I’d been stressed all day.
There was an upcoming work trip that was not coming together smoothly, I had after-work responsibilities that were continually tapping on my back, I had one-hundred-and-one things to do before my work trip, and none of these things fitted well beside one another.
Looking back, I could feel it coming, approaching on the corners of my mind like a low rumbling thunderstorm on the horizon, ever creeping, ever present, ever nearing.
I am a do-er. If something bothers me, I want to fix it immediately. If something is causing stress, I want to solve it right at that moment. I don’t like piddling around while things eat away at me – and yet, all the problems I was facing that day, the things that caused stress, weren’t instant fixes or solutions.
And the fact that I was unseated from my usual place of being un-stressed added more stress; I was stressed that I was stressed because I couldn’t do anything about being tense, a complex problem for the ages.
I didn’t go to lunch until after 2 p.m.
I think I was subconsciously afraid to derail myself from my productivity at work, fearful that if I stopped typing away at my computer, I’d disturb more than my task at hand.
But I had to go.
I was getting to the point where the words on my screen no longer made sense to even myself, and I needed to rest both my eyes and my head from the monitor-screen glare.
“I’m not hungry, though,” I thought, clocking out. I decided, however, to grab some pretzels and a thing of hummus from the local grocery store, figuring that something was better than nothing and hummus surely wasn’t a bad something to choose.
However, walking through the grocery store, every single thing felt like a trigger pushing me over the edge: the box of noodles sitting crooked on the shelf made me feel like nobody cared enough to notice it was wrong. The older woman standing aimlessly in the middle of the aisle (impossible to easily pass) made me feel trapped, the man whistling while stocking shelves made my heart race for some frantic reason.
All at once, the world was rushing in, caving in on me, choking me.
“I’m going to throw up,” was the first thing I thought while shakily inserted my debit card into the chip reader, numbly shaking my head as the cashier asked if I had a card membership with them.
I made it to my car, feeling as if my stomach was rising into my throat, suffocating me from the inside. I felt like I was going to throw up, and felt like I wanted to throw up, needed to throw up, all at once.
It wasn’t until I made it to the local park where I usually eat my lunch, that I realized my chest felt as though I had a weight sitting on me, that my hands were shaking, that my heart was pounding away like a frightened rabbit’s. My throat felt tight and closed; my mind was a reeling repeat of disoriented panic that bounced between “I’m dying” to “I’m having a heart attack” to “I need to end this. I need to stop this. I can’t stop this.”
“…Am I having a panic attack?”
I needed to call someone, I realized. I needed to distract myself, and I needed to be calmed down. Because once I had put my car in park and realized that everything in my body was going haywire, the knowledge that something was off made everything that much worse.
I thought about my aunt, who has panic attacks from time to time. I thought about calling her. My phone pulled up my contacts list, my fingertips hovering over my mom, my sister, and my aunt’s names. I tried to think of something to distract me from the relentless tirade of “I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying” playing on repeat inside my head.
It felt like it took me ten years, but was likely only a few seconds.
and instead, I opened up my Facebook chats and went to the group prayer chat that had been established between myself and several of my online (and some real life) friends.
a panic attack.”
I typed it in. I sent it. I leaned my car’s seat back in order to lay flat, as the pressure in my chest made me feel like if I continued to sit upright, I would throw up my own wildly-thumping heart.
It wasn’t even a full five seconds, and one of my friends responded, asking where I was.
I told her — the local park and sport’s complex. I like to park out here in my car when I eat lunch. It’s shady.
She asked if there were any dogs nearby.
“Oh, she knows me…” I thought, typing in that there were not. It was too hot for dogs. Too hot for people in general.
She talked me through my racing heartbeat, my churning stomach, the suffocating tightening of my throat. She asked me about what I had for breakfast (eggs and coffee) and if I had eaten lunch yet (I looked at the hummus beside me, “no”). She asked if I was holding my breath (no, but then again, breathing felt like an exercise and wasn’t easy).
She offered suggestions on how to regulate breathing. She distracted me by asking me questions about movies or shows I’d watched recently.
She talked me out of my flaring attack on myself.
photo creds – @wildstrawberrygirl on instagram
I’d never had a panic attack before – in fact, when I first started feeling especially panicky, I ended up typing up a quick google search: “panic attack symptoms” to be sure that I was – or wasn’t – experiencing one.
Even after the worst of it ended, after I ended up being able to stomach a bit of food and allowed my tired nerves to shake and release. I spent the majority of my remaining day feeling displaced.
How do you calmly walk back into your office after breaking down over lunch?
My hands shook throughout the day; somewhere in the back of my throat, I could feel a need-to-cry urging; I had to forcibly ensure that I remained calm throughout the rest of the workday, out of fear that letting my stress and emotions build up again would result in a far more public attack.
Looking back on it now, I was panicked over something that worked itself out alright in the end. When I got home that evening, I resolved one of the stress-causers, and the other resolved itself the next day without my aid.
But at the moment, the build-up of stress overwhelmed me, and I ended up disorientated, struggling to breathe, laid back in my car and gazing up at the boughs of the large oak I parked under at the softly blowing Spanish Moss. I was trying to find a shred of peace within myself – and then trying to hold onto that tiny bit of calm and reignite it like a cooling lump of coal.
I’m not sure where to go with this post – I could always say, “Live stress-free, don’t have a panic attack over your lunch break,” but that feels like a simplification of the issue.
I usually do live stress-free.
And I still had a panic attack.
So, I think the real point is…give yourself the grace to stumble emotionally from time to time and give yourself the tools to pick yourself back up.
When a child learns to ride a bike, they will – inevitably – wobble and topple. They will sit on the pavement with skinned knees and teary eyes, physically hurting and maybe smarting a bit from a cracked pride.
And yet, the parents of that child don’t critic them for falling. Instead, they pick their child up, dust off his knees, put a bandage over his knee and encourage him to get back up on the bike and try again.
I can’t say, following my panic attack, that I was hurting physically (aside from the fact that my chest felt tight and sore for the rest of the day), but I was smarting quite a lot from a bruised pride.
I, who can usually bottle up my troubles and plow ahead professionally, let work take a hard crack at me.
I, who is a do-er and a finisher and a completist, was unable to eliminate a stressful situation, and it pushed me over the edge.
Before my own personal breakdown, however, I had a conversation with one of my online connections (friend), who was struggling emotionally with feeling “weak.”
I told her that there was no shame in weakness, that sometimes we need to be weak and a little bit broke in order to fix what was afflicting us.
I compared out mental and emotional states with the ocean tides – sometimes we are at a blissful high tide, and sometimes we are at a low tide, where all our rocky edges are revealed.
Naturally, I suppose, fate decided to make me test my own words of encouragement by making me use them on myself.
So maybe the point of this whole tale is not “don’t have a panic attack” but rather, “treat yourself kindly after breaking down.”
Life is going to tip you off your emotional-bicycle, it’ll bruise your pride, bloody your self-confidence and make you wonder if you are cut out for riding that bike after all.
But just because you are sitting on the curb nursing a skinned knee after falling off your bike (or in your car, nursing a cracked pride after dropping off your mental and emotional high), doesn’t mean you failed or broke or washed out.
Sometimes, just like children who fell off their bikes, we need someone to pick us up, dust off our bottoms, and tell us that it’s ok – that we did ok – that we just need to try again.
And sometimes, the only person who is available to do that is ourselves.
And in those moments where all we want to do is slap ourselves back into shape, to critique our own moments of weakness and quickly overcome our slips, we need to remember that it is ok to be weak.
It’s ok to be a little bit broken.
Soon enough…we recover.
Writing this now, I am back to myself, stressless, prepared, and undaunted.
But in case I fall off my emotional bicycle tomorrow, I will treat myself kindly – I will treat myself like a friend.