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5 tips to help you recover from a panic attack in a public place

Star Wars is about to start. I am in the eighth seat in the very back of one of the largest theaters in New York City. I am also about to have a massive, public panic attack. Unhelpfully, my friend sees me wildly scanning the rows ahead of us and volunteers the following: “There are 3000 seats and most of them are filled!”

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Great! 3,000 people in New York City, the most caring city in the world, would love to have the most anticipated movie in the galaxy interrupted by me, a tiny girl breathing loudly into a popcorn bag. All I can see are the people in the seats next to me, barriers between me and the aisle. They are munching snacks. They have put their backpacks and suitcases in the spaces in front them. They will audibly scrunch and sigh and reposition themselves if I stand up. I need to get past these mountains, but instead, I am glued to the seat, wishing I had a different brain.

These days, when I’m about to have a panic attack, I have a chance of talking myself out of it. I am not sweating at the temples, that’s good. My hands have not gone clammy, also good. I am not starting the subtle sway and frantic gestures of someone desperately trying to regain their equilibrium. I am just a normal person, ready to watch the newest and most ethnically-diverse Star Wars film ever while trying to Jedi Mind Trick myself out of what I know is about to happen.I’m also conscious that the friends I’m here with have never seen me in this state. They won’t know what to do. They won’t know how to calm me down, they won’t even understand what is happening. The first thing I am thinking, as my brain starts to press in on itself like a perversely inflected vice: I do not want my friends to think I am weird. I do not want my friends to be embarrassed. I do not want my friends to look at me differently, after this. I am being polite. I don’t want to make a scene. My breath starts to get ragged. I am about to dive into this, and once I do I won’t be a reasonable woman anymore, the one my friends are used to. They are used to plenty-chill when it comes to choosing restaurants. Up for another drink, this girl is relaxed and fun and laughs easy. They are not used to the woman I become when I am having a panic attack, that woman is feral. I am not ready for them, for all these people to see the feral me. But either way, it’s happening. I’ve had panic attacks in public many times and I’m still not used to them. But I’ve had them enough (on the street with my best friend on the way to a margarita, by myself on the subway so I have to dart off and stand in a corner, at my boyfriend’s friend’s house) that I now know how to cope in a pinch. And it’s possible there’s someone out there who feels even less prepared than I do in these situations. This list is for you.

  1. Change Your Surroundings:

    In this case, I had the option of leaving. If you can, do it. Although the prospect of pushing past people may not be appetizing, suppressing your panic out of embarrassment and then really losing your shit is worse. Deal with panic by confronting it head on. Acknowledge it. Find a bathroom and swan dive over the edge in there. I darted up and pushed past the popcorn eaters, engrossed in their fourth trailer, one for the live-action Jungle Book (is everything a remake these days?) found a bathroom, and I let it happen. However, I’ve also had panic attacks where I can’t leave. For example: the subway. Airplanes. In that case, try to change one thing about your surroundings to make yourself more comfortable. Move seats. Focus on a book. Stare at the ceiling. Count to 100. Start talking to a coworker, a flight attendant, or craft a text. Mentally or physically change your scenery. Acknowledge it this time by shifting the focus. It will help.

  2. Don’t worry about social etiquette:

    The joys of anxious people are that they are usually super aware of their surroundings, and especially aware of stepping on people’s proverbial and actual toes. We hate hurting people’s feelings! But for these thirty seconds of fight and flight, allow yourself to be the rudest person you’ve ever been. Gently push past people, don’t worry about getting up without telling people why, or leaving at all. For once, think about yourself. You are late for a very important date, after all: one that requires you to scream internally. Also: If you have a public panic attack, one in front of a lot people, don’t be too hard on yourself. It happens. Screw polite. People will forget. Forgive yourself.

  3. Center yourself for as long as you need to:

    I stayed in that bathroom for twenty minutes. I breathed deeply. I played with my phone. I washed my hands. I texted people to let them know I was okay, but just needed a minute. I stayed until I was completely sure I wasn’t going to go in there before I was ready. I took my damn time. There’s no rush here. You have to get back to the equilibrium you are used to. It’s been 10 years since the last Star Wars, an extra 20 minutes is nothing.

  4. You don’t have to explain yourself:

    I love my friends dearly, but I don’t always want to tell them the details of my panic and anxiousness. I don’t need them to worry about me. I don’t need their perceptions of me to change. So, instead, I said something I ate made me sick. Nobody asked questions. Your mental health and experiences are not up for debate or discussion if you don’t want them to be. If you don’t feel like talking, remaining silent about it is a perfectly respectable choice. And if you do want to talk about them, that’s OK, too.

  5. Try to forget it happened:

    When it’s over, try to let it be over. Later, at home, maybe drink some tea and think about what triggered the attack, but try to enjoy the moments immediately afterward. The worst part is over. You can relax. So, I stayed and I watched the movie. I made Kylo Ren jokes all the way home. I felt shaky. I had fun.

Listen—I wish I could keep my panic attacks to the confines of my room, but that won’t always be the case. Anxiety is, at the very least, consistently inconvenient. A crowded movie theater wasn’t the ideal place to have these feelings, but like everything, you push through it. You ride the wave. You might miss the beginning of the movie, but you’ll be damned if you miss the end of it.

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I do not want my friends to think I am weird. I do not want my friends to be embarrassed. I do not want my friends to look at me differently, after this.

Alida Nugent

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