Learning to Fly

There are important life events that people tend to remember. Some of them are personal, like your first kiss; others are historical, such as where you were on 9/11. I remember my first kiss, seeing John Lennon in concert, and watching a plane hit the World Trade Center.  But as important as these events were, they didn’t define my life. My first panic attack, which struck on Sunday, May 21, 1972, did.

I was 20 and spending my junior year abroad in London. I woke up that morning with an impending sense of doom. My heart was racing. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I shouted out to my roommate, “Help me, help me, I am dying!” He laughed, “Really? What are you dying of?” I had no answer. “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” I told him. “Call an ambulance.”

I know what you’re thinking. I was having a bad trip or a nightmare, or possibly both. But I was wide awake. I was not on any drugs or medication. That was my first panic attack, but not my last one. From that day on, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, I was stuck in a recurring pattern of panic.

I am one of 40 million American adults who suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).  But, in many ways, our world is less dangerous and more certain and controlled than ever before. So what makes these millions of humans, who constitute 18 percent of the U.S. population, deeply worried?

THE FIVE PHASES OF PANIC—STEP 1 ON GUARD: When something frightens you, your amygdalae, two almond-shaped clusters of neurons nestled deep within your brain, tag the event as remarkable to prepare you for similar happenings in the future. Whether the threat is real or perceived, the alert mechanism

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