In an attempt to be more candid with this space, I took the time to work through a panic attack I had this morning and am publishing it here after only doing one grammar & content check. The thought of not letting this sit for another few weeks or get a second, or third, opinion on it is terrifying. But anxiety has stopped me from hitting publish on too many parts of my life, yet I’m determined to not let this post be another.

What A Panic Attack Really Looks Like

Happy New Year everyone! We are off to the races with some stellar panic attacks in the shape of, “Holy shit I can’t breathe” and, “I can’t make any decisions right now because I’m afraid I’ll mess one up so I’ll mess them all up by making none.” Add in, “the thought of human connection and conversation is so overwhelming at this point I’ll come up with some excuses in a few days to friends, clients, and anyone else who attempts anything other than in-person communication.” 

Hello, old friend. It’s certainly been a minute. I’m honestly surprised it’s been as long as it has without you rearing your ugly head a lot sooner. Where did you go? Torturing others like myself, freezing them with the fear of the unknown, a fear of failure, or any other excuse you can find to render an amazing, accomplished human completely useless? Why do you plague so many of us? How is it you were gone for so long and now are back? Was it excessive holiday drinking? The 4 a.m. bedtimes? The moment where my insurance runs out and my therapist has to cancel all further sessions due to pregnancy complications? Why did you come back?

That familiar tingling in my fingers has come back, knowing my hand will soon go numb as I listlessly flip from room to room. I make my way over to my computer, hopefully in time before you completely consume what’s left of me. I know what that’s like, you taking over as I attempt to write my demons out. My fingers get heavier, as if I’ve attached individual weights to each one. It often becomes too much and I give in, clicking away from the document.

Sometimes, you’re kinder and let me finish before you swoop in. You’ll push me further into the blanket I’ve wrapped around myself and direct my attention towards anything to both stimulate my senses while also numbing me.

The productive-seeking part of me turns these into hours of Youtube tutorial videos, scrolling through photography and travel accounts, searching for the “aha” moment where I feel fully satiated and can stop. But you don’t let me; no matter how long I look, nothing has ever left me feeling this way. Sometimes I can try to trick you into searching for self-help articles or putting on a motivational podcast, but that comes with varying results. The tone of the speaker can make things worse, the slightly fast pace at which they’re talking, common when excited about a topic, is enough to force me to shut it off barely ten minutes in. 

Time, the enemy of most, has to be your favorite thing to play with. Time slows down when I wake up. You encourage me to scroll through social media until I look up at the tiny readout at the top, realizing I’ve wasted the past hour in bed. No fear, you let me keep going, trying to soothe the burn of wasting time by feeding me more of the same. By some miracle, I do manage to get out of bed. Whether this is out of shame or adrenaline from checking the time for the eighth time, I am no longer able to ignore how bad I feel to be in bed at this hour. 

Solo traveler standing in front of Salzburg's Castle in Austria

It’s then that it seems like I’m unable to tear my eyes away from the clock, checking every few minutes as I make breakfast. The chastising begins as you find it incredulous I would take this long to make breakfast AND want to read a few chapters while I’m eating. I can’t even make it through one without getting up to do something, or checking my phone, or looking at the clock. Shame fills me when I see how much later it is, feeling awful I’m starting my day so late after filling basic needs like, eating breakfast and washing my face. 

It’s funny, you have no problem with me lounging in bed, taking ten extra minutes to read an entire comment thread on an internet fight, but simple things like getting dressed or cleaning up the kitchen are simply too much of a time-waster for you. You see those things as frivolous and push me as hard as you can to sit down at my desk, whether or not I am ready. The time says you are, you chide. 

Anxiety, at it’s best, can be a motivator for change. Unhappy with your life? Maybe there’s a part of you that knows you can do more and you take away one less hour of TV to add towards a project you’ve always wanted to work on. 

At its worst, anxiety can make you feel panicked about the time you’re wasting, the hours you’re putting into said project, the lack of money you’re making from it, and how you spend every waking moment between the time you finally force yourself out of bed and the twelfth time you flip your phone over on your nightstand in an attempt to sleep. 

It feels all-consuming and unable to master at times, especially when the root of it feels like a mystery. Is it from one major incident yesterday, or a culmination of small instances over time? Where does it begin and when will it end? Will cancel my plans to suit it, only to come-to an hour before the event, regretful to have jumped the gun on canceling? How can we know when our feelings are real when emotions are always heightened in a state of anxiety? 

It’s funny; I went to wrap this up, attempting to find a positive spin to put on it. An actionable way out. Any sort of release from anxiety’s grip that someone else reading this could then implement. But anxiety grabbed ahold once again, preventing my brain from thinking of a solution. Freezing my fingers in place. Telling me I’m a hypocrite for pretending like I have all the answers while I’m still in the middle of this panic attack. 

The reality is, we can only do what we’re capable of in the moment. We often don’t know where our limits are, or just how able we can be in a state of panic. I can tell you to take one step at a time towards a thing you would feel good about making a little progress on, but maybe one small step for you isn’t enough to make you feel better. 

Maybe you’re conditioned in a way similar to me where small steps feel meaningless in the middle of a panic attack. Instead, we believe trying to take big leaps in every area of our lives all in one day is how we’re supposed to feel whole once more. Clean the entire apartment, go to the gym, have that client call where you stand by your prices, have another potential client call explaining your vision, meet up with a friend, write the blog, edit old photos, get intimate with your partner, cook a healthy meal, and somehow go to bed at a decent time. My mind is expecting me to do all of those things today.

“Plenty of people do it, this is honestly pathetic you’re still in your pajamas!” Anxiety will scream. There’s nothing like comparing yourself to others who have never felt the tight grip of anxiety to really get you going, you know?

I’m not sure if I’m expected to check off several of these things at once as anxiety seems to pretend that it didn’t just have us waste our morning in bed, or that we operate at half and quarter speed when we’re trying not to hyperventilate. I can tell you that no matter where I start on that list, my mind will tell me how I’m wasting time. It wants all of it to be done, but doesn’t want to “waste” the hours needed to actually do them.

Anxiety, my mind, my pre-set beliefs about productivity and self-worth– whoever is responsible for these insane expectations is out to play today. I don’t know what I’m doing and they know it too. I don’t know where to start, but they’ll let me know everything I’m doing wrong in the meantime.

The one thing I do know is, being nice to myself in moments such as these, really and truly nice, is how I can survive the panic attack storm I’ve become wrapped me up in. Telling myself it’s okay to take a break and walk around the block? That’s self-love. Telling myself I can delegate a few of those demands to a day where I feel more whole, is okay. If I’m able to do even one of those things today, is also okay.

Understanding why I’m allowing myself in this moment to be okay with not being okay is the best thing I can begin to do. The world seems to open up a bit more when I give myself permission to not meet all of those demands. Where it felt as if there were no options but to rush and run, I now feel surrounded by gentleness and a world of options. Now I can give myself a bit more breathing room to decide which of them I want to do today. And in those in-between moments where I find anxiety whispering how embarrassing I am or how laughable my modified to-do list is, I can meet it with compassion. It might be less that I would like to be capable, but for now, it is enough. 

Learning to love yourself enough to be kind when everything hurts but there are no visible wounds is far larger of a battle than we realize. It is exhausting to be at war with yourself; to sift through those negative thoughts and allow the good ones, no matter how little we currently believe in them, to come to the surface. Not everyone understands, and it’s not your job to make them understand. Nor is it helpful to compare your 25% to their 95%. We may not know how hard they’re fighting to be where they’re at, but we do know where we are and where we are not in those moments.

Focus on you. Allow love in. Be kind to yourself the way you would to a grieving friend. You deserve to feel good and whole. And maybe this won’t work for some people, but for where I am and the situation I currently find myself in, it’s enough for me. I hope it’s enough for you too.

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