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Small Victories: Pushing Through the Panic

My brain convinces me that I am going to die at least once a week. I’m not dangling on the edge of a cliff by my fingertips or running from a masked intruder armed with a butcher knife. Most of the time, I’m just being.

Was I Going Crazy or Was I Dying?

About five years ago was the first time I felt like this. I was sitting on a fuzzy pink carpet next to the 18-month-old child I used to babysit. My heart started to palpitate, and I couldn’t bring myself to swallow. It felt like a rubber band was tightening around my neck. A surge of dizzying vertigo rushed through me, and the world seemed to be moving in slow motion. I was a confusing mix of sweaty and freezing, and it felt like each breath I tried to inhale was pushed right back out. Was I going crazy, or was I dying?

I’ve always been an anxious soul, riddled with an overactive imagination. But since that day, when I experienced my first panic attack, I have gotten uncomfortably acquainted with these little fits of terror. So acquainted, in fact, that they show up at the most inconvenient times. Grocery store? Dizzy. TSA line? Can’t breathe. Zoom meeting? Forget about it.

There’s a little phrase I tell myself when I take that first deep breath after pushing through a panic attack: “Small Victories.”

The first time I introduced myself to the phrase, I had just gotten into my car at the grocery store parking lot. Supermarket checkout lines have been an all-too-common location for my panic attacks in recent years (a traumatic experience with men following me throughout the store and into the checkout line contributed to this trigger). I embarrassingly inserted my debit card into the chip reader with shaking hands, unable to catch my breath. I darted to my car with groceries in hand. The moment I sat down in the driver’s seat, I took a deep breath and smiled. As embarrassing as it was, I made it. “Small victories,”  I said to myself. I’ve been chanting the mantra to myself ever since.

There isn’t one victory that’s bigger than the other

My life consists of these many small victories each day. It changes my way of thinking. Instead of resenting myself for having such inconvenient mental health struggles, I praise myself for pushing through the torment. I strive to live my life the way I want to, not the way anxiety tells me to. These small victories are stepping stones in my life journey. From working as a published editorial writer, being accepted into a graduate program at NYU, a job offer at one of the largest broadcast networks in America, and all the little milestones in between; I have fought—and will continue to fight—for my life, despite my anxiety and panic disorder urging me to abandon my dreams.

Snap Out of It

Panic attacks, per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. Comparable to having a heart attack, a person experiencing a panic attack may have strong physical reactions, including racing heart, sweating, chills, breathing problems, weakness or dizziness, tingly or numb hands, chest pain, stomach pain, and nausea. Oftentimes, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, panic attacks occur seemingly out of the blue and unexpectedly, even having the ability to wake you up from a deep sleep.

One of the most discouraging truths about anxiety and panic is that their existence makes accomplishing any goal difficult, let alone ambitious career goals.

According to NIHM, a person with panic disorder may “become discouraged and feel ashamed because he or she cannot carry out normal routines like going to school or work, going to the grocery store, or driving.”

Margaret Lindberg, a clinically licensed social worker (LCSW-C) with over two decades of experience working with individuals who struggle with various mental health concerns, including anxiety and panic, said there is a great stigma regarding those who have mental health issues.

“You shouldn’t be held back by your brain chemistry”

Some of these misconceptions are that people are ‘faking’ the significance of their issues or that someone can just ‘snap out of it.’ “I have also noted that oftentimes,” Lindberg explained, “if someone discloses that they have mental health issues, those who are not trained to understand what that means may question things like intelligence levels or motivation levels.”

Making the transition from editorial writing to journalism was anxiety-provoking in itself. Throw the coronavirus into the mix, and my mental health – along with many others globally – was rapidly declining. “People thrive on routine and human connections, and this has been altered, and in some circumstances, people have been completely cut off from their support networks,” Lindberg said. “It is hard to put a specific number on how many cases directly correlate to anxiety and increased panic attacks, but there is definitely an increase, and the mental health field is beginning to bow under the weight of the demand for treatment and help.”

Anxiety and Ambition’s Tug-of-War 

Despite COVID’s existence fueling my anxiety, I went into my first major reporting gig post-undergrad, hoping to gain an impressive set of skills that would be a catalyst to a career comparable to Barbara Walters. While I learned the tricks of the trade and how to interview a source through dizzy fits and constantly asking myself, “can they tell I’m going to faint?” I had an editor who knew exactly how it felt to have anxiety and ambition playing tug-o-war in her brain.

Elizabeth Miller is the founder and editor of the Auburn Examiner—an independent local news publication in my hometown, Auburn, Washington. Elizabeth built an empire from the ground up despite her mental health disorders, including PTSD and anxiety. “Because of the fact that I do have anxiety, and I do have personal experiences with trauma,” Elizabeth said, “my personal relationship with mental illness means that I have a better understanding of how to engage with people who are going through that.”

Being candid about my mental health journey benefited me in the workplace. Instead of creating my own tools from scratch, I opened to Elizabeth about my anxiety, which allowed her to share valuable wisdom she had acquired throughout her years as a fellow anxious journalist.

“If I can use anything that’s happened in my life that’s caused me anxiety, and what tools I have gained from it, to help give you those tools so you can adapt and adjust and figure out what will work to make sure you are the best journalist you can be, I am more than happy to do that,” Elizabeth said. “I feel it’s my duty to do that because you shouldn’t be held back by your brain chemistry. It’s like saying someone in a wheelchair isn’t allowed in a building because the building has stairs. No, you build a fucking ramp.”

The very first interview I conducted with a source was horrifying. The first person I called afterward was Elizabeth. I will always remember her encouragement: “I am so, so proud of you.” Although I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the way my anxiety made me feel, there was a blinding glimmer of hope that lit a fire within me.

Small victories, I whispered to myself after hanging up the phone. That’s one step closer.

“I know when you are overthinking, because I do it too. You always have the best advice for everyone else, but you’ll never follow it yourself,” Elizabeth said. “I feel that you have a lot of potential. That you have so much in front of you. And I do not want your anxiety to stop it.”

a woman with long dark hair stands with her back to the camera, looking outward toward a calm ocean
Unsplash

There isn’t one victory that’s bigger than the other. That deep breath I take after a panic attack feels the same each time– and every time, it guides me one step closer to the biggest victory of all: happiness. The truth is, I had a panic attack right before, or during, the most important interviews of my life. Somehow, I was able to seek these opportunities and hold onto them, despite my anxiety pulling me the other way; despite my anxiety telling me I can’t.

So even though my brain convinces me that I am going to die at least once a week, I am grateful for the journey. Especially when there are so many scary, beautiful small victories to be had.

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