“I’ll die of a torn heart and I’ll die young,” I exclaimed to my family, choking on hot, angry tears. I could see that my guttural crying and rosacea blotches were alarming them, as they tried to soothe my panic attack with cups of chamomile tea.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been unlucky in love, but it was the first time my world came crashing down because of it. During my four-year relationship, I’d lowered my defences, voiced my deepest fears for the future, and hung onto my partner’s every promise of tranquillity—something I never allowed myself to do. When it ended, I’m surprised my heart didn’t physically rip apart.
In the days following the break-up, my brain went into overdrive. It churned out childhood memories of situations that had sowed the seeds of this separation anxiety: my parents separating when I was barely five; parting with my brothers at the gates of their boarding school season after season—feeling worse for them than I did for myself. Seeing a happily remarried mother off to another country, some 10 years later, then losing her forever after another five years—she’d passed on inexplicably, in her sleep. I’d just about settled into my 20s, when my paternal grandmother and guardian passed on, too. And, now, this relationship, which I thought would erase these memories of loss. It always made me think: am I the problem? Am I that repulsive that people can’t bid me farewell, and those who do, have the most demeaning way of doing it?
Days became weeks and I craved tactile therapy more than ever before—the intimate kind. I compensated with chips and ice cream dinners. I couldn’t sleep without crossing one foot over the other. I used to do this so my feet could ‘cuddle’ my partner’s feet. His feet had taken him miles away in the opposite direction, but here I was, stuck with the habit.
Signs of a panic attack made their presence in the second week after the break up. I knew what to expect, ever since I had the first one at 22—it was triggered by the realization that I’d never lived away from home before. In the following years, I learned to deal with the few temporary, but intense episodes whenever I was triggered. I consulted with a psychoanalyst, requesting behavioural coping techniques over medication. Clinical psychologist, Dr Geetanjali Chugh tells me there’s merit in this chosen approach. “Transient anxiety is self-treatable with some lifestyle changes, and differs from clinically diagnosable anxiety. Usually confident and efficient people are able to identify, accept and seek professional help, when anxiety leads to disruption in daily activities.”
The symptoms of my anxiety episodes and panic attacks have always been the same, and this particular one had been no different. It began with chills, followed by an overwhelming feeling of dread, as though death was breathing down my neck. I coughed that same dry cough, uncontrollably, until I began to vomit. My face would be riddled with red blotches—I’d discovered it was rosacea at 20, days after my mother’s demise. The dermatologist I consulted back then suggested it was a psychosomatic manifestation of my anxiety.
After a decade of surviving these episodes, I finally created a little ritual to find peace and ground myself. With the onset of the all-too-familiar chills, I brace myself, thinking, “This is a panic attack coming on. It’ll pass, even if through you. Accept it to eliminate it.” I concentrate on my breathing with the help of a ‘focus object’—a picture of my mother. I sit down and fix my gaze on the faraway look in her eyes, place one hand on the heart, and the other on the abdomen. I begin to take deep breaths, three counts at a time, till the chills subside.
I deal with separation anxiety head-on. I do what feels intuitively right, in terms of acquainting myself with it—my way of self-preservation. I’d shared this perspective with Dr Roma Singh, clinical hypnotherapist and reiki grandmaster-teacher, when I first met her in 2018. “We’re born without anxiety. It emerges as a result of childhood conditioning and life experiences,” she explains. Could my anxiety be triggered by a fear of the unknown? Dr Singh says, “The unknown won’t bother us if we’re centred in our reality. Regression therapy can reveal how we repeat unhealthy patterns and trap ourselves in anxiety loops, because we seem to prefer the familiarity of the high-anxiety scenarios to the relative vagueness of the unknown.”
After the latest episode, I began putting together sensorial and meditative rituals that would help ride out the anxiety, and my reactivity to change in general. I’m learning to replace reactivity with responsiveness and intelligent restraint—it’s a beautiful, comforting work in progress.
Here’s what worked for me
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