Moving to the Suburbs Stopped My Panic Attacks, And I’ve Never Felt Better

published Aug 11, 2022
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Smiling young woman with poodle resting on sofa amidst potted plants at porch
Credit: Getty Images/Cavan Images

Growing up, I always envisioned myself living in a New York City apartment. I had dreams of being a stage actor, and city living seemed like a pre-destined adventure. Perhaps more importantly, it seemed like the exact opposite of the quiet suburban Northern Virginia neighborhood I grew up in, and I was hungry for change. 

My dream came true, as I spent my college years in Boston, with short stints in New York City throughout. Long story short, New York City was not for me. There were too many people, it was too loud, and I had too much pressure on me as a 20-something actor. I ended up back in the DC suburbs, this time on the opposite side of the Potomac River in Maryland. 

I didn’t anticipate living in an apartment complex nestled between two shopping meccas 15 years later. This Maryland apartment was no comparison to New York City living by any means, but I found myself having the same thoughts I did back then. There were too many people and too much noise. 

When the shops and restaurants that were across the street from my home re-opened their doors in the middle of 2020, our once quiet street filled with traffic. Cars would pile up on especially nice days, and honking became our background noise throughout the day. And worse, the area attracted street racers that would bolt up and down the road, all while their mufflers made terrible sounds that sounded similar to gun fire. I had never experienced this heightened sense of uneasiness before, and I often felt that I couldn’t fully relax in my own home.

Then one evening, as my husband and I were walking our dog, a car with a modified exhaust pipe sped right by us, and the pops from the muffler were so loud, I felt a sharp pain in my chest and my eyes welled with tears. It was as if every cell in my body went on high alert, and I started gasping for breath. I experienced 10 frightening minutes of chest pain, crying, and shortness of breath. Once my racing heart slowed down, I told my husband, “I think I just had a panic attack.”

At first I felt embarrassed by my strong reaction to the noise that now seemed to be the norm, but later learned that it wasn’t just me. Studies show that noise pollution increases risk for heart disease, and can be associated with stress, sleep disturbance, impaired cognitive performance, and increased anxiety and panic. 

It’s hard to escape noise, of course, especially when it’s right outside your home. But in an effort to protect my peace, I stopped walking along the busy road with the loud cars. I meditated and tried my best to stay focused on my work, which I also did from home. I tried noise-canceling headphones. I complained to the county about the noise pollution these cars were causing. And unfortunately, the noise and my anxiety didn’t seem to be getting any better. I experienced two more panic attacks after my first one. 

When we were creeping up on our lease renewal date, my husband convinced me that maybe it was time for us to live somewhere else. I resisted at first, thinking about how exhausting and expensive moving is, and that we didn’t have to move. But even as the weather cooled down, the noise levels stayed the same — and even got worse. 

We started browsing new places on Zillow, and when we stumbled upon a small townhome in a quiet neighborhood, I could feel myself soften with relief. We made an appointment to tour the space, and walked around the neighborhood beforehand. While walking the tree-lined streets, past rows and rows of beautiful homes, my body relaxed for what felt like the first time in months. The two-bedroom townhome was an upgrade from our one-bedroom apartment, and I knew that this was the place for us. We packed our things, and moved in at the beginning of 2022. I haven’t had a panic attack since. 

Without hyperbole, our new neighborhood is ideal for an introverted homebody like me, who likes cozy nights in instead of wild nights out. Bedtime walks with the dog used to make me nervous, since cars would continue to whiz by after dark. A 9 p.m. walk is quiet, as if everyone has already packed it in for the night, and there’s no glare from shopping center signs. This is the kind of neighborhood where we wave at our neighbors relaxing on their front porches. There’s a puppy play date every week in a big patch of grass across the street. The homes have hanging flower baskets and unique front door wreaths that give me a glimpse into who might live there. My next-door neighbor will see me walking my dog, and come out just to ask how I’m doing. 

This sense of community wasn’t present at our old place, and even if it was, I was too anxious to participate. My new neighborhood offers me a peace I didn’t know I needed. I realize what an enormous privilege it is to be able to pack up and leave, and how lucky we are to live in a neighborhood that’s quiet and safe.

I’m reminded of the neighborhood I grew up in at times, especially when I see kids riding their bicycles up and down the street. I can’t help but smile as I think of a younger version of myself itching to live somewhere other than a quiet suburb. The truth is, a quiet suburb is exactly what my heart and soul needs. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t feel gratitude as I calmly work from home, walk with my husband and our dog without panic, or experience the kindness of my neighbors. Now that I’m in the suburbs, I relish the beauty and simplicity of being happy at home.