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the elephant

by practicewithdanielle

I’ve hesitated – writing about this topic.

Panic attacks sound really heavy (and they are) and looking through my last few emails, it’s been heavy couple weeks.

But fuck it, right?


I used to get panic attacks a lot. They can feel different person to person. For me, they feel like a elephant is sitting on my chest and I can’t get air into my body.

I remember the first time I had one. I was at my very first job.

I was a few months in and realized this start-up I’d joined had lied to me about how much money they had, the capabilities of their platform and how many users were on the site. The founder had sold me grandiose ideas about how we’d democratize education but turns out we were simply a note sharing site.

As I was scanning in college student’s notes that they’d sent in (yea) I suddenly had a hard time breathing. The muscles in my chest got tight, my heart was racing and I felt like I was going to pass out.

I ran out of the office, without telling anyone. Paid for a cab with my last $15 that month and sat on the curb outside my apartment and called my mom.

“Mom I think I’m dying. Or having a heart attack”

Expecting I’d have to go to the hospital, instead she told me to breathe and lay down for a while. She’d suspected they were panic attacks – she’d had these too.

They can hit at random times, you don’t even need to be in an obviously stressful situation.

I’d get these on and off for the next few years – until finally I’d get them almost every day during my last few months in NYC.

I was working 17 hour days, going to happy hour every night and eating like shit. I didn’t exercise. I drank a lot. I perceived my work as stressful and urgent all hours of the day.

Everything was critical and important. 

None of these things are inherently terrible – but the combination for me was unsustainable.

I moved to San Francisco. But that’s another story for another day.

I rarely get these attacks now.

I’ve made choices about my diet, exercise, work, and stress levels to get these under control. To be clear, nothing has “cured” them – but these things are useful tools to keep them at bay.

With some distance – I realized when/why I get these attacks.

They happen during moments in my life where I am not living in accordance with my values. Meaning the life I desire is not the one I am living.

Here is what I know.

I’m cannot sustain working long hours non-stop for years.
I cannot work for someone who I don’t respect.
I cannot dedicate my brain power to work I don’t believe in, on some level.
I cannot live outside my body through booze, food and lack of exercise for long periods of time.

And when I spend too much time in these places, my body reacts first.

The elephant sits on me.

Whether or not you have panic attacks – our bodies can tell us something’s wrong before our minds do.

A lot of us don’t spend enough time reflecting on how we’re living our lives and so we may not see that we’re living a life we don’t agree with.

This is why I love meditation and yoga. 

It’s helped me pay attention and notice my reality. These have been the most important tools for me to start evaluating what my values are and given me space to think about how I can start to live them.

This doesn’t have to be dramatic.

I’m not telling you to quit your job or leave your city or change your life in a big way. I’m asking you to pay attention.

If you need help getting started, I love this meditation podcast.

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