Why does something as minor as not being able to find a parking spot, or running out of time to prepare for a meeting, cause my brain to issue these Code Red alerts?
Claws gouge the center of my chest. Someone, something, forcibly pulls half of me to the left, half to the right. It astonishes me that such profound pain does not make a sound.
I soon realize that my lungs cannot sufficiently fill with air. Did the mysterious claws puncture them? Maybe oxygen is leaking out before it can enter my bloodstream. Meanwhile, my heart clamors around the splintered vessel that was once my chest. It moves so quickly, and ricochets so erratically, that I wonder if I have suddenly grown three, four, five hearts. At another time, I might have pictured basketballs bouncing, each at their own frantic pace, off a court.
But I do not imagine basketballs now because, in this moment, all I can think of is the fact that I am convinced I am about to die—and I do not want to.
Despite my body’s clenched anticipation of danger, I do not die. In fact, at no point am I even at risk of dying. Yet, over and over, throughout my 20s, death convinced me that it was near. Racing thoughts, dizziness, and uncontrolled trembling became almost customary. For over five years, I endured these attacks with no knowledge of how to end them, or why they began. Finally, a therapist identified the source of this physical and mental torment: anxiety.
“Anxiety is your body’s reaction to your brain’s message that your life is in danger,” she explained after listening to my description of my speeding heart, shallow breathing, all-consuming dread. Apparently, anxiety perceives an imminent threat, and prepares my body for it by surging adrenaline through me.
This insight prompted both clarification and confusion. On the one hand, I appreciated knowing what was happening to me, but on the other, this information maddened me. Why does something as minor as not being able to find a parking spot, or running out of time to prepare for a meeting, cause my brain to issue these Code Red alerts? How can I successfully (and happily) travel to and around other continents—entirely alone—but fall apart if I can’t find my keys in the morning?
The moments my mind mistakes for threats baffle me. Loved ones who do not endure anxiety see my fight-or-flight reaction to a seemingly innocuous stimulus and dismiss it as me over-reacting, but try as I might, I cannot just “calm down.” The mere desire to feel better, and even noble effort to rationalize myself away from this state of panic, are inadequate; anxiety easily overpowers both reason, and my physiological defenses.
Mercifully, with the passing of time, my anxiety has downgraded from, at minimum, weekly intrusions to, at most, monthly. Coping strategies I learned in therapy initiated this decline; eventually, anxiety ceased to be instinctive, and other reactions began to take its place: stress, concern, acceptance. Although anxiety is not absent in my life, it is no longer in control.
If it is occasional and fleeting, I can handle anxiety’s grip; I have developed methods to prevent it from escalating, and I know how to recover quickly. But, sometimes anxiety mutinies—subverting my progress, razing my composure—and I question if I ever have had, or will have, power over my emotions, mind and body.
The possibility that panic will always be sovereign over who I am, and how I live, terrifies me. Will I ever be able to fully trust myself to remain calm during high-stress situations, or times of transition? How much physical damage is all of this tension wreaking? Why can’t I just feel OK?
Whenever I consider the ongoing presence of anxiety in my life, I first feel fear, then sadness, and often discouragement. Sometimes, the thought of battling anxiety for the rest of my life makes me angry. I imagine needing to talk myself off the ledge of panic attacks at the slightest future inconvenience, and I become bitter. I do not want to spend my emotional energy on anything so trivial. It embarrasses me to become frazzled this easily, especially knowing that countless others chronically endure legitimate hardship.
In fact, during my most recent assault of anxiety, which woke me more than once at 3am, leaving me powerless against the downward spiral of my own mind, I was furious. I cursed anxiety for making me doubt myself, and for plundering my quality of life. Anger momentarily invigorated me, but quickly became just another negative force—and I already had enough of those.
Then, in the midst of repeating mantras and taking deep breaths, it struck me: Addressing my anxiety from a place of compassion might make it more likely to dissipate. Maybe, if I thanked my anxiety for trying to protect me, but request that it unclench me, I would find peace. Even just considering this felt foolish, but I was desperate to feel better. In that moment, almost anything seemed worth trying.
So, slowly and sincerely, I began to speak to my anxiety. “I know you want to help,” I said aloud, hoping that, somehow, my anxiety would hear me. “You want to keep me safe from anything that might hurt me. And I love that you’re looking out, and you’re being so vigilant, and not letting your guard down.”
I paused, realizing how empowering it is to find value in my nemesis; my appreciation alone diminished its authority. Maybe this tactic wasn’t so preposterous after all.
“I don’t think you mean to, but actually, you are what is hurting me. You’re so worried about potential harm that you’re not acknowledging actual goodness. I know you will probably never completely abandon me, but please, let me take some risks. Let me have faith. Let me move forward.
I’m OK. I promise.”
Then, without fluster or frenzy, I breathed in—and this time, rather than trickling into nothingness, the air traveled through my bloodstream, nourishing my body. When I breathed out, realizing how calm and capable I felt, it struck me that, finally, my heart felt whole.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes, runs, and photographs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in The Three Quarter Review, Spry, elephant journal, A Quiet Courage and Vine Leaves Literary Journal, among others. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter: @mskerrygraham.