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When I Watched Someone Else Have a Panic Attack

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As a woman who copes with anxiety and depression, sometimes the world can seem a bit closed off from me. I find myself stewing in my own thoughts more often than not, and it quickly becomes easy to forget the world and its problems. Something happened to me last weekend, though, that made me remember I don’t exist in a bubble alone, but rather I am surrounded by real people — who have their own very real problems.

I watched someone else have an extremely difficult panic attack.

It was quite eerie actually. It felt like I was looking into a mirror, and I could actually feel the anguish and fear. But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my panic attack. I’m not sure I ever really grasped the idea that other people felt the exact way that I feel until I saw this with my own eyes. Depression and self-preservation can distance you from others in that way, but I think there’s also something within all of us that can be distrusting of other people’s experiences. I often find myself questioning whether people who claim to understand actually understand. How could they? My anxiety is so personal, and words can almost never do it justice. But then I saw someone else have a panic attack. I saw this person clawing at their chest the way I do when I feel like I can’t breathe.

I saw them clenching their teeth tightly, exhaling a guttural groan, trying with all their might to will the air into their lungs, vaguely reminiscent of a woman in labor. I saw the rocking back and forth and the utter discomfort within their own skin. The many tears that fell from this person’s eyes were so familiar to me, and the panic behind those tears looked identical to the panic I’ve seen in my own eyes.

It was an intense moment. I felt a deep ability to help this person get through the worst of it, while at the exact same time I was barely clinging to calm, as panicked oblivion stewed within my own chest. I could feel the grips of my own panic attack taking over. My thoughts raced and began clamoring in my mind that we might need to take this person to a hospital. At what point during a panic attack do you go? How can I take her to the hospital while I’m mid-panic attack myself? Are there degrees of panic attacks?

Somewhere in those moments, I heard myself repeating my favorite breathing mantra: “In through your nose, out through your mouth. In through your nose, out through your mouth.” Eventually, both of us calmed down. Eventually, the tears stopped rolling down cheeks. Eventually, normal breathing was restored. Eventually, our eyes showed no signs of panic. It was a telling moment for me. To see someone experience exactly what I experience so often was humbling.

After I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I had to learn the art of being “selfish.” This selfishness is different than being cruel to others, or careless with others’ feelings. It’s self-preservation. And it is hard for me to think this way. I have to stop myself from overextending to others, especially when helping others is to my own detriment. It was difficult to learn this when my coping mechanism throughout my life was to focus on other people’s lives as a means to avoid focusing on my own. What I realized this weekend, though, is that even though selfishness may sometimes be a necessity for my own survival, it can be unnecessarily isolating. The idea of “being selfish” can cause an echo chamber of panic in me in that I now constantly wonder if I should help others. It’s hard for me to differentiate between what is reaching too far and what isn’t. What will overwhelm me later isn’t always so obvious initially, so I have to be very careful.

That moment of mutual panic gave me clarity that I was not truly understanding something up to this point. Seeing anxiety through the eyes of another reminded me that I’m not alone. I’m. Not. Alone. And helping them helped me, too. I could have walked away and not shared their panic. I could have walled myself off to prevent my own fears. I chose not to, and now I feel I truly understand what it means to not be alone. We are all just people. Everyone’s worst problem is their worst problem. So I believe we should all take a little time to notice other people and extend ourselves as much as we possibly can, because anxiety and depression do not discriminate.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Originally published: December 1, 2016
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