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The women in my family thought panic attacks were normal – until I learned they weren’t

I can still remember the first time my grandma told me how she felt on one particularly anxious night. It was terrifying.

Most of the women in my family have suffered from some form of an anxiety disorder. It would take me a long time to figure out, but this is actually fairly common in many Latinx families. It just simply wasn’t something that we talked about.

Looking back on being young, I think that I always just sort of assumed that I was nervous. I was nervous about everything. The things that now intrigue and excite me as an adult would completely wipe me out with panic as a child. This was mostly things like space, the ocean, or dogs – wonderful, slightly mystical things that have the power to consume. To me, that leaned a bit too close to being the power to chew me up and spit me out. When asked what I wanted to be when I got older, I remember saying “Not an astronaut,” just to lay it out on the line in case anyone had any funny ideas.

It took a long time, but I finally was able to put a name to what I was going through. Of course, this wasn’t without years of filling in blanks and tracking down missing pieces. I learned over the years about how my mom would watch my grandmother struggle with panic attacks. Slowly, bits of information were peppered into conversations as I got older: a cousin with health-related anxiety, an aunt with PTSD. I was forming a picture in my mind of all the women who came before me, and we all looked the same: afraid and confused.

So when I started noticing my baby sister developing certain phobias and compulsions, I was sure she was feeling it too. I knew more than anything that I wanted to spare her the guilt and uncertainty that comes with anxiety. I wanted her to know most of all that she was okay. But beyond that, I wanted her to have answers – to have tools to keep it from taking joy from her life.

Understanding the nature of your anxiety and learning how to manage it is a full-time job. I have spotty gaps in my memory and years lost that my ambitious heart wishes it could get back. I went through a lot of suffering in order to find a path to peace. Still, I feel like it was worth it in so many ways. Because of the trauma, research, and recovery that I went through, I now feel educated enough to offer help to the other women in my family when they need it.

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I can still remember the first time my grandma told me how she felt on one particularly anxious night. It was terrifying and something I was all too familiar with. The look of hope and relief on her face after I explained what a panic attack was will always sit with me as both comforting and unbelievably sad. She and her sisters didn’t have the resources that my generation does; I feel endlessly lucky to know that I can find solutions to how I feel.

With this, I’ve been able to help my sister understand and better manage her own anxiety. Moments, where I would falter, are now moments of self-learning for her. When I was a child, any thought that felt out of the norm was a serious cause for worry. I would keep myself awake at night worrying about the moral and psychological implications. I kept it all to myself, and I felt very alone. And while she may still feel lost often, she has the tools she needs to work through things like intrusive thoughts and rumination. She has the comfort of knowing that someone understands and that she is not in any way abnormal for having these feelings.

I know that I’ll always be constantly searching for coping techniques and ways to remember to relax, decompress and breathe. But I’m watching the knowledge and self-care flourish in the women I love after years of battling with themselves, and that is enough to give me hope. I know now that we’ve broken the pattern – that we will continue talking to our daughters about this feeling before they get lost.

That is what gives me peace.