When panic disorder hits a nation

PANIC disorder is a debilitating mental health condition that you would not wish on your worst enemy.

I know this because I suffered through it for seven long years from 2006. I was lucky enough to come out of it through much reflection and study, changing my lifestyle and focusing on others.

Recently, when I thought about my experience, I found myself reflecting that this country, this nation of diverse people, seems to be suffering through the same thing. And I think how I came out of the condition could throw some light on how we could progress as a nation in the near and far future.

What is panic disorder? In one sense, it is a condition of being deathly afraid of... nothing! Suddenly, the mind sends signals of fear, anxiety and stress over pending destruction and catastrophe that are simply non-existent.

How can I describe it simply? Imagine thinking that you are suffering from a serious illness such as a heart attack or a stroke – and those feelings pop up 20 times a day for the next one year of your life.

A simple headache that can be cured with paracetamol becomes fear of an impending stroke. Gastric heartburn sends signals that you might be having an early heart attack.

People who have panic disorder cannot go to work or even leave the house for fear that they might suffer an attack. I could not even drive to the nearest petrol station and I could only go in to work at the university if my wife came along. She eventually asked for early retirement just to accompany me to my lectures and everywhere, basically.

I usually had one public speaking engagement a month but from 2006 to 2008, I refused all invitations to talks, forums and public lectures. Panic disorder almost ended my career.

After working with a psychiatrist, much Internet surfing and reading about the condition, I came to understand it better and how I might break the vicious cycle of anxiety-fear-anxiety.

There are three things that feed the cycle of fear and anxiety leading to total panic.

The first is a fear of the unknown future that the mind fills with scenarios of disasters, be it economic, health or career disasters, you name it, the mind conjures it up.

Second is living with a perpetual “what if” state of mind so you can plan for every eventuality no matter how extreme. Third is totally focusing on yourself and all these worries.

How did I eventually get out of this condition? First, I had to recognise my number one and number two enemies: my own mind and my daily habits.

The mind must be refocused into thinking of something other than disaster scenarios and the body or actions must fall into rhythms and rituals that are different.

I had to refocus to listen more to my wife’s talk of friends, family, how to redecorate the house, anything. I had to stop focusing only on completing my next book, my next piece of writing, my next argument in a forum, about uniting the nation and furthering my career as I did before.

I also had to learn to “waste time” more. I had to learn to wash my car, do gardening, walk or jog and go shopping with my wife. All these things I used to detest because they had no “market value” or “political mileage”. I had to learn to do the “little things” and dial back the “big stuff”. Only in this way can the brain be rewired differently and the anxious thoughts recede into the background. Physically, the new habits sent different signals to my muscles, also helping me to get out of that vicious cycle.

In the same way, politics and misunderstanding between our cultures and races create a panic disorder condition among us.

Each ethnic group fears an invisible enemy of the other religion, culture and way of life. This is reinforced by unscrupulous politicians and racist academics fuelling the fears. The thought of “what if” this or that happens plagues our minds to the point that this concern for our normal way of life takes precedence over everything else. These fears make each group resolve in only self-centred behaviours and further narrow its friendship circle into a small one indeed.

To become a more trusting and harmonious nation, each ethnic group must refocus its thinking on “other things”. There is no enemy trying to destroy us. Just our active imaginations, a few bad politicians and misguided academics. Why listen to these people who “cari makan” by playing on our fears for their own self-promotion?

Learn new things about other religions and cultures in our country. Don’t just focus on your own group in complete self-interest. Help children, people from “other communities” instead of focusing on just ourselves. The single most important spiritual lesson of enlightenment is always about helping others because in doing that, your own self-centred ego will be kept on a tight leash.

If people can rewire their thinking by learning more about other ethnic groups in Malaysia and retrain their habits into helping the “others” then we will live a more spiritual life that will see this nation dump two of our worst enemies: bad opportunistic leaders and our own self-centred thinking.

It is really not that difficult to change this country – just change ourselves and our thinking first lah.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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