I remember it clearly. The first time I felt that sickening fear rising up in my body.
When it happened I was sitting at my desk taking notes on a high school lecture. It was a warm day in spring and the teacher had opened the door to let in some of the fresh spring air.
The maintenance crews were mowing grass outside, and the moment that sweet smell of freshly mown grass hit my nose I was suddenly over taken with a sense of fear.
This was way before anxiety was even a thing, at least for me, but even then I remember how keenly I observed what was happening in my body.
The sensations running through my veins, heart pounding, that sense of wanting to remove myself from a situation that felt overpoweringly dangerous while not totally grasping why I felt I was in danger.
Later in my life when I lived with chronic anxiety I noticed that one of my most valuable assets in coping was the fact that I was a great observer. When anxious moments came knocking I would watch what was happening, almost as if I were watching someone else.
As I did my yoga training I was introduced to the concept of the seer and the seen. The idea that there are two ways of experiencing something. You can be IN the something and identify it as you, or you can observe the something and realize that while this thing is happening to you… it is not you.
I had felt fear and anxiety before. In fact I almost always felt it when I was called on to answer a question in class, had to give a speech or presentation, or sing a solo in choir. But this was different- more intense and seemingly for no reason.
Why the heck was I feeling this way over the smell of grass?
Then came the memory.
A few weeks before I had gone to exercise my horse. She was young and green. I had intended to make it quick- just take her through her paces to keep it all fresh in her mind- and then move on to other things. I took her into the small pasture where I could keep her contained.
It was a windy day. I was wearing a jacket I had been gifted while working at a local stable. The jacket began to ruffle and ripple in the wind.
My horse being young and green began to spook- frightened by the noise and motion of the jacket she bolted out the gate.
I had no control over her as she frantically raced in to the larger pasture.
Once we were out in the open, I began to turn her into a small circle. The idea was to slow her down so I could regain control, bring her to a halt + calm her down.
But the circle trick didn’t work.
My little circle continued to get larger and larger until eventually she was running sideways through the field.
There was bucking and lurching- I was good on a horse- so I was able to stay with her.
Yet, there came a point when I realized that I was wearing the jacket that was spooking her. She was running from me.
Now I had a choice. I could stay with her and she would continue running from me, or I could defuse the situation by bailing out.
So I bailed.
I remember the smell of the grass as I skidded along the ground. I remember my body contacting the earth- rolling in slow motion and ending with a bang to the back of my head.
I don’t remember getting up. I don’t remember putting my horse away, or my friend driving me home. My first memory after I bailed was waking in my bed at home, my friend sitting by my bedside looking at me with worried eyes.
That day, sitting at my desk at school + smelling the green grass had transported me back in time. To the moment when I lost control of my best friend and had to bail for her and my own safety.
I learned two things that day.
First, memories can wield a lot of power. They can be triggered by something as simple as a smell, and can affect you on both a physical and emotional level. You can experience not only the memory, but the emotion and feelings connected to that moment in time.
Second, when you feel fear you don’t have to be taken up in it or freaked out by it. You can simply sit back and observe what is happening, being aware that what you are seeing and feeling is not actually you. In doing so you can put together some helpful pieces as to why you are feeling the way you do.
You see, understanding something is the key to changing it.
That doesn’t mean you have to know every detail, but by watching and observing you can learn a lot about your self and how you engage (or don’t) with the world around you.
Over time that memory began to fade. The smell of freshly cut grass triggered less and less of the fear and panic I felt sitting at my desk that day in high school. And then one day… it was gone.
How about you?
Ever had something simple trigger fear and panic? Tell me about it in the comments below.