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Remembering my first panic attack

and the next one

photo facilitated by The Confetti Project

Everyone remembers their first times. My initial panic attack was a mystery I couldn’t solve. It crept up on me like a stranger knocking more and more loudly on the door of my heart. The neurotic, type-A detective in me couldn’t decipher what was happening — was it a heart attack? Was I dying? Could I collapse and be gone from the world, blacking out and falling with my face splat to the ground?

It was 2011. The sound of my digital alarm clock jolted me early from my little daybed in small town, Maryland. I slogged myself downstairs, determined to do a lap in the neighborhood before my day shift at my local tv news station as a budding evergreen reporter. I had been keeping track of my weight and calories through MyFitnessPal app, internally pressured to keep the burn going, even if I never loved to run. I slipped on my headphones to some Britney Spears track, leaping one foot in front of the other on a trail surrounding a little community of apartments. The half-dirt, half-grass path was neither particularly flat or steep. It should’ve felt good to feel the ground and be in semi-nature.

It happened slowly, then suddenly, like falling in love, but this was another kind of psychological trap. My maddening face felt flush, my sweaty hands clamped into fists and my heartbeat seemed to race in front of me. It felt as if I became a bird who suddenly discovered it could not fly (a nightmare I had sometimes). The already overcast day turned slightly dizzy and fuzzy. The only clarity I had came straight from my fight-or-flight function: I needed. To. get. Out of there. I don’t know if my mind demanded my body walk myself to the air-conditioned comfort of my bedroom or the other way around. Once I got there, I could barely call in sick — all I could do was close my eyes, still in my clothes now drenched in cold sweat.

After googling around, I found a psychiatrist. She confirmed what the search engines told the amateur in me and further explained how a panic attack works. She suggested I try counting deep belly breaths, which seemed stupidly simple, an exercise I would use when I started going back to yoga classes. She prescribed me some medication that I kept as backup cushion. I didn’t like the idea of relying on it, and moved on, intellectually satisfied to have identified the problem and discovered a potential solution.

According to a recent study, millenials are the most anxious generation. Being a person of color and a woman is even more telling in the realms of mental health and resources. Young Americans are getting more and more depressed, perhaps with the separation away from families along with the exposure to social media. Looking back, I was fooling myself into looking at only treating the side effects. There was a host of reasons why that panic attack likely infiltrated my system — after years of built up pressure, expectation and criticism — some of it self-imposed. I thrived on the adrenaline of covering breaking news, being the neutralized but distant, disparate calm in the eye of some story storm. I was in a semi-long distance engagement, which would later be called off.

Over the years, I used yoga as a maintenance tool. We are driven by and drawn to what we need. Eventually, I became a certified yoga as well as meditation teacher when I moved back to New York City because it was something I needed to aim for balance and sanity. Sometimes a duller pain in my chest will rise every once in a while. I’ve now identified it to mean it’s not heartburn, and something feels off. My body is trying to talk to me. And I need to listen. I’m doing a restorative training for myself in order to serve others who might be suffering silently, too, even if we’re highly functioning.

I’m in my thirties now, and earlier this year, I experienced another irrational but very real panic attack, as I was on the treadmill on the gym. I wasn’t running very fast or very long but I knew I had to lie down. In the stretching zone, I closed my eyes and put one hand on my belly and the other on my heart, guiding myself silently through three-part breath. To anyone else, it would’ve looked like a normal cool down. I subsequently contacted my psychiatrist and told him I needed an emergency prescription before a work trip to San Francisco the next day. I went to the pharmacy next to my hotel once I landed, and went to the production set.

I look at myself with more and more curiosity these days, in hopes that my self-care is going smoother, my inner voice softer and my soul stronger. I have to remember the world is not closing on me, and I can keep opening up myself to positive reflection, looking forward to everyday, knowing I have resources. That something coming up is not a setback, but a signal. I’ve been continuing with talk therapy on the not-so-nice-to-me sides of me, in the form of impatient impostor, ambitious perfectionist, hurting child.

Living in fear, panic and shame is not a way to live. I embrace the darkness, and I come out of the shadows. Sometimes when I’m not thinking, I feel just fine. I tell myself it’s okay, and I’ll get through it again. I am strong.

Originally published at konakafe.com

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