by: Russ Pitts
You think you’re having a heart attack. That’s the first thing you notice. The second thing you notice is that you’re dying.
Anxiety attacks come in a variety of shapes in sizes, but that’s how mine usually work: I think I’m dying. And then it gets worse, because becoming aware of what’s happening to me makes what’s happening worse.
An anxiety attack is a physical response to a mental illusion. Your mind either conjures up something to be afraid of, or else perceives a relatively normal thing as something terrible and then your body responds the way a million years of evolution has trained it to respond to something terrible: the fight or flight response.
Adrenaline floods your system, your heart speeds up, you begin to sweat, blood flows to the center of your body, away from your limbs and brain and your perception and cognition narrow. You become one with your lizard brain.
If something truly dangerous were happening, you’d be in great shape to deal with it. You’d be stronger, faster and more alert to signs of danger than normal. You’d be able to fight harder or run faster than normal, and you’d be prepared for physical danger; the dilation of your blood vessels would cause any wounds to bleed less than normal, and the perspiration on your body would cause it to become slick, and difficult to grab on to. In a life or death situation, you would be “in the zone.”
When this happens to you in a normal, everyday situation like sitting on a plane, or standing in a hallway, you become the opposite of “in the zone.” You become way, way out of the zone. So far out of the zone that you are, in essence, a caveman among modern humans. A vibrating note of pure panic in the midst of a symphony of normalcy. You are the sweaty, trembling, nervous-looking one attempting to curl yourself into as small as possible a space, while your squinted eyes shift side to side. You breathe in rapid, shallow breaths. Your hands shake. You cannot think clearly and you feel as if you’re going to die. On a really bad day, you might also black out
If you’ve never experienced this, I’m glad for you. And I know it sounds silly. It feels silly, afterwards. But during, it feels like dying. Every. Single. Time.
My anxiety is mostly social anxiety. I’ve been characterized as “shy” in the past, and it’s possible I might be – about some things – but I genuinely like people and enjoy being open and social. I just have social anxiety. Being around people makes me nervous. Being around a lot of people makes me feel terrorized.
No reason. They could be nice, friendly, totally non-threatening people, but anxiety is not logical. It translates normalcy into terror and the body responds as if someone were coming at you with a knife.
The first time I had a panic attack that I knew was a panic attack, I was in a van with several other people. It was a warm night in Los Angeles. I’d just moved and changed jobs, had flown on an airplane across the entire North American Continent, was sharing a hotel room with someone I’d just met, working a public event in one of the largest, most crowded convention centers in America and had just come from a night club that was so crowded you could literally not move more than an inch without bumping into someone. Then I was in a small vehicle with several other people and I was not driving.
Any one of these factors alone could have triggered my anxiety, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I’d have just chalked it up to being stressed or shy. The combination of all of those stress factors, however, triggered an anxiety attack that could not be explained away by anything else. What I – and everyone around me – experienced, was nothing short of a panic eruption.
What I remember about being in the van is the feeling that something bad was going to happen. I’m used to this. I get this feeling a lot. It starts with a simple, reasonable concern (did I forget to lock the front door?) and swells into an uncontrollable obsession. (I’m going to get home and my house will have burned to the ground because someone broke in and accidentally turned on the oven and forgot to turn it off and the cat got out and now I have to find someone to call to check on these things or I won’t be able to think about anything else for three days.)
I had my head leaned against the window. I was watching the lines in the road scroll by in orange wash of the street lamps. I was in the very back row. Everything was perfectly normal except for the fact that I felt like something and was going to happen and couldn’t explain what if I’d tried.
I felt trapped. My fight or flight response triggered and my brain filled with one thought: Get out! But I couldn’t, because I was in the back row of a moving van. My heart sped up, my throat constricted, my vision blurred, I couldn’t breathe and then I blacked out. The next thing I remember is laying on the ground, in a hotel parking lot.
What I’ve been told is that I started screaming. Then I started banging and clawing at the window until the van stopped and I was let out. Then I paced around a gas station for a while, breathing hard and clenching my fists. Then I got back into the van and was let out again, at my hotel, where I immediately collapsed in the parking lot.
I have the memory of the above events, but I don’t recall being present for them. I suspect my memory is based on what I was told, but it’s possible I was perceiving things without being conscious of them. Either way, freaking out in a van and having a blackout are not normal things. These are not things that can be explained away by being “shy.” These are things that happen when something is wrong with you.
I wish I could say that’s when things started to get better, but they didn’t. Because it took me many more years to be able to actually acknowledge that I had a problem. Part of having anxiety is not knowing you have anxiety. You’re just shy or high strung or half a dozen other things. How the hell are you supposed to know you have anxiety when you don’t even understand that anxiety is a thing?
At first I tried to keep rationalizing my anxiety. Then I began “managing it” by avoiding triggers and self-medicating when I couldn’t avoid triggers.
Anxiety is not like an actual disease; you are not sneezing or bleeding or obviously, physically dying. You can hide it, and most of us do. We pass it off in our minds as stress or tiredness, and cope through relatively normal means. In the age of the internet, staying home and rarely seeing others isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be. And if you’re a writer who works alone, via the internet, you can get by for decades without anyone suspecting you have something more serious than a mildly crippling shyness. You can even convince yourself, if you try.
I also wish I could say that finally acknowledging I have anxiety immediately made life more livable, but it didn’t. Since anxiety is an illusion, being aware that an anxiety attack is just an anxiety attack doesn’t make it go away. Sometimes it makes it worse because, instead of panicking about whatever it was your mind conjured up for you, you begin panicking about panicking and the whole cycle spirals radically out of control.
What I can say is that it does get better.
What has helped me the most has been recognizing that I can turn the mechanism of anxiety against itself; if knowing I’m having an anxiety attack makes my anxiety more powerful, then not having anxiety can make not being anxious more powerful as well. When I feel my anxiety coming on, I try to remember that’s it’s just anxiety, and that I will feel better and then, more often than not, I do feel better. Just like that.
This doesn’t always work, but knowing I have a tool makes me feel a lot more powerful and capable of existing in the world. And that, accordingly, makes my anxiety less frequent. And my calm, whether or not it’s an illusion, feels real.
– Russ Pitts