Working through a panic attack is really hard.
It took me twenty years to be able to say the phrase “I have anxiety” out loud.
I was born with a vision impairment that I worked hard to never let get in my way. People often told me that I couldn’t do things because of my vision, but I would find a way to do them anyway without holding back. Rising above people’s expectations of my capabilities didn’t and doesn’t scare me. So how could I have anxiety?
I’ve been skydiving. I’ve climbed mountains. I’ve traveled and moved to various states for various educational and professional opportunities on my own. I’ve run Warrior Dash races and jumped over fire. Being adventurous didn’t and doesn’t scare me. So how could I have anxiety?
I’ve always been a very creative person. I would get on stage to dance in front of huge audiences. I would give speeches in front of my whole school without a thought. I would be the first to jump up and sing at family events or volunteer for a solo in chorus. I would write creative stories and submit them to competitions for fun. I would speak up in staff meetings to propose an educational plan for a student. Putting my creative ideas out there didn’t and doesn’t scare me. So how could I have anxiety?
The answer is quite simple. My anxiety was there. It was real. It just didn’t manifest in a way I could define. I had made the word anxiety synonymous with “phobia”. And that was the problem- it wasn’t and isn’t an overtly obvious phobia like stage fright or a fear of heights. The anxiety I live with is something very different.
My anxiety manifests in the way I engage with others. In certain social situations, like having a difficult conversation with a loved one, it attacks in full force. But it’s never the same type of moment. I could be totally fine with something one day, and the next time that same situation occurs be incredibly anxious. There is no rhyme or reason to when my worrying gets the better of me- and that in itself is anxiety inducing.
For most of my life I have been prone to nightmares which could trigger severe physical symptoms of anxiety. I would often wake up in a full blown panic. Other times it could be something as simple as lingering on a thought for too long. That one thought leads me into a spiral of negative thoughts and possible worst scenarios. Once that spiral starts it’s almost impossible to get out.
One minute I feel fine and relaxed. Then out of nowhere, the second I feel tension or uncertainty in an interaction, the second a bad thought enters my brain, my anxiety awakens and slowly starts to build.
When I get anxious, it feels like someone gradually increasing the speed and incline on my treadmill. My thoughts start racing. My heart starts beating too fast. Often times when someone asks me questions, it feels like there is a glass ceiling between my vocal chords and my mouth, blocking sound from getting through. I know what I want to say, but my thoughts are moving too quickly and I can’t hold onto one long enough to let it out. And even if I can.... it’s pressed against the glass trying desperately to break it.
When the panic is really intense, my left hand starts to tremor. That is a signal to me that I have crossed over from “anxious” to “panicked”. My breathing gets heavier and faster until it feels like my throat has closed up altogether. A ringing starts in my ears that is deafening. It feels like my body is out of control, like I can’t orchestrate my movements, breathing, or thoughts at all. I feel like my body isn’t my own. Like my mind isn’t my own. During these moments, it can be really hard to come out of this panic or to slow my thought spirals down.
At night, I usually fall asleep very quickly. But that sleep is interrupted by nightmares so vivid and scary that I awake in full panic mode. Unable to breathe, shaking, heart and mind racing.... it got to the point when I was growing up that I would train myself to stay up and read until I physically couldn’t stay awake any longer. I was hoping to avoid the nightmares, avoid the anxiety... but I was doing more damage.
For a long time I was convinced that it would just “get better” or “go away”. I told myself to “get over it” and “suck it up”.
But i didn’t get better. It didn’t go away. I couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t just suck it up. I had anxiety. And I needed to accept it.
It’s been six years since I first said the phrase “I have anxiety” out loud.
Those six years have been full of growth, self exploration, and a lot of deep breathing. Over the past six years I have worked to develop strategies to get me through my moments of panic. Strategies to counter my physical symptoms of anxiety and to slow my thought spirals. Though I know my work is not done, these strategies have helped me to work through my anxious moments and to feel more confident in my interactions with others. I sleep better now. My nightmares are less frequent. And when they do come, I wake up and can take comfort in the fact that even if I’m feeling anxious, it won’t last forever and I can get through it....
- “Please be patient with me. I need a minute.”: If I start to feel anxious or panicked during an interaction, I have started saying this to whoever I am engaging with. It’s a short phrase that I have memorized that i can say to inform the person I am talking to.
- “When words fail, music speaks”: I made a playlist of regulating music to listen or to play in my head to during my anxious moments. All of the songs have simple lyrics and melodies that mirror calming/slower breath patterns. Having a playlist allows me to replace my racing thoughts with the lyrics of the songs. It is in a specific order that I have memorized and most of the lyrics in the songs I chose are very repetitive. The repetitiveness helps to ground me. And the melodies that mirror breath makes it easier to slow down and connect to my breathing. I often listen to this playlist at night before going to sleep, or sing the songs to myself to help calm my mind.
- “Deep breaths and deep pressure”: Once I feel grounded to my breath and my thoughts are slowed down, the next thing I do is find a way to give myself deep pressure. I picked this trick up when I worked at a therapeutic school for students with autism. For some, receiving deep pressure is away to calm your nervous system. Occupational therapists will often give what they call “deep pressure squeezes” to their clients in the form of gentle squeezes on one’s arm or leg to help calm and connect their body. They also may use tools like a compression vest of weighted blanket to help give the same affect. Whether it’s just by crossing my arms and pressing them tightly against my chest, fully giving myself a hug, gently squeezing up and down one arm at a time, or asking someone who is there with me to hug me tightly... I allow myself to access the deep pressure I need to further ground myself in my body and allow my mental and physical states to connect. I also recently got a weighted blanket which has been very helpful at night. I’ll listen to my playlist with the weighted blanket at night and since doing so, my nightly panic attacks have decreased significantly.
- “Thank you for being so patient. I’m ready now.”: Once my mind and body have calmed down and I feel myself coming back in control, I always like to thank the person I’m engaging with for understanding. Since implementing this routine, my anxious episodes are much shorter. It used to take me anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour to come down. Now, from the moment I acknowledge I’m panicking to coming back to regulation can take from 1-5 minutes depending on the environment. Knowing I have a set routine to get through this moments is really comforting when they begin. I feel more centered and grounded even when the moment starts than I used to. And that feels like a huge victory in itself.
“You did it.”: When the moment has passed, whether it lasted one minute or one hour, I take a moment to celebrate. Working through panic attacks is really hard. There are so many factors that can make the panic worse and add layers to the worry. Each attack feels like it’s own battle, and coming out on the other side of it feels like a victory each time. So i celebrate. I take a deep breath and simply say “you did it”. And then I move forward.
I now know that I don’t have to struggle. And neither do you. No matter where you are on your personal journey with anxiety-finding the will to accept it, working to navigate it, or comfortably living with it- always remember this: Panic is not permanent. The moment will pass. You will get through it. And anxiety doesn’t have to be a monster. It is a part of you. In a lot of ways, I feel that having anxiety has made me better. I am a more thoughtful friend. I strive to help others. And I think some of that comes from having an overthinking, anxious mind. It’s a constant balance between loving your anxiety- letting your thoughts come, validating them. And learning to work through when it gets to be too much. The road may be difficult to navigate at times, but It’s an adventure worth taking.
So take a moment.
Breathe. Keep breathing. let your anxious mind go for a bit. Who knows where it may lead you? And trust that you will find your way back when you are ready.