“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn
It happened in the middle of an intimate moment, about a month before my wedding.
One minute I was enjoying a kiss from my fiancé and the next thing I knew, I was clutching my face and writhing in agony.
At first, there was a loud thud in my chest, as if my heart had skipped a beat.
Then out of nowhere I started getting this strange sensation—like the kind of feeling you’d get on an elevator that’s going down too fast. The feeling was so disorienting I couldn’t help but let out a startled cry.
I felt what I would later describe as “the draining”—it was as if all the blood had poured out of my body in a split second and I was left with an icy, numb, and shaky shell.
I was convinced that I was going to die.
But I wasn’t dying. Ten minutes and many repetitions of long, deep breaths later, I calmed down enough to shake off the fear and I was able to see the ordeal for what it really was—a panic attack.
It Wasn’t My First Time
I was no stranger to panic attacks—I’d already had a few in my life up till then. The first one hit me shortly after I was diagnosed with Leukemia at age nineteen. From then on it would rear its ugly head from time to time when things get overwhelming.
So when I had this panic attack a month before my wedding, I didn’t think much of it at first. I chalked it up to excitement over the impending wedding. I thought once I rested up for the weekend, everything would go back to normal.
But I was wrong.
I went on to have another panic attack, and then another one—until I lost count.
I continued to have panic attacks every day for an entire month. The experience opened my eyes about anxiety—I learned a few valuable lessons in this journey that taught me how to cope with anxiety and helped me get to a better place.
And I’m here to share those lessons in the hopes that my experience may be able to help someone else who’s suffering from anxiety.
3 Important Lessons About Anxiety from My Month of Panic Attacks
1. You don’t need a reason to explain or validate your anxiety.
I used to think that anxiety was something you’d only feel if there was a good reason for it.
For example, just right before an important exam or after a life-changing diagnosis.
So when I first started having those daily panic attacks, I kept asking myself why?
I know what you’re probably thinking: Maybe it was the wedding planning?
After all, many brides do get stressed just before their wedding. But I assure you that wasn’t the reason. I was a happy, relaxed bride-to-be who already had everything planned out months in advance. There was little left for me to do except to wait for the day to arrive.
Perhaps there were other stressful things going on at the time? No, not a thing.
My job was wonderful, my health was better than ever, and I was having a great time with my family and friends. I’d been through rough waters before and in comparison, this period of my life was all smooth-sailing.
Could it be from chronic stress that had been building over time? I doubt it.
I was practicing Tai Chi and Qigong meditation for at least forty-five minutes on a daily basis—a habit that I’d kept up for a couple of years already by then. I was in a good place mentally and physically. In fact, I hadn’t had an obsessive thought or lost sleep over anything in a long time.
I was feeling on top of the world.
But despite all of this, I began to experience some of the most terrifying symptoms of anxiety I’d ever experienced in my life. And the more I tried to look for an explanation, the worse I felt. As my mind desperately searched for an answer, it became more and more fixated on the anxiety itself.
I started to examine myself inch by inch—with a giant imaginary magnifying glass—for any clues that would explain the tightness in my chest, the tingling in my hands, or the throbbing in my neck. Soon, my anxiety was all I could think about.
In order for me to stop ruminating over my anxiety, I had to surrender to the fact that I didn’t know the explanation.
I had to accept that anxiety can strike at any time for no reason.
I came to realize we don’t need a reason to explain our anxiety, as if a solid reason would somehow validate the way we feel. Sometimes anxiety just shows up. And once I accepted this fact, I felt more at peace with myself.
So if you’re stuck running in circles wondering why you feel the way you do, try this:
Instead of beating yourself up looking for a reason for your anxiety, accept that it is happening and you may never know why.
The sooner we make peace with the fact that there is no clear answer, the sooner we can stop scrutinizing our anxiety—and concentrate on healing.
2. Incredible things can happen when we open up about our anxiety.
I used to think having anxiety was embarrassing.
My family never talked about mental health when I was growing up. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. A couple of my relatives had mental health issues, and everyone in our extended family treated them like they were the family shame.
So when I started having the daily panic attacks, I felt I had to keep up the act that nothing was wrong.
“I’m fine,” I told my friends and coworkers when they noticed I wasn’t my usual cheery self. “I’ve got it under control.”
But as the days went by, it began to dawn on me that I was not fine. I was rapidly loosing grip on my normal life. I needed help.
I finally opened up to my friends and coworkers about my anxiety. I was skeptical and nervous at first. I’d imagined I’d get a lot of caring but suffocating questions, plenty of warm but generic words of comfort, and a few well-intended but over-simplified comments like “just relax.” I expected some people would want to jump in right away and try to “fix” me. But to my surprise, I got a very different kind of response.
Instead of doing all the things I’d imagined they’d do, the people I talked to listened to me with compassion and understanding. Many of them even opened up to me about their anxieties too.
They shared with me their encounters with panic attacks—their symptoms, worries, and coping strategies. Their stories gave me an incredible sense of relief, comfort, and hope. The experience gave me the courage and reassurance I needed to keep going. Because I knew I was not alone.
So if you’re suffering from anxiety, don’t bear the burden alone. Talk to someone. Find your support tribe. Give people the benefit of the doubt that they’ll understand you and do whatever they can to help you. Incredible things can happen when you open up about your anxiety.
3. Believing you can get better is the key to getting better.
I used to think I was helpless against anxiety. Panic attacks would come out of nowhere like rogue waves, and all I could do was flail my arms in the air and wait for them to pass.
But what I learned from this month-long struggle with anxiety is that believing you can get better is key to getting better. It’s called “sense of agency.”
Sense of agency is the belief that you have control over your own life. When you have a sense of agency, you feel you’re in charge of your actions and you have the ability to influence your reality.
When you believe you have the power to control what happens in life—despite the fact that there are things that are clearly out of your hands—you act in a way that aligns with that belief. Instead of being a “victim of circumstances,” floating in every which direction life takes you, you become the driver of your own destiny.
When you have a sense of agency, magic happens. You complain less. You become more optimistic. And you focus on what you can do instead of ruminating over what you can’t. As a result, you feel better.
I didn’t always have a sense of agency. In fact, I spent much of my childhood and teenage years feeling helpless. Life at home was hell—a stewing pot of anger and disappointment from my parents’ unhappy marriage. School wasn’t much better—I was this awkward kid who was on the fringe with exactly two friends out of the entire school. And then I won the lottery from hell when I got cancer. I frequently asked myself the question: “Why do bad things happen to me?”
But my thinking started to shift during my early twentiess. I realized in order for me to win the fight against cancer and live a fulfilling life without the constant fear of relapse, I needed to change. I was sick of being a victim—I wanted to be a victor.
So I began to take actions to improve my health and my mindset.
I admit, I was doubtful at first.
Do I really have the power to make a difference in my life? I would think to myself. But I pushed forward anyways, taking one small step at a time. And my efforts paid off. Once I started seeing some improvement in my life, I started to gain confidence. And the more confidence I felt, the more I believed in my own power.
When I started having those daily panic attacks, my initial response was to cry, complain, and throw my hands up in the air and say, “I can’t deal with this!”
I was scared and lost.
But I reminded myself that the power to heal was already within me—I didn’t have to settle on being frightened and helpless. So I started to learn and practice strategies to help manage my symptoms—everything from breathing techniques and meditation, to acupressure and cardio exercise.
I believed I could make myself feel better, and that belief helped me feel better.
So work on building your sense of agency. Start with just making one small positive change such as adopting a tiny habit. You’ll be amazed how much impact your actions—even if seem insignificant—can have over your life.
The good news is I haven’t had a panic attack in over a year now. My anxiety still rises up from time to time like waves in the ocean, but for the most part, it remains quiet. I know one day, my anxiety might get out of control again and I could have another panic attack, but I’m not scared anymore.
I’ve learned how the surf the waves.
About Sabrina Wang
Sabrina is a Leukemia survivor who lives with a rare and irreversible lung condition. Not one to let these challenges stop her, she continues to work in Human Resources, and enjoys traveling, hiking, and playing dodge ball. You can find her on her blog “The Budding Optimist” where she shares reflections and ideas that inspire people to live their best life.