Jessica Lauren Walton
Mental health advocate for the security community

When Fear Feels Like a Heart Attack

Anxiety can feel overwhelming...but you can beat it. (Author's image)

I was having a heart attack. It was the summer of 2010 and my plane had just touched ground in Ben Gurion Airport. I felt a sharp jab in my chest, then strangely helpless, like a child who finds herself suddenly lost in a crowd at the mall. Dizzy and slightly paranoid, I looked at the faces of the other passengers, certain they could see that something was wrong with me.

But they didn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. I watched each jostle their suitcase from the storage compartment and exit the plane until I was the last one left. As I shakily stood up, searching for my own piece of luggage, my breath was shallow in my chest. It had to be a heart attack. Maybe something to do with the air pressure from the descending plane?

I would probably be fine. I was only 25.

I had just arrived in Israel to continue my graduate degree program in Jerusalem. I was a security intelligence student and I was looking to get my foot in the door in the Israeli security field, into one of the most competitive echelons in the country. As an immigrant from the US, I had many disadvantages as far as the language and the networking opportunities were concerned. I also had a secret I was trying to hide.

The pressure to succeed was so constant in my mind that I often woke up before sunrise feeling behind before the day had even started. I did my best to ignore the shortness of breath and thundering in my chest as I unpacked my suitcase in my dorm room. I ignored my shaky hands and the pricks of sweat on my forehead as I picked out books in the library on campus the next afternoon. The heart attack would just have to disappear on its own.

The Breaking Point

A few weeks after arriving in Israel, I was invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house. Someone asked me about my plans after I graduated from school. In response, I started pouring sweat, unable to form a sentence. My heart felt like it was slamming against my rib cage. I couldn’t ignore it anymore, so I politely excused myself from the table and hailed a cab to the hospital.

After a long wait in the emergency room, I underwent a battery of tests. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with my heart. I stayed in the hospital for the next two days, calmly answering questions while submitting to additional tests. Mystified, the staff finally brought in an elderly Russian cardiologist. He took one look at my face and, without speaking, put a gentle hand on my shoulder.

With that one gesture, I shuddered and broke down crying. I cried for several hours after, finally understanding what was wrong with me: I wasn’t having a heart attack. I was having an anxiety attack.

I had answered so many questions from the doctors those past two days, but there were things that I didn’t dare tell them. Like that I was applying to jobs in the security field and couldn’t afford to have a mental health diagnosis on my record. I couldn’t tell them that I had already been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was terrified that my career would immediately be burned to the ground if anyone found out. In fact, the moment I was diagnosed with anxiety in the hospital that night, I quickly gathered up my belongings and fled before the nurses could officially update my files.

Self-Awareness Is Key for Self-Care

Years later, reflecting on this event in Jerusalem, I’m still amazed by my lack of self-awareness at the time. How could I be so out of touch with my inner world that I had no idea I was having an anxiety attack? My calm demeanor in the hospital had thrown off the majority of the staff. It was only the discerning eye of an experienced doctor who saw the truth of my situation, when I couldn’t even see it myself.

I have since returned to the US and now work in the defense industry. So many fellow security professionals have shared similar stories — about the anxiety attacks they thought were heart attacks. I’ve also learned that many security professionals inadvertently turn off their self-awareness mechanism to deal with the pressures of their jobs. But without self-awareness, mental health issues are left to fester more rapidly, partly contributing to the high rates of suicide we’re seeing in the security community.

I came to this conclusion a few months ago after interviewing combat soldier-turned-therapist, Dr. Phil Baquie (view interview). Discussing the connection between self-awareness and mental health in the security community, Dr. Baquie explained, “There’s an unspoken belief in this culture that we need to disconnect from our emotions and who we are in order to do our jobs well. And I couldn’t disagree with that more. I think the most effective operators are actually the ones who are emotionally in tune with who they are.”

At some point in our lives, no matter our profession, we all experience an event that sends our mental health into disarray, leaving us unexpectedly in a ditch. Self-awareness is the tool that allows us to climb out of the ditch. It is the compass that guides us through the labyrinth of our minds, allowing us to navigate the twists and turns with clarity. As wellness and resiliency gain increasing attention in the security community, we should consider the role that self-awareness plays and consider tools that we can use to proactively strengthen ourselves in the field.

“Know Thyself” is a Never Ending (But Worthwhile) Journey

As Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani said in the Talmud, we see things not as they are, but as we are. It took years (and several more anxiety attacks) before I finally admitted I had an issue and sought proper treatment. It required an overhaul in my relationship with myself. I had to go to uncomfortable places to figure out the root of my anxiety and then face it head on. But it was all worth it to be set free.

There was no simple, one-size-fits-all solution on my path to mental wellness. Instead, there were the things I tried that didn’t work and then the things that worked wonderfully. Whenever I found something that worked (e.g., a compassionate short-term therapist, a vigorous exercise routine, dietary changes, yoga, etc.), it was like a pile of bricks being lifted off my chest. The main thing is that I didn’t give up.

In our journey to seek healing, it takes strength to look inwards and then reach outwards for help. Self-awareness is the first and most vital step. It is the foundation that empowers us to take control of our thoughts and emotions, to make healthier choices, and to ultimately build a more fulfilling life. By taking the time to truly know ourselves, we can equip ourselves with the skills needed to navigate life’s challenges with resilience.

About the Author
Jessica Lauren Walton is a writer, communications strategist, and video producer in the U.S. defense sector. She writes articles on a range of security and mental health issues and conducts interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more at
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