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  • Roberta Whitney Hughes

Understanding Anxiety

I share this blog in an effort to open up and normalize conversations about stress, anxiety, and mental health.

Managing Anxiety

Three summers ago, I traveled to Paris, the City of Light and the City of Love, with my boyfriend John, my oldest son Connor, and his girlfriend. We were there for a week, which I anticipate would be one of the most relaxing, nourishing trips I had taken in quite some time.



On a beautiful Parisian summer night, we made a dinner reservation at a small, family-owned restaurant that was well known and highly recommended by locals. Too far to comfortably walk to the restaurant, we chose to take a TAXI to dinner. Finding a TAXI proved to be a challenge. Worried that we wouldn’t find a ride in time, I began to feel the stress of arriving late. Once we finally found a TAXI, we had difficulty communicating our destination to the driver. He did his best to understand us, but once we were close to the restaurant, it was clear that he was uncertain about the exact location. We chose to get out of the car and use our GPS to walk and find the restaurant.

A few minutes past our reservation time, we found the front door and walked inside. I could feel the stress in my body from being rushed. I was breathing fast, and my heart rate was high. As we gathered at the hostess stand, I noticed that the dining room was quite dark, long, and narrow inside.

The seating was “intimate,” but to me, it felt tight, closed in, and crowded. A bench seat ran the length of the wall with tiny tables spaced maybe 12 inches apart with tiny wooden chairs placed at the opposite side of the tables. There were a few individual tables in the middle of the room, but they, too, were close together.


Not wanting to make a fuss, I said nothing to my loved ones about my racing heart, the tension in my clenched jaw, or the heavy pit in my stomach. Things just didn’t feel right, but I wanted nothing more than for the feelings to pass and to be okay. I thought I would feel better once we could sit down at our table.


We followed the hostess to our table in the back end of the restaurant where it was noisy and bustling with waiters moving to and from the nearby kitchen. The only window in the dining room was in the front of the restaurant where we had entered. In the back here by our table, it felt even darker, tighter, and more enclosed. Wanting to be out of the path of busy waiters, I chose to sit on the bench seat along the wall. I thought the distance might help me feel more at ease.

Anxiety Attacks Take You By Surprise

As I sat down on the bench seat, I felt a moment of relief. It felt good to be out of the commotion of the walkway. Then, the hostess pushed the table in towards me and BOOM! My heart began racing; my hands began to shake uncontrollably. I put my hands under the table, wringing them together, hoping the shaking would stop. My body tensed and my jaw clenched tightly shut. The noise of the restaurant seemed to get louder, and I felt trapped. I couldn’t speak and felt paralyzed by the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Of all possibilities, I never imagined I would be having an anxiety attack in Paris, the most beautiful, romantic city in the world. I felt embarrassed and became outwardly upset. Nobody knew what was happening inside my body except for me.


I tried to ignore all of the uncomfortable things happening to my body. I tried to wish them away. I tried to breathe. I tried to tell myself everything was fine, that I was okay. My body didn’t listen. The symptoms got stronger, and I become agitated and upset. I stared blankly at the menu, trying to escape the incessant rush of adrenaline coursing through me. The more I tried to escape it, the worse I felt.


Soon I became even more irritable, agitated, and upset. I began complaining about the menu, the service, and the restaurant. Every word out of my mouth was negative. When John and Connor disagreed with me, I became angry. At that moment, neither of them had any idea that I was having an anxiety attack. Now, thinking back, I didn’t know I was having one either. I only knew that my heart was racing, my hands were trembling, and my body felt like it had turned to stone. I was angry, agitated, and embarrassed. Everything felt terribly wrong, and I didn’t know what to do.

By the time our appetizer arrived, I couldn’t take anymore. I said “enjoy your dinner,” pushed the table away, got up, and made a beeline to the front door. Relief came almost immediately once I was outside in the open air. I spotted a beautiful fountain, found a bench facing the fountain, and sat down to watch and listen to the water flowing. Finally, I could take a deep breath. The fresh air and sound of flowing water soothed me. My system slowly began to settle down.


Learning to Manage

Although I was unaware of it at the time, I started having anxiety attacks in 2017, about a year after my divorce was final. With help from therapy, journaling, yoga, Pilates, and meditation, I have made great progress in the past five years. Even still, at the most impromptu moment, the slightest thing can trigger an anxiety attack. I have learned to not live in fear of one being triggered. Instead, I have learned to recognize the signs and symptoms so I can work my way through it when it happens.

From my personal experience, I want to share some of the things that may have supported me through the early stages of recognizing and learning about my anxiety.


Identifying the Symptoms of Anxiety

When a person has their first anxiety attack, they may not even know what is happening. Anxiety attacks come on hard and fast. The symptoms usually feel as though they take over the body. Typically, the person experiencing an anxiety attack is aware of all the symptoms and will likely feel embarrassed by what is happening because they know in their brain that there is nothing to be afraid of in that moment.


Here are the common signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack:

• You may feel a sense of dread or apprehension. • You may feel like you are on high alert. • You may become negative, irritable, or restless. • You may become hyper-aware and have a feeling of danger. • You may feel your heart pounding or racing. • You may feel as though your breath becomes short, fast, and shallow. • You may experience tremors, shaking, and twitching in your body. • You may start sweating. • You may feel extremely hot or cold suddenly. • You may get frequent headaches and have trouble sleeping. • You may experience loss of appetite. • You may experience frequent elimination of your bladder and bowels.


How to Help Someone Who May be Having an Anxiety Attack

If you are with someone and suspect they may be having an anxiety attack, there are a few simple things you can do to help.

• Avoid asking “What’s wrong?” The person is already in a negative place and is likely embarrassed and wondering, “What’s wrong with me?”

• Be comforting and direct. Try asking, “Are you having an anxiety attack?” This question may interrupt the feeling of dread and allow the person to answer.

• Stay with the person. Leaving them alone may increase their feeling of embarrassment and isolation.

• Invite them to take a walk with you and help them get grounded.


Tools That Can Help You Manage Anxiety

• Identify your triggers. What situations increase your stress response and what situations make it better? As you identify these, write them down.

• Communicate your triggers to your loved ones. Be courageous and let your loved ones know which situations increase your feelings of stress and anxiety. This will help them see the world through your eyes. When you feel your stress levels rise, be sure to let them know what you are feeling. Sometimes, having a conversation about your symptoms helps to regulate your system.

• Keep a journal of what an anxiety attack feels like. Oftentimes, people don’t realize they are having an anxiety attack until they are on the other side of it. This is the time to write about your experience. What happened to you physically, emotionally, and mentally during the anxiety attack? As you become more familiar with what an anxiety attack feels like, you will begin to notice the early signs and eventually have the tools to

self-regulate before things get out of hand.


• Tell someone about your anxiety attacks. When you can name what is happening either during or after an attack, you are able to get support. When your friends, family, and co-workers know what is happening, they can help you through it.

• Find a therapist who can teach you skills and techniques to help you manage your triggers, regulate your symptoms, and get grounded.

• Remind yourself that you haven’t done anything wrong. It is common to feel embarrassed and defensive when you have an anxiety attack. It’s important to remember that an anxiety attack is a reflex of your nervous system. You are experiencing fight or flight, even when it seems like it makes no sense.


Anxiety is a health condition that can be healed over time. Treatment is unique to each person and there are many resources available. Be patient with yourself and trust the process.


For more information about stress, anxiety, and mental health awareness, visit https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders.


Resources:

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD

Vagus Nerve by Judy A. Care


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