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The Disquiet Disguises I Wear During an Anxiety Attack

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Having anxiety isn’t something to be ashamed of, but one doesn’t necessarily want people to witness an attack first hand. Sure, it’s important to talk about and inform people regarding the challenges, frustrations and solutions associated with it, but that is far different than having a panic attack in front of a group of strangers or even friends who may not know how to act or help with the situation other than to stare, thus, making things worse. 

Personally, I think letting people see my anxiety only makes me focus on the panic more while I’m trying to work away from it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who puts on a face to negate the attention of those surrounding when anxiety decides to suddenly place a firm grip on the mind. These disquiet disguises or masks for my anxiety are something I use to work through a situation as gracefully as possible without anyone noticing that behind my eyes, some serious stuff is going on. While I’m sure there are better answers for how to deal with anxiety attacks in public this is just one of the ways I found helpful in dealing with mine.

The Cool Disguise

This is probably my most used disguise because I found if I appear calm and collected my brain sometimes eventually follows suit. It’s a face of casual disinterest. I nod and smile and appear to be listening to the person speaking to me while inside my head I’m saying, “OK. Calm down and breathe. Perhaps we can order a glass of water. Everything is cool.” Sometimes everything is cool, and sometimes it isn’t, but the people around me won’t know the difference.

There is only one time this didn’t work for me, and it was when I was on a date with the man who later became my husband. I’ll never forget him sitting next to me and suddenly asking out of the blue if I was all right. I gave him a small smile and insisted everything was fine. Something in my eyes told him all was not well, and he called me out saying, “You’re having a panic attack aren’t you?” I don’t know how he cracked the code, but I guess this has something to do with why he’s the guy I’m married to.

The “I’m having a fantastic time” Disguise

To everyone around me, I’m just another girl having an amazing time. Big smiles, laughing and shaking my head while inside I’m thinking “get me off this ride.” I liken it to getting a tattoo done. You’re smiling because “you’re really doing it!” but it doesn’t feel good, at all. The energy behind this face definitely assists in my focusing on what’s in front of me and less on what is going on inside, but really it’s just a disguise in hopes the feelings of panic pass without anyone ever knowing they were there. No one is really paying attention to me enough to know anything is wrong. I’m just another smiling face, and I feel safer knowing that.

The Phone(y) Disguise

When there isn’t a heck of a lot of energy on hand the old standby of seeming engrossed in the phone is another mask helpful in hiding episodes. This is when the anxiety has gotten to a point where I really don’t want to talk to anyone around me, yet I don’t really have the ability to up and leave. Perhaps there are too many people to say goodbye to or perhaps I know there is going to be that one person who gives the third degree about the early exit, but whatever the case, there is something important going on via text or email so please don’t bother me until I’m done addressing it. Sure, it seems rude, but I find people are reluctant to snoop and interrupt this phone play by asking who I’m conversing with or what I’m reading. In reality, I’m probably not reading. I’m probably scrolling through old photos or writing a grocery list in an effort to divert my anxious attention elsewhere.

The Exit Strategy Disguise

When all other disguises fail, I am just not feeling the surroundings and the room is starting to close in, it is sometimes necessary to remove myself from the situation.  I’m either tired with a busy day in the morning or I have a zillion things I need to do that I’ve ignored all day long and can’t possibly wait another minute. I need to grocery shop, vacuum my house, feed the cats, finish drying my laundry, etc. If I know I can get in my car and get home fast, this is the best way of doing it. Thankfully this only happened to me a handful
of times, and I’ve otherwise been able to wait things out until the feelings

I’m sure there are many others out there who use similar systems to help break through public situations. There are probably a whole slew of disguises I’ve seen but never recognized before. Having anxiety is tough, and for me, having someone in my face asking if I’m OK and staring with that look of “I have no idea what to do right now” has not proved helpful. Perhaps for others it’s different and the support of another person, even one unsure of how to help, is comforting. People mean well. I’ll admit dealing with a friend having a panic attack isn’t a simple thing to witness or to help with. I’ve been on both sides of the field, and there is no definitive easy way of working through it.

We can only do our best, and if that means hiding for a little bit behind a façade then so be it. This doesn’t mean I don’t share the experience with my friends after the moment has passed; it only means I needed a brief period to collect myself. The best thing to focus on is the episode will most certainly pass, taking the disguise along with it.

 The Mighty is asking the following: Coin a term to describe a symptom, characteristic, aspect, etc., of your diagnosis. Then, explain what that experience feels like for you. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 11, 2016
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