On the descent of a flight from Nashville to LA, I thought I would die. My body felt on fire, my heart raced, my vision blurred. If you have ever been in a car wreck and a few weeks later you hear tires squeal behind you—that feeling of utter fear that feels like it is exploding from your heart, lungs, brain—that one second of terror is what a panic attack feels like, except it sustains and grows over seconds and minutes until you are past the stage of asking for help.
Instead of my attack finishing and me stepping off the plane feeling myself, I stayed in a perpetual cycle of attacks as I hid alone in an L.A. hotel room for twenty-four hours. When I tried to leave the room, I was in a daze, hearing my steps or my voice from behind a windowpane in my brain. Now, I know that the term for this is “depersonalization.” I was removed from reality. I kept my eye contact more direct, my speech slow and deliberate. Not only did I want to come across normal, I hoped that if I acted normal, I would feel normal. But there was also this monster under a thin sheet of my personality that threatened to come out of me yelling, “I need some help here! Someone needs to help me!”
I wandered the unfamiliar streets of LA in a daze and lined up at an urgent care. There I was, a middle-aged woman asking for controlled substances at a clinic in Los Angeles.
Nine months later, I’m down twenty-five pounds. It was needed, but I wish I could have done it in a healthy way. Life has been rearranged. I put myself in my own wellness boot camp. I haven’t had a panic attack for a few months. I’m feeling stronger than I was before these attacks began, but I cannot forget the depth of those months. I was swallowed by darkness. I remember my husband crying and holding me after I said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
I’ve been diagnosed by a physical ailment (Fibromyalgia) since then. It contributes to the anxiety (being the over sensitivity of the nervous system), but I put some things into practice before that diagnosis which improved my life greatly.
There is a lot of bad advice on the Internet, even scams saying they will help you with your anxiety if you register for their program. I have been so desperate, that I have read most of what is out there. What I can attest to is that many of the ones dispensing the advice have never had a panic attack.
A few things to know about panic attacks.
1. It is not a lack of self-esteem.
2. It cannot be controlled by just talking yourself through it.
3. It does not mean you’re going crazy.
4. Anxiety is not the same as stress. However, some of the treatments can be the same.
Below are the things that have helped me. Saved me, actually. Do them all; do some. But I guarantee if you do none, you will regret it.
When asked by doctors through the years if I have even done “drugs, my answer is, “No one ever offered them to me.” I’m definitely straight. And, frankly, I probably would have said no. Drugs and pills spook me. I gag on Ibuprofen. But, I’ve made my peace with them the last year.
How do you know if you need them? If you are not functioning in life or work, you might need them.
If you are having a lot of attacks, start that Xanax or Lorazapram. Give yourself some breathing space so that your body can begin to get used to what it feels like not being in a panicked state. Unfortunately, once you’ve had a panic attack, you worry about further ones, which perpetuates them. Pop those pills as directed until you can think clearly. It doesn’t make you a druggy or a failure. It helps your body with its onslaught of the fight or flight mechanism that is stuck in the flight mode. You must get your hormones under control.
Watch out for pseudoscience. Yes, there is a body/mind connection, but going gluten-free or mixing up herbs into lemon water is not going to get you out of the cycle. Explore those things when you’ve gotten through your crisis.
Vitamins or verified thyroid problems are not fake science. A good doctor will check your levels and make sure you get what you are lacking.
I know. If you’re not meditating you didn’t want to hear that, and if you are into it already, you’re doing a pretentious, slow head nod.
If you are stuck in the state I was, you won’t be able to meditate, yet. However, once you have settled a bit, or if you just feel anxious in life, this is the answer.
A place to start is by downloading the free HeadSpace app. A nice, intelligent British guy tells you what to do. It’s from an intellectual viewpoint and he doesn’t have “yoga voice.” Listen to him and do what he says for 10 minutes. There’s nothing spooky or even spiritual about it. But it does teach you how to begin to separate yourself from your thoughts. And that is really the key to the whole thing. Plus, Jared Leto uses it.
I am religiously against journaling—not as a person, as a writer. I’m with Margaret Atwood on this one. Journaling can take the emotion and energy out of your writing. However, this is a crisis point, so we’ll just have to not be as successful as Margaret Atwood for a little bit.
Attacks last about 90 seconds, taking a deep breath and letting your body relax, then journaling, can help distract you and help you cheer yourself on. Write each day because the usefulness is in seeing the change you are making. You’ll end up writing yourself out of the tunnel.
Early journal excerpt: “Not sure what has been going on. I thought I would be okay.” The beginning entries have a lot of disjointed thoughts and me talking myself down from the brink.
Recent journal excerpt: “I need to figure it out myself. I think it has to do with death, (the) closing (of) yet another day.” My journal is mostly about bright things and events now, but when I get deeper, I explore my feelings about anxiety. Here I am trying to figure out why I feel slightly anxious when the sun goes down. Early on, I could not even contemplate these things. Now I can explore and wonder about the reasons behind my reactions.
4. Yoga and/or light running.
Add running. I’m a lame runner. I do it on a treadmill at about 3.6 for ten minutes, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Running burns off extra cortisol which fuels those panic attacks. Also, making a soundtrack of happy music that you love will make it go by faster and boost your mood.
We know exercise is the key to health. Too bad it involves actually moving. But, I must admit, I’ve never heard that a marathon runner or Olympic athlete can’t participate in their event because they are anxious, or depressed. Those things just don’t occupy the same space.
I’m not a success at this, but there are some things we need to avoid. Caffeine is a main one. I missed my coffee, but after a few months, I’ve now added half a cup back. In addition, there are things you should eat. You’ve known what they are since first grade, so I’m not going to say write them here. I’m just going to say—trash in/trash out.
But diet is more than just food. It can be podcasts, news, tasks, events, sad music, and people. Slash it. Cut it. You’ll miss it. Then you won’t.
The people one is hard to manage. Perhaps, if you are like me, you want people to like you and you don’t like conflict. Well, those people who don’t care if people like them and don’t mind conflict are killing you while they go about their lives just fine.
If you can let go of some people, do. Which ones are they? Just close your eyes and imagine one friend then another. You see those red flags behind some of their heads? Those are the ones. Usually they are negative, controlling, or plain inauthentic. It’s difficult to let them go, but it has to be done. At least for now. You’ll still have people at work or in your family who you can’t boot out, so thinning the herd is necessary.
Also, what you let into your mind is just as detrimental as diet and bitchy people. If you are introspective or have a vivid imagination, beware. Your mind can become your enemy. I used to catastrophize things. If my daughter took the car out, I imagined her in a car wreck. At the height of my attacks, I had some pretty dark thoughts that I couldn’t seem to stop. That is where the drugs come in. Then:
6. See a therapist.
My first therapist was the worst and best therapist in the world. He didn’t let me say a thing about myself, but he did teach me how to control my thoughts. It’s called Cognitive Behavior Therapy and it saved me. At night, when my mind rambles with problems and thoughts, I tell my thoughts to continue in my dreams because I’ve got to sleep. Silly sounding, but effective. Also, changing my internal dialogue from, “I can’t believe this is bothering me,” to “I wonder why this is bothering me,” has made a huge difference (see journal). Many insurance benefits now have mental health offerings. If yours doesn’t, there are some free resources online.
If I had to point to one thing that stopped my attacks, this would be the main one.
7. Tell people.
It is a huge relief to let people know what you are going through. Also, according to friend’s reactions, it helps you figure out which of those friends to not feel guilty about ditching.
Sure people are going to ask you way too often, “are you okay?” But you’d be mad if they didn’t. It will dissipate after awhile. The main thing telling others does for you is make you honest and open. It puts you in a posture to accept new changes in your life. It also allows people to open to you and tell of their struggles with anxiety. I have many people write me since I came clean.
Plus, you didn’t bring this on; it’s not syphilis. The more people talk, the more others can come out of the dark. The more studies that will be done. The more medical options. The more people will realize they are normal.
40 million people will experience panic attacks this year. If they perpetuate, these 40 million are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, end up in emergency rooms, commit suicide, become financially dependent on family or the government, and feel generally less healthy. It’s emotionally damaging, economically damaging, and life-threatening.
I’m supposed to now say these steps are hard, but you can do it. But really, these steps are easy. I’m super lazy and have little follow-through. I might not do all of these every day now, because I no longer have to, but I do most of them. Eating breakfast, having half-caf coffee, then popping a multi-vitamin (chewable), is a lot less than what my 84-year-old father does every morning. But it works. Because I’m lazy, I wouldn’t do any of these things if it didn’t change everything.
Good luck. And remember to think kinder thoughts about those people wandering the streets. Many never made it to a clinic.