I had a very public anxiety attack a few days ago. It’s been decades since I had a full-blown panic attack and a while since I was troubled by one of these mini versions.
I woke early, in pain, and couldn’t get back to sleep. But life doesn’t care if you’re feeling sick today. There were things that had to be done. I headed into town. Not a big deal. I can be uncomfortable anywhere. I may as well be productive as I suffer.
For those who never spend any time alone, in quiet surroundings, in isolation, you may never understand what an assault on the senses most stores have become. Walmart is definitely among the worst offenders. Announcements, televisions blaring, and now local small-screen targeted ads. Masses of people who are always moving twice or one tenth your speed. Screaming kids, scary adults, women on cell phones. The lights, the bright colors, the space and movement.
Plus I always stand the chance of running into people I never want to see again, having to endure awkward moments where they try to pretend we are friends or insinuate themselves into my life through polite niceties. I don’t even want to wave, to acknowledge their existence, let alone share a moment.
Exhausted and ill, it was all a little too much for me. J lingered in the aisles and nothing I said could speed him. It felt like the trip was taking forever and all the while the environment kept pressing in on me from all sides. I tried to channel my growing frustration into efficiency, but by the time we finally got to the line and had to wait, my mind and body couldn’t take it anymore and the creepy feeling of overwhelming stress and loss of control, welling panic and the need to lash out or escape began to rise inside of me.
Luckily, I’m pretty good with this now. All it takes to push my mind back into place is a little direct pressure and a couple of parlor tricks. Step one, remind myself that this is all under my control and all an illusion. Step two, breathe deeply and slowly. Step three, self-soothing.
At home, if you watched me, you’d be unlikely to know that when I rub my hair, I am secretly working out stress and calming myself. You wouldn’t see that this is my way of petting me, giving myself the affection I need and realigning my mental state. In public, that might bring me a bit more visibility than I want, so I use something more subtle. I rub my palms together slowly, in the ancient gesture of sinister and nefarious behavior, like I’m building a tiny fire in my hands. And like magic, the problem disappears.
I think the distraction pairs with the relaxation triggers to defuse the situation. Sometimes it takes a couple of repeats to make the effect sink in deeply enough to be sustained, but it hasn’t failed me yet. And no one has any idea that the next person in line was about to completely lose her shit and start a scene.