I had my first panic attack when I was 20. I still don’t know what set it off – the end of year stress, the copious amounts of sugary, caffeinated drinks I was ingesting, the imminent approach of a summer spent in Russia. I certainly didn’t feel more stressed than usual. I certainly wasn’t afraid of anything. I was young and invincible, as you are at that age. Everything was amazing and terrifying. But none of it was all that bad. None of it should’ve added up to that first attack.
But there I was, teeth chattering, hands clenched at my sides, my whole body shaking from fear. I didn’t know what was happening, just that my head hurt and my chest was tight and there was pain in my arm and my heart was racing and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was having a heart attack. I thought I was dying. I was crying. I was terrified. I knew I was dying and there was nothing I could do.
It finally ended after what felt like hours but could only have been ten minutes. I fell asleep, not entirely convinced I would wake up again. Not knowing it was going to be a recurrent event. Unsure. Scared.
I don’t know what set off that first attack, but I can pinpoint the reason for almost every one after that: fear. Paranoia. I began to obsessively scan my body for the smallest sign of an imminent attack. Any small twinge or headache became an immediate reason to worry. My primary trigger was heart palpitations, which I started having almost every time I had caffeine. But really, anything could set it off. Sometimes they came out of nowhere. Sometimes they came from something very specific, like searching google for symptoms and finding out that you probably (oh, most definitely) had a brain tumor.
During the worst of it I cut out the caffeine and suffered through massive withdrawal for whatever relief it would give me. During that time I had a hard time going to sleep because I was convinced – utterly convinced – that I would die in my sleep. I took muscle relaxants – prescribed for the omnipresent headaches – just so I couldn’t avoid sleeping. I was scared to move, to leave the house. I frequently found myself crying simply out of frustration. I was fucking tired of the fear.
Because that’s the main thing with anxiety, no matter what it’s source is. It all comes down to fear. Hands-shaking, heart-pounding, scalp-sweating, chest-tightening, mind-numbing, breath-limiting fear. It’s not like the fear you feel before telling a girl you maybe kinda sorta like her, you know, or the fear you feel before an all-important interview, or the fear before hurtling yourself off a cliff and trusting your fragile shell to a thin cord or parachute. It’s a deeper fear than that. Primal. All-consuming. Wholly and utterly irrational. A complete loss of control.
It’s tucking yourself into a ball and repeating to yourself over and over that the pain in your head is just a headache and you’re not about to die from a blood clot and not believing yourself.
It’s not leaving the house because you might not be able to find a safe place to panic in time.
It’s dreading the bus ride every day because you might have an attack and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing you can do surrounded by strangers and hyperventilating each time it happens.
It’s counting the days between attacks and knowing you’re “due” soon.
It’s not being able to talk about it because others expect there to be a reason for it, but the plain horror of it is it’s sheer irrationality.
It’s hating yourself because it cannot possibly be that bad and why can’t you just get the fuck over it already.
This s one unexpected benefit of the Whole30 that I’ve mentioned in passing but never fully explained. It’s one thing to say that I lost weight and my acne cleared up and I felt better as a human being. It’s another thing entirely to say that the Whole30 has given me one and a half years now without a single panic attack and two – just two! – anxiety attacks, both of which I can pinpoint to specifically stressful times tinged with bad eating.
This is fucking momentous. But it’s hard to articulate an absence without first explaining what it was like to live with anxiety. And sometimes, frankly, it’s hard to remember just how painful and awful that fear was. It’s also hard to talk about, and hard to confirm that diet played such a huge role. But I am and it has, and if this helps one person defeat that fear, then it was so fucking worth it.