Think Having a Panic Attack Is Terrible? Try Having One 9,000 Miles from Home

A long-distance phone call from Cambodia to Canada isn't a decision to make lightly.
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S. Sahi
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A long-distance phone call from Cambodia to Canada isn't a decision to make lightly.

I think it's very difficult for someone who's never struggled with anxiety to understand what exactly goes on in the mind of an anxious person. When you say that you have anxiety, people tend to shrug it off as no biggie. Everyone lets nerves get the best of them sometimes, they say. 

While that can be slightly reassuring to the anxious person, it also strongly highlights the other person's complete lack of comprehension of what anxiety really is. It is, far and away, much more than just a case of the nerves. It is a sinking hole of paranoia and fear, closely related to depression, but with more shaking and physical accouterments, from my experience.

Let me give you a little taste of what goes on in my brain: for me, the anxiety doesn't actually start manifesting in my thoughts. It starts somewhere in my subconscious, so that I'm not even aware that it's begun to have an effect on me. One minute, I'm happy-go-lucky and having a fine time; the next, I realize that my chest is feeling very warm. It feels a little funny, like having butterflies in one's stomach, but they're higher up and near my rib cage instead. And isn't that pretty close to where the lungs and heart are situated? Does that mean that something's wrong with my internal organs? And, in fact, the list of side effects that came with that medication I took recently did say something about tightness of chest, and the possibly of blood clots in the lung. What are the chances that's what I have? Actually, my heart does seem to be feeling funny, too, like it's larger than it normally is. It feels like it might explode. Is that what blood clots in the lungs do to you?

At which point I think I should maybe Google about these possible medical emergencies and also decide to put on some decent clothes in case I need to go to the emergency room. But when I stand up, I suddenly feel light-headed, like I'm going to pass out. OK, I think, this isn't good. Maybe I can focus on something else. Like that trip I have coming up. I wonder if I need any vaccinations for that trip. Which makes me start to question the last time I had my vaccinations. 

Actually, the last time I got a vaccination I was in Cambodia, which is where I still am, and I remember clearly that I was worried about the quality of the needle. I mean, they took it out of a plastic package, but does that really mean it's sterile? Maybe the company making the needles is cutting corners and reusing old ones. I am in Asia, so the needle was likely from a manufacturing firm in either Vietnam or India. Neither of them are known for their safety standards. 

The Temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

What if I go to get a vaccine and then they discover that I've actually been infected with Hep B? Oh my god, there was that incident of hospital-administered Hep B cases in Canada back in the '80s. And if it's happened before, in Canada no less, it could certainly happen here.

At this point I'm pacing and trying to "walk off" the panicky feeling, which will usually work for minor levels of anxiety. But full-on panic attacks require me to actually call my mom, aunt, or sister, who are experienced in talking me out of it. If and when it comes to making that phone call, it means that I'm at my wit's end, and very close to actually taking myself to the emergency room to get checked out. A long-distance phone call from Cambodia to Canada isn't a decision to make lightly.

Generally, I've learned to handle my anxiety, and it doesn't affect me on a regular basis. I have lots of techniques to reduce it or avoid it altogether. But when I'm especially stressed out, usually over something very emotional, it can resurface. And it most prevalently affects me when I'm in a foreign land, days away from the key people who I trust can talk me out of it. 

The decorated interior of a Buddhist pagoda. It did not make me feel more zen.

The decorated interior of a Buddhist pagoda. It did not make me feel more zen.

If I didn't have a smart phone and wasn't able to connect with those key people who can calm me down, I would go through a terrifying and miserable night of fear. In the morning, I tend to wake up feeling better. But it's not a fun experience either way. And the longer I stay in emotionally draining experiences, the worse it gets; or at least, it increases the likelihood and frequency with which I experience it. 

Everyone can empathize with the basic elements of stress: when you're surrounded by positive things, you're less likely to experience it. But when you're in a bad rut, with a job you don't like, or facing illness, or with a void between you and the people you love, stress creeps in. And anxiety is stress at its worst. 

If you're already familiar with this feeling, don't be ashamed to seek help. Or call my mom, aunt or sister. They might not want to be good at talking people out of panic attacks, but they are.