The first time I experienced a feeling of anxiety or panic so profound that I wondered at my own sanity was during a holiday season. My husband and I were shopping at a mall where there was a store that specialized in holiday decorating and holiday themed merchandise.
I figured this would be a perfect place to not only get some decorations for our home, but perhaps to do a little shopping for other people. At first I didn’t notice how many people were there, but after a time of being in the store I began to pant. I felt that I couldn’t catch my breath. I began to remove my coat, my sweater, anything I could because I felt so hot.
The feeling of pressure on my chest was almost excruciating.
Suddenly I felt my husband’s presence next to me. “Are you OK?” he asked.
“Of course, I’m fine.” It was my standard answer. Mainly because I didn’t recognize that I was having a bit of a panic attack.
I knew that I had trouble with elevators, but it had never expanded to the point where I felt panicked while I was in a larger crowd of people.
Fortunately for me, my husband’s father suffered from claustrophobia. I would never have given myself that label. But his gentle words and touch got me out of the store without the things I held in my hands. I didn’t event regret leaving them behind.
My only goal was to get out of that store.
“Are you claustrophobic?” he asked me.
His question brought me up short. I had never considered myself to be claustrophobic. Sure, I don’t like elevators, and if I’m waiting for one and it appears full when it opens, I smile, wave them along saying cheerfully, “I’ll just wait for the next one!”
To me, I was just being polite.
But after that event, I began to notice that I do have trouble with anxiety when too many people are around me. If I were to attend a church ceremony, I need to be within two people of the aisle or I would begin to feel sick. I just thought I was truly ill.
It turns out that I suffered from a level of anxiety related to claustrophobia. I do remember my brothers packing me into a cardboard box when I was about four. They put me into a closet and I couldn’t get out. It was only my screams that brought adult intervention to release me. I had forgotten about that episode.
Now that I know I have an anxiety problem, I set about trying to figure out how to manage it.
The first step is to simply recognize it for what it is. I would acknowledge that I felt uncomfortable, and that often allowed me to hold it together long enough say to check out of a store.
Then I began to practice breathing techniques. When we are anxious, we tend to breathe very shallowly. I learned to practice deep breathing techniques, and by focusing on my breath, I was able to hold off increasing feelings of panic and anxiety.
Other times, when I knew what I was feeling, but I couldn’t seem to breathe through it, I would just leave the environment and either walk or if it was possible, run for a few minutes to stop the cycle of panic that I felt.
Sometimes, I could also focus on other people, what they wanted, what they needed to get my mind out of my own panic. It didn’t often work, but I really worked at it, and the more I developed empathy for others, the less I experienced feelings of anxiety.
And nature is my salvation. If I can escape to a park, to a beach where I can regulate my breathing to the lap of the water against the sand, I feel an immediate sense of calm. As a result, I use a recording of waves against a beach as my “go to sleep” sound. Since I have started using that sound of nature to sleep, I have found myself better able to manage my feelings of anxiety in public.