Panicking when there’s nothing to worry about

Saturday October 30 2021

Claire dug her nails into the soft leather of the chair she was sitting on, not caring if she left marks or worse, tears. Rivulets of sweat, springing miraculously out of nowhere, run silently down her back and arms. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


Claire dug her nails into the soft leather of the chair she was sitting on, not caring if she left marks or worse, tears. Rivulets of sweat, springing miraculously out of nowhere, run silently down her back and arms. Her heart was drumming away way too fast and however hard she tried, she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. ‘Not now’, she thought as she bit down on her trembling lip and managed to smile, albeit one that didn’t touch her eyes, at her team who were sitting on the opposite side of her desk.

“Great work…all of you,” she managed to bite out, her strained voice sounding unfamiliar to her, “We’ll continue this later…Thanks,” she added, her eyes averted now and her shaking hands busy shuffling random papers about.

The sunlight coming through the large windows in her office was a pale yellow gold, warm and soft, like a bath set at exactly the right temperature. As her team shuffled out, their voices raised in conversation, Claire sighed deeply and went to stand over by the windows, her back to them.

By their tones, they hadn’t noticed anything strange and Claire was thankful. She wasn’t sure how to explain to anyone what was happening, because she wasn’t sure herself.

Panic attack

The episodes came on so suddenly, she wasn’t sure what was bringing them on. It would make sense to have a panic attack before a big meeting, but alone in an elevator? Or that time she was getting coffee at her favourite café whose display windows were always full of plants and a cat who played under the drooping fronds. Or when she was waiting for a friend, sitting on a bench in a quiet park on a beautiful sunny morning.


She couldn’t make sense of it so she acted like everything was fine. She’d win an Oscar at this rate, she thought wryly as she stared down into the busy street several floors below.


She jumped but quickly recovered herself, spinning round with a big smile plastered on her face. It was Ed, another department head and a good work friend.

“I’m heading out to lunch,” he frowned as he noticed the empty look in her eyes that didn’t match the shark’s grin she was giving him, “Uhm, do you want to come?”

She wasn’t hungry. Far from it. Her stomach was in knots and now a flock of birds was fluttering inside. She started to decline, an excuse about how busy she was on the tip of her tongue, but a walk in the fresh air sounded good.

“Yeah, sure,” she replied, grabbing her bag and walking out with him.

“So, how’s everything?” Ed asked conversationally as they navigated the packed sidewalks and streets thronged with lunch time traffic.

“Good, good,” Claire said as she dodged a cyclist, “You?”

“You know I had that presentation with the boss last week and…” Ed launched into a lengthy tale as Claire zoned out, concentrating only on sidestepping the madness around her. This was what she needed, she thought as they neared their usual lunch spot, a small food truck that sold juicy burgers with strange, unique concoctions like grilled pineapple, peanut butter drizzled onto the succulent patties, or her favourite and what she would be getting, one with a thick sweet mango sauce.

“Claire?” Ed gently tapped her shoulder.

Shaking her head like one waking from a dream, Claire realised she was holding up the line. How long had she been in her thoughts for? Turning red, she quickly placed her order and mumbled an apology to the woman in line behind them, who was passive aggressively tapping her foot on the pavement and sighing loudly.

Oddly coloured uniforms

“Are you okay Claire?” Ed prodded gently as they carried their orders to a small park where truant teens in oddly coloured uniforms lay idly on the grass laughing and talking gaily.

“Yeah, I’m good…” she begun, but she could hear the lie in her voice and so she revealed cautiously, “Well, I’ve been pretty stressed lately…and sometimes I…it feels like I have these moments of panic, you know?” She exhaled, her shoulders slumping as a weight lifted, slightly.

“Sure!” Ed exclaimed, was that all? “I panic all the time! Like I was saying about last week, I was sweating so much I had to wear my coat to cover the stains on my shirt,” he laughed, still a bit embarrassed at the memory, “You just need to relax, tell yourself it’s not a big deal and…”

“No Ed,” Claire struggled to make her tone light, casual, “I mean panicking when there’s nothing to panic about…”

“Just relax Claire,” he waved his arm at her and dug into his squishy burger whose toppings were dripping juicily out the other side, “Take a deep breath…and relax.”

Claire rolled her eyes, but he was too preoccupied to notice. She’d tried everything to relax. So what now? A subtle but distinct sense of despair came over her. What now?

The sunlight was warm on their faces and under the trees, a soft wind was blowing so that the day was deliciously balmy, but Claire was suddenly way too hot.

She could feel the familiar tightness begin to constrict her chest and so she plastered a bland smile on and said feebly before busying herself with her burger for which she had now lost her appetite.

“Right, just relax.”