I had an anxiety attack today.
Everyday anxiety may or may not look the way you think…or maybe it does
I took my dog on a pre-coffee hike this morning. It was a beautiful day — slightly muggy — following a couple days of rain, the rocky trail slick with a delicate layer of black mud. Just enough light broke through the leaves that sunglasses were while nice but not necessary. The only sounds were the bubbling of the replenished creek and the confident pronouncements of birds. Judging by the familiar but slightly off-putting brush of spider silk between the trees, I might have been the first person to pass through today. All in all, it was peaceful, benign, unprovocative. It was exactly how I wanted to start my day.
This particular trail starts outside my building and ends at a park that’s also the nexus for a handful of other trails. Today, the park was lousy with cyclists and runners, and the trails felt strangely uninviting. I was ready to go back the way I’d come. Then I looked at the little greyhound at my side, hoping he’d catch my signal to make the first move. He did, happily trotting off in the direction of one of the other trails before the end of his leash robbed him of his momentum. I followed; the next leg of our journey was decided. I found an episode of Office Ladies, plugged my earbuds in, readjusted my face mask, and headed off down the trail.
That’s when it went off the rails. This trail was much darker. The sunglasses went from nice but not necessary to an obstacle. So I reached in my bag to switch my aviators for my regular glasses. Except they weren’t there. I’d left them at home.
Not a problem.
As I slung my bag over my shoulder, I noticed a runner coming our way so I quickly searched for an exit from the trail to allow her socially distant passage. There was no clearing, only sharp ledges and an upward embankment covered in mud. I might have considered teetering on the ledge or scaling the embankment, relying on balance and my monkeylike climbing ability, but my glasses had started to fog. Breaths that escaped the top of the mask mingled with the humid air and rendered me completely unable to see. The runner wasn’t breaking her stride — which is normally fine because I subscribe to a strict philosophy of “the faster person has the right of way” — but I had hoped she might recognize my predicament and pull off the much clearer part of the path where she was.
Instead, she called, “heads up!” and continued her approach. I didn’t want to appear oblivious — I can be polite to a fault — so I was left with little choice but to scramble up the embankment and pull Dusty with me. He was having none of that, his long legs unyielding and his wide eyes trained on mine. His face said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Hello, anxiety attack, nice to see you out here in the woods where I’m alone with my dog. You have the best timing.
The runner stopped, huffed audibly, put her hands on her hips, and shook her head. We were all kinds of in her way.
“Sorry!” I called back as my shoes struggled to grasp the muddy leaves and my greyhound continued his standoff. “I’m trying to get him.” I tugged firmly at his leash. She was jogging in place now, and I suddenly found the whole thing overly dramatic. Choosing a muddy ass over prolonging this encounter, I reached out to pluck my stubborn animal from this hill he’d chosen to die on. Then I relinquished my grip on the ground and just fell into a seated position. The runner continued to glare and sigh so I scooted up the hill with my leggy best friend awkwardly in my arms, collecting a foul cake of black slime on my backside.
Whatever, I thought. Just go, lady.
I suppose she had finally measured the amount of clearance she felt was appropriate because she finally decided it was safe to pass. Of course, without a face mask, I also suppose she was just playing it safe — or overcompensating.
When she’d gone, I laughed at how much room lay on both sides of the trail where she’d been jogging in place and reminded myself people are largely trying to make sense in this world where nothing makes sense. It was fine. I flung clumps of mud from the ass of my pants and moved on.
It’s easy to focus on and thus understand the more terrifying, extreme experiences of people with anxiety — which are very real, let me tell you — but it’s just as easy to overlook the quotidian accounts.
Soon, I passed a tree with a small branch that hung ever-so-perfectly that it hooked the wire on my earbuds and pulled them, my sunglasses, and my face mask right off. What are the odds?! The glasses fell in front of me, the mask into some gross slop (because why not?), and the earbuds — well — right up into the tree. The way my head snapped back, I was reasonably sure it, too, had flown off somewhere.
In normal, everyday situations, I am the kind of person who prefers an audience when I fall or otherwise make a physical blunder. There’s safety in being laughed at and laughing at oneself with others.
This just felt lonely.
I clambered to retrieve the glasses first because I can’t see shit without them, dove for the mask lest anyone see me without it (even now that it was covered in mud), and then jumped up to snatch the earbuds swinging from the tree branch.
That’s when my old friend arrived.
My breathing increased. I was suddenly very aware of my heart. I was cold but sweaty. The world immediately felt tiny. Hello, anxiety attack, nice to see you out here in the woods where I’m alone with my dog. You have the best timing.
Years of dealing with this has helped me develop pretty successful tools for disarming the situation. I’m still drained mentally and physically when it’s over, but I’ve gotten pretty good at talking myself through the hard parts so I can get on with my day. I’m grateful I’m able to intervene on my own behalf; many people cannot. I sat at the base of the tree that had just pranked me for about 15 minutes trying to regroup and keep my dog still. He thinks licking my face is the magical cure for anything, and between you and me, it just might be.
Once I’d gotten myself back on track and rested a bit, I stood up and brushed off the new clumps of mud. Then I hooked my various apparatuses to my face and went on with the rest of the hike.
Just like so many other times, my old friend was gone as quickly as it had arrived. For now. And life would go on. The rest of my day would play out mostly as planned. The fresh air and solitude were even more welcome now, and I was again thankful I could carry on as normal — not everyone can.
I don’t have much in the way of new information to add to the increasingly robust conversation about anxiety. A quick search returns numerous results, including a recent episode of the Harvard Business Review podcast The Anxious Achiever, a study about anxiety and performance in social interactions, some interesting data in Forbes about anxiety and coronavirus lockdown, resources for free mental health assistance from CNBC and a chronicle of one therapist’s experiences with anxiety and chronic health issues. There are many, many more pieces if one has the time and inclination. I chose to provide this play-by-play for two reasons.
I’ve feared it being seen as a weakness, a liability, an excuse to “protect” me from difficult experiences. But as an adult — and especially in light of the heaviness we’re living in now — I’ve learned it’s the exact opposite of those things.
One, I want to illustrate just how ordinary some anxiety attacks can be. Not all are devastating. It’s easy to focus on and thus understand the more terrifying, extreme experiences of people with anxiety — which are very real, let me tell you — but it’s just as easy to overlook the quotidian accounts. I count myself fortunate to have only had a handful of earth-shattering anxiety attacks in my life, but I’ve recently started to focus more on the smaller-scale episodes alongside the large-scale ones that have utterly terrorized me. The realization that anxiety is not one-size nor is it always epic has been crucial to my own coping, and I want to believe it can do the same for some of you.
Two, I want to help normalize living with anxiety the only way I feel qualified, by adding my voice to the growing cache of stories from real people both in and out of the spotlight. I’ve found people without anxiety often have a difficult time envisioning what exactly happens to those of us who do, and my hope is that painting a picture might help in our efforts to shift the narrative around anxiety. I’ve spent much of my life worried that mentioning my anxiety aloud could hamper my efforts professionally and personally because that was the dominant narrative when I was growing up. I’ve feared it being seen as a weakness, a liability, an excuse to “protect” me from difficult experiences. But as an adult — and especially in light of the heaviness we’re living in now — I’ve learned it’s the exact opposite of those things. Now, I’m not saying an authentic, often burdensome medical condition is a blessing, but I am saying I’ve learned to live with it and accept it as a normal variant of the human condition. Much of that recognition comes courtesy of the societal shift toward a more open and honest commitment to mental health. Hearing stories from real people about real experiences over the last few years has reminded I’m not alone — and that means neither are you.
My hope is that someone will see themselves in today’s hike and feel just a little more empowered to say, “I had an anxiety attack today.”