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I Started Having Anxiety Attacks In My 40s

And yet there was no good reason for my body to freak out on me.

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An animated graphic of a woman with beads of sweat rolling down her forehead during an anxiety attack.
Manuela Bertoli
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I was editing a story about Denise Richards when I suddenly felt like I was going to die. My heart started pounding so loudly that I was convinced a coworker could hear it from across the room. My breath quickened. Beads of sweat trickled down my back, and I’m that person who’s always freezing. I became dizzy and unable to read the words on my computer screen in front of me. With my last bit of strength, I staggered to my friend’s office because it had a couch, and collapsed on the furniture in a trance. Seven minutes and one orange Gatorade from the vending machine later, I was back in business.

I was 40 years old, and I had just experienced my first anxiety attack. It wasn’t my last. I had crippling flares while grabbing lunch with a friend, walking in the park, lounging on my couch, and checking my phone. Soon, I became anxious just anticipating the attacks! None of it made sense. I had endured junior high, SATs, parties, job interviews, breakups and reconciliations without a single panicky episode — just a few nervous stomachaches here and there. (I refuse to count my meltdown on an airplane during severe turbulence circa 2004, because even the flight attendants looked jittery.) But during my first episode, I was merely sitting in the same Us Weekly office I had occupied for more than a decade. And, with all respect to Miss Richards, I was on a mental autopilot. There was no good reason for my body to freak out on me.

Except there was. I went to my longtime physician a few weeks later, convinced that something was terribly wrong with me. I’m not the girl that panics to the extreme, I told her. Plus, I exercise. And I learned from Elle Woods a long time ago that exercising gives you endorphins, and endorphins make you happy, damn it!  Maybe I had a thyroid problem? Or a secret genetic disorder? She looked at my chart and my vitals, and told me my “episode” made perfect sense in the context of my age. I was on the cusp of perimenopause, when levels of reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone begin to fluctuate irregularly. My body is starting to feel off. An abrupt surge of adrenaline could send my insides into “flight or fight” mode at any randomly inane moment. Concentrating on fixed words in a closed-door, windowless office on a deadline night could do the trick, easily.

Despite an official diagnosis, I was slightly disappointed. Anxiety is such a general catchall. I needed more information, so I dug deeper. I learned that it’s a clinical fact that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from stress-related problems. We have a propensity to ruminate, stress and let problems ping-pong around in our heads. One seemingly inane trigger — think misplacing car keys or running late for work or forgetting to pick up the cookies for your child’s class or scrolling through your Twitter news feed — can lead to an attack. What’s more, there are no boundaries between work and a personal life anymore, and that to-do list never seems done. I know. Just reading about a to-do list elevates my pulse.

My doctor prescribed me the antianxiety medication Xanax to keep on hand. My friends suggested I take up yoga to find my inner zen. My brother told me to do transcendental meditation because it works for Howard Stern. I learned through a bit of trial and error that just putting down my phone, closing my eyes and taking a few prolonged deep breaths during hairy moments helps me come back down to earth. I have no idea if this is the correct scientific solution; it just works for me. Put it this way: I’m not cool, but I try very hard to keep cool and not exacerbate the situation. I think Denise Richards would approve.