It’s been two years since I’ve had my last severe panic attack. Yet one night last week, I found myself in an all-too-familiar, terrifying territory once again—heart rapidly pumping, short of breath, and full of tears as I tried my hardest not to faint. All I could do was lay paralyzed on my kitchen floor as its cold hardwood boards welcomed me back like an old friend.
I quietly tried to talk myself out of it in between gasps for air, hoping to bring my lost breath and sense of reality back. I closed my eyes and slowly began to repeat the mantras—or “anchor thoughts”—that I had worked out with my therapist to use if, and when, an attack ever suddenly blindsided me again.
It’s just a panic attack. It will pass. Get out of your head. You are safe. I promise you are safe. Please, just stay here with me. Don’t give up. You are right here. You can do this.
The mantras grounded me just enough to give my body the strength to move again. So I crawled inch-by-inch into my bathroom, praying the whole way that someone, anyone, would call at that moment to help interrupt my onslaught of overwhelmingness.
The next thing I did was less conventional. I pulled myself up to the sink, let my eyes linger on a tear-riddled face, took a breath, and began my skincare routine.
I pulled myself up to the sink, let my eyes linger on a tear-riddled face, took a breath, and began my skincare routine.
"A skincare routine, like any other form of self-care, can be soothing and calming," says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Byrdie Review Board member and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services. "On a deeper level, it makes you feel like you’re honoring yourself aesthetically, by taking time out for yourself. Those few minutes, if spent going through steps in a rhythmic, calm, and purposeful manner, can almost be meditative."
The idea of a curated skincare routine was something completely foreign to me up until five years ago, when I started my career in the beauty industry. Coincidently, it was also around this same time when my full-blown panic attacks began to happen.
At first, I didn’t even realize what was happening to me. Back then, I didn’t know panic attacks by their first name. "Panic attacks are a chemical reaction where you feel like you can’t breathe and as if the walls are caving in," Dr. Hafeez explains. "A real panic attack often does not have a trigger or at least one that a person can identify."
I couldn’t pinpoint a common denominator as to when or why they would happen. I would just start getting dizzy at the office, and then the chest pains would come. Then I couldn’t breathe. Then I’d have to excuse myself out of my meeting. Then I’d just barely make it in time to a bathroom stall, where I felt safe enough to let the tears out without any of my coworkers seeing. Then I’d wipe my makeup off, quickly reapply it, and walk out 20 minutes later with a smile back on my face as if nothing ever happened. This cycle went on for years.
I remember being afraid of myself in those moments. Embarrassed and ashamed, even. I would think, “Come on, Kate, can you really not handle stress as well as everyone else?” What I didn’t know at the time was that this thing happening in me was much more than just stress, and I wasn’t alone in it. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.
Anxiety, my newfound friend, had only added a complicated layer to my mid-twenties. I was already so deep in the thick of a struggle with self-doubt and body insecurity; I couldn’t even bear to look at myself in the mirror for more than a minute at a time. Every time I tried, all I would see looking back were strong thighs that I used to love when I was an athlete but now wanted them slimmer, dark under-eye circles on olive-colored skin that I wished were just a little bit brighter, and tear-filled eyes that would silently beg to be my friend, hoping for just an ounce of my love.
I began to disassociate from my body—a common symptom of anxiety—and felt as if I was doing my best impression of myself when I left the house for work each morning. It wasn't until I stepped off the muni bus at the end of the day and into the safe, okay-to-breathe-again haven of my home that I felt like myself again.
The turning point came to me very clearly one day when a coworker made an offhanded comment after I expressed I wanted to delete my social media. “But why? Your Instagram is perfect! Your life seems so perfect.” What was meant as a compliment slapped me in the face like an insult. I was doing so damn well at hiding all of my anxiety, my doubt, and my insecurities that, on the outside, my life looked seemingly picture-perfect; but inside, I had a completely different, less picturesque narrative running on a loop constantly.
On the outside, my life looked seemingly picture-perfect; but inside, I had a completely different, less picturesque narrative running on a loop constantly.
I had spent so many years pouring my energy and heart into things like other people’s thoughts of me, dead-end relationships, and a demanding career that I had forgotten to replenish myself first. I had forgotten for so long that by the time I did get around to thinking of myself, it turns out I had little love left to spare. That’s when it hit me that maybe my lack of self-care and anxious thoughts lived closer together than I thought.
Dr. Hafeez points out that meditative or "quieting" tasks have been shown to decrease anxious or depressive thoughts. "While meditation can’t prevent a panic attack from coming on, what it can do is reduce the overall anxiety that contributes to a panic disorder," she explains. "And if you do it regularly, it may actually positively impact your mental health."
When I embraced skincare as a form of self-care, I didn’t grasp at first that it was less about the products I was using but more about the consistent time I was using. In a 2017 study, researchers found that people who have less consistent routines throughout the active parts of their day were more likely to suffer from major depressive and bipolar disorders, mood problems, loneliness, and less happiness.
When I embraced skincare as a form of self-care, I didn’t grasp at first that it was less about the products I was using but more about the consistent time I was using.
Figuring out what exactly would help me destress, then actually sticking to it on a regular basis was a trial and error process. Yet slowly but surely, whenever I set aside a few moments in my busy day, I was able to counteract my struggle with anxiety—giving myself a sense of control in at least one aspect of a life filled with uncontrollable circumstances.
Taking the time to care for my skin gave me an opportunity to practice mindfulness and the ability to acknowledge the emotions I was experiencing in each present moment, like the calming feel of water, without any harsh judgment. This is a practice that has been shown to buffer depression and anxiety by stopping worrisome thoughts, according to a study on more than 1,100 adults published in March 2019 in Frontiers in Psychology.
Taking the time to care for my skin gave me an opportunity to practice mindfulness and the ability to acknowledge the emotions I was experiencing in each present moment.
And by respecting myself enough to put up a fair fight on behalf of what I perceived as my "never-quite-right" parts and being vulnerable in front of the mirror for a few minutes each day, I eventually looked at those parts with kinder, gentler eyes. “Skincare is rewarding because with consistent skincare routines, you are likely to see visible effects such as smoothness or radiance, and that in itself can boost self-esteem, which in turn will boost mood,” says Dr. Hafeez. “As opposed to other types of meditation, skincare is a twofold way of feeling better, both on the inside and the outside.”
In this space of mindfulness, I realized I had to give myself a fighting chance to actually love the things that make me who I am. And while it’s been a wild self-love rollercoaster ride, a sentiment I’m sure anyone who struggles with the same things would echo, it’s important to point out that having a solid skincare routine won’t cure it all.
There are still days when I wake up with sadness, rather than the sun—days that all the products, routines, and yoga in the world can’t fix.
And those days will, undoubtedly, continue to unfold throughout my life. But when they do, I’ll fight for the strength to continue to pull myself up, head to the bathroom, and spend a few quiet moments alone in there—just me and the mirror.
I’ll wash my face and splash cold water onto my skin, letting all my irrational worries and fears go down the drain.
I’ll apply my serums and moisturizer and gently massage my fingertips on my forehead, reminding myself that making it hard in there won’t make it any easier out here.
And as I sit for ten minutes, waiting to wash my face mask off, I’ll place my hand on my heart and allow myself to feel it's quiet-but-surely-strong-and-still-there beat, reminding myself that this—this is what truly matters.
I’ll splash cold water onto my face once more, pat it dry with a towel, and suddenly, I’ll be able to breathe again.