This is your brain on panic
Almost every morning, I wake up in a panic. Heart pounding, pulse racing, gasping for breath, and aching at the jaw from relentless clenching. Not every single day, but most—enough of them that I have a panic disorder diagnosis alongside generalized anxiety disorder. Breakfast helps, when I let it. It’s in the ritual. Probably in the science, too, but even reading about that can make me panic. I’ve got a book on my desk called Eat Yourself Calm, which I’d love to imagine calling for readers to toast enough bread to form a thickish bunker, grab a butter trowel, and eat their way to safety, but I’m almost positive it does not, so I’ll leave it unread for now.
Then there’s my last healthcare provider, who told me before she moved away that due to a genetic mutation I have—one that is believed by some to be tied to a predilection toward anxiety—I should eat the hell out of breakfast: omelets, jerky, and goat milk. The science was perhaps a bit shaky (at least according to my insurance company, which indicated by their non-payment that they thought that particular genetic testing was a bunch of hooey), but a medical mandate to snap into a pre-noon Slim Jim? Who am I to say no to that?
But wanting and doing are often different things. If you’ve never had a panic attack, consider yourself among the blessed. They’re like an autoimmune disease of the soul, forcing your brain to attack your body, wrenching the functions you take for granted—respiration, circulation, digestion—and intensifying them to the degree that ripping your skin off and running away seems like the most practical and attractive option. It’s bad enough when one strikes while you’re conscious and can talk yourself back from the edge. No, you’re not dying; your body is just being a jackass. Breathe. Breeeaaaaaathe.
But if it happens when you’re sleeping—innocent, defenseless, cocooned in your comfiest blankie—the shock awake can rattle you for hours after. It’s damned hard to brush your teeth, wash your face, or find your socks when your flesh is screaming and your pulse is twitching like a jackrabbit, let alone make breakfast. That’s when you should make breakfast.
Coffee, sure, if you really want to lean into the skid, but maybe think tea. Maybe something loose and floral or herbal that you can get all weird sniffing and packing into a ball or bag. The scents of lavender and chamomile were found to significantly quell the anxiety levels in ICU patients in a 2013 study, so take a great big whiff. Sweet oranges, too—not the juice, which may irritate your already upset digestive system, but the peel. Those oils were found in a study conducted that same year to lower the pulse rate of nervous kids awaiting dental appointments. (I suspected as much when I found myself clawing through three or four or five clementines in a sitting during my low winter months, but now that there’s scientific proof, maybe I can get that insurance company to underwrite them. Dare to dream.)
But most crackpot of all my breakfast therapeutic methods: eggs—slow-scrambled, specifically. It takes a little pre-planning; I have to have eggs, butter, and a clean pan on hand, but this is my medicine, so I take it as seriously as a heart palpitation. Heat the skillet to low with a pat of butter, and while it’s melting, I whir two eggs in the food processor. When they’re whipped to a frenzy, I pour them into the pan and stir slow, slow, slow and I breathe with the rotations and figure eight, dozens, hundreds if need be. If it’s getting too hot, I pull the pan back from the heat and keep stirring. Herbs are nice, but not necessary. Crunchy salt is a must. I know the eggs are close when they’re as thick and silken as if I’d shredded an equal amount of cheese into them (which on weekends might be the case), but more importantly, when I have calmed. I cannot always manage to do this for myself when I’m in the grip of panic, but when I can, it invariably works well.
I take the eggs off the flame, warm a corn tortilla or two over it, then spoon the eggs over top and fold. I eat greedily, but gratefully. It may not seem like much, but I have fed myself. I broke through the panic. I am not broken.
Kat Kinsman's book Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves is out today from Dey Street Books.