Recently, I did an interview and we discussed anxiety disorders. I realized that although I’ve written about that topic in other places, I’ve not addressed it much on this blog. (ETA: since I posted this, I wrote an entire book on the topic of mental health – Not Just Me: Anxiety, depression, and learning to embrace your weird.)
It can be challenging to talk about panic attacks and social anxiety. We’ve been taught that it’s either nerdy (think someone with high-waisted pants, sucking on an inhaler at a party) or it’s just regular stress that we should be able to handle.
It’s neither of those.
I’ve had anxiety and panic attacks since I was a kid. I’ve always been described as “sensitive” and “thoughtful” and “a worrier.” When I was about 11, my mother would push her thumb into the middle of my palm, calling it my Breathe Button. She’d remind me to take a deep breath as I gasped like a fish and anxiety drained the color from my face.
At a certain point, my inherent shyness and introversion turned into hyperventilating, blacking out, and not being able to leave the house. At its worst, I was having a couple of panic attacks a day. If you don’t know what a panic attack feels like, consider this: it’s common for people to end up in the emergency room during their first one because it feels so much like a heart attack.
It feels like you are dying.
And I was doing that twice a day.
That anxiety was complicated in my early 20s by the fact that I was not happy in my life. I felt trapped and scared and not sure what could ever comfort me. I’ve been carried out of restaurants mid-panic attack, I’ve made bad choices in a fog of anxiety-ridden self-sabotage. The world had become a very dark place and there were many times that I was not sure how I could ever get out of it.
I’ve written before about what has helped me. Personally, it’s all about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation and yoga. I wanted to avoid the drug route – I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking drugs that you need – I just wanted to try a different way. Although I have had prescription bottles at the ready, I’ve always found other ways to manage it.
Even though it’s greatly improved, my anxiety has not disappeared completely. Last weekend, I felt some significant panic just thinking about having to leave the house to go to the grocery store. My heartbeat was irregular. My hands went numb. Flickers of light clouded my vision and made me cling to the counter with vertigo. Those are all signals that I’m not breathing well.
The difference now is that have a whole arsenal of tools that I can use to stop that panic before the sobbing-on-the-floor point. I have breathing exercises. I remind myself that this feeling is temporary and will pass. My husband knows what he needs to do, and not do. My friends understand that sometimes I can’t come to large social gatherings (large means more than 2 people) and if I do, I always drive myself so I can leave if I start to feel panicy. There are preventive things I do every day to reduce my anxiety so that it no longer runs my life – like yoga and a daily meditation practice.
Whenever I talk about anxiety publicly, I get messages from people who deal with similar things and who are glad that we can talk about it. That sense of connection is the reason that I write words and put them out into the world. Because I hope that someone will find them, read them, and say, hey, I totally get that.
I wish there was one common answer we could all share — sadly, there is no simple one-size-fits-all solution. But if you are dealing with this stuff, know that you are not alone. There is no need to feel ashamed. There are people and books and techniques that can help you. Anxiety tends to drive people into isolation, but suffering alone is never the answer. You can take control of your life and your own wellbeing. You can ask for help.
I used to think my panic attacks could be alleviated by some external image of “success.” Maybe if I got cast in bigger movies or dated a different boy, I would suddenly be fixed. When I finally realized that I was capable creating some peace for myself, right where I was – that’s when it all started to get better.
I created a bookshelf of some of my favorite books that helped me with my panic attacks. You can see it on Goodreads. (And while you are there – friend me so we can share books!)