I had my first panic attack seven days after my 30th birthday in the summer of 2015. I was in a café in Barcelona, writing emails to friends back home in New Jersey, when a burst of adrenaline rushed through my chest. The walls of the café began to expand and contract. The sounds of the other patrons were loud and garbled like everyone was under water. I went to the bathroom to splash water on my face, but the intense physical symptoms refused to subside, so I took myself through the narrow streets of my neighborhood and back to my apartment.
I laid in bed for an hour and a half, willing my heart to stop pounding. All the while my mind ruminated on one intrusive thought: I am going to die here.
I closed my eyes and tried to slow my breathing, but when that didn’t work, I called a friend who took me to a pharmacy where they read my blood pressure.
“It’s normal,” the pharmacist said. “Probably just too much caffeine. Drink some water and rest. You’ll be fine.”
The diagnosis brought relief and for the rest of the evening I did as I had been instructed. But the next day, as I prepared to board a plane to Portugal, it happened again. The same rush of adrenaline. The same inability to catch my breath. The same pounding heartbeat. I was terrified. What was going on with my body? The seed of health anxiety was planted.
Two weeks later, I came home and immediately made an appointment with the doctor, who officially diagnosed me with general anxiety disorder. He set me up with some as needed medication, saying that for most people just having the medicine was enough to prevent a panic attack. I was not most people, and I ended up taking a quarter of a pill each morning before work so that I didn’t have a meltdown.
In those two years after the anxiety officially started, I upped my therapy to twice a week and learned visualization techniques, imagining my anxiety as a fog over my brain that I could blow away. Except, the fog always came back denser and more insistent on sticking around. I floated in a sensory deprivation tank once or twice and spent a lot of time laying around my apartment waiting to get better. And eventually, I did get better. After an MRI to check on new migraine symptoms came back normal, this voice in my head said, “Hey, you know this anxiety stuff? You realized we’re doing it to ourselves right?” And just like that, the anxiety switch turned off. After two years, I was finally free.
And for exactly two years, I lived anxiety-free. I traveled without worry, made plans with friends, I even went on the Tower of Terror at Disney World during a trip with my family. But then in May of 2019, my anxiety came back with new symptoms. It was no longer easy to leave the house because when I did it felt like the world was spinning. I’d get irritable and end up in tears over things that weren’t that big of a deal, like going to the movies or being invited out to dinner with friends. Anxiety made events that were supposed to be fun feel impossible.
When the doctor prescribed a daily SSRI, I took it for two days before stopping. It made my anxiety worse, and I reasoned that what I was dealing with naturally was easier to manage than the terrifying feelings that came with the side effects of increased serotonin. What was really happening was that I was allowing my health anxiety to get the best of me.
I was lucky. For a second time, my anxiety went into remission, and I was able to live a normal life until the Coronavirus pandemic shut the world down. I am an introvert to begin with, but the stay-at-home orders made my introversion even worse. And when it was finally time to go outside again and resume life among the living, my anxiety came back more aggressively than ever.
This time, along with health anxiety, I noticed symptoms of agoraphobia. I could only go for walks around the block—anything farther would activate a panic attack. I couldn’t go on long car rides, and if I did have to go somewhere, I was hypervigilant of rest stops and exits where I could pull off, just in case of an emergency. The world no longer felt safe because I didn’t feel safe in my body. The anxiety made my brain foggy and forgetful, and in those moments when I couldn’t think straight, I began to fear that I was losing my mind.
Throughout this time, I continued going to therapy once a week. I journaled and meditated every day. I went on short mental health walks in sight of my house and tried herbal supplements. I lost myself in reading and writing. But I couldn’t make a dent in the anxiety that infected my body and my brain. It kept getting worse until one night, I broke.
My anxiety was causing my heartbeat to be visible in my neck, which created a vicious thought spiral. Was it a stroke? A heart attack? An embolism? It couldn’t be anxiety. This was new.
I showed my husband. “Look! My neck is throbbing. Should I go to urgent care?”
“No, I think you’re okat. You just need to breathe,” he said, calmly, knowing exactly what was happening.
But I would have none of his reassurance. My fear was real, too real to shake off as anxiety.
I ended up laying in bed, sobbing, afraid that my veins were about to explode. Eventually I was able to calm down, but that moment was a turning point. I had allowed anxiety free reign over my body, and so it manifested itself physically.
The following morning, I made an appointment with the doctor to discuss my migraines. I didn’t know how to tell the nurse scheduling the appointment that my neck was pulsing without feeling like a bit of a fool, so I figured migraines sounded less ridiculous.
When I got to the doctor’s office and sat on the examination table, he listened to my heartbeat and felt my neck.
“Am I having a stroke?” I asked.
“No,” he laughed. “I can assure you, you are not having a stroke.”
His assessment brought relief, but I was so tired of fear, knowing that if I didn’t acknowledge what I knew to be true, I’d just end up back here again with some other physical ailment in a month or two.
I began to cry. “This is all anxiety, isn’t it?”
“I knew you’d get there,” he said.
I walked out of the doctor’s office with a prescription for a new SSRI and a plan. I was referred to a psychiatrist and scheduled for blood work just to make sure that everything was in working order. I had a one month visit to check and see how I was doing. I didn’t have to do this alone.
On the drive home, I thought about all the months, all the years, I had spent white-knuckling life instead of really asking for help. I thought that everything I had been doing was enough, but I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t, and that it was time to give myself some relief.
In the days leading up to taking the first dose of medication, I watched a lot of YouTube videos of people who had positive experiences on the same medication that I would be taking. I knew it would take a while to work, and I knew that I might be up against side effects. However, the alternative was allowing the anxiety to eat away at me until I was completely unrecognizable. That wasn’t an option.
The first night I took the medication, I felt the panic attack begin. I turned on a guided meditation and closed my eyes, allowing the voice of Gabby Bernstein to help me visualize jumping into the waves of my emotions until I fell peacefully to sleep.
It’s been a month since I started my medication, and honestly, I wonder why I didn’t do this sooner. I have been on the lowest possible dose, so I haven’t experienced any side effects, and I noticed minor benefits within the first two weeks. By the end of week three, I felt like my old self again, the self before anxiety. I had done myself a disservice by reading and listening to all the terrifying reviews of SSRIs on Google and YouTube, and because of that, I talked myself out of taking something that could have helped me years ago. I didn’t have to struggle or suffer, but my anxiety was louder than my logic.
Maybe you’re like I was, anxious and armed with a bottle of antidepressants rolling around in your nightstand that you’re too afraid to take. But I promise, there’s life on the other side of fear. You can take back your life. It starts with one small choice that you repeat every day. Call the doctor. Take advantage of online mental health services like Better Help. Take the medication. I promise, you won’t ever regret showing up for yourself.
As for me, antidepressants have been an amazing tool along with other coping strategies for managing stress. They brought me back to myself. They saved my life.