I did something new yesterday. I sat through a panic attack (or is it an Asperger’s Syndrome meltdown?) without acting out my pattern of a lifetime. This post is about what these attacks feel like for me, and what I did differently the last time one happened.
FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND
For all my adult life I have tried to avoid the feeling of getting drained from social situations. In fact, the reason I started making videos on the subject of introverts was that I hoped someday to find a way to find solutions to the problem of getting drained, which I had concluded was a problem for me BECAUSE I was an introvert. Now, I think I might be the only person saying this, but I think the introvert experts and psychologists are wrong when they say introverts gets drained from being social and have restore their energy by spending time alone. I used to believe that was the case too, as it then seemed true in my personal experience.
However, over the years I have noticed that I don’t get drained so easily as time passes. I can do a lot more socially, and as long as I am expressing myself and don’t stay too long (notice those conditions 😉 ), I can able to enjoy socialising much more without getting drained in the slightest. I believe this positive change has happened for me because I have been pushing the limits of my social comfort zone for many years. I have also been meditating and practising mindfulness for over four years at the time of writing. I would say that the combination of pushing my comfort zone and meditation has served to make me much stronger now, and the result is that I now have more energy for life and less fear and avoidance regarding ‘draining’ situations or people.
I think we need to qualify what exactly I am talking about when I say getting drained. At low levels it means having a limit to the amount I feel able to socialise, after which my energy levels and desire to be social start to decline and my social personality switches off to become antisocial and uncooperative (which is then followed by internal feelings of guilt and self-hate for being an unacceptable asshole – in my mind’s words). At high levels of being drained, the feeling quickly nose-dives into what I can best describe as a panic attack or meltdown (as experienced by people with Asperger’s syndrome), which is more or less the same each time it happens and always involves an explosive scene that is in some way embarrassing or shamefully ‘socially unacceptable’. In the old days, when one of these attacks happened, I would be so exhausted and depressed that I would shamefully retreat to my bed for 3 or 4 days. Compare this to the last ‘bad’ attack that happened to me; I had an aggressive panic attack / meltdown where I made a scene in a social situation (something along the lines of raging around shouting at people and hating them for me feeling as if I were not being included), but rather than feeling bad about myself after it happened and shamefully hiding away in bed for days, I was more like, ‘Oh well, it happened again. Let’s get on with life’. Of course, when this kind of outburst happens there are people who never forgive you for it, but I have come to accept that about the cycle of these attacks.
STAYING THROUGH THE PANIC ATTACK MELTDOWN
Yesterday I did something different when the feeling of getting drained started to creep over me. In that situation I had a choice; if I wanted to, I could simply get up and leave and this would stop the feeling of getting drained from getting worse. Another choice was for me to start talking and to include myself more in the conversation happening around me (in Turkish, which I did not understand), which due to my already weakened state from the feeling of getting drained, I didn’t feel as if I could do at that time. As the feeling of getting drained increased, angry thoughts and rage started to build up in me (this is what happens before one of my meltdowns), however, this time I recognised what was happening and wilfully tried something different. As a side note, when this feeling starts to arise in me I get a clawing sensation in my stomach. It’s not exactly a pain but it is a terribly uncomfortable physiological feeling that accompanies these attacks. I know from experience, that if I get myself out of the situation, then that clawing, desperate sensation in my stomach will stop. However, this time I did not try to make that sensation stop. What I did instead was gently put my hands over the feeling meanwhile my thoughts were getting angry, urging me to get out of there. It took about 10 minutes of secret and silent suffering in that situation, but something remarkable did begin to happen; the clawing pain in my stomach started to die down! Another fifteen minutes later I was absolutely fine! Now, I was still a bit sour-faced and rude looking, so I can’t say I was at my social best, but I secretly felt extremely proud of myself for not acting out and reliving the cycle of a panic attack / meltdown. It was the only time in my life I had ever not reacted and just followed the same pattern! Plus, following all that internal drama – I DIDN’T EVEN FEEL TIRED OR DRAINED!
WHAT IS GETTING DRAINED?
I have come to view the feeling of getting drained is a sneaky and covert safety behaviour that is trying to keep you safe by getting you to run away or avoid situations where you feel uncomfortable. The situations where you feel uncomfortable are those situations which trigger you to feel feelings that you don’t want to feel. For example, suppose one of your beliefs is that you are not a person whom other people like. If you hold this belief about yourself (below your conscious awareness) it means that any situation triggering that belief and ‘proving’ it to be true is going to be extremely uncomfortable or even painful for you. Of course, you don’t want to feel those sensations or feel bad about yourself, therefore you construct a life and personality built around avoiding any painful triggering situations. Since all of this happens at unconscious levels of awareness, something relatively insignificant such as someone interrupting you while you are speaking can be interpreted as evidence by your mind that you are not somebody whom people like. In fact, you have no choice over this happening as your mind is constantly searching for ways to prove to itself the things it believes to be true. It’s a contradiction; your unconscious mind is constantly trying to prove that its beliefs are true, meanwhile your conscious mind makes itself busy with trying not to feel bad about itself by avoiding its most uncomfortable, painful feelings.
GETTING DRAINED: A PRIMITIVE REACTION
My theory about getting drained is that it is a primitive reaction that arises in order to keep you safe. What it’s trying to keep you safe from is all the bottom of the barrel, self-hating beliefs of unworthiness that lurk in the depths of your mind. If you get out while the going is good or even avoid a potentially triggering situation altogether, then, you can be sure not to go to that place where your worst feelings about yourself are stirred up or made visible to others. In this way the feeling is trying to keep you safe. If you ignore the feeling of getting drained and it escalates, then you may have a panic attack or meltdown. In my personal experience, I am mostly not in control of my emotional and reactive self once I reach this stage. Also, interestingly, once it reaches the point of no return I tend to play out the things that I *might* believe about myself at very deep levels. For example, the raging and ‘fuck you!’ attitude that comes over me during a meltdown could be my way of proving to myself that I am horrible and nobody likes me (and believe me, I am VERY hard to like when I’m having a panic attack / meltdown).
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
Based on my own personal experience, I know that the feeling of being drained or having a meltdown is uncomfortable and even scary to go through. However, I also know from personal life experience that trying to avoid these sensations / primitive reactions actually makes it worse the more you do it. The only solution I see to all this is to consciously and wilfully expose yourself to triggering situations (accompanied by a forgiving attitude towards yourself for when you have an outburst and other people don’t accept you for it). The ideal approach is gentle exposure, rather than going head-first into the situations that are the most scary and difficult for you. And lastly, if you really do believe that other people drain your energy BECAUSE you are an introvert, I encourage you to strengthen yourself energetically by taking up meditation and working to push the boundaries of your social comfort zone. I really think that’s important; if you don’t push yourself to expand, you may open your eyes one day to realise that your world has become very small and your introvert’s cave has eaten you up.