Learning to Fly

There are important life events that people tend to remember. Some of them are personal, like your first kiss; others are historical, such as where you were on 9/11. I remember my first kiss, seeing John Lennon in concert, and watching a plane hit the World Trade Center.  But as important as these events were, they didn’t define my life. My first panic attack, which struck on Sunday, May 21, 1972, did.

I was 20 and spending my junior year abroad in London. I woke up that morning with an impending sense of doom. My heart was racing. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I shouted out to my roommate, “Help me, help me, I am dying!” He laughed, “Really? What are you dying of?” I had no answer. “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” I told him. “Call an ambulance.”

I know what you’re thinking. I was having a bad trip or a nightmare, or possibly both. But I was wide awake. I was not on any drugs or medication. That was my first panic attack, but not my last one. From that day on, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, I was stuck in a recurring pattern of panic.

I am one of 40 million American adults who suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).  But, in many ways, our world is less dangerous and more certain and controlled than ever before. So what makes these millions of humans, who constitute 18 percent of the U.S. population, deeply worried?

THE FIVE PHASES OF PANIC—STEP 1 ON GUARD: When something frightens you, your amygdalae, two almond-shaped clusters of neurons nestled deep within your brain, tag the event as remarkable to prepare you for similar happenings in the future. Whether the threat is real or perceived, the alert mechanism

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus5 min read
The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years
One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classi
Nautilus5 min read
Dark Matter Gets a Reprieve in New Analysis
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. The galactic center shines too brightly, like the glow of a metropolis at night where maps show only a town. To mend their cosmic cartography, astrophysicists have spent years debati
Nautilus5 min read
The Deepest Uncertainty: When a hypothesis is neither true nor false.
Georg Cantor died in 1918 in a sanatorium in Halle, Germany. A pre-eminent mathematician, he had laid the foundation for the theory of infinite numbers in the 1870s. At the time, his ideas received hostile opposition from prominent mathematicians in