Panic Attacks: It IS Possible to Slay the Beast

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.


9 thoughts on “Panic Attacks: It IS Possible to Slay the Beast

  1. I landed in the ER several times when I was in my early 20s, convinced that I was dying of a heart attack. Once I figured out what was really going on, I was able to work through the panic attacks by listening to the little voice in the back of my head telling me that I was NOT dying. This was also the time when I decided that six cups of coffee a day might be overdoing a good thing.

  2. Thanks so much for writing this, Merry. So many people suffer from anxiety, and it is wonderful that you are willing to share what you’ve been through and what has helped you.

  3. Wow! what a wonderful, beautiful, elegant post, Merry! I couldn’t imagine going through this at such a young age. It’s hard enough to deal with it as an adult.

    I wasn’t diagnosed with it until about 5 years ago. See, I’m a caregiver for a husband who suffers daily migraines, chronic neck pain, PTSD, Bipolar, depression, and anything else. We’ve been fighting the VA for years. I am the sole breadwinner. And I am mother. I am the one who needs to be strong, positive.

    But when I couldn’t breathe, I didn’t know what was happening to me. The doctor said my blood ox was fine. But I knew something was wrong because I just couldn’t get the air I needed. He told me I was suffering a panic attack. Me? A panic attack? Why??

    But then I sat down and evaluated it all. And I must agree. I was too stressed. I took on the world. I was the pillar in my family’s life.

    I still struggle, daily, to remain positive, to know I am human (not super human) and that it’s ok to cry. I hate being a burden. I hate being a nagger. I hate being anything negative. So, I fail to carry out my professional help sessions. I stop taking the medicine. I fight it on my own. I still can’t bring myself to “talk” to friends. I’m always afraid they’ll think less of me. So it all gets bottled up inside.

    I wish there was an answer, a fix, to help me stop that. At least I recognize it. Problem is, making friends has not been my strong suit. I reach out and latch on, but I usually get my heart broken. And so, I don’t have any real life friends. They’re all internet friends. And really, how close can you be with them?

    Dammit, I’ve written a lot, and exposed myself again. Sorry, for my blubbering 🙂

    • You’re definitely not alone, Jai! That was always the worst part of my panic attacks. I always felt like I was completely alone. For me it was always a comfort just to know that other people, a LOT of other people, go through the same thing all the time.

      And Internet friends are real friends too! It’s the human connection that’s important, not the amount of time you’ve known someone or how often you talk or the distance between you. Just imagine how much harder it would be without the internet and all those people to connect with. =D

      Hang in there, friend! *hugs*

      • Thank you, Merry. Sometimes it’s hard to realize that there are very real people behind that computer screen. And since you can’t see their face, you are always left wondering. You know. 🙂 Thank you for this though.

  4. Both the symptoms and your advice are so uncannily similar to the ordeal I’ve been going through with quitting smoking that it’s…well…..uncanny. The heart palpitations, people telling you it’s a willpower issue, the need to seek out people who actually know what you’re going through, the need for a motive, the understanding of what’s actually going on in your brain to make you feel this way, etc. I can’t say that our experiences are the same but I can say that do relate to this to some degree and appreciate what this is like. Basically what I’m trying to say is: Nice post.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story! There’s so much in it that I can relate to as well. I’ve been told by different doctors over the years, since I was in high school, that I struggle with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which seems like a catch-all name for panic attacks, chronic worrying/anxiety, self-esteem issues, heart palpitations, and whatever else. In college the first time around, I admitted myself to an ER which resulted in a ridiculously expensive bill because I was having chest pains and thought it was my heart. After an EKG, the doctor came out and said, “You worry a lot, don’t you?” He then proceeded to tell me I had some sort of rib cage-chest infection causing the pain, and my heart was perfectly healthy. This was in around ’99 or sometime, and then as recent as this year I was overwhelmed by heart palpitations, particularly at night. I wore a portable heart monitor for 24 hours and was told afterwards that I have benign ectopic beats, but for someone who worries a lot, it was very disconcerting. (Thank God, after several weeks of dealing with doctors about it, I’ve learned to just ignore it and somehow accepted it’s not going to hurt me. This was a HUGE huge step for me!)

    Stress has manifested itself in so many ways, from chronic hives (which I now have to take 1/4 Benadryl every day to keep at bay) to panic attacks where I feel like I can’t breathe and the room is closing in on me, to irrational thoughts on airplanes. I love travelling and since I’ve lived in the UK for over 5 years now, and my family is back in New York State, I fly across the Atlantic on average about 3 times a year. I hate doing it, but I LOVE getting to places, and I don’t like having to be medicated to do it but sometimes it helps knowing I have medication if I get out of control. Normally it’s just that – being a control-freak is very difficult on an airplane!

    The weirdest manifestation I can think of is “globus hystericus.” I thought it sounded like a Harry Potter spell when I first was diagnosed. SELF-diagnosed actually. I was living in California at the time, preparing my move to the UK, and it was a mixture of good and bad stress. I felt like I had a lump in my throat that would choke me if I didn’t keep drinking or swallowing. I diagnosed myself on line, went to the doctor, and she confirmed it was GH and purely psychological. Somehow, her telling me there was nothing physically wrong, that it was all in my head, made it go away, though it does come back sometimes.

    I could go on and on, but all this to say, I applaud you for your amazing progress, and for sharing it. It does wonders to know we’re not alone in these situations, and I hope that everyone who struggles from anxiety will get to the point in their lives where they can learn to overcome, and take life as it comes. It’s been my lifelong struggle – learning to look at what I worry about from a rational point of view – because I’m not a rational, logical person by nature (I highly recommend Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living”). I cry at the drop of a hat. Not something I’m proud of, but there you have it. So it’s very encouraging to hear about others’ progress 🙂

    Thanks again for sharing, Merry!

  6. This is a good post. I struggled with panic attacks as a kid all the way up through college. No-one ever diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder until my final year of high-school, though, because I hid the problem 95% of the time. As I recall, you and I went to the same high school several years apart, and while I don’t know if my counselor there was the same as yours, I can say that mine had some really stellar gems of wisdom for me (that dude shouldn’t’ve been counseling anyone).

    Your post illustrates the fact that sometimes you come across nutty and/or ill-qualified/sub-par psychologists/psychiatrists. Find another one. It’s just like any other profession: some people are good at it and some aren’t. If you get a bad one, don’t give up or doubt that you need help. Find someone else who’s competent. Boy do I wish someone had told me that ten years ago. One psychiatrist used to tell me that I shouldn’t feel so bad because one of out every five people is depressed. So why was I crying?

    I can relate to many of the aspects of panic attacks that you describe. I also wonder if I continue to have panic attacks that I just manage to tamp down more successfully than I could as a kid. It’s a massively debilitating problem. Another hallmark of the attacks for me is a temporary loss of my sight and hearing. I have trouble seeing and hearing the people around me, which adds to the solitary feeling and the panic.

    March on!

  7. Hi Merry, I have been suffering from panic attacks since 1993 and your description of them is spot on. As well as your steps to reduce them. When reading this I felt like you and I went through the same experiences. I’m knew to blogging and just created my first blog here on wordpress. I have been very busy becoming a Mental Health Advocate by creating a website, facebook page and now my blog. I knew no one who had panic attacks back when I started having them and as I got into facebook I knew I had to reach out to others who were suffering. Being alone in this makes it so much more difficult. Come by check out my blog and my facebook page. I know my friends would love to get some more support from someone who has learned to beat them.

    And to all of you who know what it’s like, you are more then welcome as well. Everyday I see the strength and encouragement that comes from supporting each other.


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