal on a pair of neon-yellow Sauconys. The app I use to track my running stats has the option to track how many kilometers I’ve accumulated on different shoes (the average life-span of a shoe is 400-500kms) and also has the option to name them. I nicknamed this last pair “commitment.”

The first pair that started it all had been appropriately nicknamed “babysteps” ^^ 

As you can see, I have fully committed to my running. Especially now that I know I’m running not for physical but mental gains. But running and the benefits of exercise, as obvious as they may be, is not the main point I’m trying to make here.

What I’m trying to make is a much more subtle point that often goes unperceived.

Clearly, it’s taken years for this realization-seed to come into my life and find fertile ground in my lived experience to actually take root and grow. My hope is that, as you encounter this reminder today, it also finds enough fertile ground in your own lived experience so that it may land and take proper root within you.


This is my subtle but main point, and today’s Gentle Reminder: there’s healing in commitment. 


Since mid-December of 2020, I’ve realized that:

1. The fear of commitment does not only show up in romantic relationships. It shows up in the relationship with ourselves and the various relationships with the things we are connected to. Let’s do a little mental exercise: Think of one of the activities that you’ve done today or are about to do. However little or massive the task at hand may be. Imagine what would it feel like if you committed to it entirely. Even if it’s something simple, like doing the dishes or reading a book. If you were to bring all of your attention, presence and accountability into that activity, how would your body feel different? How would you approach it differently?  Try to imagine what if feels like to hold commitment within your body. And then, if  possible, practice doing that activity with commitment for only 5 minutes. That’s it. You don’t have to change your life today. Just try doing something briefly with full commitment and notice how that feels within you. Try that baby-step today. 

2. There is great empowerment and freedom in the way we commit.  You can commit to literally anything, but commitment is not a thing—it’s an approach. Being in a relationship, for example, doesn’t mean you are committed. It’s in the way you approach that relationship (with intention, attention, presence and accountability) that commitment comes into being. Like love, commitment is a verb, not a noun. It exists in action.

I think one of the main reasons why some of us develop a fear towards it is because we associate the word “commitment” with “obligation” and “restriction.” But I invite you to consider another way of practicing commitment. I invite you to think about it as an opportunity to show up; an opportunity to be there, present, in the moment that’s right in front of you; an opportunity to experience being in the driver’s seat of your life; an opportunity to build self-agency; an opportunity to leave any second-hand perceptions behind and go see life for yourself with your own eyes.

The way that we commit is so unique to each one of us. Similar to how each one of us has different love languages, we also have different ways of expressing commitment. I invite you to go out and explore the unique ways in which you commit to yourself and the world around you. But first, give yourself permission to do so.

3. I have been so afraid of commitment for years and I’m still exploring within myself where that fear began to take root within me—I suspect it came from the very first time I fell DEEPLY in love and consequently deeply heartbroken and rejected when I was a teenager, but that’s a different story for another day. But figuring out why it’s there is not as important as figuring out what I’m going to do about it. The fact is that, due to that fear of commitment that I had been neglecting, I have been living a rather uncommitted life. As a result, I didn’t give myself the chance to build self-reliance, self-trust and self-respect consistently throughout the years. Instead, I constantly kept betraying myself whenever I told myself I was going to do something and not follow through with it. I had begun living an uncommitted life for a while without even realizing it. The deep dissatisfaction with life that I had been feeling by December 2020 was partly due to this lack of commitment I was practicing in my life; a lack of commitment to myself, to my family, to my friends, to my work with The Artidote, the list goes on. 

This, of course, is only the beginning of a longer conversation and exploration on commitment that I’ve begun undertaking. It’s only been a month since this word entered my vocabulary in a different context and I’m already seeing the real-life results of practicing it daily.

I’m happy to report that, although running was the catalyst for my newfound appreciation for commitment, it didn’t stop there (nothing ever grows alone in a vacuum). Commitment has been finding a way of entering other areas of my life, including my most important relationships with my loved ones. It’s also the reason why I have been staying offline a little longer than I expected. I didn’t want to come back into others’ timelines until I felt I was fully committed to my own; first committing onto myself so that I could re-commit in a healthy way nurturing The Artidote, its community and its future moving forward.  

Today, despite the personal, external challenges (which are still there), I feel more empowered with the self-trust and self-respect I’ve been building on through my commitment to running. Challenging the outer nasty weather and consistently putting my body through stress I didn’t think I was capable of handling, has awakened an energy within me that reminds me of how much more powerful and capable I am to rise above any challenges. That reminder was hidden in my commitment all along. It’s something I don’t ever want to forget again. I hope this Gentle Reminder stays with you too.


I’m coming back online this week. With more intention, attention, presence and accountability. There’s so much more I want to explore online through The Artidote that I haven’t given myself permission to until now. Expect new content and brand new series, like a Sunday IG Live series I’ve been wanting to do where we simply  get to catch up over a cup of coffee and talk life 🙂

Thank you for committing to reading this far 😉 If you’d like to receive Gentle Reminders like this one delivered directly to you, you can sign up for the free newsletter here. You can also share your own thoughts on today’s Gentle Reminder in the comments or in my inbox. I’ve been thinking of ways of making these Gentle Reminders more interactive, so perhaps on the next Gentle Reminders newsletter I will include snippets of your own  responses/thoughts regarding commitment. 

And if you’re up for the challenge of growing beyond your fears, a new Four Fellowships experience begins this upcoming Saturday, February 13th 2021. Right now there’s a Give One, Get One offer – which means that if you purchase the course for a friend, you also get a free spot for yourself. If you’re at a point in your life where you’re looking for practical tools to begin getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and activate a phase of growth in your life, I have the community and experience for you. Come join us!

Wishing you a peaceful weekend ahead and a period of fulfilling commitment ahead 🌻

Keep breathing. Deeply. Wholly. Lovingly. 

Jovanny Varela Ferreyra

Founder of The Artidote

Life Coach at The Four Fellowships

jova@theartidote.org