As a blogger, I believe in transparency of process. Such belief often means disclosing how I make money and telling stories that reveal personal truths. This post reflects the most vulnerability and transparency I’ve shared to date. I continue to push myself to share, when ready, about personal struggles, challenges, and fears because I want to foster an internet community that respects, empathizes, and uplifts. This post explains my experiences with panic attacks and anxiety.
I’ve always thought of trauma much like we see it on emergency room television shows. A patient with a gunshot wound, someone bleeding out on an operating table. Further, I could see it manifest emotionally through a deeply disturbing or distressing event like death or abuse. On October 20, 2016, I experienced probably the closest thing to true trauma that has happened in my 24 years of existence. After entering anaphylactic shock as the result of food allergies in my own home, I reached a breaking point – of which I still wasn’t aware. Since May of last year, I’ve had a roller coaster of experiences adjusting to autoimmune-related symptoms which later came thought to be rheumatoid arthritis. I have no choice to believe that the bodily changes as a result of RA triggered changes in my diet, food allergies, and ability to digest certain meals.
More than one doctor suggested seeing a counselor because managing chronic health problems certainly isn’t an easy adjustment. I carried on much as I have previously, as optimistic as possible, but with an overwhelming weight of fear and caution. I didn’t believe that one day I would wake up and feel radically out of control of my life and that those instances of minor trauma could shape my mental and emotional wellness.
During my first panic attack, which happened shortly after the anaphylactic episode, I was eating in the car as I often do as a consistently overscheduled being. I was stuck in traffic and sucking down a lamb gyro en route to the grocery store. Gridlocked with nowhere to go, I started to feel my mouth itch. I tried to keep my cool and drink water, but my body fully started to experience the same symptoms as I did on October 20th. It was 36 degrees outside, and I rolled down all my windows. I was sweating profusely, and had stripped down to just a tank top and jeans. My vision was blurring in and out; I was shaking and I was nauseous. And I was in control of a car traveling 80 MPH on the interstate. My mouth felt tingly, but I could plainly see in my rearview mirror that my lips were not swelling nor were there hives on my neck or arms. I took every possible shortcut home before I barely made it inside and threw up my Greek lunch. Vomiting was not a full relief – my body was in complete shock and I couldn’t calm down.
The fear of eating and having a reaction took over my life. I stopped going out to eat, I declined to attend events where food would be placed in front of me, I tried to avoid food altogether. The biggest issue with avoiding food is that low blood sugar induces symptoms and experiences that mirror that of my panic attacks. The dizziness, agitation, and shakiness seemed unavoidable. I got a stomach virus over NYE, which lasted nearly 6 days. For the first time in adulthood, I couldn’t keep food down, but so desperately needed nutrients and fluids. You can see this predicament being challenging to someone who has already been experiencing fear over eating. In all my dehydration and pain, I broke. I cried for days. I felt helpless, but not hopeless, and knew that depression wasn’t playing any role in these experiences as so many internet articles and health professionals suggested it would. I was happy, truly healthier than I had been in a while, thoroughly blessed in my career and beyond. Panic attacks were controlling my body and my life and I had to take charge.
A couple weeks ago, I received an email that my health record had been updated. When I checked my web portal, I was livid to see a new chronic condition listed: Acute Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety. What did it mean? No one bothered to mention or explain this diagnosis to me. My therapist later explained and I was largely relieved and actually felt that it fit my situation. He said that he was actually responsible for it appearing on my health record because he had to list a condition for insurance billing. He said that this was one of the most mild conditions he could denote and that he truly believed my experiences were surmountable and that I’ve done everything in my power to treat both panic and anxiety effectively thus far. A glimmer of hope.
Put me in front a crowd, in a classroom, or in a workshop, and I’ll thrive. I’ve been an ambitious go-getter and entrepreneur for most of my life who feeds on creative energy and tasks. When I’m alone with my own thoughts and, ultimately, fears and have nothing to keep me busy, I can be thrust into panic at the drop of a hat. I need alone time as much as anyone, but lately, it has been toxic. Because my panic and anxiety are situational and primarily associated with food, I become worked up just thinking about the day’s plan and how food will fit into it. In ruminating on my fears, I felt paralyzed multiple times a day and went headfirst into abandonment-mode. At its worst, I was fully prepared to quit blogging, release all my clients, and even set up email notifications for new job opportunities in Winchester so I could avoid driving to work every day.
Ruminating fears led me to seek answers in the internet. After all, the internet is my second home and livelihood of sorts. I quickly learned that self-help forums and internet support groups were not going to be a place of solace for me. I didn’t find comfort in endless threads of people sharing like experiences, it simply made me feel increasingly anxious. When you Google search “fear of eating”, you are instantly sent down a rabbit hole of articles about eating disorders, namely anorexia nervosa and bulimia. I took at least ten “quizzes” to see if I was demonstrating behaviors of an eating disorder – I was not. No concern over weight, no need to purge – I would actually never throw up again if I had the choice. Further, I read countless times that individuals who experienced panic attacks left untreated ultimately develop panic disorder and often become housebound. I found myself experiencing symptoms that were either unfamiliar to the internet or that didn’t match what seemed parallel to my life. I felt further isolated.
On Donald Trump
Do I blame the President for my struggles with anxiety and panic attacks or my autoimmune illness? Of course not. Do I blame a culture of victim-blaming, resource-withholding, and instant gratification for worsening my experiences? Partially. Among recent events such as the longstanding abuse scandal by Dr. Larry Nassar to the school shooting led by a 15 year old student that wounded 20+ and killed two, there doesn’t seem to be much good news flowing. You almost have to proactively seek it out, or avoid major news networks to avoid the bad. I think the hardest realization of adulthood has been how much harm there is in the world, and how complicit many of the people we’re taught to admire have been in the process. From politicians to doctors to law enforcement officers to celebrities, no profession nor personality seems unpermeated by violence.
Of course, our interactions with the media and news coverage have changed, drastically. With social media serving as our primarily source of information, we are subject to a limitless supply of authors and perspectives. I often thought that I was most impressionable during adolescence, but I think that during this potential quarter life crisis I feel more susceptible to new views and considering various perspectives – some of which are downright unethical. I find myself thinking about how we (as a culture) reached this point, which speaks quite a bit to my struggles with rumination and panic.
I was particularly struck with the emergence of allegations against Aziz Ansari. An individual who posited himself as a champion of women and people of color, Ansari was both berated and defended for the narration of a sexual encounter that was both uncomfortable and mirrored abuse. It felt disgusting familiar. In a world in which power dynamics are blurry, where we rely on digital communications to problem solve and find solidarity (or not), it seems pretty obvious how something as primitive as eating food became a vetted fear in my life.
How I’m Coping
I found a therapist. I am so fortunate to have great health insurance. When providers in network failed me, I was again fortunate enough to have the funds to seek care outside of my plan that I could afford out of pocket. After shopping around, I found a therapist who listens deeply, provides active feedback that doesn’t feel like it came from a Wikipedia article, and is never accusatory. The therapist I see specializes in anxiety related to traumatic events and is experienced in managing patients with chronic health conditions. I used Psychology Today to research backgrounds and made several calls before making any rash decisions about new practitioners. Still, I acted quickly when I felt my experiences with anxiety were worsening. Speaking to someone completely uninvolved and unknowing has, again, been one of the most self-assuring experiences.
I became a bath person. I’ve never enjoyed baths because I never felt as if they were relaxing or means of getting clean. After my first panic attack, I gave baths a shot because I needed a retreat to escape from my surroundings without simply hiding in bed. In baths, I finally began reading again. I didn’t immediately dive into fiction where I had to empathize with others’ pain or feel invested in new characters, but I read nonfiction and self-help books that have done more for my renewed mental health than I imagined possible. In baths, I read, I planned new community workshops, I drafted blog posts, and I focused solely on what I had to do in the moment because I was restricted to the water, naked and vulnerable, where I couldn’t run away from my thoughts. I was forced to feel them through, rationalize, and overcome.
I leaned into new and existing support systems. Whether it meant asking a coworker to accompany me to lunch to hold me accountable for eating, or checking in with my friends and family the moment I felt an attack coming on, I am so thankful for the people in my life. Those closest to you observe changes and it became most apparent to me when coworkers recognized my tendency to avoid lunch breaks and that I’ve been losing weight. I’ve dropped a little under 20 pounds since October; I’m just now able to eat enough that I’m gaining some back. The best decision I made was to allow those who love me to check in and check up with me frequently instead of pushing them away as badly as I wanted to. You should exercise personal agency and make the sometimes difficult but necessary judgment call to stop associating with individuals who diminish your experiences or fail to believe you – this change includes friends, family, and medical professionals.
I accepted medication. After investing in a past significant other who abused prescription medication for years, I have been exceptionally fearful of substance abuse. I’ve never had much interest in taking medicine in any circumstance; I’m even hesitant to take Tylenol during my period. I reached a point of desperation with both panic attacks and RA symptoms that I knew I could no longer sustain treatment on my own. I finally began taking all recommended medication – both to treat anxiety and current symptoms and long term of effects of rheumatoid arthritis. I was prescribed Vistaril by an ER doctor. As an antihistamine, I was less fearful of trying it out and appreciated the fact that I could take it up to four times a day if I needed, but could feel my body changing and adapting without blindly succumbing to a 24-hour medication. For several weeks, I relied so desperately on Vistaril – taking it 3-4 times a day and counting the hours until the next dose.
I’ve never been one to prioritize medication, but for the first time in my life, I made sure I never left the house without the pill bottle. In the past few weeks, I’ve learned so much about coping including both physical and mental strategies that truly work for me in most instances. When they don’t, I still have the Vistaril readily available. I’m only taking about 2-3 pills a week now. It’s comforting to know that I have a doctor who respects my decision to not dive headfirst into long term, long acting medication, supports me as I make this adjustment, and accepts my Band-Aid approach.
I became very intentional about my routine. I used to eat whenever, wherever, whatever. I’ve now realized that pattern can no longer be my reality, especially as I experience symptoms of panic. I no longer eat in the car, and do my best to not eat alone in the event that I do have a real allergic reaction. I’m equally as careful about what I eat as I was prior, but I try not to focus on meals in advance. Too much pre-planning sends my day spiraling out of control with a small, ongoing panic attack. I make health a priority and don’t put off doctor’s appointments or taking medicine. I approach them with optimism and understand that they’re a necessary part of my wellness, now and in the future. If I’m feeling very anxious or on the verge of a panic attack, I weigh the scenario. I try not to avoid experiences or events, but likewise do not push myself too hard too quickly to assume life’s activities as normal. I try not to spend time seeking or focusing on catalysts. If I feed too much into my fears, panic attacks undoubtedly ensue.
I used my resources – wisely. I’ve read everywhere that exercise helps anxiety. I always assumed that it served as a distraction from the actual stressor. It wasn’t until my therapist explained to me that exercise actually alleviates feelings of anxiety because your body begins to handle stress (through exercise/tolerance building) more effectively, that I consciously made an effort. Learning the why and how behind generic tips made me see how much more valuable common resources actually can be. One of my favorite online resources I can use at work to calm down is The Thoughts Room. You can type exactly how you’re feeling into a text box and the words start to fall off the page. It feels silly, but it works for me when I can’t physically remove myself from a space or meeting. I stopped using the WebMD-like sites, and shifted my attention to activities that put the work back on me to clear my thoughts and process what is happening around me.
If you are struggling with panic attacks, anxiety, or any related stressors, the ADAA has some outstanding resources for immediate help. If your experiences worsen or you have thoughts of self-harm or harming others, please utilize sites such as Half of Us or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.