Why I Sense Threats Everywhere and Panic All the Time

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” ~Bessel A. van der Kolk

I have a prescription for Lorazepam.

After coming home from picking up my first ever bottle from the pharmacy several years ago, I threw the bottle at the wall and cried.

I used to find those orange bottles of medication in my mom’s bathroom and tucked away in kitchen cabinets. Zoloft, Ambien, Xanax. It was how I figured out what was “wrong” with my mom—by looking up what a particular medicine was used to treat it.

But instead of helping her, her cocktail of pills caused side effects that seemed to make things worse. Was she suicidal because of her mental state or because of her medication?

Seeing that orange bottle holding an anti-anxiety medication labeled with my name felt like a death sentence. I was doomed to go down the same path.

I didn’t grow up afraid of going to the dentist. Or maybe I did; I just didn’t know or feel it. Feigning okayness was how I moved through the world. Maybe I was doing it at the dentist too. Maybe I always dissociated.

About a year and a half after having my first child, I was at a routine dental cleaning when a panic attack hit. I remember the way it felt like time was stuck, like I was stuck, trapped. I remember acting casual as I put up my hand, laughed, and told the dentist that I really needed the bathroom.

In the bathroom, I stared at myself in the mirror, berating myself for being embarrassing and ridiculous. “Pull yourself together! You’re fine!”

Months later, I went to an endodontist for a root canal. As soon as I sat down, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. This time, I was honest with the doctor, who very kindly listened, told me a lot of people fear dental treatments, and suggested I speak to my GP about medication.

I had never taken any sort of anti-anxiety medication before. I barely take ibuprofen for cramps and, when I do, one pill feels like more than enough. I saw what medication did to my mother—the way she became dependent and addicted and how her medication seemed to intensify her madness. Also, with my yoga background, I couldn’t possibly willingly ingest toxins and chemicals!

But I needed the root canal, and I knew that it would get worse the longer I put it off. I asked my therapist, and he agreed with the endodontist that using medication to help me get through this specific stress-inducing situation was the right choice.

I returned for my root canal appointment with a dose of Lorazepam in my system and I got through it. I haven’t taken another dose since.

I avoided the dentist for five years before finally making an appointment with a new dentist, hoping for a fresh start. I spoke to him about how scared I was, and he suggested a slow and gentle plan, which put me at ease. An appointment just to talk about my dental goals, an appointment just for X-rays, never too much at once. I arrived each time with my support system: a member of my family, my kids’ security blankets, and Friends playing in my AirPods.

The dentist told me that the first thing he recommended was fixing a broken crown and filling the beginnings of a cavity. It would take two hours, and he recommended that I book it reasonably soon. I felt confident I could get through the appointment. I had built trust with the doctor; I felt safe at the clinic. I didn’t have to pretend I wasn’t scared when I was, and that had to count for something.

I ended up rescheduling the appointment six times. Each time, there was some sort of moderate conflict, but the real reason, of course, was fear.

The day before the appointment I would ultimately keep, I considered the Lorazepam. Despite never having taken it since that first time, I always have an updated bottle on hand. There’s something about knowing that it is there that helps.

I gave myself a pep talk that I hadn’t had a panic attack in years now and that I could do this! My husband was coming with me, and I would have my kids’ blankies. It would be fine.

On the morning of the appointment, I woke up in dread. I had butterflies in my stomach. I kept having to go to the bathroom. I felt shaky, a nervous energy. But I showed up. I told myself how good I would feel on the other side.

As I was being prepped in the chair, I told the dental assistant that I was scared. She assured me that the doctor was the best—so good, so fast. I asked for a breakdown of the two hours. I breathed deeply. I could do this.

Within seconds of the treatment beginning, I was sitting up, taking the protective—claustrophobic—glasses off saying, “I’m sorry. I’m so scared. I don’t know if I can do this. I need to get up. Can I get up? Can I walk around? I’m sorry.”

The doctor said, “Of course. It’s no problem. We have plenty of time.”

My body shaking, I got up and paced the hallway. I exhaled through fluttered lips. I thought about my dog shaking her whole body after a stressful encounter, and I shook out my arms and hands.

I returned to the room and repeated my apologies and my confessions of fear.

“You’ve done the most painful part already—the numbing shot,” the doctor said encouragingly.

“I know, but I’m not afraid of pain. I’m afraid of having a panic attack again,” I said, clarifying to everyone, including myself, the exact source of my fear.

It was an important, necessary distinction to make. My fear of the dentist was not actually of dental procedures. No, this fear was rooted in repressed childhood trauma that exploded into uncontrollable symptoms that severed me from who I thought I was.

I apologized again, and the dental assistant said something I really needed to hear: “There’s nothing to be sorry about. You can’t control how your body reacts.”

What she said alleviated me from blaming and shaming myself. Logically, I understood that I was fine, safe even. But my body—where trauma is stored—was not present. It was back at that dental cleaning where panic overtook it, and further, it was back in my childhood when life truly was scary, shocking, unpredictable, unsafe.

I wanted to get through the appointment. The main thing I needed to feel was that I was not going to be trapped. What if I needed to sit up? Was it okay if I swallowed? Went to the bathroom? Got a drink of water? Just had a break? I was assured that all of those things were possible; there would be no point where we would not be able to stop.

I felt the support of the dentist and dental assistant and, most of all, my husband, who sat at the end of my chair and held my foot through the entire treatment. I felt my breath. I clutched my kids’ security blankets. I focused on the lighthearted banter and cheesy jokes of Friends.

I got through it.

And I was elated.

I felt emotionally and mentally drained for the rest of the day, but I expected that would be the case. Mostly, I felt relieved and happy.

The next day, carrying my toddler down four flights of steep stairs in an old Tribeca walkup, I was suddenly hit with a feeling of unsteadiness. It was a humid and rainy day, and my glasses had been falling off my face, something I recently learned is contributing to dizziness as my eyes struggle to focus outside the center of my lenses, where the prescription is most accurate.

As logical as it was to feel unsteady in that moment, fight-or-flight mode was triggered, and I felt off for the rest of the day.

The grooves of something-is-wrong are so deeply worn that my mind and body effortlessly magnetize toward and embed within them.

I sense threat everywhere: Is my kid going to get hurt at camp? Is a mass shooter around the corner? Why am I so dizzy? Is it my brain? And why does it feel hard to take a deep breath? Is it my heart? For a while, I’m caught in an oppressive whirlpool of fear until something snaps me back to reality, to the present.

I think it helped that I did a cardio-heavy workout in the middle of that day—energy got moved around. And then a thought saved me: This is all the residue of anxiety from the dentist appointment yesterday.

As quickly as I had that thought, my physical symptoms eased. It’s like my body had been searching for and straining itself to find something to fear. And as no answers arose, it was trying harder, fighting harder.

I relayed all of this to my therapist.

“How are you feeling right now?” he asked.

“I’m fine!” I reflexively answered, perhaps a pitch too high.

“Fine doesn’t really give us much information. Close your eyes. What do you feel?”

I closed my eyes and realized my body felt lighter than I expected. “This is kind of strange, but I can’t really feel the seat underneath me.”

“What does your skin feel like?”

I patted my arms and noticed I couldn’t really feel any sensation. “Wow, I almost feel numb,” I said.

I was not in my body.

My therapist explained that dissociation is a common trauma response. It’s an emergency action taken during actual danger, a mental escape when physical escape is not possible. However, it’s not effective when there is no danger and counterintuitively preserves the fear you so desperately are trying to avoid.

Dissociating tells the body we are back in danger, and the body responds appropriately to danger. Except there is no danger.

Dissociating disconnects the body from the present moment so that instead of protecting yourself from a perceived yet false fear, you’re ultimately depriving yourself from a sense of safety.

The wiring of the trauma brain can feel impossibly tangled, even irrevocably damaged, like Christmas lights that were improperly stored. Trauma alters neural pathways so that we experience the world through a lens of fear.

But our brains are malleable—neuroplastic. For me, therapy is like a mental and emotional Botox to smooth out the trenches of my trauma and anxiety. I crave the intellectual understanding of what is happening in my body and mind and how they infinitely inform and impact each other.

When my mind thinks about the past, my body thinks we have gone back in time, and it reacts accordingly. My body is desperate to keep me safe, so it reverts to various trauma responses and coping mechanisms. The mind then detects a disparity between the circumstances of the present and the physiological reaction of the body and, to put it bluntly, freaks out.

But I recognize a potential re-centering in this trauma pattern. If a sudden feeling of physical unsteadiness can untether my mind from reality and send my body into a spiral of fear, it is logical to assume that the opposite can also be effected—that a conscious grounding of my body in physical space and in present time can coax my mind away from fear of the past.

This isn’t to say that freedom from symptoms is as simple as intellectually understanding that you are no longer a child or moving your body through exercise. Those are simply pieces of a much more layered puzzle of each of our psyches. But for me, it’s a helpful reminder that there are always anchor points I can return to: breath, the present moment, and people who are looking out for me, like my husband holding my foot.

Because as much as healing is inner work, we don’t have to do it alone.

About Leah Kim

Leah Kim taught yoga for fifteen years after studying english and economics at UCLA. As Nike’s Global Yoga Ambassador for a decade, she taught classes and led events all over the world. After becoming a mother, Leah was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, and eating disorders. Through therapy, she confronted deeply buried pain and recovered from acute symptoms. She now writes about mental health, motherhood, and racial justice on her blog, www.on-motherhood.com. IG: @leahsoojinkim

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