BLOG POST #6 - THE OVERWHELMING PANIC
ANXIETY AND PANIC ATTACKS – MY EXPERIENCE
Have you ever experienced a panic attack? Do you know anyone who has? If not, this might not be the post for you. OR maybe it is, maybe one day you’ll experience one and when it’s all over you’ll think about this little blog post and it will provide you some relief/comfort. OR maybe it will remain completely useless information to you. I hope for the latter. Anxiety/Panic attacks absolutely suck.
Here we go. I’ve never tried to delve into the details of my own panic, mainly due to the fear of instigating an attack. Even now as I type I find my throat closing, my heart rate increasing, and this heavy feeling weighing down on my chest. Crazy how the thought of a panic attack can instigate a potential panic attack right? I am clearly a little more on the sensitive side. But we will get into that later. I don’t even know where to start explaining myself. This blog post took a while to write. I’ve had to stop and start many times because this entire topic is anxiety inducing. This post is more for myself than for you. I decided to write it to help me go through my own emotions and to process these feelings that I have had since I can remember. The goal is primarily to face my fear, and secondarily to hopefully bring awareness to this entire subject and help people feel less alone. We start right from the beginning; my first memory of a panic attack, and the subsequent memories that follow. Later on in this post we delve into the thoughts that trigger those attacks (which was the hardest part for sure, I had a total of 6 moments where I had to stop and take a break during this). We end on a positive note though, with some tips on how to prevent/manage/and cope with anxiety and panic attacks. It’s totally cool if you want to just skip all this and go straight to the end for some tips (Scroll to the sections labeled "Tips for Survival" and "Prevention"). I don’t think many people will be making it to the end, so if you want to go there right now, feel free. Okay here we go, right from the beginning, my first memory of experiencing a panic attack.
At the time, I obviously had no idea what was happening. I was about 6 years old. I had watched one of the “Land Before Time” movies; you know, the one with the dinosaurs. All I remember is that there was a volcano that was potentially going to erupt, and all the dinosaurs were scared. I remember learning a bit in school about volcanos and dinosaurs and how all the dinosaurs died. MY little childhood imagination took all of that and came to the conclusion that volcanos killed every single dinosaur on the planet. When I found out that these giant scary exploding mountains were still around, it made me extremely uneasy. I was not okay. I started thinking more and more about it, late at night. Here was my thought process; one day a volcano will erupt and engulf the entire planet and we will all die, just like the dinosaurs did.
The feeling. I just sat there and could not breath. I could not swallow. I felt like puking, my heart was racing, and I felt this extremely sharp stabbing sensation in my head. So, I did what every kid would probably do when they are in extreme amounts of pain, I screamed for my mom. I was hysteric. I was hurting, sobbing, and yelling because I could not breath. My mom came running into my room in a panic, because obviously that’s a terrifying sound to hear come out of your child, right?
“What’s wrong?!” She asked.
“My head really hurts mom it hurts so much!” I had my hands around my temples trying to squeeze the pain out. It was so much more than just a headache, everything in my body was on fire, but how do I explain that when all I want is relief. She grabbed an Advil, the little red tasty ones, and got me to take it with some water. She put her arm around me while I settled down. Eventually I calmed down, and my mom asked what was going on. I told her what ‘really’ happened; that I started thinking about volcanos and how they killed all the dinosaurs and I thought that a volcano was going to erupt and kill us all.
To my surprise, she slapped me and said “Don’t do that again. That’s ridiculous.” I don’t know if it’s because I had scared her for ‘no reason,’ or if she felt as though I had just wasted an Advil. I still don’t know to this day. She did explain the details behind why my theory was so wrong (Like how one singular volcano cannot kill the whole world, the smoke from the volcano would kill everyone before the lava but with today’s technology all the volcanos are being monitored and the process of volcanos erupting is so slow that they would likely be able to evacuate everyone before it even came close to killing anyone, that dinosaurs didn’t die from volcanos alone, etc.). This actually did provide me with some comfort. I didn’t feel scared of volcanos anymore. But that was the last time I called for my mom when I had that feeling. From that point on, I delt with them alone.
That was my first panic attack. I didn’t know it then, but I was going to experience a lot more of them before even knowing what they were. My next memory (don’t worry, I won’t explain every single one to you, this was just the second memory I have that really stuck out) Involved those commercials on atomic bombs that were played before old movies. I was probably about 7 or 8, visiting my dad for the weekend (I would spend every second weekend with him – the arrangement agreed upon after my parents split) and we were watching a movie. I don’t even remember which one, because the commercial beforehand fucked me up for 2 weeks. If you haven’t ever seen this commercial, here’s a link to it:
Now you tell me that if you were a child watching this, it wouldn’t terrify you. OR, maybe you wouldn’t think anything of it, but as a kid with an extremely over-active imagination, it ruined me. This commercial was essentially instructions on what to do if you see a flash in the sky and hear sirens from a distance – “Duck and Cover.” It was probably made during the war, when things weren’t safe, and everything was unknown. Even though it was explained in a serious but light way (there was even a cartoon and a song!) I didn’t think anything light of it. I instead imagined an atomic bomb going off at any second and destroying the entire planet, killing us all. I just stared at the screen in terror. I had no idea that there wasn’t a fear of atomic bombs randomly going off anymore, that we were no longer in the middle of that kind of war. Instead, I started looking out the window at the dark sky, waiting for a bright flash that would kill us all. That was more of a silent panic. Everything hurt and I was struggling to breath, but I couldn’t move a single muscle. I was frozen still, in panic.
That weekend I didn’t sleep. When the movie was finished, I went to my room. Lights off, but I sat on my bed looking out the window all night, waiting for the bright flash. I did this for 2 days. Only at night though. I would forget about it during the day, life distractions and all. But at night I could not sleep. When my mom came to pick my brother and I up that Sunday, I looked like trash. She yelled at my dad for not taking care of us and not making sure we slept. We went home, and I did the same thing that night, staring out the window. I could feel myself fighting off panic all night, trying not to scream out for my mom for fear of getting slapped again. The next morning it was time to go to school but I told my mom I didn’t feel good. I really didn’t feel good. 3 nights in a row of no sleep will do that to a person. On top of the constant feeling of burning inside my body. She reluctantly stayed home with me and asked if I was okay. I asked her some questions about atomic bombs, trying to make it seem like it was no big deal, like I hadn't spent the past few nights absolutely terrified out of my mind. She asked me how I knew about them, and I told her about the weekend movie. She looked upset and called my dad and gave him crap for letting me watch a ‘movie like that.’
“You know she has an over-active imagination. How did you not notice something was wrong?” It didn’t make me feel better. It wasn’t until I saw my dad again 2 weeks later. I asked him about atomic bombs killing everyone and he responded with “The chance of that happening now a days is so low; you don’t have to worry about it. Back then it was an issue, but it isn’t anymore because we aren’t in war.” I just remembered asking “But what if it does? What if it does happen and we aren’t prepared?” He just shook his head and said “It would happen so fast you wouldn’t even know. Don’t stress about that stuff. It’s not going to happen.” It gave me a little bit of comfort, but I would still feel panicky when I thought about it. Even now I get a little cramp in my heart. That sensation of fear in my stomach. My throat closing.
This went on for years. Little things, usually involving death or pain, would make me reel in absolute panic. In high school I was very anxious and uneasy, and I skipped a lot of classes because sitting for long periods of time made me feel worse. So did being around most people. I graduated in a high school with less than 15 people. When I entered University, I would get really overwhelmed by the large groups of humans everywhere. I would hide in the bathroom stall and cover my mouth, sobbing. I couldn’t breathe and I would feel so anxious that I thought my heart was going to explode. It was in University that I finally realized what was going on. I was having panic attacks. I had anxiety. I had no idea before then. My entire childhood was riddled with anxiety and panic. And I had no idea. I didn’t know until 2 years into University that what I had been experiencing during that time was the same thing I had experienced as a child. The idea that it had been going on this entire time made me feel somewhat relieved (at least it’s all related to the same thing right?), but also uneasy. Was something wrong with me?
I reluctantly went on anti-anxiety medication for a few years. It helped, but I felt numb. I didn’t feel okay. I didn’t enjoy how they made me feel. Shouldn’t I feel better? Back then I mostly ran for my mental health. When I got into strength training, I simultaneously went off my anti-anxiety medication. Lifting weights helped me stay more consistent in the gym. I started lifting regularly 3-4 times a week, and I would run 1-2 times a week. I have nothing against medication if that’s what you really need, but I also advocate for trying other avenues first – like physical activity, therapy, breathing techniques. Doctors are often so quick to prescribe medication, and while I do believe it is necessary in some cases, other times it doesn’t have to be. And sometimes you need both! The only way to determine that is by finding a good doctor that is willing to try both avenues, preferably the non-medical way first (because there is research out there that really does support physical activity making just as much of a difference to mental health as medication). I am no longer on medication for anxiety, and I would like to think that for the most part I am doing okay. I do still struggle with anxiety, and I do still have panic attacks. They come in waves. Sometimes I experience months of increased anxiety, my brain just waiting for me to take one wrong step to unleash itself. But other times, I feel fine. Nada. Just a little stress from life because I have a habit of taking on a wee bit too much and getting overwhelmed, but for the most part I’m okay.
On the topic of medication, I met with a new doctor a few months ago to discuss some medical problems I had been having, and while he listened to me and made me feel comfortable and heard, after taking care to answer all of my questions, he started writing a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. When he told me that he wanted me to try it out, I looked at him in shock. I mean, I obviously came in there with scrambled thoughts and was nervous and uneasy, but this guy doesn’t even know me. I felt like I walked in and started talking and all he thought was “Wow, this girl needs to be medicated.” I politely declined his offer to ‘help’ and said I would prefer to try other avenues first, and that I would prefer to stay off of medication. He nodded but said that it could help with my anxiety, that it could help level out my stress levels which would in return help me with the other medical problems I had been having. I was taken aback at how insistent he was. Great, another pill pusher for a doctor. Because my last one was bad enough.
I argued my side for a little bit longer before he agreed to put it on hold ‘for now.’ I wondered what I seemed like on a day to day basis. Do I seem absolutely stressed out and overwhelmed to my clients? To my friends? Family? Or are they just used to the way that I communicate and know that it’s just a part of my personality? IS it just a part of my personality? Or do I need to be medicated? Is this ‘Energetic and bubbly’ personality of mine just anxiety? That made me uneasy for a while. I again, have nothing against medication. But I truly believe that I’ve been doing okay enough to stay off of them. I don’t feel like I am suffering enough that I need to be medicated. AND I would prefer do therapy before jumping to medication again (I haven’t been to therapy in almost a year.)
THE DEEP DARK THOUGHTS – MY TRIGGER
Even though overall I've been okay, recently I have been living through a lot more anxiety. I feel like I am in ‘panic on the inside’ mode. I feel normal on the outside, but my throat and chest are on fire on the inside. This is the hardest part to talk about. There is one common theme with my attacks. The subject of death. How does it start? A movie, a conversation on death, religion, planets, the whole idea of the world ending. Oof. Hard to think about. This is going to be the hardest part of this post. I’ve said that twice now. If the topic of death is a trigger for your panic attacks, here is a warning: that is what this next part is about.
Unfortunately I am not religious, I have tried. I really have. I do not believe in an after life. I do not believe in ghosts. Death terrifies me. The thought of dying and being buried into the ground, no longer conscious, no longer existing in any way. That terrifies me. The thought of living your entire life just to die at the end makes me sick. And the worst part is, even passing pieces of yourself off to others so they can keep you alive in a different way doesn’t provide me with comfort. Because one day this entire world is going to be gone, and everyone I have ever known or loved will be dead, myself included. I have had to stop and start writing this post repeatedly. Writing about this forces a feeling in my entire body that hurts so much I can’t breathe, a pain that makes me think I need to go to a hospital. It makes me want to stop typing it all out, to distract myself, to give up, to get away from this idea and never think about it again. The very feeling of no longer existing one day makes me feel like I’m going to puke. I never addressed this in therapy, it feels too hard. I’m literally too scared. Why the hell am I doing what I’m doing in live if everyone is just going to die anyways. Why even try. I feel selfish for wanting to live forever, for never wanting to grow old. I’ve heard that as you get older death sounds more appealing, like once you’ve lived a full life, you’ll be ready once it comes. But I don’t think I will ever be ready. And the thought of even wanting it one day is terrifying.
I used to be suicidal. I used to want to end my life and no longer exist. Back when I was a teenager, due to fluctuating hormones in combination with living under the same roof as an abusive stepfather. It’s ironic now just how much I want to live. I don’t even want to grow old and die, never mind accidentally having a brain aneurysm or getting into a car accident before even getting to live a full life. We could die at any point. I want none of it. You get the point. I’m rambling. This comes in waves, sometimes it’s a thought/feeling I have to push down every few months, and sometimes I am fighting it off every few hours. There are nights where I just can’t sleep at all. As I had said before, recently it’s gotten worse. And I know a few reasons behind why.
First off, my grandpa passed away about a month ago, quite suddenly and out of the blue, within a few days of testing positive for COVID. This broke my heart. And I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that he is gone forever. It just breaks me every time I think about it. People tell me he is ‘in a better place.’ That does NOT provide me any comfort. He is gone. It’s hard to think about. Ever since that point, I haven’t felt the same. I’ve felt a lot more tired, less positive, and a lot more ‘quiet panic’ on the inside. I watched Forest Gump for the first time in my life on New Years Day, and right at the end when he was talking about death, I had to get up and walk away. I started having a panic attack and I couldn’t push it down this time. I was jumping and sitting and holding my knees to my chest, and then jumping up again. I was walking everywhere around the house and yelling that I couldn’t do this and I needed to make this feeling stop. I felt like I needed to go to the hospital. It wasn’t until my boyfriend grabbed me and hugged me and rocked me side to side, kind of dancing a little, that I started to feel a tiny bit better. A different stimulus to focus on, something to distract my brain. Touch for comfort, movement to dissipate energy. He went to let go but I held on and asked him to keep going. He did until I felt better.
It’s like there’s this little fire in me at all times, and I am constantly trying to keep it at bay. Constantly trying to stop it from getting too big because once it reaches a certain capacity inside my body, I no longer have even an ounce of control over it. It just takes over my entire body and it takes everything I have to stay alive, until I can get it distracted for just a fraction of a second, enough time to throw a little water on it, take back the reins to my body and regain some sort of control again. This whole thing with my grandpa has hit me hard. It’s been a month, and while I’m no longer crying at work, I cannot seem to get rid of this panic. I also have a shoulder injury that has been impacting my life for a little over 2 months now. I think this is another source because I’m not training as hard, so I’m not expelling as much pent-up energy, and it’s also a little reminder that I really am just a fragile human and in the blink of an eye, my life can change. I am not invincible. And this injury reminds me every single day.
So these are the main factors, but I also suspect I’m not doing as much as I want to be doing in my life. Things that make me excited. I’m seeing my friends less, I haven’t gotten to try new activities, I haven’t been outdoors much. There are things that I know I can do to make myself feel a little better, but it’s hard to do them when you’re too tired and too anxious to leave your house after you’ve been working all day. So there, that’s all out there. There’s my experience with anxiety and panic attacks. It’s been terrible lately. Absolutely terrible. But I know that it won't be like this forever. And writing this all out does make me feel a little better. And I hope it provides you with some comfort as well. If not, maybe this next part will. Here are a few things that I find help me when I feel more anxious or if I am about to experience/am in the process of experiencing a panic attack. I hope they can help you too.
TIPS FOR SURVIVAL
The next few paragraphs are on how to prevent panic attacks, reduce anxiety, and what to do when you just can’t seem to fight them off anymore. When you begin to panic, your body releases adrenaline which stimulates your fight or flight response through your nervous system. When this happens, you can either try to reason with your body and attempt to bring it the other way (rest and digest mode), or you can choose to accept what is happening and let it run its course. There’s also some tips on managing stress in general to reduce your overall anxiety which can in turn reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
Your fight or flight response involves an increased heart rate, an elevated breathing rate, and reduced blood flow to your digestive system. It tells your body to get ready for battle, releasing cortisol and adrenaline and giving you a surge of energy to do whatever you need to do – fight or flight from the dangerous situation. Unfortunately with panic attacks, there is no visible danger to run from, and so you just sit or stand there with all this excess energy and increased heart rate, not knowing what to do with yourself, often feeling like you might be having a heart attack or like your body forgot how to breath. I honestly think it’s what dying feels like.
Anyways, if you feel this happening, you can try and reverse your nervous system the other way, to rest and digest mode. You can do this by controlling your breathing, focusing on exhaling as much as you physically can, and letting the inhale come naturally. Taking slow, deep breaths to regain composure and control of your body. You can think about happy things (sunshine and rainbows and whatever gets you to chill for 5 seconds can be enough to actually stop the rush of adrenaline in your body). Sitting or laying on the ground, touching carpet or flooring or something around you to feel a little more grounded and to tell yourself "it’s okay, I am okay. I am safe here. Everything is okay." Saying these actual words can help too. Once you feel even a little better, distract yourself with something that takes your mind off whatever initiated the panic attack. I call this ‘shoving it down’ which is probably not the best, but when you’re at work or in a grocery store, it’s not really the safest or most comfortable place to have a panic attack. I would much rather have one in the comfort of my own home. But preferably I would have none at all obviously. Here is a system for if you can’t stop the feeling, or if it feels too big to stop. I learned this technique from the audiobook “The Highly Sensitive” By Judy Dyer. She explains a technique called RIDE; Recognize, Involve, Distract, End.
RECOGNIZE – Acknowledge that you are having a panic attack.
INVOLVE – choose to engage with your surroundings. Use grounding and breathing exercises to keep you feeling present.
DISTRACT – Find something that holds your attention, even just for a few moments.
END – Understand that even the scariest of panic attacks usually pass within a few minutes and almost all attacks end within 30minutes. It may not feel like it, but anxiety cannot kill you, you have the strength to make it to the other side. Think “This too shall pass”
Judy actually recommends using a mantra that you can come up with ahead of time and use during hard times, like ‘this will pass’ or ‘I just need to wait.’ You can write it down on a piece of paper, or keep it in your phone as your background. And Sometimes it feels good to message a friend to talk to, but I find it’s better to not go into detail on the panic attack and to instead tell them what happened and ask them to help you feel better by talking about other stuff. I tend to isolate myself when I feel panicked, and I noticed it doesn’t help unless I actually have a hold on my panic. If I’m being put over the edge, talking to someone to just get my mind off things helps a lot. Being around other people makes it easier to keep your mind busy and to distract yourself from triggering thoughts as well.
On one other note, panic attacks are much more likely to occur if you are already experiencing prolonged levels of stress. If you want to reduce their occurrence, reflect on your current baseline stress levels (a topic for another post). How stressed are you at rest? How easy is it to push you over the edge? If you have been experiencing more stress than usual, being pro-active in taking time for yourself to reduce that stress can help. Do things you like. Hang out with friends, or by yourself. Read a book, listen to music, go outside, meditate, work on breathing. Make a list of 3-5 things that you would really enjoy, things that fill your energy tank and make you feel better the next day. Make sure you are eating enough, sleeping enough, drinking enough water. Working out/physical activity is my primary outlet for reducing anxiety because it helps me expend the extra energy that I have, and it makes me feel more relaxed after. When you workout, you stimulate the ‘fight or flight’ response, and when this response finishes its course, rest and digest follows. This helps with the cycle of anxiety by using physical activity daily as a means to release any pent-up energy/emotions and complete stress-response cycles.
YOU MADE IT!
Okay, that is it. If you’re still here, thank you for reading. I know that was a lot. I know it took a while for me to get to the point. But again, this post was mostly for me. To try and get some sort of control over the matter. To face my fears of talking about it all. To process my emotions. I thought the intention of turning it into a blog post and sharing it would motivate me to actually finish writing it. And it did, and I have. I think it helped. I certainly feel a little bit better now that it’s all down on paper. Hopefully it can help you too.
Remember to Just Keep Swimming,