I don’t remember when I had my first panic attack. Oddly, it didn’t coincide with the loss of my mother at the age of 17 or the deep-seated spells of major depression in my mid-20s. These mood-crushing moments seemed to rear their debilitating powers a decade or so later.
According to the mental health charity Mind, a panic attack is an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to fear or stress. When faced with a potentially threatening situation, the body gears itself up for danger by producing adrenaline for “fight or flight.” But if we produce too much, the surplus floods the body, causing feelings of absolute terror.
About 6.8 million adults, or 3.1 percent of the U.S. population, suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, estimates the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Trying to explain anxiety or a panic attack to someone who doesn’t suffer from such responses is like speaking in a foreign language. Although the two conditions can display similar physical and emotional symptoms, they’re most definitely not the same. (Though you can have both simultaneously — oh joy!) Think intense, out-of-the-blue feelings — like dizziness and a racing heart — versus a gradual buildup that becomes unbearable. Unless you’ve experienced these cycles of fear, it’s inscrutable.
It was November and I’d just started a new job at Microsoft that required me to go into the office on a daily basis. It was a brave new world, as I’d worked from home for 15 years and had zero corporate savvy. November 8th marks the anniversary of my mother’s death and kicks off what I call The Season of S**t. I have a difficult time getting through the holidays, and basically coast from early November until I land safely in a new year. The timing of a new job where I had to show up and have my act together wasn’t the best.
I was already nervous about the new position, but it took no time for anxiety to rear its ugly head. Within the first few weeks, I found myself in the all-too-familiar place of intense fear and gasping for air. Only this time, I was in a cubicle in an open-office floor plan and had nowhere to hide. I fled to the restroom and went fetal in a stall until I heard others enter, which only exaggerated things. My next instinct was to lie flat and breathe. I found an empty conference room and sprawled flat on the floor. In a pseudo-snow angel position, I found my breath and was able to calm my thoughts. In the coming weeks, I returned to this coping method anytime panic took hold. It wasn’t ideal, but it saved me from more drastic measures, like having an ugly meltdown or leaving work.
It was impossible to predict when crippling feelings would strike, and they happened on the bus and in the middle of business meetings. These spells were awkward, uncomfortable, and downright scary.
I’m not sure if the panic attacks gave way to anxiety, but the worry in between bouts left me waiting for the worst to happen. When my mind started to marathon daily all the ways life could go wrong, and my body would shut down without warning, it was time to wrangle my demons. I gave these issues far too much power and recognized I would live in a constant state of caution if I didn’t take back that control.
Once I brought intention to these feelings of impending doom, I became more empowered. I armed myself with an arsenal of coping tools — edibles, a lucky baseball card, lavender essential oil, a small piece of rose quartz in my pocket. Even if I didn’t need these amulets, they served as some form of pseudo-protection. I scaled back my caffeine intake, focused on my breath and tried to get eight solid hours of sleep each night. I exercised more, meditated more, and masturbated more. I said no to situations that could potentially trigger panic or worry. And when life felt too big (which it often did), I went to therapy. If all else failed, Valium was my safety net.
Above all, I made an effort to offer myself kindness and patience. If I couldn’t deal and had to go fetal for a day, that was fine. I finally learned that though I felt fear, I wasn’t in any real danger. Forgiveness became my friend.
It has been a slow-going process, but I’ve made marked progress. I haven’t had a panic attack or reached for anti-anxiety meds in a few years. My mind and body feel strong and healthy. I laugh, joke and smile more. There’s a welcomed lightness in my world. And when waves of panic strike, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
I wake up every day and try to create the best possible landscape to grow happiness. And if anxiety still decides to creep in, I no longer fight it. Instead, I invite it to give me the worst it has. Because however bad it is, I’ve endured lower lows and survived. I’ve got this, even when it’s hard. I’ve tamed the beasts, and if I must, I’ll do it again. And you know what? I’m not alone. You’ve got all the tools in your toolbox to tackle this, too.
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