The first time it happened I was in Vegas of all places. My husband had a work trip in sin city and I tagged along to enjoy a little getaway from the usual chaos of life with small children. My girlfriend and her husband were there too and we were schmoozing and dining out and partying like a bunch of footloose and fancy free twenty-year-olds. I seriously hadn’t had so much fun in years!
After one particularly late night, my husband and I crashed in our hotel room long after midnight and fell into a deep sleep. Around 3 in the morning I shot up in bed. There was a weird pressure on my chest and I was having a hard time catching my breath. I immediately shook my husband awake and leapt up like a crazy person. “I can’t breathe!” I screamed.
He rolled over and looked at me. Perhaps I have just the teeny tiniest history of freaking out for no good reason – so he took a moment before he jumped to any conclusions. “You seem to be breathing just fine” he said sleepily. But I knew better. I was clammy and shaky and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. “I need to go outside” I announced, and I threw on my clothes and made him accompany me to the back of the hotel.
I felt a little better once I had some air, but it took a while for my heart rate and breathing to return to normal. My husband slumped on the sidewalk with his head in his hands and watched me pace back and forth on the pavement, as drunken revellers stumbled past us on their way home from the casino.
The next day, I felt better but I was totally freaked out. What if I’d had a heart attack? Or an asthma attack? Or a stroke? Should I call the hotel doctor? My husband checked the price of sending a medical staffer to our room ($500 US!) and decided that I was probably fine. He seemed completely unfazed by the entire situation, but I was really worried.
As soon as we returned home, I made an appointment with my doctor to check things out. He was stymied. My vitals were fine, my lungs looked good and I appeared to be perfectly healthy. “The only thing I can think of is perhaps it was an anxiety attack?” he suggested. I was taken aback. Anxiety!? But I was happy and relaxed. I’d danced and sipped wine and pulled slot machines until the wee hours of the morning. What the heck did I have to be anxious about?
I chalked it up to a freaky random incident (perhaps one too many glasses of wine?) and I put the whole thing out of my mind. Then it happened again.
Months later, I was in the middle of a wonderful 2-day workshop in Toronto. I’d been fortunate enough to be included in a session led by a well-respected expert from the States and I was happily scribbling notes and basking in the experience of being surrounded by friends and mentors. And suddenly, out of nowhere, my heart started beating quickly and my breath caught in my chest. The same damn feeling from Vegas! I didn’t want to make a scene so I beat a path to the bathroom and sat on the floor until I’d composed myself enough to re-enter the class. It was only ten minutes or so but it seemed like forever. I’d actually felt a bit faint this time and that was extra scary.
So back to the doctor I went. He read my chart and listened patiently to my symptoms and then turned to me with kind eyes. “Lori,” he said “I think this is classic anxiety.” Despite an immediate urge to launch an objection, I let his words sink in. And I knew he was right. I felt terribly ashamed of myself.
We chatted for a bit and he tried to comfort me by sharing how common anxiety is and how many things can be done to alleviate the triggers and symptoms. He offered me some literature and suggested I may want to consider possible medical treatments if the frequency of the attacks increased or became more intense. I left his office feeling like a complete failure.
Listen – to be honest, this diagnosis did not come as a complete shock. Anyone who knows me even casually knows that I’m a worrier. My resting face is basically a furrowed brow, and complete strangers have been known to ask me if I’m ok. But “worrier” sounded so much less dramatic than “anxious”. I’d taken things to the next level.
I knew I wanted to get better not only for myself but also for my children. My anxiety was affecting the whole family and I didn’t want it to completely consume my life. So I went to talk to someone. I read as much as I could on worry and anxiety. I began meditating regularly and working out. I practiced paying attention to my thoughts and labelling them without judgement – “Oh that’s a worried thought” “Hey that’s fear.” “Oh hello anger.” Somehow just noting them seemed to alleviate their grip over my mind.
When I opened up to friends, I was amazed by how many people shared similar experiences. It was comforting to trade horror stories of being in the throes of an attack (one friend passed out on the bus!) and to uncover what was working for other people. One girlfriend was trying medicine and seemed to be feeling better. Another was going for hypnosis, and another was working through her issues with a psychologist. Even just saying it out loud seemed to make us all feel better. We cried and laughed and learned from each other. It helped.
It’s been over ten years since the incident in Vegas. Am I cured? Heck no! In fact, just a few weeks ago I was in a movie theater when my heart began to pound and I felt a familiar tightness creeping across my chest.
But instead of leaping out of my seat and immediately freaking out like I would have done in the past- I try to handle things differently now. “Oh hey anxiety” I said in my head. “Are you trying to tell me something?” Boom, boom, boom – goes my heart. I fight the urge to panic. Breathe in and out Lori. In and out.
My rationale brain starts a familiar back and forth with my reptilian brain – “You are fine” versus “Holy shit – you can’t breathe!”. My meditation teacher suggested that our emotions are like beach balls on the surface of the water. The more we try to shove them down, the harder they’ll spring up in our faces. So I focus on relaxing, breathing and letting the feelings wash over me. It’s a struggle but slowly, I start to relax and the panic passes.
“Geez mom.” my little guy leans over in his seat and snatches a bag of popcorn from my hands. “Why are you making your worried face? This is the part in the movie when the water buffalo has a farting attack. It’s supposed to be funny!” Leave it to a kid to put life in perspective. It also helps to have a sense of humour about yourself, I’ve learned : )