anatomy of a panic attack

Yesterday I experienced my first real anxiety/panic attack in about 4 months. It blew in like a crazy storm and then faded out just as quickly, and then the anxiety mildly rained on and off the rest of the day like a summer afternoon.

I felt a need to write out exactly what was going on, just for my own understanding but also to share with others who may not understand the complexities that can cause and sustain episodes of bat-shit crazy anxiety.

Here’s the basic plot: I was simply trying to find my flip flops so I could go work outside.

THE TRIGGER: My favorite pair of flip-flops of all time.


I have one pair of flip flops to wear outside. My other two pairs are nice flip-flops for going out in public. I like to work barefoot when I’m in the dirt/gardening, however, I need some sort of footwear if I’m going to use a shovel. What I was planning to do required use of the shovel. And so, flip-flops are the best footwear for my activity. They are easy to slip on and off.

But I only have the one pair. And I couldn’t find them.

I only have a certain window of time everyday in which I can work outside, which is when my baby is napping (it’s too much of a hassle to take her out with me for many reasons). She has decided that at 5 months old, she can get by with just one nap a day. Most babies usually require two, but apparently my child is so above it all and I’m sure she has great plans of taking over the world someday.

By the time I was finally ready to go outside, my baby had already been sleeping for awhile. I was in a hurry to get out and get a lot of work done (and perhaps a bath afterwards) before she woke up. So I was trying to find my flip flops.

Alas, I could not find them. I was searching the house, growing more and more anxious because I could not find them. I was muttering that this was such a stupid waste of time and energy, searching for the blasted flip flops. I stopped a few times and questioned whether I really needed the flip flops. Could I wear something else? No, I couldn’t. Tennis shoes would not work. My feet need to be barefoot, but I need something quick to slip on for when I use the shovel. Tennis shoes nor boots will work. It must be the flip flops.

At this point I was already seriously worked up. I know I’m not the only person who goes crazy when they can’t find something. It’s quite maddening. But at this point I needed to blame something or someone for my crazy uncomfortable feelings. It couldn’t possibly be MY fault that I lost my flip flops. Afterall, my 3 year old is constantly putting them on and playing with them. I was convinced that he left them somewhere I had not yet discovered.

My children’s room is a complete mess right now. In fact, the whole house is a complete mess right now, and basically is a mess all the time (especially now that gardening is taking priority). Despite my best efforts to stay on top of the chaos, I simply can’t. I can’t compete with the rest of my family. I can’t compete with my two children who blow through the house like a tornado. I can’t compete with my husband who, bless his heart, isn’t quite as organized as I am. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who’s really keeping this place together. Which is sort of a bummer because I’m the one who is most affected by the chaos that I simply can’t control.

I’m just looking for my damn flip flops, but I’m encountering everything else. There’s shoes and slippers and clothing and toys and just RANDOM CRAP EVERYWHERE I turn. I’m telling myself that if we could just keep this place organized and tidy, my flip flops would not be lost in the midst of it all. If my kids would just learn how to clean up after themselves, I wouldn’t be going crazy. In fact, if I just got rid of half their toys, there’d be less to clean up. Or maybe I should, yet again, go through and organize them into different boxes, only this time keep the boxes hidden away and only pull one box out at a time for them to play with. This would mean I would actually be more involved with them, which of course is great because any extra way to be involved in their day is great. This will also ensure the toys get put away when they are done with. Except… I’m not always available to grab a toy box for them or clean up with them and I like that they can just go play on their own. And aren’t they utilizing their own creativity and skills by doing all this on their own?? Why do I need to be involved all the time?? Shit, I don’t know what to do! WHERE THE HELL ARE MY FLIP FLOPS?!?!

At this point I’m just pissed. I know that I have worked myself into an anxious tizzy but I have no idea how to calm down. Everywhere I turn, there’s a mess. I don’t know how to calm down when I’m surrounded by utter chaos. I’m a highly sensitive person who is easily thrown off by my surroundings. I like to keep things neat and tidy and organized, and when things start getting messy, I start getting anxious.

And so, as usual, I flee outdoors. I sit on the stoop with my feet on the ground, just trying to breathe. Trying to breathe. Trying to calm down. Calm down. Normally I run to the woods, but I was only wearing a bikini and going into the woods would require more clothing. And so instead of walking off my anxiety and frustration, which tends to help, I’m just sitting there stewing in it. I just can’t let it all go. The baby is only going to sleep for so long, and I’m convinced I need to do some outdoor work, which means I NEED those flip flops, and surely, they must be somewhere in the house where I haven’t looked yet. I will not be defeated! I will find those damn flip flops and claim victory! I’ve already worked myself into a crazy emotional mess, I HAVE to find them now or I will have WASTED all this time and energy and I’m not willing to let it all go!

So I rush back into the house, looking everywhere again, but I’m just as pissed as before and I start yelling threats of getting rid of all the toys, but I know that won’t help, Robert and I have just as much if not more stuff than the kids that we just haven’t had a chance to organize yet because, you know, LIFE is always in the way and I don’t have time or sanity to get to it.

I end up back in my kid’s completely chaotic room, thinking my flip flops must be in here somewhere, and I think I’m going to clean up the room and find them. But I don’t know where to begin. I could just dump everything into the rubber buckets, but there’s too much and the buckets are already full and it’s really hurting my organized self to be dumping the mega blocks AND the action figures AND the books into the same bucket and Jesus Christ, I can’t do this!!

I start weezing, I’m trying to breathe, but I just sound like I’m weezing. I’m jerking my hands back and forth, I’m shaking, I’m whining and crying and weezing, turning in circles, just totally losing my shit. I know what’s going on. I’m fully aware of it all. But I don’t know what to do. I tell myself to breathe, to calm down… but I don’t know how. I go into the other room, which is messy too, and I start crying over and over and over, “I can’t this anymore, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do this anymore,” refering to the disorganized chaos of our home.

And while I’m freaking out, I know that my kids know that I’m freaking out. I’m trying to calm down so I don’t freak them out, but I don’t know how to calm down, and my inability to calm down so I don’t freak them out is causing me even more anxiety. And then there’s my husband who I know I’m throwing into his own silent anxiety, and I worry how my freakout is affecting him, which is making me even more anxious. EVERYTHING IS MAKING ME MORE ANXIOUS. I am hyper-aware of everything going on, inside of me and outside of me, and my mind is running a non-stop commentary on it all, and my nervous system cannot handle it!

The house is chaotic, I just need a place of peace. My bedroom is the only clean and tidy space right now, because I cleaned it this morning, but the baby is sleeping in there and I can’t go in there and wake her up. THERE IS NOWHERE TO GO TO CALM DOWN.

I must leave the house, again. I already went out there once, what do I think will be different this time? I’ll go to the dirt.

I go outside, go to the tilled hill that I’ve been planning to work in, to just go sit in the earth and hopefully calm down. In fact, the biggest reason I decided I wanted to work outside today was because Friday I woke up depressed but working outside in the dirt brought me back to life, and I woke up feeling depressed this morning, so surely I need to go back out into the dirt because it will be good for me. Maybe I should forget doing the herb garden which needs the shovel and just work on the hill because that doesn’t require the shovel and therefore, does not require the flip flops which I cannot find…. oh right, I’m waiting for Robert to till the hill once more, that’s why I was going to work in the herb garden instead… but I don’t have my flip flops!!!!

I’M A MESS. And what’s worse than becoming a panic-stricken mess is the guilt about becoming a panic-striken mess, knowing that I’m merely exhausting myself and exhausting my family, WHICH JUST COMPOUNDS THE ANXIETY. I shouldn’t be thinking about them right now because it’s only making it all worse, but that’s my motivation for pulling myself together, except I don’t know how to pull myself together and I’m feeling shame over that. I’m trying so hard to calm down but I don’t know how, I’m just crying, I’m just going crazy, I don’t know what to do. 

I finally sit my ass down on the hill and I see my flip flops there, on the hill, where apparently I left them yesterday. I feel my whole body calm down, which should make me feel relieved, but actually makes me feel worse in a way. My body is calming down now, because the great flip flop mystery has been solved, but now I’m pissed that I couldn’t figure out how to calm down without finding the flip flops. I am upset that my emotional state was dependent upon a stupid pair of flip flops. I feel like an utter failure.

The voices start up. All those voices I hate so much. I told them to shut up, go away, go away, go away. They are pointing out how stupid this entire episode was. As if I don’t already know that! They are telling me that I can’t let my life be determined by my external surroundings. As if I don’t already know that! And I’m full of so much irritation and pain and shame, and I hear the birds are singing. And I feel the wind on my skin.

Last year, during an incredibly dark few weeks of my life, one of my friends told me to go outside and just feel the sensations of the sun and the wind, pay attention to nature. I remembered that yesterday. And so I sat there, on the hill, and instead of telling my mind to shutup, I just stopped listening. Instead, I felt the wind. And I just let myself feel it. I listened to the birds singing. And I just listened to them. I sat there and didn’t try to feel into myself, didn’t try to ground into myself or into the earth like I generally try to do, but instead, I let myself go out, which I don’t let myself do too much these days because I’ve been focusing on grounding and embodiment. I don’t want to go out and then get lost. But I went ahead and let myself blend into the enviornment around me. I went out, and it was so peaceful compared to the war going on inside me. And it struck me that I didn’t need to think about the wind, or the sun, or the birds, or anything that was going on out there. None of it requires an opinion or judgment or anything. I feel the wind. I just feel it. There’s nothing to think about, just feel it. I hear the birds singing. I hear them. It’s something that’s happening, and I’m experiencing it, and there’s nothing to think about it at all. My mind is not required, my mind does not need to be involved. All I had to do was experience it.

Finally… peace.

I didn’t sit there long. Bugs were crawling all over me and the black flies were starting to bite me. So I got up, put on my long-lost flip-flops, and walked back inside. I felt spent. I felt tired. But it was all over with. I was thankful it was all over with.

I decided I needed to write it out. I needed to write this out as a practice of empathy, of merely empathizing with myself, to realize that this was not just a grown adult woman throwing an absolutely childish and stupid fit over losing her flipflops. It was never about the flip flops, and I knew that the whole time. It was about everything I can’t control, everything I try to merely co-exist with in life, because life is just messy and so, so hard at times to accept. Life is uncontrollable. And I really should have more compassion on myself for having to deal with it. Not have a pity party, but compassionately say to myself, “Yeah Grace, it’s hard. You’re trying so hard to heal, to live, to be a good wife and mother and take care of everything. And sometimes, it’s just a little too much. It’s ok to be human. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed.”

It’s not so much about the horrible experiences we go through… it’s the stories we tell ourselves about them afterwards that matter. I’m trying to find ways to reframe this incident into some sort of empowering story so I don’t drown in useless shame. My favorite so far is, “I didn’t give up (trying to find the flip flops). Giving up and drowning in despair is too easy for me. I was determined to do something and I did everything I could to get there. My anxiety was merely proof I was trying to heal myself.” 

So, if you just read all this, Wow, don’t you have anything better to do?

Just kidding. Thank you for reading my words.

Love the anxious people in your life. It’s a lot more complicated than you may realize. There are layers and layers of issues that can pile up and create a shitstorm of panic. Give us a break (we’re trying to give ourselves a break). Love us (we’re learning to love ourselves). Shaming us will not help us whatsoever (we shame ourselves constantly and see how much good it’s doing!! (that was sarcasm…)). A little empathy and compassion can go a long way. Most of us haven’t figured out how to stop shaming ourselves. Love and radical acceptance is the only way out of this mess. 

Happy full moon. Slow down a bit. Anxiety loves busyness.

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