Why I'm Tired Of People Joking About Anxiety Attacks

Photo: Tero Vesalainen / shutterstock
woman experiencing a panic attack

By Emily Bernstein

Like most college students, I made my way home for the summer. I got a summer job, and have worked full-time before I head back to school this fall.

Most nights, I come home to my parents with dinner cooking, or ingredients for me to make delicious chicken enchiladas, and then we eat together. It’s a wonderful arrangement, and I’m so grateful to have a family like mine.

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I’ve written about my mental health before. I’m trying to be more open about it because I really want to remove that terrible stigma that surrounds mental health.

I’ve written about my depression and anxiety and how I treat my depression as well as possible. This summer, though, I ran into complications with my anxiety.

About four weeks ago, I woke up and could feel my heart beating. My hands were shaking, I was breathing quickly, and I felt like I was about to burst at any moment. My anxiety had never been this terrible before.

I tried to get on top of it — by talking to my doctor(s), and both my aunts who have degrees in psychology. Everyone helped me, but resetting your brain chemistry takes time!

I thought I was getting better.

I knew I had my family by my side, cheering me on, and I was getting the help I needed. But something — and I’m honestly not sure what — set me off.

Before I knew it, my parents and I were enjoying dinner outside, talking about the upcoming school year, and then, just like that, I couldn’t breathe. I was embarrassed to be outside while I was huffing and puffing and sobbing so I ran upstairs to my bedroom.

Everyone tells you it’s easier to breathe when your lungs are fully expanded, so I tried lying on my back. But most anxiety attacks will force you to curl up in a little ball.

There I was, curled up in a corner in my bedroom, with thoughts like, “I’m never going to catch my breath again,” “Everyone is going to think I’m crazy,” and, “This is never going to end” running through my brain. I could hear my parents trying to act normal in the kitchen; they were doing the dishes, talking quietly, petting my dogs.

But I knew, I just knew, they were worried about me. And somehow, that made it worse. I don’t know why. And I’m certainly not blaming them for my attack.

But as I sat there, heaving and sobbing and moaning, I was embarrassed, and apologetic that my attack had ruined everyone’s night.

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They didn’t feel that way. They didn’t think I had ruined anything. But I did.

And that’s what anxiety is. It’s thinking that everyone around you needs an apology, or is blaming you for something. It’s thinking that your family won’t love you because you have this weakness. It’s about hiding your symptoms even though you secretly know everyone knows what you’re doing.

It’s thinking that your attack is never going to end, and you’re going to be stuck in that terrible state of not being able to breathe forever. It’s uncomfortable and horrible and scary.

But most people don’t need an apology. And when you catch your breath, you realize your family just wants to be there for you. Taking that first deep breath after an attack ends is one of the most relieving and cleansing things I’ve ever experienced.

Knowing an attack is going to end won’t change the experience during it. But that’s what I try to think about when I am curled up, helpless, and hopeless. I try to think about how great it’s going to feel to take that first sip of cold water. I think about taking a deep, lungful of air.

I try to think about how amazing it will feel to breathe again and wash my face. I think about getting that hug from my mom and dad and hearing them tell me that I’m going to be okay. It’s the little things, and they don’t always help, but they’re always in the back of my mind.

Knowing my family is there for me always may hurt when I’m in the middle of an attack, but it feels pretty damn good when my tears are dry, and they’re right there with me, telling me that it won’t always be like this, and that I really will be okay one day.

People who survive anxiety and panic attacks are strong as hell.

They’ve learned how to breathe when their brain is telling them they can’t. They’ve learned to rationalize all the catastrophic thoughts running through their head.

They can unclench their fists when it feels like their hands are stuck in iron. They can retrain their brains into knowing that it’s going to be okay.

It takes time and effort and a hell of a lot of trial and error. But it’s doable, and it has been done, which means I, and anyone else who needs to, can do it too.

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Emily Bernstein is a writer whose work focuses on mental health, pop culture, love, and family. Her writing has been featured in Nature, The New Yorker, Interview Magazine, Healio, Five O'Clock, among others. Follow her on Twitter for more.

This article was originally published at Unwritten. Reprinted with permission from the author.