My First Panic Attack… Caught on Film

Beth Nowak

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to go to New York City for the first time with a few friends.

We had plans to go shopping and see a few Broadway shows, as well as visit The Empire State Building, Central Park, China Town, etc.

Wanting to honor the victims of 9/11, we also visited Ground Zero by taking a walking tour from our hotel. 

The experience was somber and sobering. Thoughts of the horrific fear people in, and around, the Twin Towers must have experienced that fateful day flooded my mind.

Heading back to our hotel exhausted and emotionally depleted, we decided to take the subway.

This being the first time in a city with underground transportation, this was also my first time riding the train.

While walking down the steps, I began to feel the weight of the city above me resting on my chest. Breathing became laborious and my hands began to sweat. Increasingly fearful of what was happening to me physically, my mind began to race and I began to think the same thoughts over and over again…

Keep it together, keep it together. You’re fine, but you’re not…you’re panicking. You can’t breathe; your chest is too heavy. It’s TOO heavy.

Visions of the ceiling caving down upon us and people running for their lives started haunting my mind, forcing me to imagine what it must have been like to have been in New York on September 11, 2001.

Never having had a panic attack before, I didn’t know what to do. Ask for help? Fake it? Freak out?

Faster and faster, my head and my heart began to race, pushing me closer and closer to a point of no return if unable to obtain the assistance of someone else.

As the situation became more and more clear to me, it also became clearer to my friends.

Loving them as I do (and please know I have NO hard feelings for this picture… anymore:), my fears in that moment were compounded by my friends clambering to capture the moment on film.

What you may not see in my eyes is the rage in my mind, leading me to think…

Are you serious? I feel like I’m about to die and you’re taking a PICTURE?!?

Thankfully, their inability to fully realize what was really happening provided me with something new to think about. Something new to wrap my head around.

In an instant, I was experiencing more anger than fearwhich oddly enabled me to regain some control because being mad and being scared are two totally different emotionsAnd I’ve learned how to deal with anger, but fear’s another story.

In the years since, my anxiety has reared its ugly head more often than I’d like to admit, and while most of my attacks have been mild, a few have been ferocious.

As I’ve aged, I’ve become better at monitoring my mind, body and spirit, but also better at remembering strategies that’ll help me gain some control before losing it all, like the foursquare breath and other mindfulness techniques.


But every year around the holidays, I’m reminded of my trip to New York and my experience in the subway whenever I see parents posting pictures of their child(ren) screaming on top of Santa’s lap, which leads me to ask the question…

“Don’t you see what I see? Or feel what they feel?

As parents, we tell our children to stay away from strangers 364 days out of the year but every year at Christmas, we tell them to sit on an old man’s lap at the mall. How confusing that must be for children! Especially the one(s) whose gut instincts are clearly telling him/her…

“This is WRONG!”


As someone who suffers from anxiety and can recognize the signs in others who also suffer, I kindly ask that you reconsider forcing your child to sit on Santa’s lap if (s)he doesn’t feel comfortable doing so. Betraying your child’s trust by telling him/her lies about Santa is one thing, but capturing his/her panic attack on film, and then sharing it with others while laughing to yourself, can cause unnecessary anger and resentment during a time of year meant to evoke feelings of peace and joy.

If looking for ways to enjoy the Truth this holiday season by putting Christ back in Christmas, check out some of these ideas:

  1. Consider Jesus’ perspective on Santa.
  2. Write a Santa a different kind of letter.
  3. Play with the elf, together.
  4. Help your children experience what Jesus meant when he said, “It’s better to give than to receive all year long (not just during the holidays).

Beth NowakBeth Nowak is a believer, dreamer, wife and mother, former Kindergarten teacher, and founder of where she helps parents and children (ages 4+) “make memories while making a difference.” She’s also a mental health activist, TEDx presenter and inspirational speaker promoting civic engagement as a holistic approach to healing. For more information on the many topics she presents on, please click here.

One thought on “My First Panic Attack… Caught on Film

  1. Pingback: My Response to the "Santa Killer" - Habitual Helper

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