Sometimes it feels like I’m drowning.
One cold, sunny day in March, I was walking down Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn when my hands and feet started tingling.
My chest felt tight and I couldn’t seem to fill my lungs all the way. As my breathing got shallower, I started to panic. My head was light and I started to feel dizzy. An hour later, I was sitting in my doctor’s office, trying to explain what was wrong between ragged gulps for air. My hands shook, and my lips were blue. He told me it sounded like I was having an anxiety attack.
“But I don’t feel anxious. Everything’s fine!” I managed to sputter.
“Didn’t you say you’re between apartments right now, and that you don’t know where you’ll be living next month?” my doctor asked gently.
“And that you’re just getting out of an abusive relationship?”
“Yes, but I’m really feeling okay about all that stuff,” I replied.
“I’m on top of things. I know it sounds bad, but I’m really handling it fine. I’m not anxious.”
He sighed and adjusted his glasses, peering down his nose at me.
“Sometimes, stress can bypass our conscious minds and move straight into our bodies. It manifests exactly the way you’re feeling it right now — tingling in the hands, shortness of breath, dizziness. Those are all classic symptoms of an anxiety attack.”
He prescribed me Zoloft, an antidepressant, over my objections that I wasn’t depressed (“it’s useful for anxiety, too,” he explained), and Klonopin, a fast-acting anti-anxiety med, to tide me over until the Zoloft kicked in.
That was several years ago, and now I mostly manage my anxiety without medication. Once in a while, I’ll pop half a Klonopin when I start to have trouble breathing, but I’ve learned some coping techniques that help me keep the panic attacks at bay for the most part. I avoid caffeine, get plenty of exercise, go to yoga faithfully, and make my bed every day.
Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t understand what it was like to have anxiety. Sure, I knew what it felt like to be nervous or uneasy, but the only physical symptom I’d ever had was a bad case of butterflies in my stomach. I didn’t know anxiety could actually prevent you from functioning. This is what I’ve learned, and what I wish people understood about living with crippling anxiety…
It’s not just in my head
Anxiety isn’t just mental. In fact, I’m often feeling just fine and going about my day when I start to feel short of breath, or my hands will go numb. The physical symptoms of a panic attack are very real. I can’t think them away.
During a panic attack, my heart pounds and I struggle to breathe. Often, I’m shaking and crying. Afterward, I’m drained. All I want to do is sleep. And if I don’t rest up, I’m more prone to another episode.
Telling me to “just calm down” doesn’t work
Sometimes well-meaning people will say, “Just breathe and relax” when I’m having an anxiety attack. But I can’t. Being told to breathe when I can’t catch my breath is like being told not to struggle when you’re drowning. Just having someone sit with me is a big help. Having a hand to squeeze, and a calm, reassuring person nearby is the best.
I’m not depressed
Or at least, not necessarily at the time. Nothing has to be wrong for me to have a panic attack. Sometimes a loud noise or a crowded train triggers an episode. I’ve had panic attacks when I was feeling upbeat and all was well. Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand, but they’re not inseparable.
Self-care isn’t optional
Going running and taking yoga class a few times a week might seem indulgent, but it’s a matter of survival for me. Same with eating healthy and avoiding caffeine. Ordering decaf feels lame, but if I don’t take care of myself, I won’t be able to function.
Image via tumblr.com.
Comment: Do you suffer from anxiety? What do you wish people understood about it?