This is A Cure for Fear, a monthly column by Laura Turner on working, creating, and living with anxiety.
It was a late spring afternoon in the Midwest and I was driving my white Ford Escort south on Barrington Road, past wide green lawns crisscrossed with the patterns of lawnmowers. Sprinklers clicked and sprayed and the turbid air was heavy with the threat of an afternoon thunderstorm. The road bisected a divided landscape, rural on one side—corn fields and large, low-slung homes—suburban on the other. Past the Blockbuster, past the bank where I had opened my first savings account with six months’ worth of allowance, past the Little Caesars and the lake you weren’t allowed to swim in because of the incredible number of Canadian geese who made it their toilet. I had a ribbon tied to my car’s gearshift—shiny, blue on one side and pink on the other—and I thumbed it as I drove.
The sky remained blue and the day windless, but the air thickened until it seemed like it was choking me. My lungs grew smaller, my airway constricted, my palms sweated and tingled and then became numb. In an instant, the familiar landscape looked to me grotesque and full of threats. My heart was beating so erratically I imagined it might explode within my chest. Sweat pooled at the base of my neck, under my arms, behind my knees. The edges of my vision went blurry, then black.
I knew I was about to die.
It felt like all my internal organs had shifted—heart in throat, stomach near my pubic bone, brain rattling around in my ears—as if I’d been chewed up by some giant monster. I had wrapped the ribbon around my right hand so tightly the tips of my fingers were white, but I didn’t remember winding it. Somehow, I edged the car onto an embankment and, when stopped, rammed my seat back and put my head between my knees. The body in which I’d lived for seventeen years had become an unfamiliar vessel of terror, and returning it to its normal state was not a spell I knew how to cast.
In time—minutes, although it felt like hours—my breathing returned to normal. Blood flowed to my limbs again, and my heart beat less wildly. The sweat dried sticky on my cold skin. I felt sick and afraid, but the worst of it was over. I was sitting in a small pullout across the street from a hospital, and not five minutes had passed since the first flash of panic, but it felt as if the whole world had changed in that tiny span—myself most of all.
If anxiety understood properly is a disproportionate fear of the future, then panic understood properly is a terrible and visceral fear of fear. It is terror distilled, a bouillon cube of anxiety for your already-rattled nervous system. To have a panic attack is to experience, out of the blue and in no relationship to reality, the debilitating and sickening coup of fear. The Greek god Pan, when in one of his mischievous moods, was said to have given such a terrible shout that all the nearby animals and opponents would shriek and run away. A panic attack is what happens when one’s body tries to shriek and run away, but cannot.
Job, the character in the Old Testament of the Bible who has had his family and property and health stripped from him by God, puts words to this kind of pervasive fear:
Terrors are turned upon me: they pursue my soul as the wind: and my welfare passeth away as a cloud. And now my soul is poured out upon me; the days of affliction have taken hold upon me. My bones are pierced in me in the night season: and my sinews take no rest. By the great force of my disease is my garment changed: it bindeth me about as the collar of my coat. He hath cast me into the mire, and I am become like dust and ashes.
Dust and ashes—the remnants of life. We panic when what we hold dear is threatened; this is why financial crises have often been called panics, as in the Panic of 1907, when, in three weeks’ time, the New York Stock Exchange lost nearly half its value. We treasure money, value it, keep it, arrange for its preservation and growth, and when its status is threatened, we panic.
The panic of 2003 in my white Ford Escort was in some ways a direct response to the circumstances of my life, although why it struck at that particular moment is a mystery I can’t quite crack. I was preparing to move across the country for college, already a fearful prospect for an anxious homebody like me, and a few weeks earlier I had learned that my family would soon be moving, too. Everything that had been familiar to me would be packed into boxes and relegated to memory or dorm room closets. Cognitively, I knew I would be okay. Physically, the world was closing in on me. Once at college, I would find myself in a pile on the dorm room floor almost once a week, endeavoring to hide my breakdowns from those who would, if they knew, surely judge me.
These days, it often feels as though the world is closing in on all of us. The siren songs of Twitter and media alerts beckon, even though we know that more news and more information can lead to excessive anxiety. In this environment, it is easy to see panic as a moral good, but this is an impulse I am trying to resist. I know people who check social media endlessly, as if their integrity is dependent on knowing and responding to every new cycle of outrage. But in between gaining knowledge and acting, there is a Bermuda Triangle of helplessness and fear that can lead to panic.
Margaret Atwood spoke to this in a recent issue of Anxy , a magazine devoted to exploring fear: “Panic is your enemy no matter what situation you’re in. So [you should be] training yourself not to panic.” Easier said than done, but she’s right about panic being the enemy. Outside of emergency situations, panic rarely leads anyone to good or selfless action. Most of the time, my own panic is myopic, constrictive, saturated in self-pity and suspicion. Nothing makes me want to escape my life entirely more than panic, and nothing so constricts my vision of what is possible.
In “The Story of a Panic,” E. M. Forster writes about the sickness of panic, the sense of incongruity it can bring when it arrives on a sunny day out of the blue. A group of friends from England are on holiday in the Italian countryside, relaxing under the shade of nearby chestnut trees after a leisurely lunch. There they argue about nature and poetry and the Greek god Pan before being overtaken by a silence, a sudden wind. The narrator observes, “[T]hough the fair blue sky was above me, and the green spring woods beneath me, and the kindest of friends around me, yet I became terribly frightened, more frightened than I ever wish to become again, frightened in a way I never have known either before or after. And in the eyes of the others, too, I saw blank, expressionless fear, while their mouths strove in vain to speak and their hands to gesticulate.”
That is panic—the nightmare attempt to scream only to find you have no voice, the dull edge of a headache that promises to turn into something more, the sudden loss of feeling in the fingers. It’s a sensation I’m less familiar with at the moment, since panic attacks visit me less frequently now than they did in my college years. It isn’t that life has fully stabilized since then; it’s that I have learned how to live with my panic, like you learn to live with your shadow. Now, when I have my annual panic attacks, I can recognize the signs of onset immediately. I try to breathe slowly, try to calm my thoughts, try to cool down by lifting my hair up and exhaling long and slow. This can help, but it never stops the panic—there is no out ; there is only through . I have been through it before. I know I can get through it again.