It happened while I was driving on a highway. I was alone, sunroof open, singing along to the radio at the top of my lungs when all of a sudden, I was seized with a panicky feeling. I began to feel lightheaded, dizzy, breathing became an effort. Quickly, I pulled onto the shoulder of the highway and dialed 911. I don’t remember the conversation, the next thing I can remember is two cops shining their flashlight in at me through my driver’s side window. I was hysterically crying and shaking, still struggling to breathe.

One cop was kind, asking me questions that I did my best to answer, telling me an ambulance was on the way. The other cop stared at me and asked, “what’s the matter, your boyfriend break up with you or something?” I’ve never forgotten that. I ended up in the emergency room soon after, unable to adequately explain what had happened. “Dizziness?” The woman taking down my information looked skeptical, and I was furious. “I felt like I was dying,” I muttered as she walked away. Then feeling ridiculous. After all I wasn’t dead. But something was definitely wrong. It took a trip to my general physician and a lot of talking about what I felt to figure out that I had experienced a major panic attack. Here’s what I wish I knew before it happened.

An anxiety attack can feel physical

I had felt stress before. Even in a physical sense, but never to the extent that in the midst of driving, I felt incapacitated and needed to go to the hospital. I assumed there had to be something physically wrong with me. But there wasn’t. It was anxiety manifesting itself in a way that I felt like my heart was going to stop or that I couldn’t draw a breath. It was a huge shock to find out the extent of what anxiety can wreak on your body.

It’s more common than you think

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18% of the U.S. deal with some kind of anxiety disorder so there’s plenty of people who have experienced the terrifying sensations I did that day. Or worse. It helps to know that you’re not the first person in the world to feel that crushing terror.

Seeking professional help…well, it really helps

Seeing a therapist is one of the greatest things you can do for yourself if you have issues with anxiety. Everyone is different, and your course of treatment may be very different than mine, but seeking professional counsel is a really wise step in coping with serious anxiety. I knew lots of people who went to therapy for various reasons but until I reached peak stress levels, I had always sort of believed that I was someone who didn’t need it. Never say never about anything is what I learned. Finding a helpful therapist was something that taught me how to recognize and anticipate situations that caused me anxiety instead of ignoring them and letting them build up to the dramatic attack I had. Also, take your time in finding the right therapist, you may not immediately find the right fit, but that doesn’t mean you should not keep looking. It’s an important relationship and you need to feel a certain connection if you’re going to be revealing so much of yourself while they offer you a comforting space in which to do so. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t instantaneously click with one. Keep looking until you do.

Be open about it

Your personal life is yours to share with whomever you decide, and I’m not suggesting that you need to take out a Times Square billboard to announce your issues with anxiety. But sharing when something feels too much for you, can be a huge step in addressing the problem. After my upsetting incident on the highway, I would feel incredibly anxious anytime I knew I had to drive somewhere on my own that would be an hour or longer in the car. I was afraid of a repeat performance. So I avoided driving for while, until I finally just admitted to friends and family that I was worried about what might happen if I was driving alone. This led to my friends offering to pick me up, or accompany me places more often and eventually between that and working things out in therapy, driving alone once again became a non-issue.

Be willing to identify the cause

For the longest time whenever I would tell the story of falling apart that day while driving, I would attach some kind of throwaway explanation of “I have NO idea what happened, it was so weird.” And while you aren’t required to give a detailed play by play of your anxiety attacks, you should personally try to figure out what caused it, so you know what to work on in therapy. That severe of a panic attack does not emerge out of thin air, I was suppressing months of unresolved issues with my current relationship and dealing with harassment within my professional environment. It all reared its head at a terribly inconvenient time, in an awful way. But it forced me to sit down and face what was bubbling under the surface, and stop pretending everything was fine, because that seemed to be the easier course. Addressing what’s causing such an outburst is the only way to not have a repeat performance.

I can happily say that now when I pull off the highway these days during a long drive, it’s only because I need to stretch my legs or get a coffee. Not to say that I no longer have anxiety, because I do about many things. I just have learned since that scary day that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Accepting that it’s there, and dealing with it day by day, is the only way to co-exist with it.

For more information for dealing with anxiety, contact the ADAA.

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