“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brené Brown
An Unsettling and Unexpected Moment
I’ve been dealing with anxiety since… well I don’t know, but I do remember having my first official panic attack in a college class during my undergrad academic endeavors. Panic attacks and anxiety can look different. Some experience anxiety but never a full blown panic attack. In class, the lecture focused on social work safety. It felt like being launched in a race car feeling every gear shift and its enormous torque pushing me deeper into the seat in horror. My vision became blurry and my breathing quickly changed. I kind of freaked out during the lecture and had to step out to try and catch my breath. Getting up, I felt weak and almost fell over, it took everything in me to somewhat walk straight out the door knowing people were watching me. A friend came to check on me and kept telling me “it’s okay” and to breathe. I just felt so dazed. I heard her but couldn’t do exactly what she was telling me. The moment felt abnormal and terrifying, thinking I was quite literally dying. My heart was pounding and the fears worsened after feeling like death was approaching. I couldn’t grasp what was going on.
After concentrating on my breathing I calmed down some. The pounding heart and dizziness subsided. However, filled with so much embarrassment and still feeling anxious because of what had happened I did not return to class. I told my friend to head back. I went to the bathroom and was consumed by a wave of thoughts. Why is this happening? What is this? I tried to understand. I’m too young to die. I have so much I want to do.
I began thinking about my future and it provided courage and strength. I spoke to my professor, a licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker (LSCSW) with a Ph.D. in psychology, after the class was dismissed. Briefly summarized here, he shared that he believed it was probably a panic attack due to the lecture topic (social work safety) and a connection with passed abuse always being in fight-or- flight mode constantly growing up. Panic attack? I had heard that before. I didn’t know a lot about it but knew enough for everything to click. This all began to make sense. Damn you, abusers. It was in that moment when I began to realize that you are never really free. Circumstances arise when you least expect them connecting you to the past and not letting you fully heal but remember.
I reflected back to this moment as I’ve been having some real anxiety during this trip to Europe. Though I don’t feel in danger per se, I’m constantly in a hypervigilant state due to everything being new to me. I’m a person who can be comfortable with routines unless I need a change of scenery. Traveling different places nearly 20 hours from home and not knowing the language, the anxiety has become much more prevalent. I can’t read the signs or menus and I’m not sure what to say to people when they begin to speak German to me. I’ve also noticed a lot of people staring at me because I’m a foreigner. I talked with my husband about this and he says, it’s because they like your looks, they love meeting Americans and enjoy practicing the language. Luckily my husband speaks the language which puts me at ease and brings solace. I do know a few words, but at this time it’s only because they seem easier to pronounce and I can remember them. I’m completely outside my comfort zone.
I say that slowly because it’s certainly not an easy thing to live with. For me thus far, no amount of education about exercises and techniques totally protects you. Anxiety has no off switch. It is hard to believe in that moment of a panic attack like the one I described above to comprehend that things are actually okay. Like my professor said, fight-or-flight takes over. Some of you may not be familiar with the concept. Simply put: fight-or-flight it is a stress response that impacts one’s decision making and overall thinking process. You want to be better, you don’t want to feel this way and yet the feeling still arises. Some days are much harder than others. That’s the reality of anxiety.
For me, when these situations arise, I like to distract myself and in others I’m glued to the sense of harm to protect myself. This is what our bodies are designed to do. When I know a threat is not near, I try to relax. It is not good for someone to be in such roller coaster state. Therefore, after my panic like feelings somewhat subside I focus on my breathing and do something I enjoy, releasing positive endorphins to make me feel better.
I’ve gotten to the point where I can dictate when I might begin to feel such anxiety and why. The random acts of anxiety are the ones that throw me off. The times where it happens and you have no idea why, those are hard.
Did I know this going into the trip? Absolutely. I’m not naive and live with anxiety hoping it’ll just go away. The reality is that it takes work and still comes and goes whenever it pleases. As shared above it used to be a major source of embarrassment for me and it certainly still can be, particularly when people around me may not understand what’s going on. I often feel that you don’t really know until you’ve experienced it yourself. I have grown to learn from it and work on my ability to manage my feelings and deal with difficulties as they arise. For me, constantly learning from it helps, so I can still enjoy my life. I refuse to let it define me. Though, if I’m being honest, at times anxiety and its implications are so real, that they hold me back. I push through most times as I still want to explore the world. I’m beyond grateful for this opportunity to travel and so excited for new adventures and memories. It’s disappointing to know you’ll never experience everything the world has to offer but I want to make an honest commitment to explore as much as I can. Anxiety won’t take that away from me.
I feel so lucky that my husband is caring and understanding. I’ll stay strong and it’s a battle I’ll continue to fight most likely for my lifetime due to past circumstances. I’m trying to work with it and limit it from holding me back in life. In my eyes, the bottom line anyone should be cognizant of is that it’s simply a very complicated matter. If you are facing this battle, keep pushing, though. Strive to Understand it. Try to Learn from it. Seek help when that gut feeling tells you. Always aim to grow from it. I send positive thoughts your way as you walk this journey. If you are alone, know that I am with you.