Less than two weeks after the most terrifying trip of my life, I had my first, real panic attack. I didn’t know what it was at the time. Odd sensations were moving all throughout my body. I truly believed I was having a stroke, even though I was fit and in my early 20s. I got so worked up, and I didn’t start to relax until I had been triaged in the ER. I started to think, “If I’m having a stroke, why isn’t everyone here rushing to help me?” The nurses had simply triaged me and then sent me back out to sit in the waiting room. Of course they knew what was going on all along – severe anxiety.
After that experience, I realized that I was having anxiety issues, which I had never really had before. Sure, a little social anxiety in my freshman year of college, but nothing like this. Nothing this intense.
As time went on, I realized that I had a pattern of anxiety about something being wrong with my body. Random sensations or odd feelings would trigger anxiety, which I would then have to actively fight off until it subsided. It was emotionally painful and crippling, especially because it gave me the feeling of no longer being safe in my own body. I worried that I was going to have a heart attack or stroke, that I had an artery blockage, that I was having an allergic reaction, that my throat was closing up, that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen, that something was wrong with my breathing… so many illogical fears, which all felt so real and scary.
If you’re dealing with this kind of pain, it’s important to understand the subconscious perspective of what’s going on:
In normal life, the subconscious mind has a sort of monitoring system for your emotional state. When you experience trauma or a near death experience, your subconscious turns off this monitoring right before the biggest part of the trauma occurs to prevent you from emotionally overloading. It packages this shut-off monitoring and stores it somewhere with in you, like a little corrupted file somewhere on your computer’s hard drive. When the trauma does occur, one of two things happen: you either die or you live. In this instance, you lived, but you still have that corrupted file, which contains all the data leading up to the experience and leaves out the fact that you made it and the trauma is over.
In short, if you were extremely afraid that you were going to die during your trip, your subconscious mind doesn’t know that the perceived threat of death is over. Every time it perceives the slightest abnormal feeling or sensation, it turns on the sirens and alerts you to the “threat” because it is constantly in “I may be dying”-mode. Truthfully, there is no threat of death, and there never was, but the anxiety you’re dealing with can make it all feel very real.
Steps for dealing with body-related anxiety
- Start keeping a detailed log of your anxiety. I can’t stress this enough, because it’s the key to understanding your patterns and triggers.
- Get a checkup at the doctor. After you’ve established what part of your body is giving you the anxiety, it may help to make an appointment with your doctor for a checkup. Truly, it is extremely, extremely unlikely that anything is wrong with your body, but if you feel the need to prove it to yourself, get a checkup. If you’re worried about your heart, at least go to the grocery store or drug store and use the blood pressure machine. This is a tool to anchor yourself when you have the anxiety: “Remember, nothing is wrong with you. You went to the doctor, and everything looked great!” I would recommend against telling your doctor exactly why you wanted a checkup, just say that it had been a while and you just wanted to make sure you were doing well. This is referred to as a wellness visit.
- Exercise. Probably not the most popular technique, but doing any safe, moderate form of exercise will help you start building trust and confidence with your body again. When you feel your heart rate increase moderately with no adverse side effects, you should start to feel more peace.
- Learn to stop a panic attack. While you may not believe me right now, you have the power to control your panic attacks. Initially, the best thing to do is distract yourself. Change the setting, change your physical state, and start doing something enjoyable that requires concentration. An example: if you begin to feel a panic attack coming on while laying in bed trying to fall asleep, get up, go in the living room, and find something funny to watch on TV. Let yourself fall asleep on the couch to the TV if you need to – don’t be too hard on yourself right now.
Always remember that this is not a permanent problem, and that you will get through this, just like I did. You didn’t “break your brain,” and although it may take some time, you will feel normal again.