“Don’t think about it” and “it’s not a big deal” are the two most common phrases spoken to someone with anxiety. They’re also the most annoying, that honestly kind of makes me want to punch you in the throat. They’re sayings that as soon as they’re out of your mouth, I know you don’t have a clue what it’s like to have anxiety, and more specifically, an anxiety attack.
Us anxiety people get it. You can’t just turn off your brain and not think about it. It can’t just not be a big deal because someone said so. It’s like telling an angry person to calm down; it has the opposite effect.
It can often feel hurtful and lonely when people don’t get anxiety or think it’s not a real thing. And it can feel shameful because you have no one to talk about it with, which is why I’m sharing the story of my worst anxiety attack, and worst nightmare: I had an anxiety attack on an airplane.
Yup, 33,000 feet in the air and squished up against a window seat, I had an anxiety attack.
I was sleeping, as I do for most plane rides to pass the time, when I awoke out of nowhere. Water sounded good, so I reached for a sip when the plane became unreasonably warm, after being cold the entire time. I pushed my coat down that I’d been using as a blanket, but it wasn’t enough. I turned on the air vent above me, but it still wasn’t enough. I pushed up my quarter-length sleeves, but it still wasn’t enough. I played with the air vent one more time, making sure it was as wide as it could go.
It dawned on me that my inability to cool down was no coincidence; heating up is always my first stage trigger warning.
My heart began to race like a horse at a racetrack, as all the other symptoms galloped right alongside.
My vision darkened.
My hearing buzzed.
My body pleaded to get out of my seat, to get to safety and comfort. My first thought was the bathroom. Privacy to have my attack in peace. But my body was frozen in fear that I wouldn’t make it in time. The aisle. Maybe I could lie down and stretch out. But I knew that’d draw attention, and potentially kicked off the plane.
I tried talking myself out of the anxiety, but once it gets rolling, it’s a ball down a mountain, and it ain’t stopping till it reaches the bottom.
There was only one option left. I sat back and said fuck it, bring it on anxiety attack, because the sooner you start full-on rolling, the quicker we could get to the end.
The heat cooled to clamminess. Sweat dripped down my nose, back, and legs. Everywhere. By the end, I felt like I’d dunked myself in a pool.
The darkened vision blended into blindness. If I opened my eyes, I saw black, which increased the panic of what I open my eyes and I never see again?
The buzzed hearing, a bit like static TV screen but in your ears, decrescendo-ed into silence. If I strained to hear, I heard nothing, which increased the panic of what if I can never hear again?
My frozen body stayed an iceberg because after that my mind shut off, as though tired of fighting the anxiety.
Anxiety won. A total knock out.
I was a shell of a person in a seat.
Looking at me, I may have been a person asleep. A sweaty person asleep, but asleep nonetheless.
When I came to, my vision and hearing restored, my temperature back to normal but still a bit clammy and my skin a paler version, and my body not so demanding about movement, I felt thankful. Thank it was over and I had survived.
But no one around me could tell the battle going on in my brain.
The anxiety, the panic, the fear that consumed me. That I couldn’t not think about. That was a big deal. That almost caused me not to get on my flight home five days later because I was terrified it would happen again.
When I told people what happened, they all asked why, what caused it. That’s the scary thing; not knowing why your anxiety decided to unleash itself for the first time in three years. What can stop another one from happening in a worse place, or ever again?
I may not know, but there are things to help ease anxiety:
- Talk to your doctor! Whether it’s simply sharing what’s on your mind or seeking medication, talking to your doctor will help find solutions right for you.
- Talk about it in general! Anxiety, or any mental illness, is nothing to be ashamed of. The more we all talk and share, the better we can help each other.
- Find your anxiety relievers. Mine are going to the gym and puzzles.
- Take a walk. Sometimes getting away from the situation can help calm you and reduce anxiety symptoms before they have a chance to go buck wild on you.
- Text an anxiety crisis center.
- Remember, “this too shall pass.” Anxiety comes in bouts; it won’t last forever and you can make it through, no matter how much your body and mind are telling you otherwise. You will be okay.