I had my first anxiety attack the summer I graduated from college. I was still working at my summer job at a hospital giving electrocardiograms before starting my ‘real’ job in Manhattan.
That morning I decided to go for a run, something I loathe and always have, but at that point I firmly believed running was the only way to get skinny again after packing on the pounds senior year.
Afterwards I showered, ate breakfast, had some coffee and got ready for a work. And then all of the sudden I started to feel … funny.
My heart was racing. I couldn’t catch my breath. I felt lightheaded and tingly. And a feeling of dread worked its way through mind like a thundercloud rolling over a prairie. I panicked. Was I having a heart attack? Was I about to die? Oh my god, what’s happening to me!?
My dad passed away one hot, July evening four years prior. He wasn’t sick. He wasn’t old. He just died, suddenly, around 5 pm on Tuesday, July 17th 2001. Ever since then, I’ve had what I like to call My Girl Syndrome. You may know it by its common name: rampant hypochondria.
I can’t just have the flu, I must be dying. I can’t just have a headache, it’s definitely a brain tumor. I often feel there’s something very wrong with me when there clearly is not.
So there I was that hot summer day in blueberry scrubs about to hit the halls of the hospital with my cardiogram machine when this massive anxiety attack struck. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I just knew for sure I was tweaking out.
I made my brother drive me to work where I couldn’t keep it together any longer and told the other techs there was something wrong with my heart, or possibly my head. They hooked me up to a machine and it turned out I was right. I knew it. Death was coming.
My heart was racing too fast for just sitting around. So they called in a nurse, who brought me into a room and made me sip water and lay down and kept taking my heart rate. They had an E.R. doc drop by to check on me. He said I was probably just dehydrated and made me drink more water and eat pretzels until my heart rate came down and I could go home again. He said if it got worse, he would admit me and give me a beta-blocker (a drug that makes your heart slow down). On his way out though, he turned around and said, “Maybe it’s just anxiety, have you been thinking about your dad?”
Anxiety? What’s that?
From then on, I’d have one of these episodes sporadically. My heart would race. I would feel light headed. My palms would sweat. My mouth would water. It felt like my throat might close (though it never actually did). And the dread would come.
The dread was the worst part.
This happened more frequently and with greater intensity as I started working in New York and living on my own. I started to change my behavior to avoid triggering the attacks, often inconveniencing myself and others and just generally being a weird asshat about it. I always had water and pretzels in my purse, like a total psycho.
But then I couldn’t get on a bus or a train or the subway for a while there, and that became a problem. You have to do that stuff in order to function in New York City, unless you have a driver or something. But with my 35k a year starting salary, that wasn’t exactly an option.
That’s when I realized I needed help.
So I found myself a therapist. She was an angel. She looked like the little, blonde witch of the Upper East Side. I went to see her every Tuesday night. We hashed out my issues. I cried. I laughed. I realized I needed to get my life together so I could feel good about myself and excited about my future. Turned out it had nothing to do with trains. I wasn’t scared of trains.
Therapy worked, and quickly. If you consider “quickly” to be weekly visits for just shy of two years.
But since then my anxiety has been a lot better, more manageable. Therapy seemed to nip the underlying issues in the bud and greatly reduce the number of attacks I was having.
Don’t get me wrong, anxiety is still with me. Just ask my husband about the Ebola epidemic. However, I now believe that as a sensitive person living in the age of Twitter and Kim Jong Un, anxiety is just a normal, biological response to almost constant, emotional overstimulation.
The one thing therapy didn’t do, though, was help me manage the attacks while they are actually happening. That solution has proven a bit trickier. I’ve done a lot of research and most of what I’ve read is useless bullshit written by people who’ve clearly never had an anxiety attack.
But recently I’ve found an antidote that actually does work. A tactic that, when deployed at the onset of an attack, stops it in its tracks and leads me back out. It’s remarkable, really. Nothing has ever worked so well.
So I feel compelled to share it with you. You know, in case you’re a headcase too.
Have you heard of this dude Thich Nhat Hanh? (Don’t ask me how to pronounce that.)
He’s a renowned Zen monk, author, meditation master and the man behind many a cheesy, inspirational meme involving ripples of water.
He wrote this little, yellow book called You Are Here, and in it, he explains how this whole ‘mindfulness’ thing works to cure our suffering on a practical level.
Apparently being here, being present, is the only true freedom. And without that freedom, there is no happiness. Without that freedom you might have a hard time getting on the PATH train without crying (I’m paraphrasing here).
Most of our unhappiness and anxiety comes from ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. When we’re suffering (or say, having an anxiety attack) it’s rarely the present moment that’s to blame.
You see Thich (is it okay if I call you Thich?), tells us to do the following in order to bring ourselves back to the present moment when we’ve lost our grip…
How to Stop an Anxiety Attack:
Step 1. Breathe in. And in your mind, as you’re breathing in, say “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.”
Step 2. Breathe out. And in your mind, as you’re breathing out, say “Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.”
Step 3. Repeat steps 1 and 2.
That’s it. That’s all you have to do. And that little exercise is the one thing I’ve ever done that actually ends an anxiety attack.
Just breathe and tell yourself all about how you’re breathing. This allows you to distract yourself with present moment. In doing so, you take back control of your mind.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety attacks like I have, I urge you to give it a try next time. I’m telling you, it works for me. It’s magical.
And what’s funny too, is that now that I have an antidote to them, I have less anxiety about having the next anxiety attack. Yeah, I just said that. If you have them, you know exactly what I mean.
Now what about you? Ever had them? Found a way to stop them? Please do share it with us in the comments below. Headcases, unite!