Public Transportation with a Side of Hyperventilation

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My head pounded at the same accelerated pace as my heart.  My stomach ached like I’d just eaten day old sushi I left out all night. My hands shook violently and felt slippery with sweat. In the midst of a panic attack, I sat on a bus from the airport into Athens, Greece with 11 of my favorite people.

A month ago, I found myself in almost the exact same position except I sat on a train heading towards London—alone. I felt calm and made jokes to myself as I made my way into the city. I had no stomach ache, no shaky hands and no panic attack.

The bus wasn’t a high-pressure situation; two professors watched my back along with 11 other students. But in London, I had no one while heading into a city I didn’t know.

I am no stranger to panic attacks. In seventh grade, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and a panic disorder. The shaky hyperventilation wasn’t new, but it still felt scary and frustrating especially in a place as beautiful as Greece. I should’ve been able to enjoy myself, dammit.  Unfortunately I couldn’t do much except practice deep breathing and wait it out.

I traveled all over Europe and even to Morocco, with Greece as one of our last trips. I found myself in several scary, stress inducing situations. I missed a train in Rome and got very lost, in Malta someone chased me down a street. Perhaps worst of all, I got stranded by myself at 2 a.m. in London. These situations hadn’t worried me. I knew how to deal with them: Google Maps, a firm voice and the art of hailing a taxi. But for some reason the Athenian public transportation system was just too much.

I bounced repeatedly up and down, getting out of my seat, sitting back down, listened to music, changed it to a podcast and decided to read a book instead. My mind raced, but my thoughts weren’t negative, just jumpy. Who would I room with this weekend? What had the girls fought about upstairs? Did Maddie think I was weird because I couldn’t stop moving?

This panic attack stemmed from how smoothly this trip had gone so far. We hadn’t encountered any issues that seriously stressed me out, so that meant something had to go wrong. Maybe our hotel wouldn’t find out reservation or our bus would crash or maybe we wouldn’t find anyone who spoke English.

We were supposed to stay in Istanbul, Turkey this weekend but the recent bombings prompted a change of plans. I honestly think I’ve felt more comfortable in Istanbul where I would’ve stayed on high alert anyway. Instead I was in Athens, a gorgeous and safe city where a large majority of people spoke at least some English. I couldn’t stop freaking out.

Nothing happened though—the bus ride ran smoother than a new jar of peanut butter.

Outside the bus window we passed by stores, grocery marts and Nike stores. Most had English and Greek signs, which to me looked like a string of fraternity houses. In the distance I saw mountains I wished I could climb, looming behind the cities overlooking us as we drove by. Many brushed the clouds as if they hid the Greek gods at their peaks.

Despite the steamy weather, I saw snow covering the mountain peaks. Although the foreground could have been my home town with a Greek infusion, the gorgeous mountains reminded me that I was a long way from home. Athens didn’t look as old world as I thought it would. Within two blocks, I saw a KFC and a McDonald’s. Fascinating, am I right? Everything seemed the very opposite of anxiety-inducing.

Anxiety holds me a hostage in my own mind, thinking about my experiences rather than living them. Most of the time I can snap myself out of it, and when we arrived at the hotel that’s just what I did. I sat down on the edge of the bed and firmly thought, “You’re going to have some goddamn fun this weekend, Fran.” I stood up and went downstairs to meet the others.

The rest of our time in Athens was wonderful, my nerves calmed and I enjoyed myself while experiencing beautiful Athenian temples, wonderful shopping and very odd wine. Just like the bus ride full of opportunities for taking gorgeous pictures, this trip couldn’t be more awesome.

Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes my anxiety does get the best of me and I’ll find myself stuck in a whirlwind of negative thoughts. No amount of experience exempts you from the panic of your own mind.

That of course doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t overcome your anxiety, but rather it’s a reminder that mental illness is an ongoing battle. As scary as it might sound, you cannot run away from yourself—your anxiety can and will follow you around the world. My own anxiety pops up when things seem calm or when I’m bored in a long snooze-worthy lecture, giving me time to analyze and overanalyze. Strangely enough, when stressful situations pop up, I actually stay calm and can do what’s needed.

There’s an art to learning to appreciate these experiences as well. They’re valuable because they teach strength and resilience through the obstacles the mind builds. They can bring more world experience than traveling around the globe. They teach me about my own mind, how to avoid these situations and how to take myself out of my own head when I am in a place as beautiful as Greece.

Frances Stevenson is a staff writer from Luther College in Decorah Iowa. She is a senior graduating with an English and Environmental studies degree and the Features editor of Luther's student newspaper Chips.

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