Panic!

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I was in my mid-20s when I had my first panic attack.  It came out of the blue.  I wasn’t involved in something that frightened me, or unnerved me, or any type of thing that you can imagine that would inspire panic.  No, I was laying in bed watching TV – something highly familiar and comfortable.

I can’t remember what triggered it.  It was probably just a numbness in an arm, or an odd pain.  But soon I was feeling as if I was going to lose consciousness.  Nay, not merely lose consciousness, but actually die.  I needed to get outside where someone may see me or rescue me, some place where I could breathe.  My legs felt like they could not support me since they had gone numb like much of the rest of my body.  At the time I lived in an apartment complex where I had become friends with one of my neighbors.  I managed to ring her doorbell.  I couldn’t really describe my symptoms besides, “I’m dying.”  I guess she didn’t take me too seriously since she didn’t rush me to the hospital as I expected her to do, but instead rang the doorbell of yet another neighbor, a nurse.

The neighbor-nurse asked me a few questions about my health history, medications, symptoms, etc.  The diagnosis came quickly: I was having a panic attack.  Despite my mother being an agoraphobic (which is basically the end result of untreated panic disorder), I knew nothing about panic attacks.  The neighbor-nurse offered me some orange juice and let me lay down while she gently explained what was happening and reassuring me I wasn’t dying.  A half an hour later the symptoms had subsided and I went home, feeling shaken but relieved it was over.

It wasn’t until years later that I had another attack.  This time I was older and there were no kindly neighbors to talk me off the ledge. Again, it happened late in the evening while relaxing in front of the TV.  First a numbness and then the thought, “oh my god, I’m dying.”  I drove myself to the emergency room.  I suspected it was just panic – I knew a lot more about it by then – and I just wanted someone to take my blood pressure and tell me I wasn’t having a heart attack.  But, it was a busy night, so I spent much of the night in the waiting room.  The comfort of knowing there were a gaggle of doctors just beyond that swinging door and the distraction of a busy ER calmed my symptoms quickly.  Why I continued to wait, I don’t know.  It was probably close to 4 hours before I saw a doctor who, upon hearing my faded symptoms, and my family and personal history, quickly diagnosed panic.  My blood pressure was slightly elevated, but nothing to be alarmed about.

In the years since I have gone through periods where I tend to have more panic attacks.  Always it is the same:  at night, alone, triggered by some minor ache or pain.  The type of ache or pain that most people would react with maybe an “ouch” or “maybe I should change my position so my arm doesn’t fall asleep.”  Not me, my mind goes from “Ouch! What’s that?” to “No doubt that is  symptom of a heart attack, or some kind of blood clot that is going to cause my imminent death.”   If I don’t catch it in time with some  rational self-talk or mindfulness or distraction or Valium (or all of the above), the next part of the routine is getting dressed in preparation to drive myself to the emergency room.  Eventually, I calm down enough so I can start distracting myself until all the symptoms are completely gone.

I don’t know what the point of this post is.  I’m tired.  I woke up with a cramp in my leg at 2am, which, of course, triggered a panic attack, so most of my night was shot. Sleep has been hard enough these days without adding in the odd panic attack or two.  I’ve done the cognitive behavioral therapy thing – I recognize what it is, and that is probably what has kept me from multiple trips to the ER.  I’ve done years of therapy, including for PTSD.  I think this is just part of the genetic heritage left to me by my mother who, for my entire lifetime with her, rarely ever left the house because of her panic disorder.  I know it could be a lot worse, so I guess I’ll just deal with the occasional attack and be grateful it doesn’t control my life.

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22 responses »

  1. My first panic attack was just a year or so ago. I was at work. I started sweating, I started shaking, and I generally didn’t think I was going to make it through the day.

    Therapy? Yeah, a little. Long talks with friends and family? Yeah, a lot.

    What sucks is knowing, even in the midst of an attack like that, its irrational. But you can do nothing about it. Its infuriating.

    My experiance was short lived, thank god. I don’t envy anyone who routinely experiences that.

  2. Frightening aren’t they? I’ve had 2. The second was followed by lots of medical investigations at my request. It was panic. I found out that if you are depressed you will often have anxiety as well. As the Time diagram shows it’s a loop-we become conditioned for fear. I’m so glad that you don’t let it rule your life. All the best.

  3. I’ve had several panic attacks but none in the past five or so years. When I did get them, I managed to talk myself down because I was the only adult with three kids and I didn’t want to make them afraid so I knew, deep down, that I had to maintain control. It’s really tough to do, though. I remember actually writing notes about my symptoms and feelings and jotting the time, just in case “something” happened.

  4. I may have had panic attacks. I really don’t know. I think my life has been a panic attack. And I’ve had brief moments of peace and calm.

  5. I had my first panic attack (or at least the first one that I remember) when I was 14. After that they came and went with varying frequency. Mine always took place outdoors and the fear was about losing my mind, not dying. It was like “reality” was dissolving around me and I was drifting off somewhere where I wouldn’t be able to come back. Another symptom was feeling like I had no skin. Terrifying.

    I found various ways of coping over the years. And then I got stage IV cancer. And guess what – haven’t had a panic attack since.

    Good luck with continuing to deal well with yours, LB. I know how hard they are to live with.

  6. maybe ~ but then again maybe there are sum really good raisins fur halfing them in the first place such as . . .

  7. I think there’s always worth in writing out such things, if only to hear and reaffirm that you’re not alone, or a freak, or just hear that other people can relate and understand.

    My daughter’s dad, the abusive s.o.b.- he had a heavy hand, but once I had left for several days and I saw him at the local grocery store. He didn’t see me.

    It’s odd. Going near any of the sites where he was actually abusive doesn’t trigger it, but in that store I’ve had probably 10 or 12 attacks over the years. It’s the major store in town, so I’ve has many visits there. One minute I’m fine, and the next I need to be where nobody can look at me. That’s the beginning. I feel almost naked, like everyone’s staring, and then the aisle I’m in starts closing in and my heart is going at this crazy rate that nonetheless sounds slow in my ears, and loud, ‘Thump, thump, thump’. I know I’m going to faint, hit the floor, and people are looking. (even if they aren’t)

    Don’t know how many times I’ve left a half-full cart just standing so I could escape. Or once, pushed past the people in line and ran out of the place.

    I just don’t really care, in those situations who thinks I”m crazy. I need out.

  8. “I found various ways of coping over the years. And then I got stage IV cancer. And guess what – haven’t had a panic attack since.”

    If this series is meant to offer ways of coping (with panic attacks) I go with Azahar’s Comment.

    For myself, Azahar says it all, and if accurate has the ‘authority’ to say it. A long way of saying, while many people will advise you about how it is ‘all in your head’ or the opposite-paralell ‘treat this as a real condition (maybe some drugs)…’ you are dealing with an existential problem.
    You have panic attacks because that is one of the things you do. And no matter what the underlying reason for them, they will continue until you make them ‘un-necessary’.
    (Still not overly clear) but my own experience was that only when I was in a position to accept/understand/accept my mortality did the panic attacks stop.
    Think about it, as you say it is about ‘feeling like you are about to die’, and the panic part is a common enough way to respond.
    But if you know that you will (die) and can accept that, there is not so much left to panic about.
    (www.wakefielddoctrine.com)

  9. My first panic attack was a week before I was going to move to Europe, so I understood it in that situation.

    I was so overcome by the feeling that this opportunity was too good to be true, something was going to happen that would take it away from me. So I woke up with this feeling that I was going to die, and that if I went back to sleep, surely I would never wake up again.

    I understood why this particular panic attack happened. I didn’t understand when they started happening a few years later.

    I would get them every time I was assigned to write articles for publication. When the deadline neared, I felt like I was going to die. I would just curl up in my bed in fetal position and pull the covers over my head. As if the responsibility of truth-telling and fact-checking was too much, like when my stories hit the streets and there would be something wrong with them, that would be the end of me and I would do more harm than good.

    Then I started to get panic attacks – sorta kinda, a milder form I think – any time I drove in my car.

    I was a copy editor for three years and constantly read about deaths, car crashes, all the horrible things that happens on a daily basis to other people. So every time I got in my car, I felt like it was going to be my turn to experience some crash or death or accident.

    The reason why I say these were milder was because I was more aware of the source of these fears. The news. And I also understood that I am a decent driver and any mishap that happened would be something usually beyond my control, or a genuine accidental human mistake.

    It’s funny that my “I’m going to die in this vehicle” panic attacks are less severe than the “I’m going to get something wrong in this story for publication” ones. Perhaps I figure the stories and the information therein are going to outlast me any way I cut it.

    In that case, I agree with clarkscottroger – accepting that death is going to happen anyway, whether or not you plan for it, is ironically the key to reduce the debilitating effect of panic attacks, at least for me, in some circumstances.

    For me, my life has been fairly normal, supportive, relatively healthy. No major tragedies, no deaths in the family, no abuse. I think that may be why my particular panic attacks stem from – wondering when something horrible is going to happen for me.

    Not *if,* but when.

    My brain uses the panic attacks as sort of a coping mechanism — “if only my mind was more prepared beforehand, major catastrophes will be less major when they come around.”

    So far, they haven’t come. But my mind still wants to envision the scenarios in which they do. Maybe it’s so my mind can tell me “I told you so” afterward? I don’t know. Still figuring it out.

  10. wisdomjunkie – gee willikers!

    Adam – The first one is the scariest b/c you have no idea what it is or any kind of context for it. I hope your days of panic attacks are behind. But, if they’re not, at least you understand it better and you have lots of support.

    tmc – thanks. 🙂

    Heather – welcome! I can see how it definitely can become a cycle – you have an attack, and then afterward wherever or whatever you think triggered the attack becomes the source of more anxiety, which may trigger an attack which then causes more anxiety, etc. etc. I feel fortunate mine are rare and random.

    petrichoric – it’s really kind of hard to describe them because your mind kind of moves beyond rational thought into a very primal place. You’re lucky to not have experienced one.

    Corina – You’re lucky, in some ways, that your kids were there – not only did they give you motivation to keep yourself calm and rational, but I think having someone safe around really helps to keep you somewhat grounded.

    wisdomjunkie – I think you would probably recognize a panic attack in a line-up of all the other fucked up things that have happened in our lives. For me, it is the overriding and irrational belief that death in imminent. For others it may be something else, but it really feels like you’re quite out of control.

    azahar – I’m glad your panic attacks stopped once you started battling cancer. It’s nice that your mind decided to call a truce so you could put all your effort into working with your body. I wish you the best.

    Teen anxiety – I think it’s important to be up front about mental illness, whether it is panic disorder, depression, bi-polar, etc. Too often these illnesses get shrouded in shame and secrecy and that doesn’t help us at all.

    BBG – dude, if I watched that video in the middle of a panic attack, I think I would be fully convinced of my insanity.

    Am – I’m so sorry to hear about your prior abuse and the aftermath you’re still experiencing. Have you gone through any therapy around this? Not saying it will make the attacks go away completely, but at least maybe you’ll learn some tools to cope with them better. *hugs*

    clarkscottroger – Welcome. I think you do have a point there. However coming to “accept ” death is more challenging than merely an intellectual understanding. For a while, I focused very intensely on doing meditations about death as my main practice – trying to move beyond mere intellect to a deep realization of that truth. And while I felt I was really making some progress with those meditations, yet I was still fighting the odd panic attack. Maybe some day I can get to that place beyond fear of death, but unfortunately, despite doing a fair amount of work on it, I’m not there yet.

    Suzanne – Welcome! You’re right, no one gets out of this life alive. Shitty things do and will happen to us. Isn’t it odd how much time and energy we spend in anticipation of all the shitty stuff instead of staying present and enjoying the fact that it isn’t happening in this moment?

  11. “It’s nice that your mind decided to call a truce so you could put all your effort into working with your body.”

    Not sure that “nice” is quite the right word after almost 40 years of suffering from panic attacks. And it wasn’t a “truce” so much as one fear taking precedence over another.

    I am still completely terrified of dying, and having a terminal illness creates a need to focus on coping with how I feel about that, which takes a lot of effort. Panic attacks pale in comparison.

    Of course this has shown me that what I have believed all along to be true … that I always had control over the panic attacks. My first “breakthrough” came when someone suggested that I treat it as a physical problem, rather than a mental/emotional one. And I noticed time and time again that just before an attack my breathing became very quick and shallow and I had a sense of “falling” into all the fear I was feeling. But things like yoga breathing and especially “distraction therapy” – stopping someone in the street to ask directions, focusing on things I had to do that day, thinking about my cats, walking into a shop and asking for some information – all helped keep me from “falling”. Even saying to myself out loud “I am NOT going there”, BREATHING, and then telling myself to “go somewhere else” in my mind would help. And so did mild tranquilisers, though I suspect it was my belief that they would help that worked as much as the actual medication did.

    The trick for me was to make myself pay attention to someone or something else, to not let myself “fall” and to remember that every single time in almost 40 years that I’d had a panic attack, it always passed without me going crazy. And for me that was an important thing to remember … that panic attacks only last so long. They will not go on forever and they are not actually life threatening.

    Triggers, as Amuirin mentioned, are not to be taken lightly. But rather than avoid all things that have triggered a panic attack in the past, do whatever you can to neutralise them. Perhaps by going to a “scary place” with a friend, or having someone available by mobile phone to help talk you down when the panic first hits, or even carry something that reminds you of pleasant things (small photo album, a favourite book) to distract you from the fear.

    You know, since I got sick with cancer I’ve had moments out in the street when it felt like a panic attack was coming (dark clouds are a trigger for me, and certain noises – I was also abused as a child by my two alcoholic parents so lots of very deep fears buried) and it was just like … NO WAY! I remember once even getting angry and stamping my foot, saying to myself “Listen, I don’t have time for this!”, and after a bit of deep breathing I was back to “normal”.

    Not to say it was easy, or that I am somehow trivialising panic attacks – I have lived far too long with them to ever do that.

    But I also know that they are only as real as we make them, that they only have the power over us that we give them. And that we are the only ones who can take their power away. As with most things, sometimes you win, sometimes … oh well. But it’s important to remember that we can at least control what we choose to be afraid of.

    Sorry for the long ramble, but this is a subject I feel quite strongly about. Nothing “nice” about it.

  12. azahar – I apologize if I made it sound as if I was trivializing your experience. That was never my intention.

    My own opinion is that like so many other physical and mental conditions (in my case, asthma & depression), while we may never be completely free of them, we certainly can learn effective coping techniques to minimize the negative impact they have on our lives, and to even keep them at bay for long periods of time.

    Using techniques like distraction or some rational self-talk, I think I’m able to hold off more attacks than have actually gone full blown. In fact, lately, the only times they have really gotten full blown is when I wake up already in panic mode. Those are hard to get a hold of before the full range of physical symptoms start in that only serve to confirm that yes, I am indeed dying. It sucks.

    Again, I apologize for my unskillful words.

  13. Hi LB

    Oh, that! Yeah, I’ve had that! Gosh, I thought you referring to something unusual. (In all seriousness, I have had something like that. I suffer from asthma and there are times I wake up with the inability to breath. Nothing makes death seem more imminent than not being able to breath).

  14. hey ~ with the previous post yer only 2 letters away from ‘picnic bench’

    stand back fowks ~ eye M halfing a picnic bench ! !

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