Posts Tagged ‘anxiety’

That Time I had a Wild Panic Attack in a BART Station

Six years ago I walked onto an outbound BART train at Montgomery Station after work. It was like any ordinary day taking the train home except for the fact that I was particularly incensed by work issues as a then land use planner. Clients were being difficult and I felt trapped. As the doors closed, I stood by the doorway, fired up and ready to go… home, I guess.

The train sped along the various stops, and slowly I started breathing deeply and harshly. My mind was running in circles and trying to tell my body to do something. Once my home stop was announced, I was already hyperventilating. Soon, the body sensations of the bends kicked in and my disassociated mind came back to reality.

I confusingly held onto the bar handle until the train stopped at my station. Something was wrong, my body shouldn’t be feeling this way. Is this a heart attack? The doors opened and I sheepishly walked onto the platform, trying to make it look like all was normal and fine. By the exterior I probably was totally fine but my mind was creating a new narrative.

Instead of powering through and dismissing the obvious work-related feelings, I sat down on the cold concrete bench at Glen Park Station. Something was wrong! My hands tingled, my chest felt heavy or stuffy. I was doing deep breathing, it’s a panic attack, nothing to worry about… or was it?

I regained my senses and walked toward the escalators, pretending very hard that I was a perfectly normal person doing perfectly normal things. The slow escalator ride wasn’t helping. Instead of exiting the station into the light, I decided to sit down on a bench and breathe it out. Maybe this could be something. My mind ran through loops trying to decide if what I was feeling was true or not. I wasn’t in pain, I just felt a little off, a little breathless. Or was I actually just fine and a little scared.

I don’t recall what but some feeling in my body pushed me over the edge into disbelief. I asked a lady sitting nearby if I looked pale and she said maybe. I bought it hook line and sinker, I was having a heart attack, or dying… of something. Anything. This was it. She told the gate agent to call 911. I asked her to hold my hand.

The minutes were agony as I lay on the cold platform. I looked up at the brutalist concrete skylights as if through a looking glass of my mind. I was there but wasn’t. Suddenly the EMTs came rushing in. It was like I wasn’t in my body. They ripped my shirt apart to check for signs and kept asking if I had taken any drugs.

When I got into the ambulance they ran the usual checks, I was completely dazed at this point, expecting the worst. Then in a few minutes they said it looked like I was fine. I was stunned. I didn’t believe them, I wanted verification. Ironically I can remember everything up until about now, I can’t really remember what they did to pull me out of my psychosis. They probably showed me that my heart rate and EKG were fine.

I walked out of the ambulance sheepishly, after declining to not go. My aunt and uncle were standing there on the sidewalk. I cried. We went home.

The entire incident was traumatic and shameful. I locked it out of my mind for a long time, thinking it was a one off. But it clearly pointed to the mental scars of my surgery just a year earlier. I thought I was a ticking time bomb and for long after I poorly managed reoccurring health anxiety. It was my very first public panic attack where I went into the deep end, so to speak. For anyone recovering from surgery, I would highly recommend follow-up with a therapist if any doubts linger in your mind even after doctors have cleared you.

A Compassionate Letter to Yourself

The group session prompted us to write a compassionate letter to ourselves. Now after a few weeks I’m looking back and thinking how short and simple it was. Typically when I write notes to my therapist, it’s a barrage of meaningful meaninglessness. Why was I treating myself so succinctly.

Seems like I’m acknowledging my terrible problem with second guessing myself in every decision. I have a “shoulda” “coulda” solution for every problem. Telling myself to be grateful for where I am still feels hollow. Maybe one day I will truly receive this.

The letter feels hopeful but I can tell I feel like I’m in trudge. Sludging through mud or thick snow. Anxiety is a path to nowhere, and the out is often annihilation. No one is going to come save me because there is no saving. I’m just watching across the field, for something or nothing, while being eaten alive.

When there isn’t a lot of hope, then compassionate is just a gesture to show you’re still living.

I’m tired of having been through 2 or 10 years of ups and downs between doing the work of healing versus trying to “get past” traumatic events. In some ways it’s 30 years when I think about my childhood and teenage years. I’m tired of finding some discovery about how my brain works, applying it, then falling into another trap months later for something else.

I want catharsis even after having had so many cathartic moments. Expecting a catharsis is probably the problem.

Dear Eric,

I have compassion for all you have experienced and continue to endure as a result. You are an amazing person who has so many facets to you that are beautiful.  Life has been difficult at times and it is wonderful that you signed up for this workshop – it shows you know you are worthy of the love and support from this community.  (take it from here) 

Be grateful for all you’ve overcome.  Never second guess where you are in life or what you’ve done.  So many things have happened good and bad.  You are living the human experience and that is okay.

You’re tired and groggy from having to manage this chaos.  You may even believe you are a chaotic person or that you deserve some atonement.  These are stories and they help you bring meaning.

Remember you have done so much to bring light to the darkness and working on fixing yourself.

You believe there is a place that is better than now, or a person that is better than now, or you will arrive in the future.   You can arrive now and know each day will be even better.

Dealing with Uncertainty, Higher Power, and FOMO

I learn so much about what’s happening to me by hearing others convey the same experience. This week’s group therapy dealt with uncertainty. It was so incredible to hear others share their health anxiety thoughts and immediately I felt relieved to know I wasn’t the only one dealing with them. Of course I’ve prowled the internet long enough to watch every YouTube video on this kind of anxiety to hear every story imagined but something about hearing it in real time was freeing and I felt seen.

Obsessive thinking simply latches onto uncertainty with a vengeance. For me, nothing can ever exist in a range, in ambiguity, even when medical science says it’s ok. I don’t like it, I hate it. I had a very difficult session with my therapist on this, as it is currently really underlying things. I’ve been so good all my life at being specific and detailed in creative and professional pursuits, that I never thought I’d be turning it against me.

I know very well I’m not a logical person. As an ENFP, I think in feeling and externalities. And yet I am so confident about diagnosing myself through Google or applying second guessing to doctor’s advice. Their answers are never good enough for me, even when the answer is “you’re fine.” Self-imposed uncertainty is brutal.

Something telling for me in the group were the usually vocal people who were not as chatty. I thought about the things they were dealing with, death, great loss, betrayal, very deeply impacting but yet external events. They noted they had to accept the world wasn’t fair and that they couldn’t change what had happened. Obsessing over oneself would seem a far cry from losing a loved one who defined their future. In a way they gave into a higher power.

Certainly age had a role in this topic, as older members had settled into a life, a home, and accepted its conditions. Younger folk, or rather, the new adults, are confronted with too many choices amidst an atmosphere of uncertainty. I haven’t formed a sense of permanence anywhere on this planet and social media constantly shows I can just jet off to Bangkok where an AirBnb is waiting for me.

I’m missing out on something, or am I? What is this millennial grasping that pervades so many of our decisions. Why isn’t just going on vacation good enough? Again, it points to something about precisely what I want from myself. As yet I don’t have great insight.

Pandemic Misery and The Power of Now

I can’t believe I am only now reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I probably heard Oprah championing it growing up but I never paid attention to any spirituality teaching. This book would have been way more helpful had I read it at the start of my 20s. Like many things in life I chose to learn things the hard way. If you haven’t read it, do so because it is sort of an underpinning of all “new agey” wisdom that we see today. There is nothing revolutionary about the book, it’s literally just a reframing of concepts like wisdom, enlightenment, and spiritual being, wrapped up in a Westernized viewpoint. But the book moves beyond individual self-improvement toward how we apply our suffering to the world.

The biggest wow for me was reframing past, present, and future into simply Time. Time is our enemy so to speak, we try so desperately to escape it when we’re young and then when we’re older, we race again to do things before it’s “too late.” The problem is that we continually relate ourselves to people, places, and events which do not exist or have already happened. Meaning we don’t live in the Now, in the moment, ever. If only we’d always center in the present, we wouldn’t be flying off the handle every time we opened the news feed.

“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

The pandemic is a great example of testing the limits for me. The fear of catching COVID was definitely real and we didn’t have certainty over it. That’s fine, each moment I was just worried about what to do to keep myself and others safe. The moment lockdowns lifted and we knew enough about COVID to just be careful, that gave plenty of time to think about way more things than just washing your hands. I realized I hadn’t built much of a community in DC and revisited all the failed relationships in the past six years. It made me feel demoralized and bereft. I was alone by my own doing, so I thought. Then my mind wandered to the future and just played through the misery of waiting another year before life could return.

It was a bleak picture, and yet all I was doing was hanging out in my apartment, having nice home-cooked meals, and watching endless amounts of Netflix and YouTube.

While it’s not fair to judge oneself for feeling sad given that this is literally a threat to all of humanity on our doorsteps, deliberating on your life while you can’t do anything about it, can be harmful.

Tolle also points out the things we do where loss of Now manifests, and this was very helpful to see where I could improve in my life. Complaining is a reflection of victimhood and resentment for me, it really is a backhand way to ask for help. Instead he suggests to speak out and take action. I engaged in covid information sharing early on and it felt purposeful and contributing to others.

Another aspect was accepting where you physically are. I have for years now been saying I wanted to move to San Diego and have been living with one foot out the door. I still don’t have clarity over this (which will be a future blog post) but it shows that I’ve avoided or neglected things about my actual home for some time. A friend said you can have it both ways, even as they were preparing to leave DC, they were still doing home improvements and planning local trips. Enjoy your present place, make it a home, even if you know you will not be there for long.

Where I think I would have at least made the grade with Tolle is enjoying a nice croissant with coffee or tea in an outdoor cafe. I was doing this years before visiting Paris and seeing how ubiquitous outdoor sitting and watching was. Thankfully DC’s mild weather made for a lot of this, and it was a luxurious treat in a tumultuous year.

Stay tuned for more posts on The Power of Now.

Drawing Grief and Loss

Every week I join this lovely therapy group over Zoom and each week is a thematic exercise. This week we were asked to draw what our grief looked like when the loss happened and what it looks like now. I also learned that grief means the internal reactions we do to process loss. Mourning is the term for how we show it in the real world. I often get these words mixed up.

Grief presented when it happened before and how it manifests now in the present

It was weird using my drawing and coloring pencils because they’re tools I would normally use for fun. Applying them to something traumatic was like soiling their purity. Maybe the good thing about it was they were symbolic of reconciling with the past because some of my pencils were literally purchased during my urban design architect days.

I thought my drawings were pretty simplistic and rudimentary but after I started coloring things in, they really spoke to me. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with a wave of sadness for both the past and present.

My grief before picture represents me driving away from the hospital. In a way I’m racing away as fast as I can, eyes wide open, gripping the steering wheel. But to where? The colored objects are books and resources and even new cities I tried to escape to find solace in. I was racing to find information to cure the thing that caused it. The thing is, I’m still stuck in the hospital, like I never left, the wavy lines left and right of my eyes represent the hospital bed. The energy around me like a barrier keeping me stuck in bed.

The “bed” is reapplied to the present moment. My grief now is me, whole, but black and white, lifeless and still. I’m in purgatory, barely alive floating in a lovely river. In my meditations these past two years, I often envision a deep stream moving rapidly with lush foliage all around. I’m just floating on top, peaceful yet frozen.

I was a little embarrassed to show this, only because I don’t feel genuinely in a better place right now (in regards to this specific grief). However in many ways this is an improvement because it means I acknowledge that the past was full of frenetic undirected energy. It was a coping mechanism, a way to process grief by being busy. Letting go, becoming adrift, was the right to do. I just hope in the future I will end up upon a beach.

The wonderful part of sharing in a group was seeing the recurring themes and connections between us even though our traumas are so different. The themes of nature, paths, an environment, a space, all resonated. I saw a lot of transition between one difficult space to another. I didn’t feel so alone in the human experience.

Secretly Living Trauma, Dealing with Covert Avoidance

In looking into the anxious side of ambivalent attachment, I was really struck by the idea of covert avoidance strategies. Right now with my therapist I’m working through what strategies I use to deal with the world in a way that is so automatic, I don’t even know I’m doing it. The show WandaVision is literally an entire plot based on semi-conscious trauma manifesting in the world. We let false narratives take over to the point where our actions seem like really good ideas.

The obvious example is you’re at a party and it’s awkward and you do little things to make it look like you’re not worried. Look at your phone, constantly change conversations, move to different people. But that example is socially acceptable, in the effect that we’re all in it together. We’ve even developed strategies around it, for example drinking games and ice breaker activities.

What shakes me are the covert avoidance strategies that happen when you’re all by yourself. Being chronically late, not taking care of yourself or your space, not scheduling time in for care, all these things are normal manifestations of laziness. However if we’re doing them without any immediate stressor, for example a global pandemic, then it signals something unconscious, something we’ve hidden from ourselves.

Even before COVID, being around crowds was extremely stressful for me. Even the thought of going to a place with them was scary. Yet, there is objectively nothing immediately threatening about a crowd (at least one that is randomly organized). It’s just humans close to each other in a space.

The irony was I really did desire connection and bonding in groups but only on my terms! Sounds like Westview under Wanda’s spell. I can easily enjoy places like church, band, school functions, and being on a busy college campus. But in unknown territory, things get tricky.

I’ve gotten good at getting in the door but I realize the way I assess the safety of a group was out of whack. I essentially zero in on facial expressions and immediately form conclusions about the entire group even before I have talked to anyone. And it doesn’t take too many people to apply that assumption to the entire event.

Another aspect to the problem was that I would hold onto that assumption or story for the entire time. And then all my interactions would play off that initial foundation. Going to clubs is always a tumultuous situation for me because my story is often that I’m being judged for my body or looks. That is true of course, but also, why is that a problem, that is actually the purpose of being there. It’s because I color it all as being negatively judged, and therefore needing to prove myself. So then let’s say my friends come, and the rest of the night I’m pouting and moping about how I need to get into the gym more.

Where did proving myself come from? Far as I can tell, needing to prove myself as an American growing up in a predominantly white suburb, and segueing a lot of that trauma into theatre. I have a distinct memory of being attacked at the childhood playground for being Chinese but that’s another story.

So then where to go with this information. The funny part is knowing this is here but realizing it slowly crept up to become reality. Wanda only breaks because she’s hurting people in the process and then finally recognizes who she is and the lies she can’t keep up. At the end of the day we’re social creatures, so start with looking at whether our software is rejecting or embracing people and why that helps us feel better.

How I Do Panic Attacks

What happens during a panic attack? I always find it refreshing to read new posts on Reddit from people experiencing their first panic attack. So many body systems engage that it’s hard to know what causes what. I just had one the other day and would like to share my symptoms which I hope will help others feel assured that they’re not alone.

What tipped me off was bubbling in my stomach, which was my digestive system doing its thing since I had just picked up some food and was walking home. This didn’t feel right for various reasons but I’ll focus just on symptoms for this post. Upon encountering people on the sidewalk my heart palpitations started going. I can hear them in my head and feel them in my chest. Placing my hand over my chest, I could feel the bumping.

Then I tend to have nervous twitches or tingling that I sometimes feel in the chest and sides especially. Really this is just increased blood flow, but because you are going from zero to running, you notice it a lot more versus if you were to actually build up to it while doing cardio.

My hands get cold and slightly clammy. This is where I often my mind escalates the situation because it aligns with Dr. Google’s diagnosis. I’ll often squeeze my hands as if to pump blood back into them, but the body has already diverted blood to the core.

By now I’m walking pretty darn fast and trying to find a safe haven, which for me is usually getting home. Ironic, since if this were a big problem, going home wouldn’t do much.

Sometimes our own behaviors during panic attacks cause symptoms. For me I tend to hyperventilate by overbreathing and not exhaling enough. The symptoms I get from this are tingling at the edge of my hands below the pinky. If its severe, the hands will curl like lobster claws.

The feeling of shortness of breath tends to wax and wane, and in many ways is mostly in my head since I can honestly take a full breath. More so the muscles are so tense and engaged that I get the sense I can’t breathe. Ironically after my surgery I was legitimately unable to take full breaths for an entire month and truly understood what being winded was.

That’s about it for me. The funny thing is always the symptoms I don’t have. Dizziness and lightheadedness always pop at the top of symptom lists but I have never felt dizzy while standing or sitting, unless I was on an airplane or a car going down a winding hill. Chills and trembling can happen only afterwards while I’m generally calm and coming down. Sense of terror is also an interesting one, I think I do have this but it is very well defined as “something could happen to me, very unlikely, so let’s just make sure we’re in a safe place.”

Obviously if panic attacks happen in inconvenient places like a work meeting (which it has), I have to suck it up and let it roll. At it’s worst during 2020 I was having panic attacks every two weeks but typically it was anywhere from 2-3 months at a time. It’s even happened on a beautiful vacation which is a story for another time.