When Panic Turns to Calm

When Panic Turns to Calm - student project

It was my senior year of high school and I was sitting in my film class. The room was bathed in the yellow glow of fluorescent bulbs, and I was sitting in the middle of the class. It was an ordinary day and the teacher was talking but I wasn’t listening. 


I was staring down at my fingers on the desk. They were tingling. Looking up around the room I became suddenly aware of the space around me. The chairs and desks blocking my way to the singular door on the left that led to the hallway. The people around me, my teacher, and the yellowy space that felt suddenly quite solid.  


My thoughts were moving a mile a minute, my teacher was still talking, my fingers still tingling, at any second, I would stop breathing altogether, and without thinking I shot up my hand and asked to go to the bathroom. I wasn’t aware of getting up and speedily walking to the door. I was only aware of my shortened breath and how leaving the classroom was only a minuscule relief as I made my way to the nurse's office. 


I was having a panic attack. But I didn’t know that. I was so distraught and confused about what was happening to me that all I could be sure of was my dwindling sanity. Images of stark white hallways and doctors' coats and needles flashed through my head. 


The nurses would come to know me quite well that year. I started getting panic attacks every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  


I’d call my boyfriend in the hall and tell him he had to leave his class to be with me. I’d sit in math class and suddenly feel as if the world was closing in on me and ask to go to the bathroom. My math teacher seemed to be the only one who caught on, asking me if I was OK after class one day as I nodded that I was fine.  


And the strangest thing of all? The self-conscious girl I used to be was promptly shoved to the side as a panic attack came on and inevitable death came careening towards me. Two sophomores looked down at the floor in embarrassment as I rushed into the nurse’s office, my breath at the top of my throat and insisting that someone help me.  


Of course, it all felt so big and obvious at the time—I can’t be sure if I looked as wild and untamed as I thought I did. I was going insane. I was sure of it.


It was easy to feel that way. And if you’ve ever had a panic attack (I hope you haven’t), then you’ll know what I mean. It was also easy to feel that way because I started having panic attacks in 2010, years before these issues became enlightened by the internet, by YouTube, by people speaking up about mental health.


There were resources, of course. Although most of the resources were in book-form and I couldn’t bring myself to read about the thing that I felt so powerless against. I got through because of the people. The kind nurse who reminded me as the mini waterfall warbled in the background that I was ok, that I was breathing, that I was ok.


If other people were experiencing anxiety around me, I didn’t know it. Of course, they were. And they still are. Over 40 million Americans have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and the number continues to rise.


There are many things we can attribute rising anxiety to – I’m quick to blame it on social media and the vast, shapeless blob that is “The Internet.”  


But, in truth, the internet helped me a lot as I came to understand my anxiety. It helped me connect when I felt disconnected. Like most things in life, it is neither good nor bad but an ever-wavering combination of both.


Over time, my panic attacks dwindled. It became clear that they began as a sort of internal uprising against the bigness that was growing up and moving out and being a college girl. I’m sure there was a huge part of me that wasn’t ready – I was, in my mind, still holding on to the threads of childhood—crafting fairy houses out of moss and rocks.


But the bigness of growing up wasn’t so big when I showed up at college and journeyed (stumbled) my way through, making friends and mistakes, falling in and out of love, believing fiercely that I was much more mature than I was.


I learned to use mindfulness and I started to accept anxiety with compassion and patience.


Not always.


Sometimes, it arrived unannounced and floored me again. The pressure of graduating and not knowing what I wanted to do had me constantly on edge.  I still think of that girl—trying, trying—and want to tell her, sweet and gentle, “You’re ok.”


Years passed and the pressure to be perfect peeled me off slowly, leaving a film I’ll never rid myself of. I left my parents house, I left the country, I boarded a flight to Istanbul alone—heart pumping and music in my ears.


My anxiety will never go away. It sounds defeatist, I know.


But I don’t think of it that way. Accepting that anxiety comes and goes has made me not a stronger person, but a softer one. Soft in the sense that when feelings arise, they don’t ricochet off me like they used to, bruising me and bracing for the next one.


I can be a little softer with myself. I can be a little gentler. I can say the words I’ve said to myself after every panic attack I’ve ever had: This, too, shall pass.


I’m writing this amid a global pandemic that’s changing the lives of everyone around me. A week ago, I was laid off from my job. And so many people are in more dire situations than I am. It feels melancholic and strange and the future is uncertain.


I feel gratitude for a lot of things, and for the languid hours I’ve spent reading – digging furiously into books the way I did when I was a child and had nothing better to do. I feel gratitude for the panic attacks I’ve experienced. Strange, I know.


But they’ve instilled in me a sense of calm that I’ve found surprising. A softness that cradles me even when I’m feeling sad. Even when I get off the phone with my boss’s boss and realize that the next few weeks are devoid of structure and a paycheck.


I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t even know how I’ll feel tomorrow. But I feel soft and I feel calm and I know that this, too, shall pass.