There are those people who say “I almost had a panic attack” every time they feel mildly anxious. I get that; I’m hyperbolic, too. To most people, that means “I was feeling more anxious than normal”. To those of us who actually have panic attacks, that means something entirely different. It means a rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing. It means going to the bathroom what seems like every other minute, either because you’re going to throw up or for other, less decorous reasons. It means the most intense feeling of fear you’ve ever experienced while also wondering if you’re still you. It is all of those things at once, plus sweating, shaking, headaches, crying, and whatever else.
I’ve been experiencing panic attacks for a little over two years (though my last was six months ago, go me!), and they have drastically changed everything in my life. They have changed the way I eat and how I spend my time. They have changed how much I see my friends (not as often as I’d like). They have fundamentally changed who I am – well, actually, they’ve stripped away all of the things I was pretending to be and helped me become the essential version of myself. One of the biggest changes has been how I approach my wardrobe and dressing. The anxiety and panic attacks I’ve experienced over the last two years have forced me to reevaluate what’s essential in my life and in my wardrobe. You wouldn’t think that anxiety and fashion would overlap, but they do. Here are my essential wardrobe rules for the anxious.
1) Quality workout gear is a must. Look, I’ll run around in a plain cotton tank and a pair of joggers with the best of them, but when I’m working out, it’s gotta be legit workout gear or nothing. Exercise is one of the best ways to manage anxiety, and I’d rather be sweating it out in a pair of moisture-wicking leggings than in the kinda-see-through cotton ones I wore to bed the night before. Paying more and getting clothing that’s actually designed for exercise a) makes your workout experience way more comfortable, and b) helps ensure that you’ll actually use it. For me, that’s key. I have to love my workout gear – how it looks, how it makes my body look, how it performs – or I’m not going to use it. And if I don’t use it, then I’m much more likely to get anxious or to have a panic attack.
2) Clothing has to be comfortable. It has to be “I could take a nap in this” comfortable, not “I can deal with this all day” comfortable. A big part of why a panic attack escalates is because you’re not breathing deeply – from your belly – and it’s really hard to do that in a bodycon sheath dress, even though they look gorgeous on literally everyone. This is where a “uniform” is awesome. On most days, I’m in black, high-waisted jeans and boots or sneakers. In the summer, that’s topped with a light, loose tank. In the winter, there’s inevitably a chambray shirt and usually a big chunky sweater. Even my dresses have breathing room; I used to own a closet full of tight, structured, perfectly tailored dresses. And while I do still have a couple, I never wear them to work anymore. The dresses I wear are loose (but can be cinched with a belt), and don’t pull anywhere, not even when I sit. Since one of the best ways to get through a panic attack is to regulate your breathing, I test every garment that way before I buy it. If I can’t belly breathe in it comfortably, it doesn’t get purchased.
3) It has to be durable. After I got through the first few months of frequent panic attacks and started to understand why they were happening, I realized that this anxiety thing was going to be around for the rest of my life. I needed to adjust myself accordingly. I started to adopt my uniform and discard anything I owned that didn’t make me feel comfortable and like myself. In that process, I found myself totally dissatisfied with fast fashion. How in the world was this $20 dress that looked pretty good but not great going to see me through the rest of my life? Was I really going to reach for it more than once a year? I started to be more careful about I was buying. If anxiety is going to be with me for the rest of my life and I am changing my wardrobe to accommodate it, than anything I buy needs to theoretically last for the rest of my life, too. That means that I spend the extra money on Tall jeans instead of the regular ones that are a little too short. I checked out where my favorite stores sourced their materials and where their goods are produced, and stuck with the ones that practice ethical policies. I have waited months – years, sometimes – for those stores to make a specific item that I want instead of buying the cheaper, poorly made, poorly fitting option. Now, I’m not perfect and I’m definitely still tempted by fast fashion stores, but these days I usually do a lap and then don’t buy anything. Anxiety has forced me to strip away everything that’s not necessary and to invest in the things that are, and my clothing speaks to that.
4) Accessories are important. There are a lot of tiny things that I do to manage my anxiety. I exercise, yes, but I also need to make sure that I eat fairly regularly, stay hydrated and have available any little things I may need, like ibuprofen or anti-nausea medication. I’m also really sensitive to light and sound, both of which can trigger my anxiety. That means sunglasses and headphones are a must. It’s important to me to have these things within reach, but not to look like that lady who finally finds the fuzzy candies in the bottom of her bag after pulling out the most random collection of items ever. Since my tote has only one small internal pocket, I keep two leather pouches in my bag, and they go everywhere: one for things like meds and hairspray, one for headphones and sunglasses. I’ve had them for years, and they show no signs of wearing out. This might sound trivial, but being able to look in my bag and know that I have those things and to not have to search for them for a million years when I need them actually really helps the anxiety. A panic attack typically starts with a small, abnormal physical symptom, such as rapid heartbeat or rapid breathing. How many times has your breathing quickened because you couldn’t find your Metrocard or your phone in the mess that is your bag? Exactly. For a person with an anxiety or panic disorder (me!), this can very quickly become a full on attack, because your brain takes that tiny little moment of fear and runs away with it like Usain Bolt. There is no way that I’m going to let not being able to find my headphones for five minutes lead to me sobbing and hyperventilating on the subway platform. This has happened. It’s not fun.
5) It feels like home. Another part of panic attacks – and in my opinion, the thing that makes them so scary – is the feeling of depersonalization. This occurs when your thoughts and feelings don’t feel like yours. It feels like you’re losing your sense of identity and some stranger has taken over your brain. This SUCKS. During my first panic attack, I spent a long time on the floor of the bathroom crying and thinking that this wasn’t me. Who was feeling like this? Who was having these crazy irrational thoughts and going through all of these awful physical symptoms? It certainly wasn’t the Alexis I know. Those feelings are probably the worst things I have ever felt. They're worse than heartbreak. They're worse than grief. They're worse than being let down by your most trusted person. I felt so far from who I was. As I worked through those feelings with my therapist, clothing became a way for me to anchor myself. If a piece of clothing didn’t feel like me – if it had even a hint of playing pretend – I didn’t wear it. I didn’t buy it. I gave away a ton of clothing last year because I didn’t feel like I was fully myself when I was wearing it. I needed to feel that as much as possible. I needed to know that I was still me. So the above-mentioned uniform started to take shape, and now my closet is a sea of chambray, olive green, black, and navy. Maybe there’s a sweater with skulls on it (there is), or a top that’s a little frillier than usual, but it’s rare. Some people hate that, and I get it. A friend of mine is a hippie one day and a retro pinup girl the next, and if she had to wear similar things every day she’d go crazy. I know that I look basically the same every day. It helps me remember that I’m me every day.
My clothing – something I have always enjoyed thinking about and playing with – took on a whole new level of importance when I started experiencing intense anxiety, and it’s been weirdly helpful. It has helped me strip away anything that doesn’t feel authentic and approach things in a long term way. If I can’t wear something at least two or three different ways, I usually don’t buy it. And it’s helped me to learn to trust myself and my instincts. What looks good on me and what I feel good wearing was part of the bigger picture of learning to trust myself generally. I still have days where I can’t get the outfit quite right or where something doesn’t the same in real life as it did in my head, but I’m learning that that’s okay, too. In fashion, as in life, it's those imperfect moments that teach us how to make things better for ourselves.