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Lessons from Urban Living: Circling Helicopters, Trauma and Anxiety

It was about 3:25 a.m. when I awoke to what sounded like a car with no muffler driving by. I live near a busy street in Los Angeles, so I didn’t think anything of it.

I got up to use the bathroom when I heard what I knew was a helicopter. A moment later it made a strange whirring noise and whizzed by again. I leapt up and ran to the window. Clouds were low in the sky and the helicopter was beneath the cloud cover. It circled above my house again, this time it was closer. The walls vibrated. The chopping echoed off of everything.

My husband woke up and asked if a helicopter was about to land on our house.

“Something’s wrong. This isn’t normal,” I said. “Is it about to crash?”

The helicopter continued to circle our block, passing our home again every few seconds.

“It’s making weird noises,” I cried. I didn’t even recognize my voice. “What’s it doing? How can it do that?”

I pictured a helicopter pilot having lost all control.

My husband was calm because he’s always calm. My traumatized brain was asking me, “Where do we want to be if a helicopter crashes into the house?”

I gathered our half-sleeping dog and “sheltered” on the floor of the hallway, against an inner wall. I ordered my husband away from the window. My heart was beating like a drum. I thought I was having a heart attack. I hoped a panic attack would lay me out, but they never come at times like these. No, at times like these, I’m in my terror place. I’m a little girl being terrorized again and not understanding why. I can taste blood.

A call to 911 explained it all. It was the LAPD. “You’re safe as long as you stay inside,” a woman said.

“She laughed a little,” my husband told me.

“Wonderful.” I said a few expletives, wiped my sweat and shakily led my dog back to bed.

The chopper circled for a half hour before it moved on. My husband and I rolled around nursing stomach aches for about an hour before falling back to sleep.

“Yeah, that’ll happen.” That’s what the natives said. I wish they had said something several months ago when I first moved to L.A. — but then it’s not like I go around telling people I have a trauma history and I’m hypersensitive to loud noises.

As an adult, I’ve chosen to live in large cities. I don’t know why. If I had thought about how it would affect my mental health, maybe I would have avoided the metropolis, but in many ways it has helped me to face problems I didn’t even know I had.

For instance, I didn’t know how much large crowds scared me until I had a panic attack during rush hour on a subway platform at Delancey Street. Actually, I didn’t know why I had collapsed. It was a psychologist who helped me figure out the connection.

Trauma has left my mind convinced that anything can happen. Not Murphy’s Law — not everything will go wrong. But the bottom could fall out any moment. Anything or anyone can be taken away at any time. In fact, it’s probably something you least expect. You’ll be blindsided.

I’m always on guard. I startle easily. The crumpled, gnarled image of a helicopter in a smoking, semi-collapsed building was almost real to me. I could feel the heat. I could even smell it. My fear enveloped. me like a wet sheet.

I’ve seen things that I can’t un-see, and feeling sheer terror again connects me to those things. Then I’m there in those memories suddenly, a helpless child.

But I’m living. I’m not avoiding. Just moving here at all was an affirmation of life.

I write. I journal. I parse what I’m feeling and avoid judgment — practice self-compassion. I was so embarrassed at how I reacted to the LAPD helicopter that I made it a point to write this post.

I take steps to face my panic. I breathe. I breathe in, counting to five, and then let it out slowly, counting to five again. I make breathing this way a habit. Whenever I think about it, I get control of my breath.

When I catch myself expecting disaster, I breathe. Of course, it’s a little hard when I just woke up.

Feelings aren’t facts. That is true. So what is it that I’m so afraid of? Because I can’t suddenly be a helpless little girl again. What is it really? I suppose I fear being traumatized further. But my quality of life would be horrible if I spent all my time avoiding retraumatization. I certainly would never ride in an automobile again. Or a plane. Or use the vacuum.

What seems most obvious is a fear of death. Seeing as how it’s inescapable, we all have to get comfortable that fear, not just me. My absolute favorite thing my mother ever told me was this: Everybody has to live and die.

I don’t know how I will die, but I can choose how I live. If I face everyday by treating those I love with tenderness and respect, practicing compassion and letting my creativity flow freely, fate isn’t so scary. It looks like my work’s cut out for me.

LAPD helicopter photo by s_bukley available from Shutterstock

Lessons from Urban Living: Circling Helicopters, Trauma and Anxiety

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Lessons from Urban Living: Circling Helicopters, Trauma and Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Jun 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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