The first time I had an anxiety attack I was at a talk being given by humorist Roy Blount, Jr. I was sitting in the front row of the auditorium, listening and laughing as Roy talked about his latest book–which was on the oddities of language–when I suddenly began to feel as though I couldn’t breathe.
Over the next few minutes–as Roy continued talking, and the audience continued laughing–my heart started pounding, I began sweating all over, and I became extremely dizzy. Somehow, I managed to get up and get to the bathroom. By that time I had lost feeling in my fingertips, my heart was trying to jump out of my chest, and I was having trouble concentrating. I locked myself in a stall, stuck my head between my knees, and took deep breaths until I calmed down, until I started feeling all right.
Back at my house some half an hour later, I told myself the feelings were a fluke, a one-time event. I had just returned from the Peace Corps, and would begin graduate school in a few months; it made sense that I would be stressed. This would all fade, however, as my life calmed down. Soon, I assured myself, everything would be back to normal.
However, over the next few weeks, I experienced the same thing, time and time again. At dinners with friends, riding the subway, even just driving around, suddenly I would start to feel my chest tighten, the world would spin, and my heart-rate would kick up out of control. After a month I went to a psychologist, who told me that I had developed an anxiety disorder.
Later, I would learn that anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the world, and that they affect women roughly twice as often as men. Often developing between late adolescence and early adulthood, anxiety disorders can develop spontaneously or be triggered by certain events. Though no one knows exactly why they develop, genetics and environment are both thought to play a role.
Knowing this information did not comfort me. Having an anxiety disorder made me feel broken, as though there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I hated that feeling. I hated that things that had once been easy for me were suddenly difficult, and I hated that I was anxious no matter what I did, no matter where I went.
Despite these feelings, I made the decision fairly early on to try to deal with anxiety without the aid of medication. I had friends who had taken anti-anxiety drugs, who had found them helpful, but I personally wanted to stay off of medication as much as I could, for as long as I could. With my psychologist, I worked out a plan for dealing with my anxiety without medication involving regular therapy appointments, activities (such as meditation) to help me de-stress, and developing a regular exercise routine.
Regular exercise is widely recognized as helpful in reducing feelings of anxiety and depression, both in the short and long term. Studies indicate that it doesn’t really matter what type of exercise you do; routines as basic as walking for at least fifteen minutes every day seem to help. My psychologist suggested something simple and relaxing; running say, or yoga. I chose to try the circus.
I found out about circus classes through my graduate school. In an attempt to help students become more active, the university had paired with local outlets – places that taught pole-dancing, belly-dancing, yoga, salsa, swimming – to offer discounted classes to students. I chose to try circus arts because it seemed like something daring, and fun, and just a little bit odd. Something, in other words, that the adventurous, boundary-pushing, pre-anxiety me would have tried.
Walking into a gym that offers circus classes is not like walking into your typical athletic facility. There are no stationary bikes, no treadmills, no weights. Instead, there is an open room, with a myriad of equipment hanging from the ceiling. There are the long, colorful pieces of cloth known as silks or fabrics, which performers climb, drop down from, and pose in. There is the Spanish web, a rope that you do tricks from, pose, and spin on. There are lyras, large wooden hoops that performers climb into, out of, and hang from.
The piece that really drew my eye, though, was the flying trapeze. Flying trapeze rigs are made up of a ladder, a platform, and two swinging trapezes with a net strung underneath them. The trapezes hang roughly thirty feet above the ground. The very first time I saw the equipment I was hooked, I wanted to master it all.
Learning circus arts was a huge challenge for me, both physically and mentally. It took me almost a month before I developed enough arm strength to complete even one trick. On top of that, there was the anxiety. It would hit me at the worst times – after I had climbed halfway up the silks or while I was standing on the flying trapeze platform, ready to jump.
Things changed gradually. I noticed the increase in arm strength first: I could hang from the silks longer, and could pull myself up onto the lyra without jumping. Slowly, I began to master tricks, to perform catches on the flying trapeze, to achieve successful drops on the silks. At the same time, my anxiety began fading—and not just from my circus classes, but from my life.
No one knows exactly why exercise seems to mitigate anxiety and depression. It could be that the release of endorphins helps with mood stabilization. It could be that it’s just the normal benefits of exercise – reducing stress, improving sleep – that help. One recent study suggested that regular exercise increases the presence of neurotransmitters, which help to dissipate stress. Whatever the reason, for me, doing regular exercise had a noticeable effect. I always felt less anxious leaving circus classes than I had walking in, and in the long term, I felt calmer and happier when I was doing circus regularly, and tenser, more anxious, whenever I took a long break.
I noticed something else as well. Having an anxiety disorder had made me feel like I was incapable of facing the everyday challenges of the world. This, in turn, had rendered me less able to handle anxiety when I experienced it. Doing circus classes reminded me that I was strong. I remember being out at dinner one time when I began feeling anxious, and was overcome by the urge to run away. “Enough,” I thought to myself. “If I can do the splits upside-down on a flying trapeze, I can get through dinner.”
It has been almost three years, now, since I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Although anxiety is no longer something I persistently experience, I still get anxious sometimes. I have come to the realization, and the acceptance, that anxiety may be something that is with me for the rest of my life. This is not a pleasant prospect, but it is an okay one.
The other day, for example, I found myself getting anxious when I was trying a new drop on the silks. The way the trick was supposed to function was that I would climb the silks, wrap them around my body, let go and fall roughly 15 feet before the silks would catch me just shy of the ground. But when I got to the top of the silks, my breathing came short, my heart began to pound, and I found I couldn’t do the trick. I unwrapped myself from the silks, and climbed back to the ground.
Waiting for me at the bottom was a friend who has also experienced anxiety. Most of our conversations on the subject center around the fact that you cannot control your fears, just your reactions to them. This applies to things as difficult as a straddle-kneehang-catch on a flying trapeze, or as seemingly simple as walking out your front door even when you feel unable to face what lies beyond it.
“It’s okay,” my friend told me when I was back on the ground. “Take some time, then go back to the silks, climb up, do the wrap, count to three in your head, and let go.”
So I did. I took a few minutes to breathe deeply, then I climbed back up the fabrics, got myself into position, and waited.
“One,” I counted under my breath. “Two. Three.”
And then I let go.