The face looking back at me in the mirror a minute ago was particularly startling.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think have high-falutin’ beliefs about my looks, but after 26 years you sort of generally know what to expect. Nose, brown eyes, frizzy hair. I often like it just fine.
Today, it was purple circles underneath. Puffy, bright red eye-lids. Red spots all over from scratching.
This is my face after an anxiety attack.
In retrospect, I should’ve seen it coming, but I suppose I set myself up to not feel that way. I’ve written about panic both as a runner and as a teacher, so after a while I had come to feel very ~zen~ about anxiety. I could rattle off all the mantras. I could talk to people about why attacks sometimes aren’t any one/thing’s fault, don’t always have to have a trigger. I knew all the reasons why self-care was important, why honoring your body is good. Occasionally, friends or folks who have read my stuff will shoot me a message, and I do my best to be there for them. I like that. I like helping people help themselves.
With that idea of being “the teacher” though, you set yourself up for failure if you’re not careful. You start thinking that you’ve moved past it or you’ve “come to terms” with the whole thing. Then you ignore days of sword-swinging in the monster’s jaw, praying that tomorrow will be better. You start ignoring the daily runs you go on to outrun the storm clouds.
Then, you find yourself balled on the floor, sobbing into the phone. Not normal-sobbing, but can’t-breathe-snot-and-tears-and-slobber-all-over sobbing. Praying-you-fall-asleep-soon-because-why-bother-with-life-sobbing. Then you breathe, then you do it again in the shower, because why the hell not?
The most frustrating thing about it is that I felt fine, I swore, until then. That’s what I told my boyfriend as I apologized over and over on the phone while he stayed with me through it all. I had been fine. Everything was fine. I have a very happy, blessed life where I love my job and where I live and I have all the things I want. Why couldn’t my brain just accept that and leave me alone? Why did this have to come out of nowhere? There is no punch more frustrating than a sucker punch.
Then, my boyfriend said something wonderfully simple and profound:
"You don’t need to apologize. I know you felt fine. You are fine. You’re brain is just having a little bit of a weird moment. It’s going to be okay. You’re still fine.”
I stopped. I breathed. I was fine. I was always fine. I was never not-okay. This panic attack didn’t mean I was weak or that something was wrong with me. This is just a thing that happens sometimes. That’s okay.
I woke up the next morning. The sun was shining. It was blue skies. The birds were having a competition with the moped whirrs going by my window. I worked quietly from home, and breathed. My body the-day-after always feels a little raw, but today (so far) has been a good day.
I am 26. I am alive. I am very blessed. I am perfect, just as I am.
My first panic attack in 2 years happened at mile 4 of a 6 mile run.
At this point, I can tell when an attack is coming. While I have dealt with anxiety and a generally heightened state of “being emotional,” since high school, I have had the lovely task of handling anxiety attacks since college.
I wish I knew why the attacks happened— I’m sure it’s just some unfortunate mixture of genetic code that causes my body to skew towards “OMGOMGFREAKOUTFREAKOUTFREAKOUT” at stressful times— but I have no real answer. It’s not a family trait. I have no real external factors. I grew up incredibly blessed. I had a life-crisis my sophomore year of college that increased attacks for a little, but beyond that I certainly continue to consider myself incredibly blessed.
Still, sometimes when a combination of stress from external and internal factors mixes with a naturally heightened sense of anxiety, it can have a frustratingly intense effect on my body. With the help of a therapist and my own research, I’ve gotten pretty good at sensing the signs before they come: heart rate increases, my eyesight either start wandering or tunneling (I’ve been lucky to never have an attack while driving), I start tingling all over, my head starts pounding.
That’s the physical aspect though. What’s even more frustrating about panic attacks is that, for me, they mentally manifest themselves as an irrational belief that I am going to die. Mostly, this is horrifying; though, in retrospect, it can be funny. In college, I called my mother at two in the morning, convinced that the mole on my chin was cancerous and that I was going to die tomorrow. While she helped me through the attack, I can only imagine that she was like, "Really? Didn’t I make you take AP Bio? Aren’t your father and I in medicine? How can you think that this is a thing?"
Panic attacks, if I’m being really honest with myself, were one of the reasons I started running. While I often credit my now-addiction to my first year of teaching, I really first set foot on a treadmill when I was a senior in college. I began to do intervals— I’d run for two minutes, then walk for one— as a way to deal with the stress of my thesis. When I started teaching, I started legitimately running in hopes it would stave off future attacks. It did, and still does. I truly believe that running is one of the best ways I have to counter panic attacks. It helps me consistently get out stress and anxiety on a near-daily basis that I just don’t normally handle on my own.
Anyway, that was a lot of exposition to get us back to the original story. This day was different. I didn’t have a specific trigger like I had often had before. I knew I was stressed: my best friend from college had become a nun that day, thus cutting me off from contact with her. I had recently ended a 4-year relationship. I was starting a new job. Still, I hadn’t had any warning signs that day. While I was a little worn, I was feeling good.
So when my vision started to tunnel as my feet hit the pavement on a Wilshire sidewalk, I was mostly confused. At first, I was worried that I was dehydrated, or fainting. Then, I realized that I had actually been feeling the signs for a few minutes and not putting it together. The heightened heart rate was not from running, and the pounding in my head wasn’t dehydration. I was having a panic attack on the side of the street, and I had no money and no way to get home but my own two feet. I didn’t have anyone to call— my 2 good friends in LA were both out of town, and my parents were an hour away. I started to panic (clearly), but then, somewhere, the sane-side of my mind reached out and grabbed hold of the parts of myself that weren’t being affected by this. I knew I had no one but myself to rely on at this point. I had other choice: I had to coach myself through this. I had to run through my panic attack.
I rarely coach myself while running. Occasionally, I’ll talk myself through a hill, but beyond that I’m normally pretty quiet in my head (another reason I love running). This would be a challenge.
Coaching yourself, I’ve realized, starts first with breathing. Breathing is the core. It’s what centers you. It’s what allows you to find endurance, and also to help mentally get you to a place where you are able to put one foot in front of the other when you aren’t so sure that you can anymore. Breathing can be your metronome while you run, and the steadying hand that pushes you forward. So my first step was to start breathing.
Deep breath in for four…1…2…3…4…and out for four….1…2…3..4…in for four…
After breathing, the rest of the run became a game of distractions. I focused on my form for 10 minutes. Then I listed all the reasons I wanted to run in the back of my head: the feeling that I get when I finish, the exercise, the pride I think my parents feel when I do well in a race, the pride I feel in myself.
I wish I could tell you how else I got myself through my run. In all honesty, I don’t really remember. The entire time my feet were hitting the ground, my mind was fiercely battling down the monster that was trying to engulf it.
I can’t even say I beat that attack. When I got home, I locked myself in my garage and started sobbing. The attack took over with a vengeance. I was sure I was having a heart attack. I continued to force my breathing, but I found myself on my knees, my open palm slapping the pavement, sounding like the ref in a boxing match when a fighter has hit the floor, THWAP! THWAP! THWAP!, as I tried to find some rhythm to get myself off the mat.
The attack passed, however, much more quickly than other ones. Within a few minutes, I could breathe normally again. I could see more clearly. In 10 minutes, I was walking—slowly, very slowly— back to my apartment.
I don’t know why this story has stuck with me as a runner— I’m not sure anyone would call it a victory. In a lot of ways, I think that it proved to me the strength of not only my legs, but my mind. Running is such an incredibly mental sport. In the moment of panic, the rhythm of my feet actually gave me the power to focus my mind. I only hope other runners find a similar peace too.
I have no ending for this piece yet, sorry! Things are good— got up early for an 8 miler, and achy knee made it. I’m just happy for the weekend to come ASAP.