One evening, when I was 18 years old, I collapsed on my bed. My heart was palpitating so fast, I thought it had to be on the verge of bursting. My lungs felt like they just weren’t filling with air. Crying, shaking, and weirdly burping (sucking air will do that to you), I pressed my palms against the chilled windows. My senses seemed weirdly acute: I could see the streaks on the umbrellas of the people thirteen floors below; I heard garlic pop in a wok all the way in the kitchen, where my roommates were cooking. The smell was overpowering. And all the while, I was losing feeling in my fingers and toes.
I’m not sure how long I lay like this, waiting to either pass out or die. Eventually, it all stopped as torrentially as it came on: I was back in my body, alive again, but I was too tired to care. Feeling like I’d just barely outchased a wild animal, I crashed into sleep.
The next morning, I crept quietly out of my room, ashamed to face my roommates. They had been in the kitchen the night before, when I’d sprung from my seat and lunged into my room.
“Man, what did you take last night?” said Mara.
“Nothing,” I answered too quickly. I immediately wished I’d lied and said I’d taken something.
“She had a panic attack,” Allie said to Mara. Her matter-of-factness astonished me.
“Well, anyway, I’m fine now,” I said, and charged off to class.
And I was fine, at that moment anyway. But I was also dumbfounded by what Allie had said. I thought panic attacks were something you could consciously steer your way out of, like a bad mood or a daydream. I didn’t know they could take you hostage and tie you to the tracks. I had been “anxious” and “nervous” before, and I thought I understood how those feelings manifested in me. But this was something so much bigger, I thought the source had to be more physical than anxiety.
But they were attacks, and they kept happening. They happened in the subway, in class, at the movies, on streets both familiar and not. What’s the common denominator here? I don’t know, they’re all places? There was no way of connecting the dots, which deepened my belief that my problem had to be physical, not psychological.
After about four episodes, I went to my doctor for a physical exam, which came back clean. I described what had been happening to my heart and air supply and suggested asthma, indigestion, and arrhythmia as likely diagnoses.
“Panic attacks,” she said, and wrote a script for clonazepam (more commonly known as Klonopin), a medication used to treat panic disorders and seizures. We talked for a while about what was on my mind and about how the brain can misfire, fight-or-flight, and all that.
I accepted the Rx, filled it, but never actually took the pills. I’d paid attention to the warnings on TV shows: “Klonopin is addictive,” “Klonopin makes you blackout,” “If you stop taking Klonopin, you’ll have a seizure and can die.” I told the guy I was dating I’d been prescribed Klonopin. “Oh, that’s a fun one,” he’d said, giggling behind his cigarette.
Hell no, I was not going to take this addictive blackout seizure death pill of fun. I was going to be strong and brave and find the real cure. And so it began: years of hunting for the all-natural white whale that would swallow this problem whole.
Here’s the short list of every natural anxiety remedy I’ve tried and how well (or poorly) they’ve worked:
A plant that’s been hailed as “nature’s valium” was the first thing I tried, not long after the first attack. Initially, I took it exactly as the bottle indicated: diluted, before bed. After a few weeks, I felt no difference, so I started taking it whenever I felt that tightening in my chest or clamminess in my palms. It’s likely I was starting to abuse the kava, which I didn’t even really consider. But the abuse was short-lived, as I never replaced that first $11 bottle.
Final verdict: I still want my $11 back.
Hellish, Heated Workouts
I didn’t seek out hellish, heated workouts to resolve my panic disorder. I sought them out because I felt like panic attacks weren’t enough cardio to keep me fit. But wow, these workouts blast anxiety the f*ck out of me. The music, all beat-heavy mash-ups, is hysterically loud, and the lighting is a flashing neon nightmare. The instructors wear mics to more effectively yell at you and your glutes. Squats, bicep curls, jumping jacks, plank pose, plank pose, plank pose. Just thinking about it makes me think I should cancel my Hot Booty Barre class in an hour. But I’ll go, because when the instructor cries, “I don’t hear you breathing!” I will breathe. And I may feel like I’m going to pass out, I may feel like I’m going to die, but somehow these feelings don’t run over into the realm of fear. It’s as though I’m too physically exhausted to even go there.
Final verdict: Yes. Bring it on, and also please make it stop!
Just as I’d been resistant to the medication my doctor prescribed, I was also resistant to therapy, which my doctor also recommended. I suppose I was afraid of how my perceptions of people—particularly my parents—could potentially be tarnished. But in my early 20s, I finally started going, and I’m glad I did. Talking through the shitty stuff I was worrying about was enormously beneficial. Just being around therapy was beneficial, really; I’ve never felt so relaxed as I did in Dr. Wintersen’s waiting room, listening to the murmurs under the music as she and the guy who came in before me conversed. I couldn’t wait for my turn on her sofa, for her thoughtful expressions and gentle questions. But Dr. Wintersen didn’t understand why I wasn’t taking the Klonopin. “Maybe just for now? Just to have some relief?” she’d say. I’d shake my head, sighing. “I really don’t want to go down that road,” I said. “I don’t want to just give up and get dependent on a pill.”
Final verdict: Yes. Please be my therapist. Dr. Wintersen has retired, and my health coverage situation is shaky, as is the norm in the U.S. now.
Like kava, valerian root has a reputation for easing restlessness and stress. It was recommended to me by one of my favorite professors, a great thinker who swore by valerian root and said that her son, a great journalist, also swore by it. Sadly for me, valerian was about as effective as kava, which is to say that years later, I found the bottle in a drawer, one-third full, expired, still packed in its protective cotton.
Final Verdict: Nope. Pretty upset it didn’t work out for me like it did for my professor and her son.
I started doing yoga in college, but my practice then consisted mainly of a weekly beginner’s class and browsing through yoga magazines in Barnes & Noble. Eventually, I upped the ante and splurged on a yoga membership. Initially, I fancied the yoga studio a kind of safe space against panic attacks, but my brain proved to have an ironic sense of humor; more than a few times, I’d be mid-vinyasa flow and end up quietly gasping, wondering how I could bolt to the bathroom to calm down without disturbing anybody. But even after an anxious class, I always walk out with the heaviness off my chest, my breath restored, and my pulse normal.
Final verdict: Absolutely helps.
I can’t assess this one because I’m still trying to figure out how the hell to do it. I sit tall, focus on my breath, and try to let those thoughts just float on by, but I haven’t been able to break through that thought wall, and my thinking tends to turn on the breathing: judges it, worries about it, tries to fix it.
Final Verdict: ¯_(ツ)_/¯
A panic disorder is a pretty legit way to get a medical marijuana card if you reside in a state like California, where I now live. I know so many people who praise weed as an anxiety healer, THC lollipops dangling from their mouths. I am so envious of these perfect pot candidates. So far for me, weed is only good for the creation of panic attacks.
Final Verdict: Leaning toward no, but not certain. As my stoner pals keep telling me, maybe I just haven’t found the right kind yet.
Magnesium is a mineral our bodies require for a number of reasons, such as blood sugar control and nerve function, and some research suggests it might help you sleep, which is perhaps why you’re seeing all those Facebook ads for magnesium sleep aids (you’re seeing them too, right?). I started taking a magnesium potion at night, which does indeed seem to help me fall asleep. This helps, since if you have anxiety or panic, fatigue can play a role in flare-ups. The problem? Magnesium’s magical effects also work as a mild laxative. It’s hard to get rest when you’re rushing to the toilet at 4 a.m.
Final Verdict: Yes, no, and poo.
In addition to testing potential remedies, I’ve also cut out possible contributors to anxiety. At various points, I’ve expelled caffeine, alcohol, sugar, processed foods, and even certain stressful people from my life. I suppose all these eliminations have benefited my health, however subtly, but I can’t honestly say they did much for the panic disorder.
While I’m not done trying more holistic solutions (yet to be crossed off my list: acupuncture, aromatherapy, Reiki, sound baths, and religion), I’m not really all that desperate for an organic cure anymore. What changed? My attitude and my bloodstream. You see, several years ago, I finally started taking the Klonopin. There was no revelatory moment; I just promised myself I’d take it now and again, and eventually that turned into taking it every day, as prescribed. I flirt with skipping doses and tapering off, as though to tell my body, “Don’t get too comfortable with this comfortable way of life!” But then I ask myself: Why would I invite back the same old problem? Why can’t I just let myself be OK? Why do I have to freak out about the thing that’s stopping me from freaking out?
This isn’t about giving up or giving in—it’s about growing up and accepting help. I wish the help weren’t a little blue pill; I wish it were a hot shower and a cup of chamomile tea. But then again, there are better things to do than wish to be different, and I’ve found that when I can breathe, I can actually focus on them.
Nicole Audrey Spector is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Vogue, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and other publications. She’s a contributing writer for NBC News, and wrote a humor novel, Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray, which actually sold in a few countries outside the U.S, including Russia… but she never saw that money. Follow her on Twitter @nicolespector.