It happens as I’m sitting at a table in the Bruin Den, contemplating purchasing a latte. As I’m walking down the tiled hallway to fill up my water bottle. As I’m laying in bed, squeezing in a quick nap before getting back to work. In class. On the phone with a loved one. Enjoying coffee with a friend.
All that’s to say, it doesn’t really matter where I am or what I’m doing—my heart will start fluttering in that rapid, sickening way, my breath will quicken, and my chest will tighten, like someone has stitched a dozen or so threads through it and is slowly, attentively, unrelentingly gathering them together.
The first time I remember feeling this way was the summer before my senior year of high school, when locations and casting and equipment were falling through for a required film project, and it’s since become an expected part of my life. Even now, sitting on my couch on a Friday evening, having checked no less than four rather large deadlines off my list in one day—even now, I feel that phantom tugging as I breathe in, the lingering side-effects of a very stressful two weeks.
At the end of my freshman year of college, I realized that it might be a problem. It was the end of the term, and I was sick with stress. I had to force myself to eat. I could hardly sleep for the way my sickly heart was beat-beat-beating.
It hasn’t ever been that bad again, but it also hasn’t fully gone away. It comes and goes in waves, typically attached to school and relationship stressors, which is why, for a long time, I thought I couldn’t be helped.
Before I started seeing a counselor this year, I’d made an uneasy peace with the fact that, whether I liked it or not, this was the way my body carried its anxiety. And when I did start counseling, it wasn’t even for this reason. But it came up in one of our sessions, of course, and like a switch being flipped, I realized: there are tangible things I can do to make this less terrible.
Counseling hasn’t magically fixed me. I haven’t cleared all the trip-wires in my brain, and I haven’t suddenly become a master of anxiety-management. But humans are strange, complicated creatures, and sometimes we just need someone to remind us to breathe.
Now, in these moments of overwhelming stress, I hear my counselor’s sweet steady voice. As I sit down to work on an assignment, as I fill my water bottle, as I pitch in to a class conversation: