I had an anxiety attack right before my wedding: What it meant, what it didn’t, and how to cope

Guest post by Elli Thompson Purtell
My neck, my back, MY ANXIETY ATTACK possum tshirt from Etsy seller SaturnWaves

I did not enjoy wedding planning, for the most part. All of the modern wedding “necessities” seemed totally unnecessary to me. I cut corners wherever possible, saved money at every opportunity, and rarely found myself stressed because I just didn't care about the details. I was getting married to the man I loved, and nothing could ruin that.

About five days before our wedding, however, everything changed. I had a run-of-the-mill stomachache, and a friend said good-naturedly, “Maybe you have the pre-wedding jitters!”

That's when I slowly started to freak out.

Is a wedding anxiety attack the same as cold feet?

I've suffered from anxiety my whole life. When I was five, I was terrified of the the wind. At eight, I worried about the existence of God. At 10, I had my first panic attack and not a clue what was happening to me. I've had phases of compulsive disorder. I've struggled with sleep — worrying that I won't fall asleep, which causes me not to not fall asleep, which causes me to worry all over again the next night. My anxiety is a classic case of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

That's the thing with anxious people. We worry about worrying. We worry about why we are worrying. We convince ourselves that the most dreaded thing we can think of is happening, no matter what logic tells us. When it came to my pre-wedding freakout, I thought, What if this anxiety means I am having doubts? What if this is a bad sign? Normal people don't freak out before their wedding!

To make matters worse, my fiance was back in Chicago finishing out the work week, while I had headed to my parents' house early to get things in order before the big day. I felt like an old-fashioned bride, sequestered in my parents house, not able to see my betrothed until he lifted my veil the day of our wedding. Just the weekend before we were living our ordinary life together, and now suddenly everything seemed like such a strange and big deal. I suddenly wanted it all to be over with and to be on our honeymoon.

I wasn't anxious about standing up in front of everyone at the church. I wasn't anxious about being the center of attention, which is something I typically don't like. I wasn't anxious about getting married to my fiance. I was anxious simply because I was anxious. Simply because my brain is wired in a way that I can't always control.

I had an anxiety attack right before my wedding
A totally non-anxious Elli on her wedding day. (Photos by Claire O Design)

Does having a wedding anxiety attack mean your marriage is doomed?

In an attempt to stave off further anxiety, I decided to do what any good writer would do and research. I searched “I'm anxious before my wedding,” “How do get through the wedding when you're anxious,” “How to not be anxious for your wedding when you're an anxious person in general.” Similar to how googling an illness automatically tells you you have cancer, every search I made indicated that my marriage was doomed. “Pre-wedding jitters aren't a thing. They mean you aren't sure,” one article said. “If you aren't excited about your wedding, you're probably not excited about your marriage,” said another. My anxiety got more intense with every article. That awful little voice in my head was telling me They are right, even though I knew they weren't. Wasn't there someone out there who suffered from anxiety and could relate to what I was going through?

wedding anxiety issues on @offbeatbride

So I did the only thing left for me to do: I cried to my parents. I broke down. It felt amazing. Finally, I got relief from the build-up of all my nervous energy.

Then my dad, who has been a witness to my peculiar breed of anxiety for 29 years, said the most powerful thing: “This wedding is going to happen no matter what, so there's no use fighting it.” To normal people, that may seem like an extremely odd thing to say, but let me explain. Anxious people live with a perpetual monkey on their back. We feel responsible for, guilty about and a prisoner to our thoughts. By telling me that this feeling I had wasn't going to ruin anything, my dad had freed me from the burden.

That night, I called my fiance and told him about the last few anxious days. He wasn't even phased. (I would hope at that point he knew what he was getting himself into.) “It's a crazy week, isn't it?” he said. “I'll be there soon.”

Our wedding ended up being beautiful and wonderful and miraculously anxiety-free. But I'll tell you what was even better. Leaving it all behind to go on the honeymoon and then returning to our simple, normal, happy life.

To any of you who suffer from generalized anxiety and are feeling off right now, let me reassure you: Your anxiety isn't sending you any sort of hidden message. If you didn't want to get married, you would have been having nagging doubts for a while, not just this sudden burst in an otherwise great relationship. Let go of the burden and guilt. Know that you're not alone. And most importantly, know that your wedding is going to happen, no matter how much you worry about it.

Anyone else have a pre-wedding freakout? What happened, and how did YOU cope?

Comments on I had an anxiety attack right before my wedding: What it meant, what it didn’t, and how to cope

  1. I totally relate to this. I don’t have panic attacks, but anxiety is a very physical experience for me, and I was physically sick on the morning of my wedding because of anxiety. I knew exactly what was going on and why I was sick and I kept beating myself up for letting myself get that stressed out which only made me more stressed out. My then-fiance (who did sleep in the same bad as me the night before the wedding) was a saint, as was my amazing friend and DOC. The folks who ultimately talked me down, though, we my amazing “bridge crew” (bridal party). While three dear friends were doing my hair and makeup, another (who is conveniently a massage therapist) game me a shoulder rub while a third (who had already made it through her own wedding) talked me down. By the time I was taking my first look photos, I felt like I could run a marathon.

    If you know you are anxiety prone and are early enough in the planning stages to try to plan accordingly, I would throw out a few suggestions based on my experiences:
    – Hire a DOC who knows you, at least casually. My DOC was a friend from college (we bartered DOC services for one another) and knowing that she already knew me helped SO MUCH with my anxiety. Much of my anxiety is social, so having to interact that intimately with a stranger on the day of my wedding would have been problematic. I knew that my DOC already knew I was not crazy and would not judge me which meant that I could be completely honest how much I was freaking out and she could deal with it effectively.
    – Surround yourself with your fiance and/or close friends who you feel safe with. I spent the night before with my fiance, which helped. but I would have been fine being apart from him as long as my bridge crew was there. The real enemy was being alone with all those downward spiraling thoughts, and as soon as I got away from that I felt better. It sounds like OP’s parents had the same impact for her.
    – Make your wedding party whatever size it needs to be to feel safe. For me, that meant a big group because there was a clear list of people in my life that I knew needed to be present with me. For you it might mean just that one best friend who has always been there for you, or the two aunts who helped raise you. I got some flack from people for the large size of my bridal party, but I’m so glad I went with my gut.

  2. First off, thank you so, SO much for writing this. As I’m sure you know, there isn’t nearly enough writing out there that treats anxiety sufferers like normal people, much less anything looking at pre-wedding anxiety as a continuation of normal anxiety, as opposed to “omg yr doomed!!!!11elvevenone”

    I could practically have written this myself. The details, of course, differ, but the pattern is the same. I’ve suffered with anxiety all of my life–diagnosed with depression in my adolescence, but if it wasn’t at least comorbid with anxiety, and at worst a misdiagnosis, I’ll eat my husband’s hat — manifested early on by vomiting the first day of kindergarten/first grade, then later by hysterical breakdowns that no one else believed were a proportional response to the stimulus and it’s only gotten worse since.

    The night before our wedding was literally the worst panic attack I had ever had, or have ever had since. I got so sick I dehydrated myself and was having such a hard time breathing normally that my husband tells me my lips turned blue and he was on the verge of calling 911 if I hadn’t come around when I did. I have very little memory of the incident beyond being really sick and then collapsing against him in absolute exhaustion and passing out until morning proper. I’m not sure if I went full catatonic or just blacked out, but my husband has some seriously super-human calming powers to have successfully brought me back from that, and gotten me to SLEEP. I missed out on breakfast with our friends, but it was impromptu and we did it again the day after anyway, but more importantly, our wedding was wonderful.

    That was a bit more disjointed than I’d have liked in the interest of brevity, but the upshot is that it was heartening to see a frank discussion of anxiety surrounding a day full of things that can trigger it. I still can’t pin down what started mine, though I can’t discount my husband’s theory that it was the fact that I was finally through all the stress of planning, but that’s what’s so fun (read: not at all) about anxiety; it sometimes (often!) doesn’t make any sense at all. Thank you, again, for sharing your story.

  3. This! I just had my wedding this weekend, and it was going well, I was certain I was marrying the right guy, and I don’t have social anxiety. Nevertheless I spent the day of breaking into tears and the hour before the wedding I was wedged into a corner of the bathroom crying and hyperventilating while trying not to smudge my makeup. I can’t remember ever feeling so awful. I was so sad – I hadn’t felt any excitement about the wedding for the final week – no joy, nothing. My fiance was so excited, and I was obviously hopped up on adrenaline, but felt hardly any emotions. It was freaking me out how calm I was, if that makes any sense! I still don’t understand what happened, but once I finally had a full-on panic attack, I felt better and was ready to get married. I sailed through the ceremony with aplomb and had a great party. So I came to OB to say that a) you are not alone, b) it doesn’t mean that you are making a mistake, c) just go with it and get it out and d) it will go away.

  4. Almost every one of my OBB journal entries from one month before our wedding date (just this past May 10) until the actual day was a complete freak out. I’m a worrier by nature and prone to depression and anxiety. I was sleeping 5 hours a night on a good night and eating either nothing some days or nothing but sugar on other days. Did you know you can subsist solely on peanut butter cups? Well… at least I thought you could. But, having experimented on myself, I don’t actually recommend it!

    The 19 hours a day that I was not asleep, I was staring into space, not doing work, not paying attention to anything, just contemplating my doom. My “doom” being the WEDDING, not being married. (Let us not forget the distinction, as the article points out!) During my worst moments, I had serious struggles with myself because I wanted to just cut my skin off or something. Really, I have never been closer to self-harm. I never knew what that felt like before… no surprise: it’s horrible. At my “best” moments, I considered taking up smoking again. “Temporarily.” (Ha ha, as if.) I didn’t though! 🙂

    Strangely enough, things improved the closer the wedding date got. Because, much like the article described, it was going to happen. There was no fighting it. I became fatalistic about it. What the hell, if everything goes wrong or if I puke on myself or my legs give out or we get rained out, I can’t control that, so who cares? And in fact, I think that by the night before the wedding I had exhausted myself so much with the lack of sleep and food and the constant fight-or-flight mode that I just passed right the heck out and actually slept a full night. And the next day I just threw myself into it.

    Yes, there were a couple of small problems. (My walk down the aisle was a joke, but apparently nobody noticed the fact that everything was all wrong but me, so fortunately that was my own private disaster.) And I still DID NOT LIKE being the centre of attention. But mostly everything went fine, and I actually did enjoy mingling with the guests once the ceremony was over. And thank God we kept the wedding small. I have been told that everyone enjoyed the day, despite my worst fears. My worst fears being that we had thrown so many traditional wedding trappings out the window that our guests would hate it. They didn’t. In fact, they said the wedding was very “us,” so I’m glad we didn’t include a bunch of stuff just for the sake of doing so.

  5. I really appreciate this – while I am not usually a super anxious person, I managed to hyperventilate while trying rings on. We’d been talking about getting engaged for a couple months, had planned the ring shopping trip together weeks in advance, I’d been scouting the shop’s website for rings in advance for ages…. and it still hit me like a ton of bricks when I actually had the thing on my hand that it was REAL and we were ACTUALLY GOING TO GET MARRIED. Once I realized what was going on (after getting all sorts of dizzy) I stepped outside for some fresh air and everything was fine. I just hadn’t realized that there were going to be so many /feelings/ involved due to how in advance we’d planned everything.

    • Wow I had been searching for some support because the SAME thing just happened to me this weekend. We had gone out the night before so I was feeling a bit hungover dehydrated (not my usual 100%). I do suffer from anxiety but didn’t realize this would trigger it. I was SO excited to look at rings and try them on but as soon as we sat down and our consultant brought everything out my heart started pounding out of my chest, I felt flight or fight, and my hands were shaking so bad that even my bf noticed. He kept asking if I wanted to leave but I knew if we did I would feel worse about it. I went to the restroom and tried to calm my nerves, came back and was still very shaky. It got better after a while but my hands were still trembling at the end. I feel so embarrassed and bf thinks I was having second thoughts. I have reassured him that obviously I’m not having second thoughts but that I was a bit overwhelmed and not mentally prepared for the emotions that came out

  6. Alright, so I feel awful here, because the content isn’t the reason I’m commenting.
    I had to say how much I love your dress and the bouquet.
    I will also say that I have a sister who’s had anxiety issues starting about as young as yours, and I’m very aware how bit of an issue they can be and I’m really happy that you managed to overcome them 🙂

  7. Thank you! I really needed this. As someone who struggles with constant anxiety – especially in these last few day leading up to my Saturday wedding – I needed to read this as a reminder that everything is going to be all right, and the day will be beautiful. 🙂

  8. My OH calls me his worrier princess. A change in BC last year turned me background level of worrying up to high anxiety, and though switching pills helped I’m now so much more aware of my anxiety that I used to be. I find myself worrying that I worry too much about worrying so much about worrying. It’s very Terry Pratchett “turtles all the way down”. OBB is one of my go to sites when I’m worrying now, because all the different happy couples helps me remember there’s not just one way to be happy, and all the things that seem huge when you’re worrying (about worrying about worrying) are perfectly normal sized and it’s my reaction that’s disproportionately large.

    • Worrier princess! That is fantastic. 🙂 I also love your line “there’s not just one way to be happy.” So true. Thanks for the feedback!

  9. What a wonderful piece.
    Wedding planning can be such fuel for anxiety sufferers, anything you care about that much is always has the potential for anxiety. It doesn’t matter how offbeat and non-industrial wedding complex you are you wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t mean something to you! You can rationalise it all you like (and as a philosophy student I’m a big fan of that approach) but you can’t avoid the ramifications of being emotionally invested in something.
    For me, I couldn’t have done the not being together the night before and not seeing each other until the ceremony thing, I needed to be with my preferred emergency person, the one I was marrying the next day! I totally respect anyone doing that but sometimes I do find myself thinking that many of the traditions around weddings seem to be about producing maximum emotional impact, my experience was that it had tonnes of emotion without the extra tweaks..
    Both my wife and I did not sleep AT ALL the night before our wedding. We’d been sleeping very badly for a few nights and we decided that we wouldn’t drink the night before and go to bed early. Terrible idea (for us), I’m sure a small glass of red would have just taken the edge off…. We ended up listening to the radio in the dark all night in an effort to distract our frazzled brains long enough to get a few minutes dozing, an old trick of mine from bad times. There were no specific fears running through either of our minds (or so I am informed by wife about her mind) but we were both just FULL of nervous adrenaline.
    However it was all TOTALLY FINE. You can, if you need to, do a day on no sleep the night before, the megabigfuckingdeal day that is a wedding day does seem to come with some kind of extra powers (although conversely it doesn’t work if you plan a day you couldn’t do without extra special powers, like time travel…). As soon as our friends and relations turned up and we got the Mimosas going, it was fine. We had spent a lot of time planning the wedding and had properly handed it over to the venue manger and our best man/chief bridesmaid who did the day-of stuff, so actually it was a very easy day and all we had to do was stay awake!
    As a postscript, since then any time either of us can’t sleep and are freaking out we always remind the other that the wedding was the most amazing day of our lives despite our worst nightmare of not sleeping coming true and this just bursts the fear like popping a balloon.

  10. Thank you!
    I suffer from anxiety and panic about most things.
    I’m 2 years out and planning everything to the tiniest details, scared ill miss something important.
    I am already having the ”what if I have a panic attack just before I walk down the aisle!!!?!” Thoughts -_-

    Thankfully I’m feeling confident in our wedding choices, and of course that I want to be Future Husbands Mrs.! 🙂

    The closer our wedding gets the more freaked ill be for sure. But so far I’m pretty relaxed!

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