I remember my first panic attack in more detail than I remember losing my virginity or the first time I drove a car by myself. (I guess vivid terror of suddenly not being able to breathe really ingrains itself into your psyche.) It was 1998 and I was watching the “Psycho” remake with my family’s French exchange student. During the infamous shower scene, my throat and lungs tightened inside me like a figure eight knot. I got up and paced around the movie theater, unable to control my body and wondering if I was having a heart attack. I’ve had panic attacks periodically since then, probably due to a combination of biology and circumstance. I’ve made an effort to lessen the conditions that they occur in and for the most part, I live a pretty calm life. My anxiety only spikes in extreme circumstances, such as the rare times I’ve gotten temporarily stuck in a subway underground (I’m claustrophobic).
After a couple of years without anxiety attacks in my everyday life, I’ve started having them again. The stress is related to old stuff resurfacing in my life and the anxiety is pretty much the same, too: my chest tightens, my heart beats too fast, I can’t breathe, and I feel like I’m having a heart attack. (Or, you know, what I assume a heart attack feels like.) I’m 30 now. Panic attacks are still shitty and frustrating, but all the experience I’ve had coaxing myself through them over the years actually does makes them less intense and quicker to get over.
These are my thoughts on what panic attacks are like, how to deal with them, and what I hope other people could understand if they’re trying to help:
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I’ve struggled with anxiety since I was a kid. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, earthquakes used to be a huge source of stress for me, and I’d often lie awake at night terrified that the ground would start shaking. As an adult, I’ve got a pretty good handle on specific fears like that, but sometimes I’ll get hit with a wave of generalized anxiety–my mind races, my heart rate quickens, and any semblance of calm suddenly feels so far away. Luckily, over the years I’ve found a few ways to deal with these freakouts. Here are some tried and true anxiety busters that have worked for me and other members of the Frisky staff. Check out our list and please add your own strategies in the comments section–I’m always open to new ideas! Keep reading »
Sara Benincasa’s struggle with panic disorder began with childhood anxiety attacks and intensified until, at the age of 21, she developed full-on agoraphobia. Her fears were so severe she was afraid to leave her own bedroom. She sank into suicidal depression. Garbage piled up against the wall as her appetite for food—and life—slipped away. Finally, one day two college friends contacted Sara’s family out of fear for her safety and state of mind. Here is an excerpt detailing when Sara’s parents have first been notified that their daughter was dealing with some very real problems.
“Hello?” I said hoarsely.
“Hi, Ra-Ra!” chirped one voice.
“Hey, Ra!” boomed another.
It was my parents. Keep reading »
Two days before my birthday last November, I got a facial at my favorite spa. I lay down on the bed, with the paper gown tucked around me, and the technician went about working her magic on my pores. She put a mask on my face and left me to relax for 10 minutes, with cucumbers resting gently over my eyes, the lights dimmed, and soothing music playing. The setting should’ve been everything I needed to stay calm, and it was … for about two minutes. Then my phone beeped, and I saw a text from a friend telling me to check her Twitter stream ASAP. Of course, I was curious, but I couldn’t get a signal, and spent the rest of the “rest period” feeling antsy, continually picking up my phone to see if suddenly service had been restored. The serenity that I look for when I go to the spa, the chance to shut off my mind while getting my skin rejuvenated, wasn’t there, because all I could think about was when I could get out of the room to check my phone. Keep reading »
Here at The Frisky’s offices, one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2011 is Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom, by the comedienne and all-around-awesome-lady Sara Benincasa. I love this girl for her balls-out honesty regarding her mental health struggles with agoraphobia and anxiety. Agorafabulous! is based on Sara’s one-woman show of the same name, which recounts how vicious panic attacks created a fear of the outside world, to the point where she refused to leave her college dorm room. In this cartoon, Sara explains all about anxiety attacks, the “flight or fight” response, and why you shouldn’t shop at Whole Foods. As someone who has suffered from panic attacks from age 15 onwards, I could have used an explanation like this back when I was hyperventilating and didn’t know what the eff was going on!
Karma’s a bitch, dude. This morning, I was frolicking through Starbucks, smiling to myself about how awesome my life has gotten. On Friday, I’m moving out of my parents’ house and into my own apartment. Today I woke up next to my new Gentleman Caller the night after we decided to date each other exclusively. The sun is shining. The birds were trilling. Tra la la la la la la!
And then I ran into the woman whose ex-boyfriend cheated on her with me two years ago. A woman who didn’t respond to my multiple apologetic emails because, let’s be honest, she probably hates my putrid guts. Keep reading »
When I was growing up I had a friend who was as aloof as she was glamorous. She had a way of holding the cutest and most charming boys in her thrall and all the girls wanted her to like them. Whenever she had problems with her romances, her schoolwork, her friends or her family, she was very mysterious about it. Her glass facade never shattered in public and very seldom would she even admit to having problems at all. Some days, random Tuesdays or Thursdays, she wouldn’t be in school, even though she hadn’t looked sick the day before. She would call them her “mental health days.”
She seemed very melodramatic to me, as if this were all just part of her act. But it was also exciting. My mother is a lot like Betty Draper and she would say to me when I was growing up that if I was not bleeding, I was fine. That kind of mothering doesn’t exactly teach someone self-care: if I didn’t want to go to school, I would lock myself in my bedroom and shriek at my mother through the door that I wanted to be left alone. A “mental health day,” on the other hand, sounded so grown-up, like she was taking a “personal day” at the office and we weren’t just a couple of 10th graders. I could imagine my friend calm and collected, attending to her own needs like a cat licking his paws. Maybe it was melodramatic, but it still sounded nice. Keep reading »
In retrospect, it was all inevitable. Not the details, like the time I grew so afraid of using the toilet that I urinated in cereal bowls in my apartment, or the time I collapsed outside a filling station in Sicily and told someone I couldn’t remember how to breathe. Those specific situations weren’t predictable, of course. But looking back, I can see how much sense it makes that I have panic attacks. Keep reading »