Another part of the puzzle that started me on this journey to improving my overall health and wellness is wanting to conquer (or at least get in check) my anxiety. I know the term anxiety is thrown around quite a bit and if you don’t suffer from it I can imagine it is easy to dismiss it as a “fake” disease but for people who do suffer from it it’s very REAL! I unfortunately am one of those people who has been struggling a long time and in my case it comes in the form of panic attacks.
I have always been a Type A personality, I mean to a tee! If I am not early, I am late. If I didn’t get an A on an exam I would beat myself up. I believe my 5th grade teacher even told my parents I was a perfectionist. I am competitive to a fault. I hold myself to very high standards and am easily frustrated when I don’t accomplish something I feel that I should have. I have tried to go easier on myself as I have gotten older and have had some success in doing so but for the most part that is just my personality and I have largely accepted it.
Where things took a turn was back when I was in college. It was my senior year at the University of Maryland and in the fall of 2001 I was caught in what I would later learn to be an F3 tornado that demolished a large part of the campus and killed two girls in a car right behind mine. I remember vividly looking in my rear view mirror as I sat at a traffic light heading to my apartment after class and saw a very large, very angry funnel cloud coming straight at me. If you have never had the pleasure of being up close and personal to an actual tornado it looks exactly like what you see in movies. My flight-or-fight response immediately kicked in and all I could think was I need to get out of the direct path of it. I ended up driving off the road to the shoulder of the highway and as the dark grayish brown funnel cloud passed over me I just remember thinking about how my poor parents will be devastated that I am not going to survive this. It really is very interesting what you think about when you think you are about to die which I absolutely thought what was going to happen when I got sucked up in the chaos around me. By some miracle, the funnel passed over me and I realized I was alive and physically totally unscathed. My car windshield had been shattered and when I got the two blocks to my apartment I found that my windows had all been sucked out along with my computer and all the contents of my desk which had been right next to the window, but I was alive!
Later on I heard the news that 2 sisters who had been two cars behind me at the light had been sucked up by the funnel, thrown over an 8 story building and instantly killed when they hit another building right behind it. At the time, and honestly still a bit today, I can’t really comprehend the randomness of why they died and all the rest of us didn’t, but it goes without saying that it is a day that I will never forget.
What does this have to do with endorphins you may be thinking at this point? And let me just stop here and apologize for such a long post today, but this is a major part of my life that I don’t talk about all that much but I feel is important to get out there in hopes others can relate. Right after the tornado happened, my parents urged me to see a therapist so I could talk about what had happened, my feelings, etc. to make sure I was dealing with it appropriately. Of course me being 20 or so years old and knowing everything about everything I laughed that off as completely unnecessary and pretty much got back to living life as I always had.
Fast forward to a few years out of college, I was taking a trip up to Philly to see my boyfriends family and about 20 minutes into the ride started hyperventilating and feeling like I was going to die just completely out of the blue. One trip to the ER later and about a year or so subsequently of seeing different specialists, everyone’s best guess was some sort of asthma. A bunch of different prescriptions were of course then thrown at me, none of which really did anything. Over the following several years I continued to have these “asthma” attacks but only strangely when I was in the car. Super frustrated, tired of going to the doctors, and more tired of hyperventilating in the car, I started trying to figure out what was really going on. Eventually I came across some articles that explained how similar anxiety/panic attacks feel to having an actual heart attack and how many times people who have anxiety attacks think they are actually having a cardiac event and land in ER’s. It all started to make sense at this point. All the symptoms I had while in the midst of a panic attack matched the descriptions of them in all the articles I was reading. I realized these attacks were probably happening as a result of that damn tornado and feeling like I was trapped in my car. I have to stop here to painfully acknowledge that my parents were of course right about this all along. UGH. Anyway, somewhat relieved it was all in my head and not something physically wrong with me, I thought I can get a handle on this. I am mentally strong enough now that I know what’s wrong with me to deal with these things. Oh boy, was I wrong.
15+ years later and I still get those nasty little attacks just as feverishly as I did back then. They do come and go, and sometimes I can go months without having one, but the fear of having one come on is always with me. I’ve also noticed that when my overall life is more stressful they tend to come on more often (sometimes daily) as was the case back at the end of last year and beginning of this year. I was having almost daily attacks while driving both to and from work (I have the pleasure of about an hour and a half commute each way in basically standstill traffic daily) which was so exhausting by the end of each week I was in tears making the drive. I realized not only was my physical health suffering from me being out of shape and not taking care of myself, but my mental health was suffering greatly as well.
Exercise has always been a HUGE stress reliever for me and the difference in my mental health when I am getting to the gym and when I slack off is staggering! Desperately wanting to get these panic attacks under control was a huge reason I got my lazy butt back into working out. Since I have lost some weight, changed my diet up and just generally started prioritizing my overall health, my anxiety attacks have lessened significantly. I don’t think they will ever go away completely and I still get them about once a week or so now but my overall stress levels have gone down tremendously and my quality of life has only gotten better.
So go workout! Take a walk! Hit the gym! Take a yoga or pilates class! Get those endorphins flowing! If your body feels better I promise your mind will too. There is light at the end of even the darkest tunnel if you just get up and get moving.