I had an interesting discussion with my supervisor at work last year around Christmas time. I asked her if she had gotten all her shopping done and she said yes, she had, because she does it all online due to the fact that malls and large stores cause her to have terrible panic attacks. She wasn’t joking, either, or using hyperbole; apparently it was bad enough to cause her to skip holiday shopping altogether and do all of it online.
I was interested in what she had to say because I too sometimes have really bad anxiety symptoms in large stores. It started when I was in my mid-thirties, and while I wouldn’t call them full blown panic attacks, the symptoms can be intense enough to be very physically uncomfortable. The sensation is one of panic, like I need to drop everything and run, along with a racing heart and that clenchy feeling in my stomach. Mine are not nearly as bad as my supervisor’s, and I can get through whatever shopping needs to be done by praying for God to flood me with peace and by repeating phrases to myself like It is okay. I am okay. My family is fine. I can get my groceries and then I can leave. God is with me. Also paying close attention to my breathing, keeping it even and deep, helps.
So a couple of things I’ve noticed is that it isn’t really the crowds that are the problem; I can go to church without panicking, for example, although sometimes large concerts and sporting events make me tense until we are in our seats. Another aspect is that it seems to be exacerbated during the school year when I’m working and abates somewhat (but not completely) when I’m home in the summer.
About five years ago, I was at a birthday party for the daughter of a friend from church, and all the moms got to talking as moms will about how stressed out they are. One woman who had recently completed her PhD and had her third child was talking about the constant sensation of anxiety she lives with and how she’s tired of being told to go to therapy. “The last thing I need is another thing on the calendar,” she’d said. “I just want them to give me drugs.” Most of the other working mothers there nodded in agreement.
I sort of sympathized with what they meant although I don’t have any desire to use psychiatric medications. But “talking it out” with a therapist, which is what doctors always seem to want you to do if you talk to them about anxiety, just wouldn’t be helpful because there really is no it to talk out. There’s no big trauma, there’s just regular old day-to-day life. Therapy just isn’t the answer for that.
Women are 60% more likely than men to suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. What’s causing all this anxiety among women starting around their mid-thirties? I read an interesting interview with a researcher from Harvard Medical School about the hypothesized role hormones play in anxiety. His initial studies apparently indicated that lower levels of estrogen, such as women experience later in life or directly after giving birth, were correlated with much higher levels of anxiety. Interestingly, his team also found that women on birth control pills show the same symptoms. Although men have lower levels of estrogen than women, the presence of testosterone was hypothesized to be playing a protective role for them.
Maybe it does come down to hormones, but I’m not completely convinced. I think some of it is a normal response mechanism built in to us that is trying to tell us something. After all, I don’t have panic attacks when I’m pulling weeds in the garden. I don’t have them when I’m cooking dinner. And I don’t have them when I’m curled up on the couch next to my husband. I have them when I’m stressed at work and when I’m trying to navigate busy, crowded, bright, noisy places like stores, just like my supervisor. So I wonder if some of this is that we are expecting our bodies and brains to do something that they simply weren’t designed to do.