[trigger warning for panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD]
There are so many opportunities I’ve missed out on because I was afraid. Because it would make me uncomfortable to speak up, because I would feel nauseous if I went outside my comfort zone, because I definitely would have a panic attack if I did that thing. So I didn’t do that thing, so I wouldn’t have a panic attack – even though I didn’t even know if it would happen, but I didn’t do that thing just in case.
Living with anxiety is hard. You’re constantly thinking what if, constantly replaying things you’ve done, things you’ve said. It’s uncomfortable. It makes you feel hot, sweaty, nauseous, guilty, shameful, afraid, terrified, helpless, lonely.
You’re living in the past, replaying past mistakes; and you’re living in the future, living future tragedies. The only time you’re living in the present, is when you’re thinking, ‘I’m losing control.’
Anxiety sucks, because you’re punishing yourself for 1) either something that’s already happened, which you punish yourself over and over for, or 2) something that hasn’t happened yet, so you’re punishing yourself potentially unnecessarily.
When I was 17 years old, I had a panic attack on a plane. I had a panic attack of all panic attacks. This is how it went (feel free to skip if this makes you feel anxious, obviously):
1. I started feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath, and then started to feel hot and sweaty. The sweat on my back made my shirt cling to me oppressively, and I started to feel nauseous. I felt light-headed and had a funny taste in my mouth.
2. My first reflex was to get out of the situation – but I couldn’t. I was on a plane – a metal canister flying 80,000 feet above the ground. I had never been afraid of flying before, until I realised I couldn’t leave the situation when I wanted to. There could be no fresh air for me.
3. I decided to get up and go to the bathroom so I could sort myself out in private. I am not a public person, and if something is going to go wrong with me, it’s going to go wrong out of view of everyone else. Unfortunately at the time, all the bathrooms were taken, and there was nowhere to go. I start to panic. I still can’t catch a breath. My clothes are tight and oppressive. I’m losing my hearing – it sounds like I’m underwater.
4. I ask the nearby gaggle of flight attendants if there’s a bathroom I can use. They’re dismissive, and look at me like I’m dumb since we can all clearly see the bathrooms are taken. My sight turns into tunnel vision. I have now lost all hearing and most of my sight, except for a loud ringing of tinnitus.
5. I stumble over to my aisle; I am losing all motor skills. I can no longer control my footing. I cannot grip the handrail as I go down.
6. I open my eyes. I’m on the floor outside the bathrooms. At least four flight attendants are kneeled over me, slapping my face lightly and taking my pulse. I still can’t catch a breath.
7. It’s been 2 hours. It’s a long-haul flight and I still can’t breathe. I’m in my seat, passing out every half an hour or so. They’ve put me on an oxygen tank, and I still can’t catch a breath. All the passengers on the plane are looking at me weirdly. I can’t escape. I can’t put my chair back to lie down. I can’t take a drink from my bottle of water because I still have no motor skills. I have no control over my body whatsoever.
8. I end up in Zurich hospital on a drip on our lay-over. I’m taken off the plane on a stretcher – something I can’t remember, because I passed out.
9. There was nothing medically wrong with me, and I got sent home.
When the fight or flight response is activated, and you can’t do either, your body finds a third option: freeze. My body thought that the best way to save itself was to shut down completely.
I still live in fear that this will happen again to me. It’s happened a few times, once outside a dodgy nightclub on my own, where a random man propped me up on a bus stand after I had lost all motor skills. He thought I was blackout drunk, when I hadn’t had a drop to drink. After my panic attack, still propped up against the bus stop, I start to think what happens to helpless women in short dresses propped up against a bus stop on a dark street in Hackney. Luckily a young man stopped to ask if I was alright, and hailed me a black taxi which he helped me into. There are good people in this world.
I haven’t had a panic attack in about 4 years, but I struggle with the PTSD of that day. Every time I get hot, and can’t catch a full breath, I think history will repeat itself, and not only will I lose complete control of my body, but I will be shamed for it.
I still replay the feeling of sitting in that airplane chair, an oxygen mask over my face and an oxygen tank resting between my legs, head lying back on the headrest, hyperventilating and in a panic, looking at passengers looking back at me with a bewildered expression. Nobody wants to be the weird girl, and I felt like the weird girl that day. Not only did I not understand what was happening to me or how to get out of it, but I felt alienated and ostracized too.
One thing my therapist told me while working through my PTSD, was that sometimes, it’s beneficial just to sit in your discomfort. When I get hot and can’t catch a breath, I automatically try to escape those feelings, so I can stop my panic attack before it starts. My first reaction is to act, and it’s an act of escape. Usually, it results in me leaving the room, or leaving the situation I was in.
But this doesn’t help me in the long run. If I’m always running from my feelings, I’ll never master them, and I’ll always live in fear. So now I try to sit in my discomfort. And it’s hard as hell. Or at least it was at first. After years of trying to literally escape from my panic, to push it down, to go against all my reflexes to sit there and focus on it was extremely hard. But it works.
It was a new concept for me: observing. In all my years of trying to escape my anxiety, I never thought I should just sit with it. Observe it. See how I feel. I don’t have to do anything about it, but just notice how I’m feeling. You’re feeling hot? Yes. Sweaty? Yes. Panicked? Yes.
Cool. Just sit with that. No short-term soothing behaviours like drinking a cold glass of water, getting fresh air, going outside. Just sitting with your feelings and accepting them. Sitting with your discomfort.
Try it. It may help you like it helps me. I also love grounding, but sometimes it’s hard to focus on the outside world when so much is happening on the inside. Sometimes it isn’t enough to try and focus on the world around you. Sometimes when friends are telling me to name five things I can see, I just want to tell them to fuck off. It’s hard, but we have to find what works for us, because living with anxiety is hard, and we shouldn’t have to live that way.
A poem that really resonated with me is a poem by Cleo Wade, and it’s called, ‘what I lost and what I gained’, and it goes:
This poem really gave me hope, because it made me realise that there’s a whole world outside of my anxiety. If I only sit in my discomfort, I can gain a whole life – one that I’ve always wanted – just by confronting my anxiety and sitting with it. Knowing that it’s there. And doing it anyway.
And isn’t that what anxiety is? Living with life-altering fear and still getting up and living it every day? Living with anxiety is courageous, because you live your life in spite of fear. You live your life in the face of fear! You are not just fearful; you are fearful and brave – those things are not mutually exclusive.
You will likely never see me struggle with anxiety, because it’s something that happens in my body. I could be sitting right in front of you, fighting with myself in my mind, and you would never know. I do not have fully-fledged panic attacks any more, but I still deal with the repercussions of it.
My fear is debilitating, and I have lost out on many experiences because of it, and I will lose out on my experiences to come. Unfortunately, this is something that I live with. Am I getting better? Wildly! I am leagues away from where I once was.
I probably will never have a panic attack again. But am I afraid of it? Sure. Am I anxious about it? You betcha. It sounds very meta: being anxious because of my anxiety, but unfortunately that’s the nature of the beast. It’s cruel and unforgiving. But am I making strides? Hell yes.
Am I gaining my whole life? I’m trying to, at least. And that’s a big step for someone with anxiety. That dream life? I’m coming for it. And I won’t stop until I get it – anxiety or no.
Feature image by Tessa Forest