Wendy Urquhart SpeaksUp

By Wendy Urquhart

By Wendy Urquhart

You know that feeling you get when you're driving down the highway and someone suddenly cuts you off? Or when an ocean wave knocks you over, and it takes a little too long to reach the surface and catch your breath? How about when you walk into a class, and realize there’s a test you completely forgot about and are totally unprepared to take?

Sudden but temporary (and understandable) panic right?

Now imagine getting that feeling when you're driving down the highway, but no one has cut you off. Or when you’re at the beach with friends, without even a toe in the water. Or when you’re sitting in class and there’s no test that day.

Imagine, if out of absolutely nowhere…

  • Your heart started racing
  • Your hands started sweating
  • You got lightheaded and dizzy
  • You felt like you were choking
  • Like you were going crazy, or worse...about to die.

That’s what panic disorder has been like for me, and I know for millions of others. I’ve had it since I was 12, and I remember my first panic attack like it was yesterday.

I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom in New York, talking on the phone with my best friend Alison about some test or homework assignment, when I suddenly felt like I was choking - on air.

My hands started to sweat, my heart was racing, I was short of breath, and I thought I was losing my mind.

I told my friend I had to go, and I ran to the bathroom down the hall. I sat on the floor and found the feeling of cold tile actually helped to calm me down. After about 30 minutes passed, I went to bed – absolutely drained from the adrenalin surge that had raced through my 12 year-old body. 

The next morning I woke up, scared and embarrassed. Scared it would happen again. And embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened. Fortunately, the fear beat out the embarrassment and I knew I needed help, so I told my parents. 

My dad's reaction? "Oh Wendy, I am so so sorry. I so hoped you wouldn't get it too."


Turns out, my father and my grandmother both had panic disorder. He went on to tell me that the two trips he had taken to the hospital that year weren't for heart attacks, they were for panic attacks. He didn’t know it at the time (after 911 had already been called) that panic attacks can have similar symptoms on the surface to heart attacks. That’s how scary they can be.

He called a family meeting that evening and told my brother, my sister, and my mother that they were to stop what they were doing if I ever told them I was having a panic attack, and just sit with me until it went away – because they do go away.

Over the next few years, I decided to confide in a few friends as well and was fortunate to have them react so supportively. In high school, my friend Julie would walk outside with me if I had panic attacks during field trips. I’d give her a look and she would nonchalantly ask if I wanted to go to the bathroom with her or get some fresh air outside.  In college, my roommate Anne read People magazine articles to me during panic attacks to help distract me and calm me down.   

My adult life with panic disorder has certainly provided some unique challenges. I went through a period of time when I couldn’t eat or drink anything outside of my home because I was terrified of choking.  Driving 80 miles an hour on I-95 used to be something I did without even thinking and now, 60 in the right lane (if that!) is more my speed. My job requires extensive travel during certain times of the year, and, for whatever reason, west coast trips usually include a walk (or two) down panic attack lane at the absolute worst times.  

It's been 32 years since my first panic attack. It’s still something I deal with on a regular basis and you know what, it sucks. It just does. But here’s what I’ve learned.

It doesn’t have to define you.
It doesn’t have to keep you from having a happy and successful life.   
It’s okay to ask for help.

I’m married to an amazing man who has known about my anxiety issues since day one and has always been supportive. We have two incredible daughters who know their mom gets the “nervous feeling” in certain situations, and they encourage me to power through it.  My closest friends, family, and colleagues have helped me through a number of really uncomfortable social and professional moments where anxiety reared its ugly head. I’m lucky to have an amazing support system.

If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, find your Julie. Find your Anne. Look for a counselor, teacher, medical professional, family member, or friend whom you can lean on for support. You don’t have to struggle alone.

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Katherine Cook