"I Beat My Panic Attacks with Karate"
My First Symptoms
My first panic attack occurred the night I arrived in Germany to be an au pair. I was 18 years old, and I had never traveled alone. That night, I awoke from a deep sleep with a jolt, my stomach clenched like a fist. Dizziness overcame me, and my heart felt ready to burst right out of my chest. I started sweating, then hyperventilating. A tingling numbness spread throughout my midsection. I felt an excruciating fear and a desperate need to be anywhere other than where I was. The next day, I chalked it up to food poisoning -- until the same symptoms struck again the following night. And the next. And the next. After a week of suffering, I returned to the airport, desperate to get home.
Back in Poughkeepsie, New York, my doctor told me I was suffering from panic disorder, a condition that affects up to one in 75 people, according to the American Psychological Association, and he put me on a regimen of sedatives. The condition is complicated by the fact that it has no single cause, and just thinking about the symptoms -- such as elevated heart rate, heavy breathing, and nausea -- can bring on an attack. Although the first episode can be triggered by a stressful event (like traveling solo for the first time or experiencing a car accident), attacks can occur at any time, without warning. For the next 14 years, mine struck at random but seemed to occur whenever I had to travel or speak publicly. Naturally, I tried to avoid both.Finding the Right Exercise
By the age of 32, I was taking anti-anxiety medication daily, but the side effects -- low energy and libido -- made me question its mild benefits (a reduction in but not an end to the episodes). The most troublesome side effect was the 15 pounds I'd packed on. To help burn them off, my doctor suggested adding exercise to my Rx regimen. As a confirmed couch potato, the idea was new -- very new -- to me. I mulled over the possibilities in my mind. Running? Too monotonous. Aerobics? Too spandex-y. Swimming? Too, well, wet.
After crossing just about every other form of exercise off my list, the only thing that remained was martial arts. I had always been intrigued by kung fu movies: All those flying kicks and effortless-looking chops were pretty impressive. But I worried whether it was a "guy thing" and decided to stop by a local karate dojo (martial arts training hall) to find out. As I observed a class, I saw a woman about my own age throw a man over her hip and flat on the floor. I signed up that day -- and took the first step toward curing my disorder.
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