Warning: some naughty language below!
Last December, Christmas day, while families opened stockings and presents, I was sitting in the ER gasping for breath from a severe panic attack.
I remember looking at the doctor, fully awash with shame, saying, “I know that it’s all in my head and I’m not dying, but I just need you to tell me I’m going to be okay.” Also, can you make me invisible?
Anxiety is a sneaky demon, one that builds strength from collecting our darkest fears from the depths of our minds and unleashing all of them, in the sliver of a moment. My greatest enemy has always been the tumultuous, unforgiving cruelty of my own mind.
At first, I thought anxiety could be a result of some weird imbalance from having a vegetarian diet. I saw the doctor (I hate Western doctors, I refuse, at times, to even take Tylenol, because I think it’s poison—you understand now my apprehension to visit the doctor whilst anxiety danced around my fucking skull.) Anyway, to the doctor I went. He ran every test under the sun and assured me I was literally the pinnacle of health—would I consider seeing a therapist?
My therapist told me to stop doing my daily meditation, pranayama, and yoga practice. Our breath is powerful, and certain types of pranayama affect us adversely (duh). She also spent more time Googling on her phone than actually listening to me or looking me in the fucking face, so I stopped going after three sessions.
So, what to do?
I was awakening in the darkness of night, suffocating on my own thoughts, drowning in fear; the world felt like there was no ground or walls or anything to latch onto. My thoughts held my head underwater: You are nothing. You should be embarrassed. How does a yoga teacher get anxiety? How are you going to survive? No one is going to take care of you. You’re all alone. You’re a terrible person for quitting your job. Look at you back in Breckenridge, with nothing.
Anxiety is complete detachment from reality.
I had it every single day—this insatiable fear and tightness in my chest, where I couldn’t breathe; I had numb tingling sensations in my hands; I was strangled by my thoughts.
The panic, the inconsolable panic that I had to run away from my mind, my body if I could, was paralyzing—my mind was broken, and I was going mad, surely. The panic and fear couldn’t be comforted—it felt unbearably real.
I tried meditation, self-love courses, going to the movies, ditching coffee, positive mantras, music, the gym, yoga, deep breaths, CBD soda—but I still woke up in the middle of the night in a panic—in pure fear that all my darkest thoughts were reality.
Every time it happened, the hospital seemed the only option; anxiety feels like having a heart attack whilst the rest of the world is experiencing the apocalypse.
When it really came down to it, it wasn’t a certain moment or life situation that allowed anxiety to wield such tremendous power—it was the shame I felt for feeling it.
I was ashamed that I was letting my mind get the best of me, that negativity was winning.
I was ashamed that my bright world turned dark, scary. I was embarrassed. And I felt alone.
It’s weird that 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety, that the doctor I saw said that coming to the ER for a panic attack was “normal” and chronic anxiety was “normal.”
I thought I was so alone; what eased my mind was knowing that I wasn’t.
So, what I want to say is: you are not alone.
You are not the only one who wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic. You are not the only one who fears they are losing their mind.
You are not the only one wondering how to get through the day—who understands how grueling and long the hours are.
I am not ashamed that I have suffered from panic attacks. I am not ashamed that I feel fear when, compared to other people, “I have no real problems or anything to be anxious about.”
We are not doctors, but community helps. The next time anxiety pulls you under and you feel like you’re dying, drowning, suffocating, or crazy, try these:
Sleep with the window open.
Get fresh air. When I woke up unable to breath in a panic, I opened the window and took gasping breaths of sharp, stinging winter air. I started sleeping with the window open (to the dismay of my fiancé—it made the room quite cold).
Any sound of nature is soothing, the room feels less like it will close up on you.
Get cold (the magic of ice cubes)
Many of my friends messaged me about ice cubes. It’s quite simple—when you think you are dying and need to go to the hospital, put an ice cube in each hand. It’s cold, but it grounds you into the present moment. It helps you focus on one thing. It calms the whirlwind of your mind.
Cooling Breath (Sheetkari Pranayama)
This pranayama rocks. This version of cooling breath is accessible to all practitioners (the original variation calls for a rolling of the tongue). Find a comfortable seat (as comfy as you can while your hands are numb, and your world is crumbling), press your tongue against your top layer of teeth, and suck in air slowly through the sides of your mouth/teeth. I always feel like I’m hissing like a snake. Exhale through your nose.
Repeat, slowly and steadily, until your sanity returns, erhm, until your anxiety settles.
Dude, marines do this when they’re stressed in planes getting shot at (okay, I made this up, but I think boxed breathing is popular for calming soldiers). This one is easy, all you have to do is count to four. Breath through the nose, this will help activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the awesome part of the nervous system that calms you the fuck down). Inhale through the nose for four, hold in the breath for four, exhale for a count of four, then hold the breath out for four. Repeat for a few rounds.
Narrate your Surroundings
You’re no Morgan Freeman, but when you’re having an anxiety or panic attack, narrate your life like you are. Label common objects, notice color, say your name, and location. For example:
“I am Elizabeth. At this moment in time, I am safe. There is a beige lamp on a brown table. The carpet is blue. It is 2 a.m. White shirt. Gray socks. Dark brown couch. Ugly pillows.”
Sometimes the demons in our minds win the round; sometimes the negativity in our mind wins over our drive, our intellect, our body, our soul.
The thing is though: we are strong, we are enough, we are worthy of all the happiness.
There is nothing wrong with you—hold onto this mantra tightly like a life vest when you find yourself in the cold ocean of shame.
Find little tricks to carry you through, reach out to your friends—you don’t have to suffer in silence. Trust you will make it through the storm—that’s all it is, a storm.
If you are going through the storm too: you are not alone.