Adrenaline surges, your muscles feel weak yet poised to bolt. You feel every moment of contraction in your heart as if it was the first time you heard it beat. Cool sweat erupts from your pores, glistening your skin. Your throat closes half suffocating you. Maybe your fingers or your lower lip trembles. For moments, seconds, minutes and what seems like hours, this is your whole existence: you are overcome by it.
But this isn’t the caveman era, and you are not running from a giant bear (most of you anyways). You are perhaps sitting in your office cubicle, or in a room full of people at a social get together, and chances are that nobody is interested in eating you for dinner or taking your turf. You are just having a panic attack, and let me tell you, you feel pretty dumb about freaking out about what other humans, or just life, may or may not do to you.
My first panic attack happened when I was studying in a coffee shop with my boyfriend at the time, during my third year in University. Suddenly, I just couldn’t sit there any longer. I needed to get out; I felt almost claustrophobic. So, unable to think any longer, I packed up my stuff, told the person I was with that I had to leave, and walked out the door, ignoring his gaping stare.
I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. It seems so silly now, but back then, the choices seemed overwhelming, and the only thing I knew back then was fear. What if I made the wrong choice? What if I failed? What if I had no skills to offer?
If I had known how many times I would actually trip, fall and change direction in the next 15 years, I may not have wasted the energy, but I was a nervous unconfident 20 year old, with way more options than I knew what to do with, and no options that seemed realistic.
Over the next month or two, I continued to get these panic attacks, and started to sense a problem. At this point, almost everyone I knew at school had seen a counselor or mental health professional. It seemed to be in vogue, so one day I made an appointment at the counseling centre.
To be fair my first appointment went really well. I talked through a lot of stuff I was scared about, about my direction in life, and making mistakes, and having no idea what to do next. When I came out it felt like a load had been lifted off my shoulders.
I hadn’t paid much mind, to his sex therapy background until the second appointment, when I noticed him steering the conversation towards the sex lives of couples he knew. Before I knew it we had discussed spermicidal condoms, thrusting, and his own personal history of intimacy. Oh and by discussed I mean to say it was him talking and me listening. Almost like I was his therapist.
I don’t know why he was so keen to discuss sex with me, because I’m pretty sure I made it clear that my career was the issue in question, and I had a strong suspicion that knowing his high school clandestine encounters was not going to help me make any decisions. Nonetheless, I humored him for a few sessions, and eventually stopped going. Later, I found out he had given my roommate the same spiel during her compulsory consultation appointment for taking a career aptitude test.
I moved from Counseling to Mental Health, in search of a stronger solution. I was paired with a clinical psychologist who would let me jabber on for 45 minutes, only interrupting me for minor clarifications. In this time she would scribble notes furiously and peer at me, through what I later came to recognize as hipster glasses.
Truth be told, I often wonder about what she did with all those notes, because not once did she offer any professional opinions or recommend any course of action. She was almost always completely silent during these sessions, so much so, that I started to feel that perhaps my journal was a better outlet after all. At least I knew and expected that my journal wouldn’t speak back to me. If it ever did…well then I’d be in real trouble!
The thing with anxiety is you’re aware you are reacting like a crazy person. The logical part of your brain is still active and is extremely critical of the part that is worrying. Anxious people, at least in my experience, are their own worst enemies.
Although you can laugh about it later (which I have, several times), you cannot possibly feel good about calling up your best friend in the middle of the night to tell her that “they” are at your window, and have her gently let you know that it’s hailing. Who I thought “they” were, and what they would want with a 20 year-old directionless college kid, I did not pause to think about or specify.
It can also feel extremely indulgent at times: here you are worrying about all these silly little things that you perceive as threats, when there are people with real problems out there in the world. But going down this line of thinking actually compounds the issue, and makes the problem worse, not better.
One of the things that I learned on my yoga retreat is about treating others AND yourself with kindness. This is something that can be difficult when you’re beating yourself up about freaking out, but it is important to forgive yourself, in fact as important to do this as to forgive others. So forgiveness is really the only route. We all have shortcomings. This could be one of them.
I refuse to pop any form of psychiatric medicine. Instead I employ things that I hope will help me towards healthier patterns of thinking. I write, practice yoga regularly, and am trying to learn how to meditate. I am also discovering the value of pranayama. Although these are not one-stop shops, I do believe they work over a longer period of time. To me, it’s the difference between a bandaid and true healing.
After I chose a career direction, my anxiety left me for a long time. It came back in 2010, when I first entered the world of magazines, and my livelihood and career were once again, up in the air. I realize now in retrospect that unpredictability is the trigger, and the commonality between each period of my life where I’ve had these attacks.
In the last five years, it feels as though I’ve started over countless times, one of those times involving moving half way across the world to a country I hadn’t called home in 15 years. But at the end of the day these are life changes that will continue to occur. It is unpredictable no matter how much you build up your comfort zone.
I know people who have succumbed and changed their lives to fit the condition, and that is their personal choice to do so. But I cannot let myself make this choice. There are many things I want to do in this life, most of them out of the warmth of my comfort zone. I don’t want to ever regret the things I didn’t do, because I was too afraid. That to me, is a waste of all the valuable time we’ve been given.
In short, for me, life is too short to let a bunch of misguided hyperactive neurons dictate my choices. For those of you that struggle with anxiety, what is your choice?