Lessons in Freaking Out

I don’t know how to freak out. I can get anxious, or even panicked, but the feelings do not show. My expression doesn’t change. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t cry. My friends usually have no idea I’m stressed out.

It wasn’t always this way. As a kid I cried all the time. I showed fear the way most kids do: flailing and screaming. However, I lived in a house where abuse was an everyday experience. The people I lived with were predators who could smell fear.

In response, I learned to stop showing my emotions. Instead of crying, my sinuses became dry enough to crack and bleed. I pushed away my facial expressions until they only manifested as a clenched jaw. My eyes gained a subtle but permanent squint. As for my racing heart, I have no idea how I learned to repress it, but it probably involved constant shallow breathing. Oxygen deprivation is a great way to shut down important biological functions.

These habits came with a heavy price. The constant clenching dislocated my jaw. Shallow breathing left me low on energy and unable to think clearly. I developed chronic sinusitis from my lack of tear production, which didn’t even kick in from non-emotional triggers like wind. All these symptoms combined gave me constant migraines and muscle soreness.

Because I didn’t talk about my problems, I had no idea these habits even existed. All I knew was that I had a bizarre list of complaints with no apparent physical cause.

Through the recovery process I discovered the emotional root to these problems, but I didn’t find a tool to counteract them until I was 32 years old. A cascade of coincidental events made me realize that I can cry if I give myself permission to, and it clears out my sinuses too. I experimented with stretching out my jaw, and 10 minutes later, it still wasn’t completely open. While doing these exercises I breathed deeply and fully. I opened my eyes so wide they felt bugged-out (but when I checked in the mirror they were just open a normal amount). As a reward for this experiment, my body gave me a full-blown panic attack, visible from the outside.

Success! Really weird success. I have to teach myself to be visibly freaked out. For my own health. Maybe someday showing fear will come as automatically as it once did as a child. Even if I have to do it manually, I’ll just be happy to emote again.