Adventures in Anxiety, Dear Starfish Diaries

Anatomy of a Panic Attack*

*Warning.  This post describes a panic attack, as I’ve experienced them.  If you are struggling with mental health and easily triggered, please be aware that this could bring up intense feelings, and carefully decide whether it is the right time for you to have that experience.
This is different from my usual posts, but it’s part of a story that I feel strongly about sharing.  If you have ever suffered from anxiety and panic, it’s incredibly isolating, and it’s important for you to know that you are not alone, and not crazy.  If you have not experienced these symptoms, you probably know someone who has, and it is probably very hard for you to understand.  The more we talk about it, the more we all will feel supported.


Suddenly I am very hot.  It occurs to me that I’m visibly sweating, and I immediately feel another wave of heat.  I look down, and my hands are shaking.  Before I realize what I’m doing, my hand comes to my chest and I become aware of how tight it is.  It’s hard to breathe, and hard to hide my breathlessness.  Everything in my body is screaming “RUN,” but I am glued to the spot.  I want to ask for help but I’ve lost the ability to form words.

There is no danger.

My mind is racing, but one thought keeps pushing its way to the surface.  “You’re not OK.  Something bad is happening.  This is never going to end.”

I am completely safe.

I realize I’m taking an inventory of my racing thoughts, and picking out the ones that make sense to me.  The ones that say I’m no good, I’m a terrible sister/daughter/wife/citizen/adult/person.  I run through every mistake I’ve ever made- every time I’ve caused anyone pain.  I cling to all the bad, because if something bad isn’t happening, these physical symptoms don’t make sense, and I’m just crazy.

No one is angry at me.

My thoughts shift from the past to the future, and I imagine all of the disasters that are inevitably coming.  Good things don’t happen to bad people, and I’ve already established that I’m bad.  I glance at my phone and I’m terrified of the people inside; the people who are going to find out, or who already know.


My chest is getting tighter, and I’m sure I’m going to die.  I’m not afraid of dying in the conventional sense, rather, I’m afraid of how much more pain I’ll cause everyone when I’m gone.  I’m a failure already in this moment, but more so if I die.

I have been through this before.

Inside I’m screaming.  My head and my chest are going to explode with how loud I’m screaming.  For help, for forgiveness, for relief, ANYTHING.  A stranger walks by, and I smile.  Drop my hand from my chest and wipe my sweaty brow with an embarrassed shrug.

What does it feel like to be normal like you?




Breathe.  You are safe.  You are good.  There is no danger.  Breathe; count 4 in, 5 out.  Do it again.  Your only job right now is to breathe.  The phone can wait.  Everyone can wait.  You’ve been through this before and it ALWAYS. ENDS.

The words are coming from a place of peace, and of love.  My words.  The spell is broken, and I’ve stepped outside of myself for a moment because I am the person who heard my screams.  I am the only person who can hear them, and I am the only person who can help.  I speak to myself like I would to a child, and I soothe my fear with soft, loving words.

You are not alone.  You are good.  You are loved.  You are strong.

I can breathe again, and the tightness in my chest is softening.  I tentatively stretch; surprised to discover that I’ve regained the ability to move.  I get off my bench and walk, and breathe.

Another one is over.  Another one survived.

I will feel fragile now for a day or so, and I’ll be kind to myself out of respect for that fragility.  Loud noises will scare me, and I won’t want to eat, but I’ll make myself try, and I’ll make myself drink.  Dehydration leads to a racing heart, and there’s no place for that in this recovering space.  I will tell the people I love most what I’ve been through, and because they, too, have been through this with me before, they will give me loving support and encouragement, and let me rest while I need to.  The rest of the world can wait.

We can all trust me to get out of bed tomorrow and start again.  It’s been a long road, but I survived, and it’s only going to get better from here.

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