My Secret Cure For Panic Attacks

Burying your feet in sand helps.

Author by Sarah Knight
Art credit: Twisha Patni

It was a summer Friday at my desk in a New York City publisher’s office, and I was convinced I had been poisoned.

First there was the tightness in my chest, which had started at home that morning and made me think I can’t breathe very well. It must be my new bra. Three hours later, I thought, didn’t Snow White’s evil stepmother try to kill her with a poisoned corset?

Then there was the nausea, mounting as my subway car raced uptown for 5, 10, 15 stops between Brooklyn and midtown Manhattan. I staggered the two blocks from my subway stop to my office building and sat down at my desk, where I emailed my husband, “Still don’t feel very good. UGH.” Then I dry heaved in the ladies’ room for a bit, became increasingly alarmed that I might be pregnant—another form of poison, in that a PARASITE is attaching itself to your UTERUS—and circled back to my office.

Suddenly, my arms went all a’tingle. And if tingly arms are not proof-positive that you’ve been dosed like one of the titular Heathers, I don’t know what is.

I barely had time to contemplate who wanted me dead (Victoria’s Secret? Putin? Christian Slater?) before I was slumped in a wheelchair being escorted to the building infirmary. 

Three months later

Minutes before a Very Big Meeting began, I was seated at a long conference table with my boss to my immediate right, when she slid a packet of paper over to me and said all nonchalant-like, “I have too many books to present. Why don’t you do this one?”

Please note: Not only had I not read the book I was told to present, I didn’t even know what it was about. If you’d put a gun to my head and asked me if it was fiction or nonfiction, I might be dead right now.

And that may have been a better fate than what happened during the next 90 minutes. It was pure agony: The now-familiar arm tingles wended their way toward my fingernails, which in turn dug themselves into the backs of each opposite hand, as I struggled to retain consciousness and, at the same time, figure out exactly how I was going to present a book I had never read.

Make no mistake—my then-boss was a sadist of the highest order—but I don’t think even she knew precisely what she was inflicting on me that day, in front of a table mic and about 75 of my esteemed colleagues. Fortunately, the pashmina I wore to guard against the conference room’s Arctic chill was doubly useful for hiding the bloody crescent moons that were now multiplying around my wrists like some kind of back alley henna tattoo.

I don’t remember what I said or how I got through that meeting—I assume that if I’d burst into tears (or song), I would have heard about it later from some well-meaning office frenemy. But when I got back to my desk, I did know one thing: I couldn’t risk it happening again.

Anxiety and panic disorder are a real one-two punch of “worrying about getting your work done” and “not getting your work done.” And as a classic overachiever, the panic-attacks-at-the-office were what finally forced me to seek help. (Not the intervening panic-attack-at-the-deli-in-Brooklyn-when-I-faceplanted-on-the-grungy-linoleum-instead-of-knocking-over-the-Pringles-display-because-I-am-apparently-a-very-considerate-panicker.)

***

Ensconced in my new doctor’s office for the first time since the Very Big Meeting, I found myself hooked up to a biofeedback machine, worrying about the hour of work I was missing to conduct this appointment. After discussing my various anxiety/panic “triggers,” she asked me to name three things that instead made me feel good. Happy, relaxed. Not as though the sand worms from Beetlejuice had colonized my chest cavity.

My list looked like this:

  1. Bubble baths
  2. Scented candles
  3. Burying my feet in the sand

She wanted me to incorporate those things into my daily life. But, because my goal was to stop having panic attacks at the office (not having panic attacks in delis would be a delightful side benefit)—and because my office was a place free from tubs—I was not able to indulge in activities No. 1 or 2 while at work; these nascent coping mechanisms were thus effectively dead to me. I flirted with an apple pie-scented Glade PlugIn, but that ended in a violent sneeze.

So naturally, I went out and bought myself a litter box.

That weekend, when no one else was around to witness this act of self-care-slash-desperation, my ever-lovin’ husband hauled a 50-pound bag of cement sand up to my office. As I struggled to upend it into my newly acquired receptacle, two things became clear:

  1. My husband is a saint.
  2. This was not the right kind of sand.

Obviously, actual beach sand would have been ideal, but there were no beaches within immediate striking distance. Furthermore, I’m guessing it’s illegal to steal sand from a beach and, at the very least, embarrassing (and possibly anxiety-inducing) to be seen lugging it home on the subway from Coney Island. So, I mused… where might one legally procure approximately 1.5 cubic feet of sand in New York City, on one’s lunch break?

The answer came to me in a vision of leather and chrome office furniture, helium balloons, stationery, and fake fur. Lee’s Art Studio, of course! I ducked out of work, waltzed on over to the now-defunct crafters’ mecca on 57th Street (RIP, Lee’s), and purchased some “art sand.” (I don’t know what type of art projects this sand is used for—hourglass installations, maybe?) It was silky smooth, insanely expensive, and came in lots of unnatural colors. I hesitated briefly in front of the pink and purple varieties but decided that, for the sake of authenticity, plain old tan sand was the way to go.

I brought about 10 containers back to my office, shut my door, and poured one after another into my under-desk cat toilet. After lunch, with my door wide open again for all comers, I surreptitiously slipped off my shoes, buried my toes in my makeshift beach, and mentally challenged Panic to COME AT ME BRO.

Guess what? Upon discovering that it was dealing with a person crazy enough to SECURE, TRANSPORT, and HIDE a LITTER BOX full of ART SAND under her desk, Panic wisely stayed at bay. Nobody except my assistant (and possibly the late-night janitorial staff) ever knew about my DIY stress reliever. And, more importantly, I never had another panic attack in that office again. When I got a new job, I decided not to bring the “beach” with me. New beginnings and all that. But it served its purpose during a particularly hellish year.

Five years later, I quit corporate life altogether to go freelance. Then I moved from New York to a tropical island, where I get to bury my feet in the sand whenever I goddamn feel like it. These days, I often find myself accompanied on long walks by any number of feral dogs and cats who—not coincidentally—seem thoroughly relaxed and carefree as they traverse miles of white sand beach.

Or as I now think of it fondly, nature’s original litter box.

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.