Tight chest. Racing thoughts. Suffocation. It was so familiar it was almost comforting.
What began as social anxiety turned into panic after I witnessed the September 11th attacks in 2001. I wouldn’t be diagnosed with PTSD until fifteen years later, but for more than a decade the symptoms of Anxiety Disorder NOS followed me around like a cloud.
No one knew, but I was constantly terrified of triggering an attack. I hid it well. I refused to talk about it, even with my partner of over a decade, Tim.
And then we decided to have a baby.
I always swore I’d never have a baby. I didn’t have the bug. But deep down I was scared to death. My mother had difficult deliveries and my parents’ marriage ended in a nasty divorce.
And yet we decided to have a baby.
We made the decision to have a baby a few years in advance. So, three years out, I made a choice: I’d get my anxiety under control once and for all.
I joined an anxiety support group. Once a week, I sat in a room one block from the World Trade Center site and talked about anxiety—and my anxiety went through the roof.
I went back to therapy. I’d been in and out since September 11th but every time we got to the heart of the issue, I shut down—I shut down again.
And then I started meditating. My father was a life-long meditator but it was his thing. We meditated a bit at acting school but I could never get my mind to calm down enough to do it right.
Then I realized something: every time I tried to work on my anxiety, it got worse. I knew there had to be something to that. In the words of my bestie, Katie McKenna, I had to go through it to get through it.
My next step was to use the Headspace app. I made a commitment to do ten minutes a day. The voice in my head got louder and louder, but I stuck with it. The voice was screaming all my worst fears: I was crazy, I would never get better and, most of all, I was not doing it right.
But this time, instead of running away, I listened. I went in instead of out. And what I heard was fear. I was so afraid, I was afraid of being afraid. Not only was I leading with fear, it was the star of the show.
Meditating helped me see beyond the fear, but it also helped me begin to heal from trauma and very real reasons to be afraid. It made me realize that I wasn’t listening to myself. I wasn’t letting myself be heard.
And I had to let go of getting it right, because, of course, there is no right. I had to practice letting go and relinquishing control. Literally, I would sit and practice putting forth less effort—“do less, do less, do less”.
Today, I help others go through it and be heard: I’m a Communication Coach and Co-Founder of Bespoken—we help people communicate consciously and be powerfully present when speaking. Helping others has helped me help myself. Now, I talk about anxiety all the time—in my work and with friends. It may look different for each of us but we all have it on some level. It’s the not talking about it that makes it dangerous, the not feeling heard.
It’s no coincidence that I went full-time with my company the same week I found out I was pregnant. Since that time, I’ve meditated often. It’s not always sitting down for ten minutes a day. I meditate in yoga. I meditate while walking. If I’m in a rush or traveling for work, I do Meditation Lite. In moments of self-doubt and high anxiety, of which there are many, I focus my attention on listening to myself, letting myself be heard.
It’s not that the fear and need to get it right go away—they don’t (Spoiler Alert: the racing thoughts don’t go away either). But you begin to trust yourself and know that you have the tools to get through it and come out the other side. You begin to listen to yourself and when you feel heard, the fear dissipates or deflates. It doesn’t control you anymore. The energy of anxiety converts from fear to empowerment. It begins to feel a little less scary, or manageable, or even useful.
A month out from giving birth, I am practicing letting go. I am seeing my effort a mile away. I can feel my need for control. And yet, I know this is completely out of my control. This baby is coming out, one way or another—I can either stand in the way or let go and let it happen.
The fear will always be there, just under the surface. But it’s no longer the star of the show.
Leah Bonvissuto is a Communication Coach and Co-Founder of Bespoken, where she helps leaders and teams communicate consciously and be powerfully present when speaking. An award-winning theater director, she spent over a decade helping hundreds of performers tell stories on stages of all shapes and sizes. She now helps people tell their own stories at Bespoken. Leah is passionate about helping people speak with conviction and without apology. She pulls from the worlds of theater, mindfulness, and movement to help people feel confident and in control of their communication.