Apr 13, 2016

Salaryman (in Japan): Panic Attacks

A few years ago, I had short burst of panic attacks (in Japan). The first one went something like this;

A precursor - Sitting in a university lecture hall, waiting for one of those JLPT tests to start; the invigilators came in, and doing their best impression of a Nazi said something along the lines of, ‘The doors are closed now. Leaving the room before the end will mean forfeiting the exam.’

I spent the next 40 mins feeling like I couldn’t breath properly. I didn’t give a toss about the exam, I just didn’t like the thought of not being able to leave that bloody room (at least not without looking like a plonker).

Salaryman (in Japan): Panic Attacks photo

Skip forward a few weeks and I’m racing to Tokyo station to catch a summer holiday shinkansen to Kyoto.  

In the seat and after a minute, I’m starting to feel like I can’t breathe.

Concentrate on getting to Shinagawa station.

At Shinagawa, and I’m feeling worse.

Push on through to Shin-Yokohama (15 mins ?).

No, I’m in a right state. I want off this train, but I’ve no clue why. I know the next stop, Nagoya, is over an hour away. I make the decision to stay on and when I hear the doors close, I feel absolutely terrified .. and completely alone.

The rest of the journey was spent pacing up and down the aisles, squatting between carriages, and just generally trying to hold myself together. And not cry.

I managed one night in a Kyoto hostel. The next morning, back at the station and thinking of trip to Nara, I realise I daren’t get on a train. I must have paced a few laps around the station before I gave up, squatted against a wall, and resisted the urge to scream out for someone to help. Nearby is was police box. By this point I think people are giving me funny stares, and I can no longer fight the urge to tell someone I think I’m in a spot of bother (or going mad).

I staggered into that police box. I’d thought I might get a suspicious reception, like I was on drugs or drunk, but after stuttering out something along the lines of, ‘Sumimasen. Chotto, choushi ga warui!’

The officer present gave me such a warm look of concern that the floodgates opened and I turned into a sobbing, hyperventilating mess (although I did still reassure them I hadn’t taken anything).

Turns out this is what a panic attack looks like.  

Here’s the point. We hear a lot about the pressure facing Japan’s company workers. The long hours, ridiculous overtime and unwavering loyalty to the organization. Hell, even the government has had to step in to cut overtime and tell people to start taking more of their holidays, lest they end up in that forest at the foot of Mt.Fuji.  

But I wasn’t a salaryman at my panic attack time, and I was on holiday to boot, about a month of it. I was an ALT, with a company that couldn’t have cared less if I was good at my job or not, just that I turned up to work on time and didn’t scare the students. 

To this day, I still can’t pinpoint the cause. I’d been in Japan a few years (maybe too many?), but I suppose a bunch of friends had left for pastures new (that I didn’t really try to replace), there was the odd relationship niggle (Isn’t there always?), a big earthquake, and a crappy salary going on, but nothing that I’d felt was weighing me down. It happened anyway.

Why am I sharing this?

I know, there’s a section of people out there who might react to this along the lines of ‘Stop being so bloody wet behind the ears!’ I get that, and this isn’t something I’d likely bring up on the dating scene, but possibly the overriding feeling whilst I was losing my sh#$t was the urge to talk to someone. Actually, that’s not true, the overriding feeling was that I might die, then was the urge to tell someone about it.

And I guess if you’re not careful, as an expat in Japan, you can easily find yourself in a position of not having enough people to talk to. So, err yeah, learn that!  

A quick footnote; Where did I get help?

I went to an English speaking doctor, one from back home. The clinic was in a posh part of Tokyo and was vastly over my budget. Still, it just felt accessible. We had a couple of sessions, talking things over (he wanted me back for more, but the wallet said no). And that was that. Exercise, friends, stop bottling stuff up, get out of that job that’s making you miserable, sort out that relationship … become a salaryman and work stupidly long hours!! The solutions are different for everyone, I guess, but in a small way, I hope this post can be a part of it for others.


The photo is from Flickr. Moyann Brenn I added the frame.



A foreign salaryman in Japan, documenting life from somewhere near 'salaryman town' Shimbashi, Tokyo. Way out of my depth!


  • KpQuePasa

    on Apr 14

    Thank you for sharing! I also suffer panic attacks from time to time. It's taken a lot of examination, but they almost always revolve around me feeling like I'm not in control of a given situation. (not totally a great thing when your husband's company is more or less in charge of how our lives go over here.) Getting help from someone qualified to talk me through what's going on was a God send. I still have them once in a while but if helps to have at least a tiny voice in the back of my head telling me "it's a panic attack, you're not really dying"

  • Nikki

    on Apr 14

    Thanks for sharing.

  • SalarymanJim

    on Apr 18

    @KpQuePasa Thanks for your comment. Yes. I think not feeling in control of particular situations was a trigger for me, usually these situations were those which I felt a couldn't get out of ... i.e a moving shinkansen!! I'm sure there was something going on with that. After plenty of talking it over though, things felt much better (although airplanes remain a challenge)! I definitely believe it's important to open up and talk about this kind of stuff though.

  • SalarymanJim

    on Apr 18

    @Nikki You're welcome.