I remember the first time I ever had an anxiety attack.
While on my way to a family gathering, I started to feel what I can only describe as “off.” I was jittery and on edge, with this looming black cloud hanging over me that I couldn’t quite place. It had been a pretty good day up until that point, I was headed to what I assumed would be a fun night, and there was nothing exceptionally stressful currently going on around me at the moment. I was confused as to why I would be feeling this way. I kept trying to shrug it off, but when I got near my intended destination, I intentionally drove right past it. I drove minutes down the road, to only turn around and do the same thing back. I drove that same route, back and forth, several times – trying to ward off whatever was bothering me. My phone was insistently lighting up with unread text messages, asking where I was. But I just kept driving, lost in a daze. Finally, I gave up and decided to head back to where I needed to be. I would just have to shake it off and get it together. I figured that I would be fine once I got inside and had a distraction. I pulled into the parking lot, parked the car…and then, without warning, lost control of myself.
My entire body went into overdrive. My heart started racing at the speed of light; beating so hard and fast, I thought it would break right through my ribcage. My chest felt a weighted heaviness worthy of a thousand bricks; an invisible pile sitting right on top of me, threatening to crush me. (Did healthy 21 year olds have heart attacks? I didn’t know, but I imagined that this is what one might feel like.) Without even realizing, I was suddenly sobbing uncontrollably. I was shaking from head to toe, like my body had electric currents running through it. I was hyperventilating and trying desperately to catch my breath. My throat felt like it was closing; burning and tightening with each deep sob. I kept gasping for air, but coming up empty. I was sweating and felt claustrophobic; I was sure that if I opened my eyes, the car would be closing in on me from all sides. It was all too loud, too much…and I just kept thinking, “Make it stop. Please make it stop.” I was terrified.
And then it was quiet. After what felt like an eternity, and over a thousand deep breathing exercises that would have made any birthing instructor proud, I slowly started to wind down. My brain was trying to catch up with my body, and the two felt extremely disconnected from each other. I was disoriented and confused. I was trying to process what had just happened to me, and why. What was that? Nothing had even happened beforehand that would cause a physical reaction THAT severe. Was it my fault? Had I done something to cause it? Was there something wrong with me?
With everything seemingly moving in slow motion, I immediately went into autopilot mode. I started talking to myself – giving myself clear orders on what I needed to do next. Anything that would put me back in control. Step by step, I walked myself through my next moments.
“Turn the car off. Breathe. Take the key out of the ignition. Breathe. Take off my seatbelt. Breathe. Check the time. Breathe. Wipe the tears off my face. Breathe. Open the door. Breathe. Step out of the car. Breathe. You’re okay. Breathe.”
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Since that night, I’ve had a handful of attacks. Some of have been more mild, others more intense…but none have ever been as terrifying as that first time. I don’t think you ever really get used to a mental and physical disruption like that, no matter the rarity at which they occur. It doesn’t get any easier. They’re still scary. They’re still unsettling. They’re still very much unwelcome. All I can say is that now I’m more prepared for myself, in small ways, if they do happen. And instead of questioning “why is this happening to me?” like I did that night…I’ve now started asking myself “what is my body trying to tell me?”
Feelings of anxiety usually stem from a deeper place (everything has to come from somewhere, right?) And although we don’t ask for this, it’s our job to dive inward and figure out how to put those pieces together.
It’s been about 8 years since then, and now that I’m able to look back with clear eyes and an even clearer mind, I can see that it had probably only been a matter of time. My body had spent YEARS trying to tell me things that I kept ignoring. Either I wasn’t paying attention or I just hadn’t wanted to acknowledge them. I turned the other way at each and every sign I was given. So, it took matters into its own hands and forced me to see it. My body gave me no other choice but to listen. And I finally heard it, loud and clear – whether I liked it or not.
In the beginning, I had a million questions for myself and no answers. But with time and a lot of practice, I’ve learned how to understand these experiences and manage them as best I can. I’ve figured out what triggers me and why, and how to aid those reactions in order to avoid further issues occurring. I’ve found helpful tools and educated myself on methods for calming my mental and physical state. (The “grounding” method is my personal go-to. You find and announce 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.) I’ve gained tremendous knowledge on the intricacies of anxiety and how to navigate it to the best of my ability. I’ve grown to take control of the anxious feelings and to not let them take over me. And above all else, I’ve learned that I’m not alone – not even close. That there are people all around us with their own scary experiences. Their own calming techniques. Their own inner homework. Their own “first time” story. Plenty of us are in this together – and that’s enough to make me breathe a little bit easier.