With the blizzard blaring outside, I wanted to share two things with you, dear reader. One: I wish I was back in Palm Beach. Obviously. And two: I have panic disorder. It’s not exactly a secret but I’ve recently started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT for short) and a big part of it is owning your experiences. So, today, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote about what a panic attack feels like for me along with another set of Palm Beach pictures – taken on a good day when my anxiety level was relatively low. I know it seems like a jarring contradiction to see smiling, happy photos with painful words but it’s actually pretty representative of who I am.
I have had anxiety my entire life. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but I have a crystal-clear memory of my first panic attack at age 5. ‘That can’t be right,’ they say. ‘Someone must have told you about it later or maybe you had the flu and just remember being scared! What could a five-year-old have to be anxious about?” Um…everything?
Anxiety and panic have colored every part of my life. It’s hanging in the back of memories, good and bad, like an ugly painting I’ve inherited but can’t sell. It’s generally more of a visceral feeling than specific thoughts and worries. It creeks into me. It makes decisions for me. Sometimes, it decides where I go because, “What if I have a panic attack and can’t get help?” Yes, I have anxiety about anxiety! Thanks to my years of experience, I can usually tell when I’m reaching my anxiety threshold and need to change my situation before it escalates into a full -blown panic attack. That said, there are still a lot of times when I’m Regina George and my panic is that bus at the end of Mean Girls.
I’ve heard that no two panic attacks are ever alike. They look and feel differently for everyone. But unless you’ve experienced one, I think it’s impossible to truly grasp the level of fear. It’s such a tough experience to describe because when it’s happening, I can barely think. My mind suddenly, unexpectedly feels like it’s grasping at straws just to hold on to a single thought.
For me, my panic disorder and social anxiety usually present in very physical ways. Often at the worst possible moment. Hot date? Panic! Flying to vacation? Panic! Watching a movie? Panic! Yeah, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in public restrooms. Anyway, when I was a kid, I called my panic attacks ‘hot flashes’. That’s what they felt like to my little body, after all! I distinctly remember telling a teacher once, “I don’t feel good. I’m having a hot flash!” and she laughed and said, “You’re a little young for those.”
But that’s what a panic attack feels like for me! Not always. Most of the time, my anxiety is a throb of heat running just under my skin, but when I have a full-blown attack it feels like my bones are burning from the inside out. That throb of heat turns into sharp pain pushing into my skin, like thousands of hot, tiny knives. “You mean, like, pins and needles when your foot falls asleep?” a friend asked me. No. Because ‘pins and needles’ is numbing, and this is the opposite of numb. It’s feeling everything suddenly, all at once. It’s such a strong physical pain that sometimes I think I can actually feel my own skin cells moving and changing.
What I’m Wearing: Birds of Paradise Top c/o Paridaez// Metallic Floral Print Skirt at LOFT (Similar Here)// Ring at Best Dressed Boston// Suede Heels c/o Primark (Similar Here)// Mini Sofia Crossbody by Rebecca Minkoff
Panic tickles its way up and down my spine during a big attack. Even though I feel like I’m burning my whole body shakes with the shivers. My heart races and I become very aware of my own breathing. I think that I’m not breathing right, that it’s either too fast or too slow and am I holding my breath? No, my lungs must be collapsing in on themselves! I’m dizzy and it feels like there is a greasy film in front of my eyes making everything around me fuzzy and muted. My head aches. All my senses are heightened and clash and clank against one another, loud sounds, sharp tastes, bright colors until it all turns into one messy blur of pure sensation. You know that moment between slipping and falling when it takes your brain a second to catch up with your body so you’re unprepared for the crash even though you knew it was coming? I feel suspended in that very moment.
Sometimes I cry. Often, I run to the bathroom. Occasionally, I curl up in a frozen ball. Most of the time, I reach for medication and just wait it out. I have to wait it out. It’s all I can do. Everything in my system tells me that something is terribly, truly wrong and I must fight to tell it, “No. It’s okay.”
Eventually, the shakes slow down. My breathing returns to normal. The fog is lifted and the pain returns to a mild burn under my skin, creeping and crawling, but mostly quiet. I’m learning to stop trying to fight it. That fighting the physical reactions probably just prolong them. Maybe if I feel and face the anxiety more openly, when I’m relatively calm, it won’t escalate. That’s partly why I’m sharing, maybe it will empower me against it. But if it doesn’t, at that moment, I’ll try to remember that what a panic attack feels like won’t last forever.