I was sitting at work answering phones and directing calls when something started to happen in my body. It felt like a small pop, an almost imperceptible shift somewhere in my head. I didn’t immediately pay much attention to it, but that changed very quickly when a sudden floodgate was opened. My thoughts started to race, pouring in like water from a broken dam, and my heart started to pound in a chest that seemed to suddenly shrink to four times its normal size. My breathing got very shallow and quick, and I felt like I needed to run away as fast as I could. Because of the nature of my job, I didn’t have the option to get up and get out, so I had to sit in the chair and take it as it happened. I did my best to stay calm in what felt like the face of a screaming grizzly bear. When my scheduled break came 20 minutes later, and I shakily got up, made my way to the work bathroom, locked the door, and cried.
Due to my years of working in the mental health field up to that point, I recognized what was happening as my first panic attack. I consider this to be a stroke of good luck on my part because I knew what was happening and what to do. I focused on my surroundings and tried to keep myself grounded in the moment, reminding myself that I was sitting in a chair at work, that I wasn’t in any immediate danger. I struggled to control my breathing and accepted what was happening as an unwanted but temporary thing. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, and so I tried to sit through it without giving in to the fear and panic that was coursing through my veins. I removed myself from the situation as quickly as I could (though not nearly as quickly as I would have liked) and was able to find a place to regroup.
Even though I knew what to do, even though I had years of helping other people deal with their own panic, even though I had been trained specifically on what to do for other people, experiencing it myself was overwhelming. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget that feeling, and I know that over the next few days, I was afraid to even go back to what I was thinking about when the panic attack hit me because I didn’t want to experience anything like that ever again. My experience gave me a new and profound sympathy for people who experience anything like that on a regular basis.
Over time, as I have reflected on the experience, I have come to a few realizations about the nature of anxiety and what it feels like. For the sake of the format, I won’t go into great detail about everything that I learned, but there are a few things I would like to include.
The first and possibly biggest thing I learned is that the experience of a panic attack is truly awful. It’s overpowering, it turns off your ability to be rational, and it really feels like you are in physical danger, despite the logical assurance you try to give yourself that there is nothing wrong with your current situation. This level of fear and the feeling that you can’t control what’s happening is incredibly unpleasant, but the presence of these feelings does not indicate that you are a bad or weak person for feeling them.
Second, I was truly amazed by how many people I know that have secretly dealt with this for years. The more I talked about it, the more I would hear stories of people who have daily panic attacks, people who used to have crippling anxiety around normal every day activities, and friends who had a season in their own lives where they were suddenly and powerfully hit by the sudden onset of panic attacks that left them just as quickly. The experience of anxiety is, at its core, entirely human, born of the great blessing that is consciousness. It is in the moments that we feel our weakest that we are in the greatest position to feel our own humanity.
It is this humanity that I think was the most important lesson for me. Several great thinkers through the years have thought about the ways that we as people interact and what it all means. I find myself drawn to the ideas of Levinas and Buber when it comes to human interaction, namely that (and this is the very simplified version) it is through shared experience and accepted obligation towards one another, rather than focusing on individual abilities and pursuits, that we are the most human.
Paulo Freire (1998) said “men begin thinking and acting according to the prescriptions they receive daily from their communications media rather than in response to their dialectical relationships with the world. In mass societies, where everything is prefabricated and behavior is almost automatized, men are lost because they don’t have to risk themselves”. It is this idea that prompts me to write about my experience with anxiety, perhaps selfishly to reconnect with my own humanity by opening myself to it. More than that, though, is the hope that someone else will read this and find in themselves a connection to a greater whole as they realize that the presence of any mental illness, especially and including anxiety, does not make them less than those around them, or even less human. It is this very fragility that in fact binds us to the greater whole of the world, and which provides the grounds for the must beautifully human parts of existence.
If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, anger, or anything to which you feel powerless, please know you are not alone in this world, and please know that there are people who have experienced similar things and want to help you. Reach out to friends, reach out to professionals, ask questions, get answers, and find the parts of yourself that are the most human, and therefore the most beautiful.
If you have any questions, or if you would like someone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to contact me . Your name, information, and questions will be treated with confidentiality, respect, and gentleness. If you would like to read more extensively about anxiety, go here, here, or here.
To read my follow-up post on anxiety, go here.