Panic Attacks and Learning to Prioritize Myself
A few weeks ago, I had my first panic attack in almost a year. While I’ve made a lot of progress the past few years on my journey to balance- I’ve adopted a healthier mindset towards eating and exercising, practice body positivity and self-care on a daily basis, and have learned how to listen to my body- I am still learning. Because we are constantly changing, our definition and requirements for balance are always shifting and re-defining themselves as well.
On the day of my panic attack, I woke up in an incredible mood. I had two midterms later in the week for which I felt well-prepared, meaning I wouldn’t have to spend hours in the library studying. I felt calm and relaxed, excited for Fall Break which began that Friday. I went to the gym, ate nutritious meals, studied for a few hours, caught up with friends, and even took a nap. Over time, I have discovered that these activities contribute to my balanced mindset, helping me feel happy and healthy- my absolute best self.
So when I received an unsettling text at 9:00 PM, the time when I begin my bedtime routine, I felt a sudden surge of anxiety and stress. I began to think of the many tasks now on my plate that had to be completed immediately. How was I going to get them all done, plus study and take care of my wellbeing? Even though I wanted nothing more than to close my eyes and fall asleep, I had so much on my mind that sleep wasn’t a possibility.
One of the key elements of my self-care is sleep. I have always been the type to go to bed early and wake up early, aiming for 8 to 9 hours of sleep every night (usually 9:30 PM-6:00 or 6:30 AM). I have become better over the years at balancing sleep and and night life, but have yet to feel fully comfortable with staying out late if it is a weeknight or something unplanned. The times I do feel comfortable staying up definitely do not include me sitting up in bed for hours going over and over in my mind everything I need to get done.
I felt the hours tick by, and soon it was 11:00 PM. I had read somewhere before that 7 to 9 hours of sleep are incredibly important, and that you cannot “catch up” on sleep the next night. These facts had always caused me a bit of anxiety, and now it threatened me and my mindset. I began doubting my abilities, believing I wouldn’t do well on my tests because I was not getting the ideal amount of sleep. I even began to doubt the progress I had made over the past few years. Why was I having such a visceral reaction right now? I thought I was beyond this extreme anxiety and stress? If I wasn’t, what did that mean for the rest of the progress I thought I had made? I spiraled- I worried about the lack of energy I would have after a night of no sleep and how it would effect my performance at the gym. But I told myself I couldn’t take a rest day- I wouldn’t make progress by resting. I had to push myself, remain dedicated. Clearly the progress over the past few years wasn’t enough and I needed to be more diligent.
As these thoughts went through my mind, I found myself unable to breathe. A loud woosh noise filled my ears. Even though I hadn’t felt these symptoms in a while, I still recognized my panic attack immediately. I stayed like this for a while, unsure how to calm myself.
Eventually, I began to repeat to myself over and over how I would get everything done the next day, telling myself it was possible, that I would be okay. I even wrote the schedule out on my phone so I could physically see the timing and know it really was possible. My breathing grew calmer and the noise in my ears faded. I even slept on and off for about four hours, but my anxiety and stress still ran high.
Finally, when it was morning, I began to follow my schedule. First up was the gym. This was the most controversial action on the schedule, because though I knew the importance of rest days and taking care of your body especially after a night of no sleep, I also needed to take care of my mental state. So I had compromised- I would go to the gym, but not do anything excessive. Instead, I would prioritize exercises that I not only loved, but also were not too strenuous. I would also focus on stretching. I went for forty-five minutes instead of my usual hour and fifteen minutes, and then moved onto the next item.
After I finally crossed off the list's last task, I prioritized myself. I studied for a few hours to remind myself of the confidence I had felt not even 24 hours before. I turned off social media and went on a really long walk through my college’s surrounding neighborhood. I even cancelled my dinner plans, opting instead to eat dinner in bed while watching one of my favorite TV shows. Getting ready for bed that night, I felt immensely better. I had completed what needed to be done and had reminded myself of my self-worth and strength. I wasn’t completely healed, but I felt much less anxious and stressed. I knew I could tackle the next day, no problem.
As someone who is striving to be a source of comfort, inspiration, and guidance for others on health and wellness, there is a voice in the back of my head that tells me I have to always be my best, and me during a panic attack is definitely not my best. But I cannot be an example unless I show the raw and vulnerable sides of myself. My panic attack is the perfect example of how the journey to balance is always occurring, never complete. I am allowed to have “off” days, because they are just a valuable as the good ones. While these moments may feel nothing but horrible, I know that feeling is temporary. I am learning to look back on them to remind myself of the progress I’ve made and how to use them to continue growing and progressing forward.
Have you ever had a panic attack? How do you help yourself feel less anxious or stressed?