Talking Anxiety: When & Where

My first anxiety attack arrived while I was having dinner at a mediterranean restaurant with my (now) husband.

*Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

Just minding my own business, stuffing my face with pita bread and a chicken kabob.

We were talking about our day, and some wedding planning and to-do’s. Nice and casual, til it wasn’t. Suddenly throat started to feel funny — sort of tight, sort of itchy. Like maybe it was closing?

I thought I was having an allergic reaction to something I’d eaten. I do have a food allergy so it wasn’t that odd, but I had, like always, gone out of my way to not order anything with the one random food I’m allergic to.

We rushed out of the restaurant, leaving our half-eaten dinners, and blamed it on the food. I’ll never forget how my husband frantically searched for an allergy pill in the depths of his car’s glove compartment, convinced he had something that would make me feel better.

But it wasn’t the food, and it wasn’t an allergy.

It was my new pal anxiety, who — since that dinner — has followed me around, inviting herself to the table at the most importune of moments.

(Although really, when’s an ideal time for a heart-racing, chest-tightening, tornado of mindless panic or worry?)

Now maybe you’re asking yourself how I was so sure it wasn’t just a food allergy, or something else you can scientifically test or logically prove. I know, because it happened again.

Another time, a different day.

And then again. And again.

At work. In my car after spin class. At a doctor’s appointment.

Different days, different situations, but that same discomfort, the same strange throat feeling.

I realized much later (thank you, therapy) that it was the conversation. It — stacked on top of existing layers of other stress that had built up — finally pulled the tab off a grenade that had probably been bouncing around inside of me for years.

But — and this is perhaps the greatest point of this series (you can read part 1 here and part 2 here) — there’s comfort in knowing I’m not the only one shoving down those feelings of overwhelm in the most public of places.

Many people have shared with me that their own anxiety strikes at all hours of the day. Sometimes in the middle of a meeting at work. Sometimes in the middle of the night. Sometimes as soon as they open their eyes in the morning.

Someone recently confided that the worst moments that anxiety strikes are during the scenarios where you can’t actually do much of anything about it. Like while driving on the freeway.

Sure you can have some coping mechanisms in your back pocket, especially if you’ve dealt with anxiety for a while, maybe even your whole adult life, but gosh. You can’t necessarily go for a quick run outdoors or start deep breathing in sync with your favorite meditation app if you’re in the midst of giving a presentation to your boss.

Anxiety usually begins and ends with your thoughts, including those subconscious ones you may not pay attention to in the moment. Those are the ones that usually get me; the fleeting ones that pass by so quickly that I barely recognize that they occurred, but are enough to make my pulse quicken, or cause a mild panic to set in. We think literally thousands of thoughts in a day, regardless of where we are and what we are doing. For someone with anxiety, those thoughts — all of them, whether they register consciously or not — can make or break their day. For me, it’s taken trying to really hone in on what my last thought was before I started to feel some of my telltale anxiety symptoms, and then shutting those down before they snowball.

So for anyone out there thinking that this anxiety you’re haunted by — this unwelcome guest in your life who keeps showing up like a bad habit — is a sign of weakness or fragility, consider the fact that probably, you’ve internally battled this bear while in a very public setting at least once (and most likely, many more times than that), and no one was the wiser. On airplanes and in subway cars. During holidays or while playing with your kids in the park. And you’ve continued to show up, to put one foot in front of the other, and step into the sunshine even though your inner monologue is urging you to stay in bed with the covers pulled over your head.

That is strength. That is resilience. That takes guts.

You don’t have to compare your journey to anyone else’s.

And in case you’re wondering…. I still have not returned to that mediterranean restaurant.

This essay is Part Three of this month’s weekly series on anxiety. You can read Part One here and Part Two here. Stay tuned for the conclusion of this series, Part Four, coming next week.