Freak out — A Tale of Anxiety

Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

I didn’t know what was happening or why. I didn’t know how to explain it or if it was ‘real’. Was I making it up? Am I dying? Do I smell toast? Am I having a stroke? Why couldn’t I just get over it and not feel this way?

I barely mentioned my episodes to anyone, embarrassed and scared. I tried to deal with it myself. It didn’t feel valid. Looking back now, it was more than valid, it was the biggest driver in my life.

It’s real when you can’t breath or feel your legs underneath you. When all you can think about is your dizziness, inability to talk, the need to leave and close your eyes, lie down, just not feel this way. When you’re trying to pretend like everything is normal because it’s almost impossible to explain what you’re feeling and most people wouldn’t know how to respond if you could. When you fear looking insane.

I’ve googled ‘How to deal with panic attacks, anxiety attacks, treat anxiety, alcohol and anxiety, …’ and a million other queries. My research would happen after a couple of bad days, or a few hours after a particularly wrenching attack. I’d been doing that half-heartedly for years. I have not found a definitive answer as to why I felt this way. What I have found is a combination of specific lifestyle choices that controls it. My first step was being honest with myself about the extent this illness affects my life.

I’d like to say I treated without medication, I didn’t. I treated without pills and drank instead. It kind of worked. I mean, here I am today to tell the tale. I got lucky, though. I’ve managed to get off the drink-everyday-blackout-merry-go-round.

The reality is, anxiety doesn’t sit in a box by itself. It comes with a host of other mental issues — alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, OCD, phobias, suicidal thoughts, etc. Most people have their own special mix of what makes them crazy.

Eighteen months ago I decided to address my special mix. I was tired, so tired. The anxiety and the fear of the attacks started inducing attacks. I would have three life altering panic attacks a week. To deal, I drank. A lot. It was a vicious cycle. If I didn’t change it, I was going to die.

I white knuckled through the decision to resign from a successful run at a Fortune 500 company and decided to leave New York, not without doubt if my five years there had ‘been enough.’ I was counting on things getting better later, and holding my breath until then.

Then I took a final work trip to Singapore that put me in the hospital.

For all it’s beauty, it’s humid as fuck and slippery. My feet came out from under me and I caught myself with the back of my head on the edge of a granite step. My brain shook in my skull. I was able to sit up. Then the blood started to flow. I thought I was going to die. I had reason to believe I was going to die.

I managed to not have a panic attack that day, though. I laughed instead. As I sat on a gurney in the emergency room, head wrapped in gauze, covered in blood, wearing short shorts, the hospital staff kept offering me a pair of pants. My apparent lack of pants was their main concern, not my head injury or what was broken inside my head. I was going to be okay, I’d survived the accident and I was going to survive anxiety.

I went back to the states and about a month later I packed everything up and drove across the country to the west coast. I was sure there I could remind myself to breath.

Looking back, being on the 19 hour diet of gin and coffee probably had something to do with it. I was lucky to have compassionate colleagues. They held my hand, told me to breath, brought me water and didn’t judge. That was exactly what I needed.

Since the move I’ve taken a few wrong turns largely driven by what I now recognize to be a negative inner dialogue that equates my self worth with external levers.

I jumped into an unvetted high pressure job. Several months into it, the same habits and feelings were cropping right back up. I had to quit. That’s scary as fuck when you’re used to tying self worth to a title. I had almost died once and was sick of feeling like I was dying. I was done living a life of panic attacks. The clarity earned in that Singapore emergency room, covered in blood and pantsless, would not be in vain.

It’s been a year since the move. I repeat and tweak coping strategies and apply again and again. I had suffered from panic attacks with increasing frequency over the last five years. I haven’t had a panic attack in almost three months. My life has gotten better. So. Much. Better.

Nothing was guaranteed to get better by making any of the individual changes that I did. At the core of it, I recognized elements of my life that were making my anxiety worse and changed them. My environment, my career and how I treat myself. As cliche as it is, I wanted to change and that’s what changed how I experience anxiety.

The specific lifestyle choices that have reduced my anxiety and panic attacks:

  • Exercise. This one is HUGE. If you take only one point from this list, let it be this.
  • Get enough sleep. Passing out from drinking doesn’t count.
  • See a therapist? Yeah, maybe. I did for an especially intense period and it helped.
  • Eat regularly and drink water. Real food if you can, reduce the processed stuff and sugars.
  • Don’t drink coffee/caffeine all day. Maybe don’t drink it at all.
  • Reduce/limit alcohol. This one makes me laugh because I have so much more to say about it. But for real, don’t be a liquor pig.
  • Cultivate positive social interactions. Be a friend. Scrolling FB does not count.
  • Create a meditative practice. Maybe it’s actually meditating, maybe it’s walking, taking a bath or creating a tea ritual. Get your zen on.
  • Journal. Recognize the dialogue you have with yourself.
  • Get a hobby. Here’s a challenge — regularly do something not for money, for school, on the internet or at a bar.

Follow me on Medium for more musings on mental health and other hilarious topics.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store