This Is Anxiety

During a move in first grade, I had a paralyzing fear that one of the pine trees outside the classroom window was going to fall in on the school. I had visions of the tree breaking the glass and crushing my classmates and me. My fear was crippling. I was constantly distracted, always looking over my shoulder at the ominous pine and jumping whenever the tree creaked. I was completely obsessed. After a meeting with my parents, my teacher moved me close to the front of the classroom and my parents put me in therapy. The therapy didn't last long.

Years later, my mom was moving again. Around the same time, we took a vacation to Hawaii, funded by my grandfather. He took us out to Ruth's Chris steak house on the second night we were there. While sitting at the table, I felt the same inexplicable feeling that we were all going to be crushed, but this time I was convinced the ceiling was going to fall in. I ran outside crying, my mom and grampa embarrassed at my antics. Frustrated that they wouldn't heed my warnings of impending doom, I sat outside, sobbing uncontrollably and rocking on a retaining wall while they ate overpriced steak and baked potatoes. These are just a few examples of the anxiety attacks that I have experienced over the years. More moderate anxiety manifests itself into my life in a few other ways, like my debilitating fear of being late, or my perfectionist tendencies leading to procrastination. If I can't do it perfectly, then why do it at all? 

Kate Bishop
Eugene, Oregon

After graduating from college, I spent the summer looking for a real job, and landed myself two interviews. The first, a publishing company, asked me what I saw myself doing in the next few years. I naively told them I could see myself at their company for a year or so, and then likely move on to something new. I did not get that job.

During my second interview, a law firm, I tried the opposite attack and lied through my teeth about everything. Was I passionate about the World of Law? Of course. Would I be willing to work overtime and weekends for no additional pay? Sure. I got that second job, moved to Chicago, and promptly lost my mind.

I began suffering panic attacks every day, all day long… If you have never had a panic attack before, the best I can describe it is that crazy rush of adrenaline you get when you’re on a roller coaster, during those few seconds right before the ride transitions from the slow, creaky climb to sudden free fall. Your limbs tingle a little, and your stomach knots up in anticipation only to be released in a matter of seconds. That feeling is intense, and for most people, it’s exhilarating because the feeling is temporary. You’ve only tricked your body into reacting to fear.

With a panic attack, that primal, physical reaction to fear is constant. There is no relief, no sense of exhilaration. Your blood pressure rises, causing your heart to beat a mile-a-minute, your limbs go numb. Your stomach starts sinking, only there is no bottom floor for it to hit. So it keeps sinking, and sinking, and sinking. Every physiological alarm your body has for fear is firing at once, and your mind becomes consumed by a panic that defies all logic.

But worst of all, even though you know your body is playing a trick on your mind, your mind is trapped inside the fun house with no exit, and no idea when the ride will be over.

Cindy Au

How I make important phone calls:

1. Write down whatever I have to say.
2. Practice over and over.
3. Call the number.
4. Hang up as soon as someone answers. I wasn't ready or I jumble up my words.
5. Wait an hour or so and hope I don’t get the same person.
6. Wait some more because I was not ready an hour ago.
7. Call again (I may go though steps 3 though 6 again)

Sacramento, California

Until I read Scott's story, I had never considered my fear of vomiting as an actual disorder and its impact on my life. (I haven't vomited since third grade and sweat profusely at the hint of it.) After reading this story, however, I realized that fear was probably at the root of my inability to bear children.

I can still remember the panic I felt when I found out I was pregnant in 1996; I immediately knew mine wasn't a normal reaction. My friends were filled with joy at the news of their own pregnancies, but my own positive test result filled me with sheer dread and panic. I immediately became obsessed with the thought of morning sickness and a gripping fear that anxiety would kick-in in the middle of my pregnancy and cause me to harm myself or my baby. The thought of walking around in a panic attack for nine months was just too frightening. My head was spinning with dark thoughts, not onesies and strollers. So when I miscarried after 3 months, I felt overwhelming relief. And that made me feel even more ashamed and abnormal. I felt the same relief after my second miscarriage—and never tried again. …

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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