So, I had a panic or anxiety attack last week. The third one in three months. Truthfully, I cannot recall having a game-over feeling in my body quite like this. For those who have had them (and I’ve heard from many), you know how intense and terrifying it is. For those who’ve never had the horror, it’s like this:

Your face starts to get hot. Your heart starts to feel like it’s pounding out of your chest, out of control. You get very short of breath, and your breathing cannot sync or keep up with your heart. Your face starts to tingle, as well as your hands. You start to get dizzy, lightheaded. As you panic, you start to feel another level of panic about this uncontrollable panic you’re feeling – panic on top of panic. You want to loosen your clothes or undress as quickly as possible. But it doesn’t work, because you cannot get comfortable. You feel like you could pass out. Or die. 

The first one happened this past November when I went to see To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway. It started just as the show began and had me wondering if I was going to be that person who literally stopped the show and left the theater in a stretcher. It lasted for about 40 minutes. I was fine by intermission. Really shaken, but fine.

The next one happened in early February while I was walking my dogs in Central Park. It was a little less intense than the one in the theater, but frightening nonetheless.

The one last week happened in the middle of lunch at P.J. Clarke’s with my friend Patrick. I had to cut out early and get my lunch to go so I could slowly walk home and try to get some air. It lasted for 30 or 40 minutes, during which I repeatedly debated walking straight to the nearest emergency room. I didn’t go to the ER, but I did march over to CityMD that night for a quick check and an EKG. No physical problems detected.

The next morning, I saw my doctor, a cardiologist and a therapist. Again, no physical issues were detected. My heart and lungs sounded fine. But I am booked for a stress test later this month. 

A few things about this situation… Off and on over the past three decades (mostly on), I’ve smoked. Each of these panic/anxiety attacks was preceded by a cigarette. After I left P.J. Clarke’s in the middle of that last episode, I threw my last pack of American Spirits into a trash can on Park and E. 59th and haven’t smoked since. As of this writing, it’s been nine days. 

Also… caffeine. As anyone who’s been following me knows, I love coffee. Lots of it. Each of my attacks happened within an hour of a cup of coffee. I’m still loving coffee, but I’ve cut my consumption in half. 

Other contributing factors? Grief. Stress. Fear. The past year has been a lot. Less than a week before my first attack in the theater, the day before Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law died. The heartache, not just for me but for my family and most specifically my wonderful brother, was immeasurable. Also, on the very day that I went to see the show, I’d learned that someone I love very much – someone with whom I’d recently “broken up” – was in the city, less than a mile from where I was having that first anxiety attack. Tricky feelings on a myriad of levels. That was also my first time in a Broadway theater since the pandemic started in March of 2020. So we can add that anxiety to the pile.

On the stress front… I had recently quit my steady income job and started making a full-time living on subscriptions and contributions from patrons. It’s going well, but it’s still scary. It’s all on me. There’s pressure there.

Then there’s the fear. I’ll be 52 this year, which means I’m closer to a coffin than a crib. I don’t know where things are going for me, and I’m very uncertain about the future. It really frightens me. 

And then, of course, there’s the pandemic and all the ways it’s fucked with me and everybody else. 

The good news is that I have good friends, one of whom sent me a subscription to the Ten Percent Happier meditation app, which works with breathing, being calm, reducing stress, relaxing and boosting focus. It’s been extremely helpful. In fact, as I felt the signs of an attack coming on a packed subway the other day, I was able to calm myself down pretty quickly. Thank you, Chely.

I also got a book about breathing from my friend Paul called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. I actually remembered Nestor from Terry Gross’s interview with him last year on NPR’s Fresh Air. The interview made a huge impression on me, and I’m really looking forward to reading the book and learning even more tools about breathing better. (Listen to the interview.)

That’s what’s been going on. As I sit here writing this, I’m feeling alright. A little better with each day, actually. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

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  1. I’m the same age as you. I have all the same anxieties and then some lol. It’s such a stressful time to be alive. I really appreciate you sharing this. I hope by doing so it goes a long way toward you feeling supported and loved. Because you sure are. Take good care.

  2. Not fun. Been there.
    Best book hands down on coping with panic is Hope and Help for your Nerves by Dr. Claire Weekes. Old but excellent. I recommend this for many of my patients and their families.

  3. Been there, done that, as the kidz probably aren’t still saying, if indeed they ever did. I was in the emergency room twice since COVID, in August 2020 and August 2021. Both times it turned out to be nothing physical. But oh dear god, while you’re in the thick of it and you’re wondering if you’re going to even be able to stand up much longer, it’s fucking hell. I’ve found it helpful to do the thing where you engage all your senses — something to the effect of look at and name five things around you, identify some sounds, tastes, smells, things you can touch (a certain number of each of these things; I don’t remember now). I find that pinching a part of my body, like, say, my thigh (sexy), helps me stay in my body (if that makes sense) so I can feel something physically that is in my control.

    A friend recommended the Calm app, which I bought, and a guy named Jeff Warren, because he’s not touchy-feely “woo-woo” or anything, and even though I haven’t used it in a while, Warren did help me some.

    We’re neighbors, pretty much, George, so if you ever need a neighbor to help out if you’re in this situation again (and of course I hope you’re not), let me know, even though we only know each other from the two times I ran into you in Central Park while you were walking your gorgeous fuzzy darlings.

  4. Meredith Rutledge

    so glad you’re feeling better, keep taking those deep breaths. much love, yer ol mrut

  5. Beth Downey

    I had a crippling anxiety attack that scared me directly to therapy. It helped immensely by giving me coping strategies. Then came Jan 6. I called my GP, got some anxiety meds (low dose, 5mg) & WOOSH, my world changed. I don’t get stuck in the anxiety loop. It’s a miracle I wish I’d have found 20 years ago.

    Oh, the cigs – good for you. I quit smoking 11 years ago cold turkey. You can do it. It sucks to go through withdrawal, but you’ll be done after two weeks. Hang in there!

  6. Leigh Cooper

    I have panic attacks. I know what it feels like to panic because you’re panicking. You feel that familiar, horrible surge of fear and tell yourself, ignore it ignore it don’t notice it don’t let it in, but you HAVE noticed it and the panic increases because you can’t stop it, because you know it’s coming. Hell, it’s already there.

    Panic attacks are like drowning in the sea, unable to touch bottom with your feet, when you know each and every breath could be the one that lets in a mouthful of water. That intensity of high alert, high fear, high struggle, from heartbeat to heartbeat.

    Calming techniques don’t work for me. I’ve tried reminding my senses that I’m okay, I’m here, I’m in the moment, I’m real and the panic isn’t. But it only serves to make things worse because I can’t trick myself out of it and I know it.

    Focusing on my daughter, who is five, has successfully stopped a panic attack in its tracks (AT the doctor’s office, no less). Hugging her, talking to her, reminding myself that she needs me. Crying also helps — it’s a release. Going home, where I no longer have to fear that I’ll lose my shit in front of everyone, helps. I’m always desperately afraid I’m going to scream or vomit publicly. Having a shot of alcohol, when I used to drink, helped. But I don’t drink any longer so that life line is gone. And medicine helps, but I live with someone who is addicted to Xanax so I can’t have it in the house.

    All that to say: I really hear you.

  7. Lundy Wilder

    I’m just finishing up the last chapter of James Nestor’s previous book “DEEP”. Wonderfully researched book. So if you enjoy “Breathe” pick up a copy of DEEP, nothing much to do with panic attacks but fascinating reading. Best wishes.