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About illness, Mental health

Panicking about panicking

I’ve wanted to write about anxiety for a long time, but it’s hard to find the words to describe what living with it is like.

Last night, I had a panic attack. I don’t really like this term, but it’s the one most commonly used to describe the moment when you stop being in control of your anxiety and it starts being in control of you. I had to call an ambulance because I couldn’t breathe.

I’ve often wondered what it must be like to live without anxiety. How freeing that would be. I can’t actually even imagine it.

Anxiety is so closely related to my daily experience that I just consider it ‘my personality.’ I honestly think I would be an entirely different person without it, because it restricts me so much. I constantly turn down invitations to things I would actually love to attend, like birthdays and shows and even just coffee. I can’t relax if there’s too many things on my to-do list. I obsess over routine. Every time I get up in the night (about 5 or 6 times), I check that the front door is locked. I’ve been known to get up and iron my sheets in the middle of the night because I couldn’t stand the wrinkles.

My anxiety is a constant presence. It’s there from the moment I wake up, a heavy blanket on my shoulders, a solid ache in my stomach.


Anxiety is physical. It’s caused psychologically but the experience of it is physical and I think this is maybe the hardest thing for anxiety-free people to understand.

It makes my muscles tight and I often feel nauseous. It’s difficult to eat. Even now, just sitting here typing, my stomach feels tight and my breathing is shallow.

My anxiety has gotten worse since I got ill. I worry about feeling well enough to do things. I don’t like committing to anything because I always end up canceling. I worry about when I’m going to be healthy again. I worry about how I’m going to support myself. I worry about my friends deciding that this has just all gone on too long and I’m terribly boring and they have better things to do than hang out with a chronically sick person.

There’s a scale to anxiety and it builds and falls in waves. When it builds too much, it often manifests in things like self-harm.

Last night, my anxiety got to the top end of the scale. I took half a quetiapine, a medication that is supposed to treat anxiety symptoms, and I had a relaxing chamomile and poppy mixture my friend made me. I laid down.Within minutes, I felt light-headed and dizzy. My throat started to feel very tight. My neck muscles ached. My legs started shaking uncontrollably. I was covered in sweat and I was having heart palpitations. There were spots in front of my eyes. In my panicked state, I convinced myself that the quetiapine and the herbal mixture were reacting with each other and I was going to die. I felt myself stop breathing. I was utterly terrified. So I rang 111.

The EMTs were amazing. They carried me into the ambulance and hooked me up to a heart rate and an oxygen monitor, to show me that I was definitely breathing and getting enough air. They talked me through a whole bunch of tests. They offered to take me to hospital but the thought of going there made me start convulsing again so they waited, talking to me calmly, until someone arrived to stay with me.

This is what anxiety is for me. This is what can happen at any time – my throat closes over, and I honestly believe I can’t breathe and I’m going to die.


I know that everyone is entitled to their own experience, but it does seem to me that there is a building internet culture around “social anxiety” as a “cool” thing. In the same manner as “awkward gamer girls” became an attractive thing to claim to be, people who might experience a bit of nervousness at normal things like meeting new people or public speaking, now identify as having anxiety disorders. That makes me feel really sad, and a bit invalidated, and a bit angry. Having an anxiety disorder is not an awkwardly cute phase where you drag your toes and blush while talking to people. It’s an ongoing, deeply painful experience that often results in not being able to talk to people at all.

I guess the good thing is, last night when I thought I was going to die… I didn’t want to. I wanted to fight. I think I could call that progress.

About writehandedgirl

Sarah is a writer who is passionate about social justice, feminism, politics, and cats. She is a columnist and poet and currently lives in Nelson. You can follow Sarah on Twitter (@_writehanded_) or read more of her writing at


4 thoughts on “Panicking about panicking

  1. I also used to get panic attacks. I don’t know why, but they mostly stopped. It’s probably the lower levels of stress I now have. I still have general anxiety disorder, just without many panic attacks, and my husband knows how to calm me down before they get very bad so I don’t go full blown anymore. 🙂

    From the research I’ve done, it seems that panic attacks aren’t psychological exactly, or at least, not all of them are. There seems to be a pretty high correlation between those who have anxiety and those who have gut disorders like IBS or other things that affect digestion. Which makes sense considering that 90% of serotonin receptors are in the gut. If you’re ill with something else, if that illness affects digestion, then it makes sense that your anxieties will be worse. And let’s face it, stress affects digestion, so it can be a downward spiral.

    I’ve found that methylated forms of B12 and B9 have helped me tremendously – my general anxiety has slowed to even more of a crawl and is now only there at very low levels. You might want to look up MTHFR pathway defects which may contribute to your body not being able to utilize other forms of B12 and B9 that you get in your diet.

    In any case, you’re not alone. You have my understanding and empathy.

    Posted by Laurie Ashton Farook | November 18, 2013, 3:20 am
  2. I know so well what you mean about being unable to imagine a world where you don’t have anxiety. I have bipolar disorder; before I took mood stabilisers, I had no idea what a world with stable mood was like. I truly could not have imagined it, any more than we can imagine something unreal to us – what it is like to be possessed by a ghost, say, or to travel through time. I couldn’t have imagined the weird feeling that the ground isn’t going to tip away tomorrow, or the day after that, and I couldn’t have imagined losing the hyperacuity of feeling that the mood stabilisers blunt away.

    And inversely, I guess, people who are well cannot really know what it is like to step through the mirror and be ill.

    Posted by Mireille | March 14, 2014, 7:04 am


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