5 Things To Do When You’re Having A Panic Attack In a Public Place

“Feelings are facts.” -Yvonne Rainer


At the Women’s March in NYC this past Saturday, I spent the morning stuck on 46th street with my sister, her childhood best friend, my mother and her friend. We were waiting with a sea of folks trying to get into Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, where the morning rally was taking place. As was the case in like, every city everywhere, there were too many people and midtown was a fucking mess. I was hungry, my back hurt, and I had to pee (I have irritable bladder syndrome—the other IBS), and there was no way we were going to move any time soon. I felt totally out of control—and strangely, totally OK with it.

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 10.35.25 PM.png
I saw this poster in Williamsburg today, the day after the march. I hope to see more like it.

Over the years of dealing with anxiety and control issues (the biggest euphemism of the year), I find that my physical and mental reactions to chaos in the world around me surprise me when I least expect it. While I am not claustrophobic, I hate being in tunnels, and I regularly get panic attacks in enclosed spaces; yet being totally stuck and unable to move at the Women’s March was chill AF, and I was even cool with the fact that my bladder was really bothering me. I was able to #bepresent. Or: I am the biggest neat freak on the planet to the point where I clean the stainless steel part of my dishwasher more than 10 times a day, and yet every painting instructor I’ve ever had has scolded me for how messy my palates are when I oil paint. I think there’s something these contexts have in common—stepping outside of myself, and specifically, releasing the comfort I associate with scratching the itch of my neuroses. When I’m painting, when I’m protesting, when I’m writing—when I’m somehow externalizing my energy, and spending it deliberately on something that is *not* a defense against anxiety (cleaning, counting in multiples of four, refreshing gmail compulsively)—I can surrender a little bit. Of course, getting myself to the place where I’m willing to do that is often the hard part. I tend, irrationally, to associate comfort with being by myself, even though that’s when I feel most crazy.

Before I get to the content that the title promises, I just want to preface the rest of this post by acknowledging that a lot of the content on fatfreebalsamic is “navel-gazing”—personal essays about issues related to personal growth, notable daily experiences, cultural consumption. (And hopefully, they relate to you in some capacity.) As such, I didn’t feel inclined to post a political tirade about Trump or a critique of the Women’s March, even though such topics are both urgent and “trending.” To be quite honest, I felt inspired at the march and enjoyed the comfort of solidarity, and didn’t have much else to say vis a vis personal experience. Of course, I was also very aware that the march was predominantly white; I recognize and am critical of the diversity issues around the march and other forms of non-intersectional activism today, and I try to be the best ally I can. And I am not looking for a gold star. But my point is that it can still be urgent to raise awareness around individual issues like mental health even in times of systemic upheaval and injustice. 

I am saying all this because I 100% recognize the “first-world-problem-ness” of talking about my “problems” cleaning a stainless steel dishwasher a million times a week as a defense against anxiety. But I also think there is power in “holding space” for myself and others to talk about our shame-inducing idiosyncrasies, even if they are “first world” and personal. I believe the problem with the “sharing” culture of the Internet is that it has led to all acts of disclosure as potential sites for policing. Just because I am writing this blog post doesn’t mean I am not thinking about shit tons of other inarguably more important and wide-reaching issues. I’m just doing both. 

This is my favorite stainless steel cleaner. I’ve tried several.

With that, the theme of this week: what do you do when you get a panic attack in a public place?

There’s really no good answer, because panic attacks are the worst, and, if you’re unfamiliar with the experience, can actually make you feel like you’re dying. 

Last week, I found myself getting a panic attack in the middle of a MEDITATION EVENT, okay? How’s that for a public place?  

For what it’s worth, meditation is not relaxing—at least not for me. It is an intimate experience of showing up for myself and to myself as myself, and it brings up a lot of anxiety. It is not, unlike painting or going to a protest, an experience in which I step outside of myself and can release “my shit.”

During the talk, as the teacher began guiding us through a lovingkindness meditation (more on that below), my chest started constricting, and I felt like my heart was stopping and I couldn’t breathe. In lovingkindness meditation, you first send lovingkindness to yourself, and then out to a friend or benefactor, and then to all beings. You silently repeat phrases like, “May I be happy, peaceful, strong, protected; May I live with ease” (those are some of my faves). As I listened to the meditation, my panic got more acute, and I felt, as I often do when I have panic attacks, like I had two compartmentalized selves: one that was experiencing the physiological symptoms , and the other that was seeing it happen.

Here is how I dealt with the panic attack—without formally disrupting my meditation . Hopefully it might give you some tools if you, too, suffer from bouts of anxiety in public places:

1. Name it.

When the first symptoms of chest-muscle-constriction began during the sitting, I immediately fixated on the physical discomfort. I found myself lost in racing thoughts: what’s going on? Am I dying? Why would I be dying? Wouldn’t it be ironic to die at a meditation event?

The thinking, unsurprisingly, made me more anxious—and my body responded accordingly. Even though I was “supposed to be” meditating, I actively allowed myself to engage in thinking until I was a little bit calmer. I told myself, If you were dying, you wouldn’t be thinking all of this right now. That helped. You’re having a panic attack, I said silently.

As soon as I called it what it was, I felt a little tension release. I didn’t quite yet feel ready to shepherd my attention back to the lovingkindness mantras,  but the act of 1) recognizing what was going on, 2) accepting it, 3) giving it a name, and beginning to examine it a little bit gave me some sense of control. The good kind, not the stainless steel cleaning kind. And from that control, I felt a little bit more prepared to 4) feel separate from my anxiety, like it wasn’t taking over. 

This series of actions summarizes the mindfulness technique known as “RAIN” in which you follow the following four steps in response to complex emotions:

  1. Recognize (the feeling) 2. Accept (the feeling) 3. Investigate (the feeling) 4. Non-identify (with the feeling—meaning you are not the feeling). My BFF Zoe and I like to think of the emoji below as the visual representation of the “INVESTIGATE” step—get curious about your feelings! It empowers you to feel separate from them. For more on RAIN, read this.
Hm, this feeling is uncomfortable. Let me INVESTIGATE it.

2. Laugh about it.

Has a shitty thing ever happened to you that is also really funny? I don’t ask this as a guarded question meant to make myself seem not vulnerable—I felt, and feel, very vulnerable. But I find that the physiological experience of laughter brings me a lot of relief when I feel like I’m dying.

To me, there is now something definitionally funny about when I get panic attacks. They are so debilitating, and always have been, that I have learned to adjust my attitude about them and can now see them as this ridiculous nuisance that creeps up on me on the regs. I have to remind myself that my fundamental reaction is: Ugggghhhhhh really? This again? 

So, during the meditation freakout last week, I found the distance from my panic attack enough to laugh for a few seconds. I tried to be quiet, because I knew the other meditators in the room would be weirded out by someone laughing in the middle of lovingkindness meditation. But I exhaled a few audible breaths as I thought about how neurotic it sounded to think about myself having a panic attack at Tibet House during a meditation event. Like, really dude?

3. Send yourself sum luv.

I hate the idea of self-love as like “an idea” because really, what does it even mean? I hate the idea of repeating affirmations to myself like, “I am a beautiful and lovable being” because I don’t really feel like that most of the time, and if I were to engineer that attitude it would feel inauthentic and annoying.

But I think there is a more irreverent way of thinking about sending yourself love, especially in times of duress like panicking in a public place. It involves being tremendously REASONABLE, and checking yourself when your judgment is getting out of hand. Imagine your self-loving self is a bro talking to another more aggro bro (your self-judging self), and the first bro says to the other bro something like, “Dude, you’re good. I get that you’re bugging out, but just try to chill.” To me, self-love looks like that when it’s most effective.  


4. Try not to hate yourself, which is different than sending yourself luv.

The operative word here is “try,” as I admittedly felt a lot of self-loathing every time a distracting thought came up during my practice that night. Despite all of the work I do on myself (therapy; meditation; tarot, whatever), I still felt SO inadequate and terrible for “letting” myself “indulge” in a panic attack. Couldn’t I just get the fuck over it?  The same probably goes for the times you get panic attacks on the job, at a movie, while out to dinner, wherever. I personally know that I get panic attacks at the worst and most unlikely times, and I always feel annoyed at myself that I’m not “over it” yet. 

I pulled the “temperance” card for 2017 wisdom. Just to be a #firstworldproblems #newage biddie self-parody for a sec.

Unfortunately, I’m not over it! And making myself feel like poo because of that is unproductive; that’s the real wisdom of BEING REASONABLE.  I am starting to see what happened last week as a really effective invitation to keep on with all the stuff I am working on—accessing self-compassion, releasing old habits of self-loathing and hyper-discipline. To think that I was sending myself hatred and judgment because I was experiencing anxiety during a meditation event is actually really sad and painful to think about. I imagine myself as a five year-old, or as a close friend of mine, and all I want to do is be like, “Omg you’re fine. Don’t even worry about it.” But I am not five, nor am I a friend. I am myself, and I deserve to accept the fact that I had an off sitting that day. Namaste.

5. Use the experience as an ingredient for another experience.

As I write this, I am feeling—”TBH”—maybe slightly inadequate because I thought last week’s post was better and was expecting to write this week about the Women’s March instead of panic attacks. But I am also grateful that I am exploring what this process was like in a slow and more self-reflective way—and it occurs to me, too, that this may even resonate with other people. Maybe make your panic attack (or whatever your foible is) fodder for a conversation with a friend or joke with family, a topic for a blog post (#LOL), a subject for your diary entry or free verse poetry. Or maybe you just think about it on the subway home from work and feel better.


Saw this en route to therapy and was like, “YAS.” I hate the whole “yas” trend, btw.

So are panic attacks irrelevant during Trump’s presidency? No. Does it make sense to fixate all your energy on your personal problems and not pay attention to the world around you? Also no. But one doesn’t discount the other. That is ridiculous and UNREASONABLE. This is a complicated topic and there’s more to say—so hopefully you won’t automatically tell me I’m an ignorant bitch for choosing the personal over the political today. I have thought about this a lot, and I will probably write a blog post on it even though the idea of getting really political on here makes me anxious.


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