I felt like I was dying. I should have known better. I mean, every psychology 101 textbook in the world will tell you that’s what a panic attack feels like, but when it happened, I didn’t think I was dying. I knew it. Breathing was a concerted effort. I used to run track, but now even hustling for the bus sent sharp pains through my chest. I rode to the emergency room with my husband in sober silence, fearing the worst.
Scarier still was when I learned that there was nothing physically “wrong” with me. Instead, I was diagnosed with anxiety. I resisted my anxiety for a long time after that, reasoning that “there’s nothing wrong with me, I just have a lot on my plate.” And that was true. I’ve always worked long hours and feel a little uncomfortable having less than three jobs. I need a backup plan for my backup plans. I did not trust myself to sit still. Nothing I did, no award I won, no achievement felt like enough. All symptoms of anxiety. Having my daughter was the match that set the haystack ablaze. My anxiety had largely been contained to worrying about my own sense of inadequacy, and slipped under most people’s radars. Once I gave birth, however, I teetered dangerously close to the edge of my sanity. Yet, if it hadn’t been for my daughter, I don’t know that I would have begun to take my mental health as seriously as I do now. Teary-eyed and embarrassed, I picked up the phone and began calling every therapist in my network until I found one who could see me. I wish I could tell you that there was an easy fix to make the anxiety go away. There isn’t. I’ve looked everywhere and talked to everyone. I still wake up in the middle of the night to make sure that my baby—now a two-year old—is breathing. Good days still sometimes turn into bad ones for little or no reason. I’ll be making breakfast or flipping through Facebook, and almost before I realize it, I’m annoyed. Or irritated. Or maybe just a little sad.
That’s almost always how it starts. When that happens, the thoughts in my mind begin speeding by like a time-lapse video of cars on the highway. Everything seems to get a little bigger than I can handle, the smallest mistakes become life-threatening, and even getting out of the grocery store becomes too much for me. I wish I was exaggerating, but I have had panic attacks so severe in the canned goods aisle that I’ve needed someone to come and get me. Things aren’t perfect, but I’ve come a long way in the last two years. Here’s what I learned: Anxiety is a medical condition. Just because it can’t be diagnosed with a blood test doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. I resented my anxiety and was embarrassed by it. But if you had some other chronic health issue, like diabetes or MS, would you apologize for caring for yourself? I have a friend with fibromyalgia. She knows that stairs trigger intense pain for her, so she avoids them. I know that running late somewhere triggers intense panic for me, so I avoid that as well. The right therapist is crucial. I did not stay with the first therapist I saw, who consistently reinforced that if my husband would pick up more of the slack, I wouldn’t be so stressed all the time. Truth be told, since high school I’ve seen about a dozen mental health specialists. I finally found one who was willing to work with me to develop tools to manage the panic attacks, and never made me feel silly or marginalized for struggling to regain control. Self-care is an antidote. When managing panic disorder, it’s important to keep yourself in a positive and empowered place. Structure your day around positive experiences that make you laugh and fill you with peace. For me, that means picking my daughter up from school, taking yoga and fitness classes three times a week, and eating foods that nourish me. It also means not checking my work emails on my day off or skipping meals (because those things trigger negative feelings). Keep your tools handy. It may help to create an anxiety emergency kit for yourself. Mine includes cute videos of my daughter on my phone, lavender oil, protein bars, mindfulness podcasts (and headphones), and a notebook with writing prompts for when I need to get something off my chest. I also keep an extra couple vacation hours in the bank at work so I can take a mental health day when needed. And don’t forget the most important tool is always available to you: your breath. Just a couple minutes of breathing deeply can stop anxiety from evolving into a full-on attack. Go with the flow. As counterintuitive as it may sound, don’t resist the anxiety. Especially for those of us who are type A, we tend to put a lot of energy into presenting a composed exterior to the world. “I’m fine,” however, takes a lot of energy to muster and and maintain. Give yourself permission to have a bad morning or even a bad day, and realize that it doesn’t define you, your life, or how capable/successful/normal you are. If you’re feeling really bold, find a way to laugh about it. You may feel like you’re not enough, but trust me—you are and you’re doing great.