Fear. Shortness of breath. Heart palpitations. Dizziness. Sweating. Nausea. You can find as many words as you want to describe the symptoms of a panic attack, but unless you’ve ever had one it is impossible to describe. The sense of impending doom, the despair and the terror, the shame, the feeling that you’re going crazy or that you’re going to die. Those things are all just hypotheticals until you find yourself snared in the deep, dark pit that is anxiety disorder.
I can’t remember when I had my first panic attack. It must have been around fourth grade. The reason I don’t remember the first one was because from that point on there were just so many of them! For years on end I couldn’t make it through a single day without having a meltdown of epic proportions.
And yet nowadays when I talk to people and tell them about my history of anxiety they blink and shake their heads and say, “Wait, you?”
Yep. Me. Cheerful, social, adventurous, crazy me. There was a time when every day was agony, but that time is behind me. Now I can’t remember the last time I had a panic attack. I’ve always wanted to share with people how I managed to put my anxiety behind me, so here goes….
First of all, it was a long, long road. There is no easy trick to banishing panic and anxiety disorders overnight. It sucks to hear that, I know, but it is also possible to put it behind you, to breathe again and to live life. So before I even tell you what my journey out of the dark was like, just remember that it was a long one.
Step One: Recognize and state the fact that there is a problem.
Believe it or not, I didn’t know something was wrong for a long time. What? How can you not know that you have a problem? Well, I was a kid. I was in a difficult position in school, bullied by some of my peers, and living in a broken home. Obviously those were all contributing factors to my anxiety disorder, but at the time I didn’t realize that my brain’s reactions to everything was abnormal.
It also didn’t help that as I entered high school I had a school counselor who had no business being in the position who told me that if I would just exert a little willpower I would feel better. Yeah right. When I finally found a real psychologist who knew what she was talking about, she literally wept when I told her the advice I’d been given.
Which brings me to…
Step Two: Seek professional help.
I was in 9th grade when my mom finally realized that there was something going on that neither of us could handle. She had tried taking me to a psychologist in my younger years, but it wasn’t a good match. I don’t know how she found Harriet, but there was ever anyone who appeared in my life at exactly the right time for exactly the right reason, it was her.
There are so many reasons why you need to seek the help of a professional if you are struggling with panic attacks. They don’t think you’re crazy. They’ve seen it before. And most importantly, they come armed with an arsenal of tools to help you move forward. The most important tool that Harriet had that helped me was the truth. I remember telling her that when I was hit with a panic attack my biggest fear was that I would throw up, but everyone kept telling me that I didn’t actually feel sick. Harriet looked at me with compassion in her eyes and said “But you do feel sick!” I was stunned. She believed me! She was the first person who actually believed me.
Then she explained. “When you have a panic attack your brain mistakenly tells your body to release a lot of adrenaline. When you have that much adrenaline in your system your blood moves to your muscles and away from your digestive system. Your organs don’t get what they need and feel the pressure of tight muscles. So your stomach reacts by feeling sick. You do feel sick.”
It was a revelation. Which led me on to…
Step Three: Know and understand (with your brain) what’s going on.
I don’t know how other people out there are, but I can face things much better if I know the facts or if I know how things work. You wouldn’t think that learning the science behind a panic attack would do any good, but for me it was crucial. Here’s what I learned.
Panic attacks are caused by the brain having an inappropriate response to stimuli. There is a tiny part of your brain called the amygdala that sits on top of your brain stem and controls the body’s primitive “fight or flight” response. It is also responsible for emotional memory and fear conditioning (which doesn’t help us anxiety-sufferers at all). In an anxiety attack the amygdala goes into hyperdrive, telling our body that we’re in terrible danger and starting all of the chemical and physical reactions that we would need in a life or death situation. It also triggers (and is triggered by) severe emotional responses. And on and on. Translation – it’s not you, it’s that nutty amygdala!
There are a zillion other fascinating things about the amygdala and every time I learn a new property or area that it controls the more understanding I have of how my brain works and how my responses to things have been formed. I think my amygdala is probably hypersensitive after everything it’s been through in its time.
So how did learning all that brain science help me to beat the extremely unscientific specter that is a panic attack? One teeny, tiny baby step at a time. Knowing the facts about what was going on in my brain gave me a script for when the attacks struck. Even though I didn’t believe it on an emotional level one little bit (and that’s important, btw) I would keep repeating to myself “Your amygdala is overreacting. It is giving your body the wrong message. You are not going crazy, you are not getting sick, you are not dying. A part of your brain is having a reaction. That’s all.”
Incidentally, I also learned that it is impossible for your brain to feel fear and to feel turned on at the same time. Is this why I developed such a love of romance novels and why I ended up writing them? Was this self-medication? Could be!
So did all that help? Not at first. Because as anyone who has ever had a panic attack knows, they are logic and reality-free zones.
Step Four: Want something more than you want to fall apart.
I can tell you the exact moment when everything changed for me. It still lives, crystal clear, in my memory. I was in a session with Harriet that was just like any other session. I’d been seeing her twice a week every week for months. I felt terrible, small, defeated. I can’t remember what precipitated the question, but all of a sudden Harriet looked at me and said, “Do you want to get better? Because there are people who live their entire lives like this and make it through. So do you want to get better?”
In that moment I knew. I knew with more certainty than I’d ever known anything in my life. YES! Yes I DID want to get better. I didn’t want to live like that. I wanted to be whole, to be well. I wanted to get better.
Yep, that was the moment that changed my life. So I walked out of Harriet’s office and everything was sunshine and roses, right? Hell no! I went right back to struggling and writhing and dying on the inside with fear like no one should ever have to experience. But I knew I wanted to fight it. I knew there were better things out there for me in life that I wanted so much more than I wanted to be kept inside forever with anxiety disorders.
For one, I was 15 and on the verge of getting my driver’s license. As Harriet rightly pointed out, you can’t get behind the wheel of a car if you’re going to have a panic attack. For another, I was in high school. I wanted to have friends and not be stared at every time I flipped out (which I was). I wanted to be normal. When I got older, long after I stopped seeing Harriet, I wanted to travel. I wanted to live on my own. I wanted to hold down a good job and be well thought of by my peers. I wanted to write. I wanted to love. All of those things are so much better than panic.
But it was seriously hard work.
Step Five: Don’t back down.
As much as I hated it, I’m pretty sure one reason that I was able to slowly overcome my panic attacks is because I was forced repeatedly into situations where there was no way out but through. I loved theater, for gosh sakes, and was in several plays. You absolutely cannot have an anxiety attack on stage.
I remember one show in grad school that ran six days a week for three weeks. I was in the chorus and there was one scene where I had to stand perfectly still as a tree for ten minutes or more. Every single night I had a panic attack during that scene. But my determination not to break character, not to move a muscle, and not to melt down outweighed the crippling panic (and believe me, I did feel it!) to the point where the stage manager confessed to me that every night the staff in the booth made bets over whether I would move … and I never did.
There are a lot of other situations that I was thrown into that were panic hot-spots. The worst panic attacks I’ve ever had were in airplanes. But guess what? You can’t get out of a plane. You can’t even get out of your seat in a lot of cases. You just have to put up with it. And I really loved traveling, so I had to go. Also because my mom was putting me on a plane to go visit my dad, which had all sorts of implications.
Speaking of which, I should probably include knowing and understanding the horrible psychological scars of your parents divorcing and your family being shot to sunshine along with knowing the science of what is going on in your brain. Yeah, that’s kind of important.
Steps Six through Infinity: Give it time.
I think the last panic attack I had must have been about a year or so ago. Maybe longer? I can’t remember. It’s wonderful to be able to say that. But I can also say that I started feeling a little iffy this morning for no particular reason. But in the twenty plus years since Harriet helped me I gradually learned to combat the panic to the point where it is a dull roar at the back of my mind instead of an all-consuming storm. And believe me, I’ve felt every second of every hour of every day of those twenty years.
I also think that hormones have something to do with it. I know I’ve gone through a major hormonal shift in the last couple of years. Chicken or egg? I don’t know. But I have a strong sense that it is possible to outgrow panic. I have no scientific evidence to back that up though.
Well, I could honestly write a book about everything I’ve learned in the struggle to overcome my anxiety disorder. There are so many facets to the problem and so many ways to approach it. These are just a few of the things that worked for me. Oh, I should also add that I was never medicated. Never.
I know that I am not the only one though. I would love to hear from others who have suffered from anxiety disorders. Please comment and share your story and any techniques you might have learned along the way to fight the darkness.
And for those of you still struggling, keep going! There is hope and help around every turn.