I park my car outside of work and I suddenly feel a wave of panic coming on. My skin feels hot and my jaw clenches. My hands are paralyzed, gripping the wheel. Intrusive thoughts make an attempt to take over:
You’re going to fail. You are stupid. You only make people’s lives harder. Why don’t you just give up now? Crash your car. It’ll be easy and you can get rid of all of the pain—right now.
I close my eyes and remember my safety plan for moments such as this. I take an exaggerated breath in and an exaggerated breath out. I begin to visualize myself in a place where I feel at peace.
I’m sitting on the beach in the middle of June. The water is calm and the sky is clear. Sunlight shines on my face, leaving my cheeks flushed pink. I nestle my fingers and toes into the earth underneath me. The sand is warm and sticks to my legs and fingertips. There is a gentle breeze that blows rhythmically through the palm trees from behind. I take another deep breath in and reach to the side. A small wooden box lies in the sand. I don’t open it. I just rest my hand atop it to remind myself that it’s there.
Inside, I have mentally placed all of the things that have the power to distract me from this serene moment. This box is where I store away intrusive thoughts, anxieties, worries, and confusion. I sit with them next to me knowing that they have brought me to where I am now—a place imagined but still peaceful, happy even. It brings me comfort to know these things while kept safe in the box, are not controlling my life or this moment. If I want to address them, I can open the box. But today, I choose to keep it near and shut. Acknowledged but not invited to interrupt.
Following another inhale and exhale, I open my eyes. The wave of panic has passed and I feel grounded. Reality comes back into my awareness and I clock in for my shift, thinking and believing I can make it through.
This can be the everyday reality of someone who copes with generalized anxiety and panic. Before I learned to use the visualization and grounding technique I just described, daily activities such as going to work, going to the grocery store, or taking my dog out for a walk felt like they could spiral into what felt like a life-threatening event.
My episodes of panic are the physical manifestations of compounding internal anxiety. For me, anxiety makes itself known in my head first and then I begin to get emotionally dysregulated and irritable. The brain fog sets in and overcomplicates the simplest tasks and decisions. Without the aid of grounding techniques, what can start as one negative concern about work can soon have me speeding down a rabbit hole of irrational, mind-made scenarios about everything that might go wrong. The choice to get out of my car and head to work or not becomes the deciding factor on whether I screw up my life or not.
It’s exhausting to think and exist in this way. I used to feel completely powerless against the effects of anxiety and subsequent panic. Before I knew what was happening, I would be hyperventilating, my skin crawling, chest tightening, sweating profusely, and utterly unable to move. The minutes it took to overcome the wave felt like hours. And even after it passed, it felt as though I was on the cusp of dying.
Trying to live a “normal” life with the persistent presence of anxiety has been like carrying another person on my back who is trying to reroute or end my life at any given moment. And because of the twisted relationship between anxiety and panic, the more times I have a panic attack, the more anxious and worried I get about experiencing it again. So to avoid having to experience it again, I would isolate myself and convince myself that things just weren’t worth doing. However, anxiety does not like to be put on hold and attempting to ignore it only perpetuates the intensity of a future attack.
In lieu of this, I created a safety plan because if I can’t avoid it forever, I need a strategy to be able to handle the anxiety and panic whenever they decide to show up. It looks like this:
Step 1 (before): Identify triggers (school, work, people, music) Anticipate, don’t avoid. You will have to face them.
Step 2 (during): Acknowledge the presence of symptoms (foggy brain, muscle tension, irritability, shortness of breath). It’s important to remind yourself you feel this way because of the anxiety. You are not dying. It will eventually subside. Try and separate yourself from this moment as much as you can by utilizing a grounding technique.
Step 3 (after): Reach out to your support system. Whether a friend, therapist, family member, or pet—identify someone who you can process it with. You don’t need to go through this alone. A simple text, call, or hug will provide reassurance and calm.
While this plan isn’t foolproof or an exact formula, it has worked. It has improved my quality of life. And the thing is, I’m not looking for perfect, I’m looking for hope and the possibility that anxiety won’t play a role in my future.
You are not your thoughts. Anxiety is not who you are—you deserve to know peace. We encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].