Are these anxiety attacks?

I had never put two-and-two together, but I think I suffered from anxiety attacks growing up.

On my red-eye flight back, I was cramped and uncomfortable in the dark in my aisle seat on the airplane. I tried desperately to sleep through the four-hour flight, but managed to stay unconscious only periodically, waking up in between, like gasps of air, except it was the opposite. During one bout of semi-consciousness, I felt a huge wave of dread and my mind was racing unstoppably through self-destructive thoughts of “you’re so high in the air right now, what if you had an anxiety attack? There would be no  doctors to help, no where to run. You’re stuck in this cabin, hundreds of kilometres up in the sky.” I don’t know how that idea planted itself in my head but I couldn’t help it, and these thoughts pulled me so far down, to the point where I was struggling to breathe and had to force in big gasps of air, pulling air as hard as I could into my abdomen. I didn’t quite feel awake – I felt I was struggling for consciousness and for air. I remember forcing my right arm up, half-disguising it as a stretch because I was also aware of the people around me and that this might be just in my head (??? This sounded more complicated once I wrote it out), but mostly in a blind struggle to get out of this state. My mind kept racing through terrible thoughts and I fought to suppress them – by forcing myself back into unconsciousness.

Next thing I know, I had woken up from the plane’s wheels bouncing off Chicago’s runway. Cranky and groggy, I put what little focus I had onto locating the next terminal in my layover.

Thinking back on it, it was absolutely terrifying. My eyes were open and I can still see the darkness of the cabin, with a few dimly lit wayfinding signs. People were quiet, sleeping. It felt like I had forgotten how to breathe, while at the same time violently wrestling with very bad thoughts in my head.

I’ve been thinking about it since it happened – this loss of control over my body was a scary experience. What was that??? I turned to Google and typed the first question that came to my mind: What does an anxiety attack feel like? I was almost afraid of what the answer would be.

An anxiety or panic attack often comes on suddenly, with symptoms lasting only a few minutes. For doctors to diagnose a panic attack, they look for at least four of the following signs: sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, a choking sensation, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, fear of losing your mind, fear of dying, flushing, feeling that danger is nearby, a racing heart (heart palpitations), and feeling an intense need to escape.


I bolded what I felt on the plane. I’m inclined to look into this later, but I wanted to round it back up to my opening sentence. This was an isolated incident (knock on wood it won’t happen again), but it pushed me to re-evaluate if this had happened before. Specifically, I questioned if periodic “episodes” I’d experienced frequently in my childhood were panic/anxiety attacks.

Upon failing to finding where I’d documented (read: blogged as a teenager) these feelings (perhaps it was an old diary??? Anyway), I’ll describe them here:

It’d mostly happen when I was alone and left to my thoughts. I was a bit of an insomniac as a child – I could never sleep right away, and after a reading session I would still have thoughts in my head. Sometimes, I would think about dying. Not in a suicidal way, but the concept of death and its inevitability. To a seven year old, this is fucking terrifying. I would feel my thoughts accelerating as I thought about death, and – I remember describing these as “gunshots”… if only I could find where I wrote it!!! – I would be suddenly hit with a panic of how inescapable it was and my heart would race, knowing that death would “come to us all in the end, and it would be… sleeping forever… and nothing would matter… and you wouldn’t know anything after death”. I would physically jump up at this terrifying thought, often I’d get out of bed and pace hurriedly around the room, or even yell “NO”. Sometimes a longer, anguished “Noooooo…”, angry that this would be for naught – what was the point of making us feel all of this if it was all for nothing, I’d rhetorically ask nobody. My childish brain could not wrap itself around the concept of death, and I probably still can’t. The only difference is my older self knows better than to let my thoughts go down that dark path.

I distinctly remember one night it got so bad, when the “gunshot” hit, I flipped on the lamp, ran out of my room and into my mother in her ensuite and wrapped my arms around her hips as tightly as I could, through a muffled “I don’t want to die”. In the midst of her removing her makeup, she brushed it off, probably saying something in Chinese along the lines of “No need to be scared, go back to bed”.

Of course that didn’t help.

I don’t get these “gunshots” as often as I did when I was a child. The last time I consciously remember getting this must’ve been a few years ago. I was on the TTC subway when I (accidentally?) let my mind wander. I desperately controlled myself and didn’t jump up and pace around, but I did definitely twitched – probably pressed my finger into my eyes and hurriedly scratched my head, to feel something physical that would distract me from the mental, as I waited for it to pass. Everything felt more vivid – I wasn’t sure if it was in its realness or its nihilistic nothingness.

I don’t think they’re anxiety attacks… They don’t happen too often – perhaps once a year now. I just felt I had to write this down after experiencing what I did on the plane. I never talked about it with anybody other than in casual conversation with my mom. But she certainly would not “diagnose” it nor flag anything about it. After all, Asians don’t believe in mental illnesses…

It’s not causing me great stress, but I’d love to hear if anybody out there has experienced the same thing – I’ve yet to meet anybody who has echoed this. Then again, this wouldn’t come up casually in conversation.


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