I remember the first time I had a panic attack. I was 34 years old and had just been dropped off at LAX after an extended trip with friends. I began to walk towards the automatic doors to enter the airport, when I saw the massive crowd that gathered inside. Suddenly this extreme and suffocating sense of panic came over me. It felt as though my world was caving in from all directions. I backed up away from the door, and quickly found the nearest bench to catch me as my body dropped with an intense sensation of terrifying fear. In a snap, I went from being warm in the California sun to feeling bone-chilling cold and uncontrollably shaking. I couldn’t breathe, I could barely move, and there was no way in hell I was going into that airport. I was alone in LA and I had no idea what was happening to me. All I could do was cry. I felt like a “crazy person” in every sense of the stereotype that one thinks of when labeling another person crazy. All rationality went out the window. I couldn’t think. Everyone was looking at me. I was going to be stuck here, alone in Los Angeles forever. I would never get back home to my family. This was the end.
I called my husband, and after a good thirty-minutes or so of patiently talking me off the ledge, he somehow managed to convince me to walk inside. And then my sweet, baby angel of a savior talked / walked me through every step of the entire airport, from the front door to my seat on the plane, with only a brief intermission to send my phone through security. Once we reached my terminal, I was feeling much calmer. There was a bar next to my gate and he suggested I order a mimosa to help me unwind, which I thought to be a brilliant idea. One empty champagne glass later with another on its way and all was restored in the world. I was completely normal, and very confused. This would mark the beginning of my new journey with extreme anxiety. And, this would be the first of several panic attacks for years to come.
I know that anxiety and panic attacks are two very different things. Many people experience bouts of anxiety throughout their lives without ever experiencing something as traumatic as a panic attack. But often times they coexist. I have most definitely experienced different forms of anxiety in my life, though I called it nerves, worry, or butterflies. As a kid, it was most often present when starting a new school (my mother moved a lot; I went to 13 different schools), and I have experienced it most commonly when meeting new people or in large crowds as an adult. While, I don’t fully understand why the sudden and massive shift in my anxiety, I do have some insight into what triggers it for myself — high stress being the number one. Over time, I’ve learned how to tame it pretty well for the most part. I have this handy dandy little breathing exercise that I do where I breathe in for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and while I am doing so I form a box with my breathes. So up…two…three…four, left…two…three…four, down…two…three…four, right…two…three…four, and so on. It works for me most of the time. Naps also work wonders. I have thankfully had only a handful of extreme panic experiences like I had that day at LAX. Those are definitely a different beast and are harder to calm, but I have learned to recognize when that feeling of panic starts creeping in. Most of the time I can stop it in its tracks.
In my experience, besides napping and breathing, the change that has made a MASSIVE impact was removing myself from stressful and toxic situations and relationships — BOOM, CLAP, BUH-BYE! Easier said than done, of course, and this process of elimination can take a very long time (it did for me), but that was the big one. Maybe I’ll write more about that process in a later essay, but since making these crutial changes, my anxiety has lessened greatly and is much more manageable.
I think anxiety is relatively universal and its story varies from person to person. I would love to know: how do you manage anxiety? Join the conversation.