Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Don't Panic

What does a panic attack feel like?

Well, the long answer is complicated. Anxiety disorders, stress issues, and panic attacks tend to be greeted with a gigantic eye roll. I've heard panic attacks sarcastically described as the result of too many First World Problems. In fact, if you'd asked me 5-years ago what I thought of such conditions, I'd have placed them in the same category as chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia, not real medical conditions, simply the imagined aliment of people too lazy to get cancer.

Luckily, the universe finds it hilarious for me to get my comeuppance.

About three years ago, after a series of personal and professional misnomers, I started experiencing general anxiety. It was the persistent and unceasing sense that something terrible was about to happen. Like alien invasion terrible. Like entire family murdered by killer clowns terrible. Like The Godfather, Part III terrible.

At first, I tried to bully these symptoms into compliance with "To-Do" lists, schedules, and punishing Type-A self-criticism. If I could just fix everything that was wrong in my life, the feelings would go away right? But nothing relieved the feelings of impending dread and my endless stack of "To-Do" lists started to creep out my roommate. I worried that maybe I couldn't hack the stressful DC life anymore. That I was losing my mind, losing control, losing my sense of self.

So the short answer is that panic attacks feel enormous. Like the world is ending and it's all your fault. They're surreal, nightmarish episodes of intense panic and my heart goes out to everyone in the world who struggles with them. I think of my 5-years ago self who was so quick to criticize the condition and I'm terrified by her serial killer-like lack of empathy.

But I'd have gained nothing from the experience if I was too hard on her. Because I like to think that I'm strangely richer for it. Anxiety makes your world smaller. And you can't combat a shrinking world with intolerance or criticism. Nothing but positive, compassionate understanding can lead you out of the catacombs.

Am I a better person because of my panic attacks? I have to be.