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Your Anxiety Loves You. No, Really.

Why your panic attacks just might be the best thing that's ever happened to you.

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Graffiti of man freaking out
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

To anyone that suffered anxiety, including panic attacks, it seems blasphemous to think anxiety might actually be a good thing. But here I am, an anxiety veteran, saying it!

I know, I know, I know…put your head between your knees and take a deep breath. I’ll explain.

The first time I had a panic attack I was frantic, like a trapped animal. A small part of me knew, logically, what was happening, but most of me was freaking out in full-blown terror:

“You’re dying! You’re not ok! This is really bad! You can’t even drive yourself to the emergency room right now, you’ll have to call an ambulance! What if you pass out before you can call 911? Just keep your finger on the “9!” OMGOMGOMGOMG!!!”

Once it eventually stopped (which took WAY longer than I’d ever been led to believe a panic attack would last, by the way) I felt spent but calm. It’s kind of like when you have the flu, but your fever has finally broken and you’re starting to feel a tiny bit normal again. The absence of panic was as clear and welcomed as the absence of fever chills.

Despite the calm after the storm, that first panic attack ended up being one of several. Each one was consistently as bad as the first, with some even worse (I went temporarily “blind” and sweat completely through my sweater, front and back, during one especially awful attack).

As much misery as they caused, they eventually started combining into something that was helpful to me: a source of really important information that I hadn’t been able to piece together, otherwise.

I had the first panic attack shortly after I’d left my not-great marriage. I was finally on my own but still sometimes had to deal with the ex who could be…intense, to say the least. But it wasn’t really dealing with him that was the problem — I’d dealt with him for 8 years before I ever had a panic attack. The thing that was really wrong was me.

In my newfound freedom from everything that had been wrong in my marriage, I hadn’t been treating myself well. I wasn’t paying attention to the more subtle signs that my body was trying to give me.

I was staying up too late but pushing through long, arduous workdays afterward. I would have a drink (or three or four) “to relax” far too often and then just pushing myself through the hangovers. When I was hungry (or bored or frustrated) I reached for sugary snacks and other junk food because it was quick and convenient.

But most of all, I was working too much and using the demands of the job as an excuse for why I couldn’t take any much-needed down-time. Top all that off with the fact that I was rarely exercising, and I was left with no healthy route to burn off my building anxiety.

I’d been ignoring my most basic needs in so many ways. It took these full mind/body meltdowns, in the form of panic attacks, for me to finally realize I needed to make some changes. You’d think I might have realized this before, say, the 8th or 9th massive panic attack but, sadly, that wasn’t the case.

It took quite a few of these, spread out over nearly two years, for me to realize that my body and brain were ganging up on me since I hadn’t otherwise been paying attention to the signs they’d been sending me.

I needed to give my body healthy fuel. I needed to find ways to decompress. I needed to rethink what “hard work” meant to me. I needed to rest.

Once I finally got my sh*t together after those rough couple of years, I was thrilled to realize my anxiety had been reduced back to common garden-variety nerves, like when I had to stand up and present in front of C-level execs for a pitch.

I went on like that, quite well and mainly anxiety-free, for several years. And then? I had another one. A massive, so-scared-I-thought-I-was-dying panic attack. It happened on an airplane, which is pretty much the exact place you never want to have a frickin’ panic attack.

But this time, after it ended and I was calm enough to reflect on it, I knew exactly why it had come: pre-empting the panic was a 3-day work event in Las Vegas. The agenda was basically: work intensely and impress your superiors all day, drink all night, rinse and repeat.

In short, I was doing exactly what I’d been doing to myself years prior, but this time it was all rolled up into a hyper-condensed event. Working intensely. Drinking too much. Eating for convenience or comfort, not health. Not getting enough sleep.

At this point I was an old pro at recognizing that these triggers were exactly what had caused it, so I rested, gave myself some extra down-time, and hydrated like crazy. It helped, and it was a good formula that I continued to use to stave off any serious anxiety for another few years after that.

AND THEN? I know, I know. You’re probably thinking “jeez, not again! Do you never learn?!” Turns out, I do learn…but only partially, I guess. All of a sudden, after several good non-anxiety years, including lots of flying for business and generally enjoying it, I found myself no longer able to fly without having at least a small bout of panic (small = gripping the armrests so tight on every turbulent bounce, I thought I’d break a finger).

Every. Single. Flight.

It got so bad, I got a prescription for anxiety meds from my doctor, which I took before boarding every plane, no matter how calm the skies were. Now, imagine how I felt, thinking I was done with all that crippling anxiety, then having it come back consistently and so reliably.

I started to get anxious just thinking about the fact that I had to fly. I’d done so well for so long and had kept up my good habits. So what had changed? My job. I’d taken a new position at a new company. I had tons of responsibility, which I was used to, but which was in an entirely different company and I didn’t fully know my way around the company yet.

But the biggest difference was, I had to fly A LOT. I was gone from home way more than in previous jobs. There were some weeks where I’d have two separate round-trip flights with pitches or other important client meetings in between. Clearly, this amount of travel combined with the stress of the job was getting to me. (Obviously. Just ask any United Airlines armrest).

I’m the kind of introvert that can go out, talk to people, and enjoy events just fine, but I also enjoy being home, need at least some semblance of a routine, and I have got to have enough “me-time” to recharge my batteries. With this job, though, I had neither routine, very little at-home or me-time, and a hefty amount of job-related stress.

I spent my weekends doing errands and laundry so I’d have everything ready for the next trip. I had to hire a dog walker and a house cleaning service so my dog wouldn’t forget she was on a potty schedule, and so my house wouldn’t fall into complete shambles. The worst part was I only got to hang out with my partner, who’s already on an opposite schedule to me, one day a week on average.

You’d think I’d immediately have understood the root of these re-surfaced panic attacks, but I didn’t. More accurately, I didn’t allow myself to understand it right away. Part of me — my essential self, my inner compass, had known for a long time that this career I’d successfully built over nearly twenty years was wrong for me. In fact, when I finally started looking deeply into my beliefs about my job, success, and what I wanted and needed to be happy, I finally came to terms with a hard fact: even though I was great at my job and I made a very good living, I was completely bored with and uninspired by my industry (advertising).

I felt no sense of genuine accomplishment or joy in it, except for the parts of my job that focused on my team. Mix that with the facts that it was also incredibly stressful and I was never able to fully decompress at home, and you have the perfect recipe for anxiety.

However, I’d been in my field since I graduated from college and I was a success at it, from every “normal” perspective. It was really difficult for me to accept that just because you know something well and you’re good at it, that doesn’t mean it’s what you’re meant to be doing.

In hindsight, my anxiety was actually my best friend, despite its terrifying aspects, because it was demanding I wake up and take notice. This mismatch of who I really was and what I really wanted and needed kept butting up against the reality of my life and career until finally, I knew I couldn’t keep doing it anymore.

Once I finally got aligned with my essential self and started making choices that felt true to me, I felt an amazing sense of lightness. It’s this lightness that I now use to make decisions in my life. I no longer do what “everyone” thinks is right for me — instead, I do what I know is right for me.

If you’re a fellow anxiety victim, I’d encourage you to really pay attention, and dig into what’s going on in your life. Even though they feel like it, anxiety and panic attacks aren’t out to get you. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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