Guest Blogger Christina Torres
My first panic attack in two years happened at mile 4 of a 6 mile run.
At this point, I can tell when an attack is coming. While I have dealt with anxiety since high school, I have been handling actual anxiety attacks since college. I wish I knew why the attacks happened. While medical professionals debate over its causes, which range from genetics to environmental factors, I have no real answer. It’s not a family trait. I have no real external factors. I grew up and still am incredibly blessed.
Still, sometimes when a combination of stress from external and internal factors mixes with what some consider to be an already type-A personality, it can have a frustratingly intense effect on my body. With the help of a therapist and my own research, I’ve gotten pretty good at sensing the signs before and as they come: my heart rate increases, my eyesight either starts wandering or tunneling, I start tingling all over, my head starts pounding.
That’s the physical aspect though. What’s even more frustrating about panic attacks is that, for me, they mentally manifest themselves as an irrational belief that I am going to die. Mostly, this is horrifying; though, in retrospect, it can be funny. In college, after a particular stressful summer and big move, I called my mother at two in the morning, convinced that the mole on my chin was cancerous and that I was going to die tomorrow. While she supportively and lovingly helped me through the attack, I can’t help but imagine that she was thinking, Really? Didn’t I make you take AP Bio? Aren’t your father and I in medicine? You really think that can happen?
I’m certainly not alone, however. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of American, anxiety or panic disorders affect about 18% of the U.S. population over 18 years of age. Some use therapy to cope (I know the lessons I learned while in therapy are ones that help me stay sane today), and some use medication. One of the most commonly “prescribed” treatments, however, is doing whatever possible to lower your daily amount of stress. While attacks can be triggered, a buildup of anxiety over an extended amount of time can increase the likelihood of an attack. Because of that, the ADAA and other medical organizations recommend anything from acupuncture to Yoga. For me, my stress reliever is running.
Panic attacks, if I’m being really honest with myself, were one of the reasons I started running. I first set foot on a treadmill when I was a senior in college as a way to deal with the stress of my thesis. When I started teaching, I started legitimately running in hopes it would stave off future attacks. It had worked pretty well, and I hadn’t had an attack in about two years (this included my time as a high school teacher through Teach For America, and given how difficult teenagers can be, I think that was a pretty big accomplishment).
This attack was different in the worst way: I never saw it coming. I didn’t have a specific trigger like most other attacks I had experienced. I knew I was stressed: my best friend from college had become a nun that day, thus cutting me off from contact with her for a while. I had recently ended a 4-year relationship. I was starting a new job. Still, I hadn’t had any warning signs that day. While I was a little worn, I was feeling good. At least, I thought I was.
So when my vision started to tunnel as my feet hit the pavement on a Wilshire sidewalk, I was mostly confused. At first, I was worried that I was dehydrated or fainting. Then, I realized that I had actually been feeling the signs for a few minutes and not putting it together. The heightened heart rate was not from running, and the pounding in my head wasn’t dehydration. I began to feel a tingling sensation in my fingertips.
The cold, hard facts hit me like a ton of bricks: I was having a panic attack on the side of the street, and I had no money and no way to get home but my own two feet. I didn’t have anyone to call– my 2 best friends in LA were both out of town, and my parents were an hour away. Then, the mental part of the attack set in. I felt the cold, black fingers of panic start to reach my throat, and an intense pressure began building on the soft part of my neck where it meets my collarbone. There is a particular kind of terror when you realize that, while you know you can still see, your eyes aren’t really seeing, because your mind is starting to go white and blur out what is reality and what is not.
At some point, though, the sane-side of my mind somehow reached out and grabbed hold of the parts of myself that weren’t being affected by the mental strain. It jarred me into action. I knew I had no one but myself to rely on at this point. I had other choice: I had to coach myself through this. I had to run through my panic attack.
Now, I’ve definitely never coached anyone while running, much less myself. Occasionally, I’ll talk myself through a hill, but beyond that I’m normally pretty quiet in my head when I’m on the road(another reason I love running). I knew that trying to talk myself through this would be a challenge.
Running, I’ve realized, starts first with breathing. Breathing is the core. So often we forget to focus on it, because it is inherent, but it’s really where good running (and even good mental health) starts. It’s what centers you. It’s what allows you to find endurance, and also to help mentally get you to a place where you are able to keep pumping your arms and lifting your legs when you aren’t so sure that you can anymore. Breathing can the steadying hand that pushes you forward. My first step was to start breathing.
Deep breath in for four…1…2…3…4…and out for four….1…2…3..4…in for four…
My eyesight slowly returned. While I could still feel the adrenaline surging through my body, I began to be able to get a handle on what was reality and what was the panic. I began to count my footsteps, and feel the physical rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement. I focused in on it, trying to put as much strength and power as I had left on getting one foot in front of the other, in keeping my legs moving.
I wish I could tell you how else I got myself through my run. In all honesty, I don’t really remember. The entire time my feet were pounding down the street, my mind was fiercely battling down the monster that was trying to engulf it.
I can’t say I beat that attack. When I got home, I locked myself in my garage and started sobbing. Panic took over with a vengeance. I was sure I was having a heart attack. I continued to force my breathing, but I found myself on my knees, my open palm slapping the pavement, sounding like the ref in a boxing match when a fighter has hit the floor. THWAP! THWAP! THWAP! I tried to find some rhythm to get myself off the mat.
The attack passed, however, much more quickly than other ones. Within a few minutes, I could breathe normally again. I could see more clearly. In 10 minutes, I was walking–slowly, very slowly– back to my apartment.
I’m not sure anyone would call that run a victory, but I think it’s stuck with me as a triumph. In a lot of ways, I think that it proved to me the strength of not only my legs, but my mind. Running is such an incredibly mental sport. In the moment of panic, the rhythm of my feet actually gave me the power to focus my mind, and I did something I had never done before: for the twenty minutes I was running, I was in control of the attack. It wasn’t pretty, and it didn’t feel great, but for those twenty minutes I looked the monster in the eye and handled it instead of it handling me.
Running can be the metronome of peace during stressful situations. It inspires us to be bigger or stronger than perhaps we thought we could be. When I asked my fellow SF Marathon Ambassadors about running and anxiety, I heard an array of funny and victorious stories. Running can help us handle the daily stress felt by our jobs (so we don’t want to start “killing or seriously injuring my coworkers” as one Ambassador very humorously and aptly put it). One ambassador even said that the marathon she trained for during her divorce was an impressive 3:05 PR at Boston. It has helped some of us triumph over personal adversity, such as the loss of loved ones. One SF Ambassador, Claudia, used it to cope with the loss of her boyfriend while he was in the military. “Running makes me feel so strong mentally,” she said,” like I can conquer my world one run at a time”. Eric noted, “I always say that when I’m in my best shape, it seems like anything my feet can touch is within reach from my front door, and that is freedom.”
So, fellow runners, no matter what stage of training you are in, no matter what part of the process you face, I hope you keep going. This sport is one of the few where your competition is really your own mind and monsters. Look the monster in the eye, and then stomp on their face. You’ll be surprised at how peaceful you feel.
Christina Torres is an active runner, writer, and proud USC alumna. During her time in Teach For America, Christina got her start running three years ago with Students Run LA, where she trained for the L.A. Marathon alongside her high school students. Before then, she had never run more than a mile. She has now completed 3 marathons: L.A. 2009 and 2010, and earned her PR in The San Francisco Marathon’s 2010 event. Now out of the classroom, Christina uses running as a way to find positivity, stability, and unfettered joy in her life, as well as a way to combat the ridiculous amount of cheeseburgers she eats. She hopes she can help others do the same in the L.A. running community and beyond (but maybe with less cheeseburgers). You can follow her on Twitter at @biblio_phile, or read her blog at “What’s Next?”