“Take a deep breath in through your nose and slowly blow out of your mouth, like you’re blowing out candles on a birthday cake”. His steady, comforting voice kept repeating these words to me as I sat there.
Only it wasn’t my birthday. And I wasn’t blowing out any candles. I was 10 years old and sitting in the back of an EMT truck with this young medic comforting my mom and me.
My family and I normally take one big vacation every summer, sometimes to Florida, other times to Colorado, and even once to Mexico. But this year my mom had decided that my family and I needed a good, old-fashioned family road trip. Gone were the visions of sun-glistening oceans and warm sandy beaches. Instead, my parents, my two older brothers, and I set off to create our modern-day Swiss Family Robinson adventure with our car packed to the brim and coolers stuffed with enough snacks to feed a small army.
After twenty hours in the car, and a quick stop in Canada, we finally reached the lofty, New Hampshire house nestled in the midst of 50 acres of woods where we would call home for the next two weeks.
About a week into our trip, my family decided it was time to see more of the Granite State, beyond the beautiful woods and streams that surrounded our house. My mom worked her travel magic and found a park located in the mountains of New Hampshire where you could explore the caves that mountain streams and ice had carved into the landscape over time.
I remember that it was a beautiful day when we set out. Walking across the dewy grass to our car, I felt the sun dancing on my back and the slight breeze blowing my long hair across my face. We piled into the car and began the trip up the mountain.
As we continued to climb higher up into the mountains, the sky began to darken from the dazzling blue it had started out as to a cloudy grey. We were watching the science fiction disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow,” where an international storm essentially sends the Northern Hemisphere into a second ice age. I remember watching the intensity of the scene as the main character trudged by himself through the biting air.
As the scene went on, I began to feel something was off with me. It was like a small candle of panic had lit in my chest. My eyes darted around at everyone else in the car, suddenly feeling very alone in such a small crowded space. As the panic started growing, I began telling myself “Maybe you just feel sick from all this driving. Maybe you’re just going to throw up. If you get some air, that’ll help.” So I rolled down my window and tried to take deep breaths of air. I felt the sharp wind of the mountain air rush against my face and invisible mist start to dampen my hair as the grey clouds turned to rain clouds. The more I tried to breath, the less air I found.
I called to my mom, as I felt the warm, tingling of panic escape past my chest and spread through the rest of my body. “Why was my body doing this? Why have I completely lost control?” I remember wondering. My heartbeat was racing, my breath was escaping, and my small hands quickly forgot how to work as they clenched into paralyzed fists. In that moment, at only 10 years old, I thought I was going to die.
At this point my parents had pulled the car over and my mom crawled into the backseat with me, trying desperately to calm me down in the midst of my frightened tears. An ambulance quickly arrived and I remember the young medic carrying me from our car into the back of his ambulance.
After only 20 minutes in the back of the EMT van listening to the simple breathing instructions of the medic, I had calmed down. I soon learned that I had had an anxiety attack. When panic attacks occur, it feels like you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying. Although the symptoms of anxiety attacks feel frightening, panic attacks themselves are not life-threatening. The medic said a panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. I quietly listened to him tell my mom more information as I tried to comprehend why this had happened to me. I learned that it’s not known what causes panic attacks or panic disorder, but factors such as genetics, sensitive temperaments and stressful environmental factors may play a role. Thankfully, recurring panic attacks can be effectively treated with psychotherapy aka talk therapy, or medication, if attacks become severe or frequent enough.
I remember thinking to myself, “Is my life going to change now? Am I crazy?” Before I was released from the ambulance, the medic looked into my wide eyes and steadily said, “I know you must feel afraid and out of control. But you can control them. I can tell you’re a strong one.”
Those soothing words became my mantra as I continued to experience sporadic panic attacks for several years following. Although I was the outgoing, friendly, confident girl on the outside, I struggled to fight the fear of going into situations or public places with the knowledge that I might have a panic attack. However, over time, I learned how to control that slow, creeping panic sensation with those soothing words echoing in my mind like a lullaby, “Take a deep breath in through your nose and slowly blow out of your mouth, like you’re blowing out candles on a birthday cake.”
I was determined to not let this define who I was or limit what I did.
I learned to be open with my friends when I was feeling uneasy and put myself into situations that would push my comfort levels until I was no longer afraid. I’ve learned that life is less about what happens to you and more about how you respond. Life is too beautiful to watch from the sidelines.
Ten years later, I have road tripped across the United States, traveled overseas to three different countries, and fearlessly immersed myself in foreign and exciting cultures. Choosing courage over fear at a young age allowed me to grow up appreciating the beauty and adventure of life in a way I will never take for granted.