side profile of a woman sitting at her desk in an office with her head in her hands

Why I’m Glad My Co-Workers Witnessed My Panic Attack

Last week my anxiety nightmare came true: I had a panic attack in front of my co-workers.

I experienced my first massive panic attack when I was 27, driving home from my father’s burial. I was convinced I was having a heart attack, but I didn’t tell anyone because my father had just died from one. I felt embarrassed and dramatic, so I decided to keep it hidden to avoid drawing attention to myself. My grief opened a padlocked door that’s now permanently propped open, and I never know when the next panic attack will strike.

The story I keep telling myself is that I’m not someone who has panic attacks at work. I’m simply not allowed. At home? Sure. At airports, on airplanes, in other public places while surrounded by strangers? Yes. But somehow I’ve managed to keep this part of my anxiety hidden from my professional world. Why keep it hidden? Shame. I play the role of a high-functioning “anxiety survivor,” which means I might sit in my car for 20 minutes before I walk into the office, but at least I’m not brining my anxiety with me. My anxiety will just have to wait for me until I get back to my car for my lunch break or when I leave work.

I felt having panic attacks at the office — which for me means hyperventilating, uncontrollable sobbing and a general certainty that I will, in fact, die within minutes — meant I’ll never gain or keep the trust of my co-workers. I’ll never get promoted. My direct reports won’t respect me. The men in my office will think I’ve come completely unhinged, and I’ll be the “hormonal, crying lady who can’t handle the pressures of agency life.” The women will think so, too. And if my clients know that once panic hits any new email or phone call starts the cycle all over again, they’ll pull their business. Or they’ll ask to have me replaced. This is the story I tell myself.

But fiction has been replaced with fact, and I no longer have to wonder how my co-workers will react. Because now I know.

My panic attack started at 9:13 a.m. I know this because I documented the start time on a Post-it note at my desk. It had been a few years since my last attack, but I remembered the worst of it usually lasted only 10 to 15 minutes. I was allowing myself until 9:30 to break down, because I needed to hop on a conference call. I shut my office door and turned on some music, thinking I could outsmart the adrenaline that was about to betray my professional image and turn me into a sobbing mess. My anxiety refused to adhere to my 15-minute timeline, and my panic attack lasted for two hours, off and on.

If you’ve never had a panic attack, I can only imagine what it might look like to witness an adult hyperventilating and crying because they read an email that caused them stress. Or because someone asked them a question they didn’t know the answer to. Or because they were sitting silently, minding their own business, and their brain decided to play a game of “Everything is horrible and we’re all going to die!” If you’re part of the club that has experienced this nightmare, you know it can feel like your body is under attack, held hostage by some outside force that’s manning the controls. The force has locked you in a room and has made the walls close in on you so fast you’re sure you’ll be crushed. With one hand, the force is choking you, making it impossible to breath. Then it spins you around until you’re dizzy, nauseous and can’t see straight. And in the biggest jerk move of all, it’s filled the room with chopped onions so you can never stop crying.

My panic attacks were spaced out in five to 10 minute intervals. I’d finally catch my breath, walk down the hall to grab a drink of water, and then burst into tears at the sight of the first concerned colleague who glanced my way. On this particular day, we were in crisis mode, and it wasn’t an option to leave and work from home. (At least, again, that’s the story I told myself.)

In the middle of an agency crisis, I was deep in my own emotional/physical one. And a dozen colleagues had front-row seats to watch my breakdown.

I shut my office door and once again sobbed, this time out of embarrassment and shame. I’m a 36-year-old account supervisor at an agency, and now my career is finished. (When I tell myself stories, I lean way, way toward the dramatic.)

But something incredible happened. A male colleague who’s been with my company for 20 years entered my office, shut the door and asked if he could say a prayer for me. He told me about his own anxiety struggles. Another colleague brought me Kleenex and water, and she started telling me about her anxiety battles. Then my wonderful direct report stopped by to let me know she’d handled the work crisis — and to tell me how grateful she was to work for a company where people care about each other.

One by one, co-workers came out of the woodwork to share their struggles and stories. They weren’t whispering “Look at her,” they were opening up and saying, “Me, too.”

These co-workers were my lifeline, because we were able to speak in shorthand. All I had to say was, “I’m in the middle of a panic attack,” and they rallied around me because they’ve been there.

But there are still so many who don’t have a frame of reference for what it means to experience these kinds of attacks, and this week I can see they’re treating me with kid gloves. I’m fairly certain they feel embarrassed for me. I absolutely know they love me and are concerned for me. They want to help me manage my stress, lighten my workload and come to my rescue. And I love them so much for that, so I need to help them understand I don’t need special treatment. I need to be understood. Even though I’m deeply embarrassed, I’m glad they witnessed my panic attack — if only so I can help start a conversation about anxiety. Battling anxiety while in a professional setting does not mean that you are unhinged, un-hirable, unreliable, or un-promotable. It just means you’re one of the 40 million people battling the most common mental illness in America.

Battling panic attacks does not mean you are overreacting to life’s everyday stressors. It means your body has perceived a threat, launched you into fight-or-flight mode, and is doing everything it can to flee the danger it senses. Are these triggers “irrational”? Perhaps, to an outside observer. Are the perceived threats real to the person experiencing the attack? Absolutely. Do I wish I could have made it to the safety of my car before emotionally breaking down? Um, yes. Of course, I do. Crying in front of my co-workers was mortifying. Am I going to feel embarrassment or shame? Last week, my answer was, “Um, yes. Of course, I am.” But that’s the sneaky thing about shame. It wants us to hide our anxiety, depression and fear, putting on a façade when we walk out the front door — making us think we’re only worthy if we bottle everything up and never let anyone see us struggle. Today, I’m wearing my anxiety like a badge of honor. I’m raising my hand and asking for help. I’m trying to model for my colleagues that they don’t have to fear for their jobs if their brains and bodies some days get the best of them. And I’m trying to use this as an opportunity to continue fighting the stigma around anxiety and depression, showing others just how strong we are that every day we get out of bed, armor up and show up for the fight.

Image via Thinkstock.

Follow this journey on Between Grief and High Delight.

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shy woman sitting next to a man on the couch

To People With Anxiety Who Think They Can’t Date

My best friends have done it. My mom has done it. Even 13 year olds have done it. So why can’t I do it? Why can’t I go on a first date?

The answer is pretty simple. My anxiety stops me. When I was younger I thought I would be in an awesome relationship by 24. I never dreamed I would still not have gone on a first date.

The idea of going on a date terrifies me to the point that if I think about it, my anxiety gets of control. I can’t breathe, my head starts to spin, my heart races and I start to sweat like I’m running a marathon. Most people get butterflies in their stomach before a promising date. I don’t get butterflies; I get a stampede of elephants.

I think my fear of dating has come from my fear of the unknown and fear of failure. What if I go on a date and he likes me? What if he doesn’t? What if I have a panic attack or start to cry? I know it seems like a pretty irrational fear, but I can’t tell that to my mind when I’m anxious.

The closest I’ve come to a date was when I asked a guy to get coffee with me. I then freaked out about it, and when the time came to go, I hid from him in a bathroom. Yes, you heard that right. I had a panic attack in a bathroom at the church we were suppose to meet at and then proceeded to avoid him by running out the back door along the side of the building. When I worked up the courage to finally go to coffee with him, I made sure to take my anti-anxiety pills. The date actually ended up being a lot better than I thought it would be.

If you’re like me and your dating life stinks because of your anxiety, know that you aren’t alone. It’s a problem many people have but few are willing to talk about. I’ve read tons and tons of books on anxiety disorders, but I found that only one talked about the realities of dating with anxiety.

Getting anxious before a date is something that even people without anxiety disorders deal with. Try to remember that next time you’re going on a date. You can get through this and so will I. It’s OK if it takes baby steps at first. Remember you are putting yourself out there and trying something new – even if it feels painful at the time.

Who cares if the date ends up being horrible or you end up not liking the person? The fact that you went on the date in the first place is the real accomplishment. If you like them and they like you and you get an awesome relationship out of it, good for you! If not, then please know that you’re a real champ for even going on the date. Next time I go on a date, I will try to remember this.

Close-up photo of profile of a woman

When I Realized These Physical Sensations Were My Version of Panic Attacks

For so many years I had no idea what they were. It has only been in the last two weeks that I have made the connection of the physical sensations I’ve experienced and how they coincided with anxious times in my life. Everything I ever remember hearing or reading about panic attacks mention shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest tightness/pain and hyperventilation. I have never had any of these symptoms, so when I have had extremely anxious experiences, I thought they were not actual panic attacks. I would try to explain them away.

Recently, I was blown away when I realized that my trembling, sweating, nausea, hot/cold flashes, lightheadedness and dizziness were my version of a full-on panic attack. Thinking back, I can remember times in my life when these symptoms would come on inexplicably — most memorably when coat shopping at Macy’s when I was 23 and getting ready to travel north. I vividly recall sitting down with my back against the counter and thinking the room was spinning and I couldn’t decide if I was going to pass out or die of heat. The sensations were intense, and my mom was with me and very concerned. It passed in a matter of minutes, and I was able to return to my shopping, albeit a little more tired and disoriented.

This has happened before taking tests, giving presentations, going to parties or conferences, on the first days of school (both as a student and teacher), on airplanes, in crowds, at extreme heights (I should stop here as the list could go on and on)… and I never, ever associated them with my anxiety.

Just as I have written about depression in the past and how my outward symptoms were not “typical” (although I am reading more and more about “high-functioning” and hidden depression, which I resemble incredibly), I shouldn’t be all that surprised that yet again my anxiety is different, too. My friends and family can attest that their is little to nothing that is “normal” or “typical” about me. My younger daughter proclaims on a regular basis, “Normal is boring.” However, I think I might like to try it sometime. I do think I will have to radically accept that’s not going to happen and move forward with a new awareness.

Now that I know, I hope I can (remember and actually) do the following the next time I have a panic attack:

  • Give myself permission to acknowledge rather than question what is happening in my body.
  • Accept that something triggered my panic and not blame myself for bringing on the symptoms.
  • Wait and stay in the situation (for a little) to take the time to consider different options.
  • Breathe deeply, ask myself what are the odds of what I am fearing actually happening… And remember that I am fearing a future possibility and should try to reengage in the present.
  • And when it ends, I will be grateful that it has ended rather than critical of myself for having anxiety.

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woman closing her eyes

Taking a 'Sick Day' When You Have Anxiety

I may look absolutely fine, but inside I have a knot in my stomach. My mind is racing with a million different thoughts. Most of them are about how to get to a safe place. I can’t breathe, and the panic is slowly building. I have to get out. I have to get out now.

Calm down, the voice of reason inside my head tells me. You’re OK. You’re just trying to have a panic attack. Now, breathe.

Breathe? That’s not possible right now. Oh, and did I mention I’m driving? Yeah, I can’t have a panic attack right now.

I start to try and slow my breathing, telling myself I need to calm down long enough to pull over. I’m half way to work. The closer I get, the harder it is to breathe. I’m not going to make it there today. I glance at the clock, 8:20 a.m.

Ten minutes until my shift starts. I shouldn’t be this nervous. My job is simple. I’m a cashier at a resale shop, and half the time, I’m just hanging up clothes. So why am I freaking out?

That’s the thing about anxiety. It doesn’t always make sense. Maybe it was the comment my supervisor made the other day. He probably didn’t even mean for it to sound critical. Yet, I took it to heart, and now, I no longer feel comfortable at work.

There it is. The root of my anxiety. Logically, I know I need to go in and go to work, but mentally and physically I can’t. At least, not today.

I’ve pulled over into a parking lot. Trying to breathe. My face is wet with tears. My hands are shaking. I don’t have any tissues (I never seem to have tissues when I need them), but I’m beginning to calm down. I’m letting myself not be OK. I’m letting myself not have to pretend I’m OK and go into work with a smile on my face. I’m giving myself a break.

Now, how do I explain this to someone who doesn’t have severe anxiety? How do I explain to my boss that I need to take a sick day because I physically couldn’t come into work today?

I’ve tried. I’ve tried to tell the truth when this happens. Then, I get the “talk.” I need to be more reliable, consistent, dependable. They can’t depend on me because I can’t predict when my anxiety will show up.

So, I lie. I text that I woke up with a cold. A stomach virus. Something physical that they can understand. When I go into work tomorrow, I’ll explain it must have been a 24-hour bug.

In reality? This anxiety is something I’m going to have to continue fighting for the rest of my life.

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on Living With My Bipolar Life.

On the right: A woman crying during an anxiety attack. On the left: A woman making a kiss face

What My Anxiety Is and What It Isn't

Anxiety kills me slowly. I have good days and bad days. I feel alone even when I am surrounded by people. I am fighting an invisible battle that you will never see. I am my own worst friend.

Anxiety tells me I am worthless and I am hopeless. Anxiety tells me I am unloveable. Anxiety sometimes feels like my best friend because anxiety is evil and tricks me.

Anxiety tells me it’s OK to sleep all day because you’re tired and deserve rest. Anxiety tells me I don’t need to eat dinner because I am full with worry. Anxiety tells me to stay in on Saturday night so I can go to church Sunday morning. Yet, then, it tells me I am a loser for staying in, and there is no point in going to church.

Anxiety tells me to make a to do list so I feel better, and then, it tells me there is too much to do and I should give up. Anxiety tells me to use my time wisely and clean up before leaving the house. Yet, then it yells at me for being late to work. Anxiety tells me it’s too much work to go check the mail box. It’s probably bad news inside anyways.

Anxiety tells me I am a loser if I do not get my master’s degree, and then it tells me I am a loser for trying. Anxiety tells me I am blessed to have found a career I love, but I should feel ashamed because it is not a real job anyways. Anxiety tells me I need to take a bath so I can relax, and then it fills my head with what ifs. Anxiety tells me to use alcohol to relax and be social, and then it fills my head with regret the next morning because that was not the real me.

Anxiety is trying to pray to God, but not being able to drown out anxiety’s voice. Anxiety is not being able to choose what you want at the store, buying all of it and then feeling worse for spending money. Anxiety is waiting too long to make plans and to text back. Anxiety is watching the phone ring, letting it go to voicemail and then being too embarrassed to listen to the voicemail.

Anxiety is crying because you are crying, worrying because you are worrying and stressing because you are stressed. Anxiety is shaking uncontrollably because all of a sudden you do not recognize your own body. Anxiety is like watching yourself on the floor crying and not knowing how to help yourself. Anxiety is knowing what anxiety feels like but not understanding any of it.

Anxiety is feeling too overwhelmed to stop and get gas when the light comes on. Anxiety is wanting to do your hair pretty, getting books on hairstyles, pinning pins on Pinterest and building your own vanity just to sit there and not feel like trying. Anxiety is meal prepping and buying healthy food just to watch it rot in the fridge. Anxiety is making plans and then canceling. Anxiety is feeling motivated and inspired while stuck in quicksand.

Anxiety is a pounding heart, a sweating body and a fake smile. Anxiety is buying plants because they are suppose to relieve stress, potting them, placing them in the perfect spot and then over thinking something as simple as watering them so they die. Anxiety is forgetting to take anxiety medicine and then getting brain zaps. Anxiety is wishing for a quick fix.

Anxiety is tired of explaining what anxiety is like to love ones. Anxiety is wanting to run away and start fresh. Anxiety is stressing out after a dream that felt real. Anxiety is fearing the unknown and stressing about what’s planned. Anxiety is replaying conversations over and over in your head wondering if you said the right thing. Anxiety is being stuck in the future and the past and never living in the present. Anxiety is feeling overwhelmed by too many toothpaste options at the grocery store. Anxiety is not being able to choose what to wear and crying and sleeping instead of going out.

Anxiety is lonely. Anxiety is exhausting. Anxiety is hurtful. Anxiety is misunderstood. Anxiety is the shadow I am learning will never leave me.

However, I am also learning anxiety is not always right. Anxiety is not always in control. Anxiety is jealous and doesn’t want me to share. Yet, I am sharing because I know so many people are struggling like me. I always have been, and I always will, but having anxiety does not mean you have to do it alone. You are not alone. You are brave. You will be OK. This too shall pass.

Image via contributor.

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