Archives for Panic
Last night before bed, I found myself putzing around on my iPhone on my living room floor. It's a nightly thing: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit. Rinse and repeat if I'm still not sleepy. But I was caught off guard while scrolling mindlessly through my Facebook news feed -- suddenly, I felt the floor shake. Always on high alert, I jumped. What was that? After a moment or two of frozen uncertainty, I audibly exhaled when I realized the source of the shaking: a heavy diesel truck, barreling down my street.
[Warning: this video might (obviously) be triggering for those of you with panic disorder. It definitely put me a bit on edge. It does end on a happy note, if that's of any consolation.] Have you ever had a panic attack in front of a large audience? I've had my (unfairly large) share of panic attacks -- but most of them were only in front of small audiences, like the gaggle of shoppers who were behind me in line at CVS when I doubled over in dizziness at checkout. (The moments between that first scanned item and that final step of swiping my payment card is akin to being stuck on an elevator between floors. After the first "beep" of the UPC scanner, I am trapped. I no longer have an easy excuse to run out of the store, if needed. I have to have to have to keep it cool and stay non-panicky, dammit, until that receipt is in my hand, right? I mean, otherwise...I'd look like a complete ass running out of there.) And, oh, the marketing meeting at my former job in a stuffy, sardine-can-of-a conference room! I'll never forget that panic attack.
Suddenly, you feel sort of woozy in an nebulous way. Something feels "off", but you can't put your finger on it. Then, your heart starts beating faster, and you feel the need to sit down. Or sleep. Or vomit. You know your body is pleading for something -- but what does it want? What does it need? You continue to wonder as your body begins to sweat. These symptoms worry you, of course. "Is this a panic attack?" you ask yourself. After all, you've experience severe anxiety before. You know these uncomfortable sensations. You know that a racing heart and a woozy head usually signify an intense head-on collision with panic is just around the corner. Or is something else amiss?
"Just...just do it," she said, looking me straight in the eye. She wasn't a Nike spokesperson: She was my therapist, circa 2004, warning me against the dangers of agoraphobia. "Even if you feel panicky," she said, "Just go. Go out with that friend or this one. Go to the store. No matter how your body feels, just keep going. Don't cancel plans. It'll get worse in the long run if you do." Wise words. Did I always heed them? No.
Have you ever noticed your respiration rate increase during periods of heightened anxiety? It's okay if you have -- it's completely normal and part of the body's fight-or-flight reaction. But what if you're anxious about something that you can't fight or flee from? Then, your quicker-than-usual rate of breathing becomes an annoyance at the least -- and a panic trigger at worst. Perhaps you've read about abdominal breathing in Edmund J. Bourne's classic text, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. Breathing retraining can help with panic and anxiety symptoms, he notes -- and I agree. It can. But perhaps, like me, you absolutely hated his 5/5/5 "Calming Breath Exercise" because, let's face it, fellow panickers: holding your breath for 5 seconds between inhale & exhale is...uncomfortable, to say the least. Right? My body hates it! For me, it raises my heart rate, and I still can't quite understand why it's so often recommended. So, what else can we do?
Years ago, before panic attacks became one of my defining characteristics, I decided I wanted to be one of those crunchy mothers-to-be who avoids all medication at all cost. I'd be growing a tiny human inside of me, after all. I vowed, early in my twenties, that even Tylenol wouldn't even be allowed. Oh, the naivete of my youth. It's been a long time since I've posted a med update, and that's sort of been an intentional choice. Months ago, I started a short series about withdrawing from Celexa, an SSRI drug used to treat depression -- but I'd been taking it off-label for panic disorder for about 2 years. I'm no stranger to SSRI withdrawal, so I was careful to perform a very slow taper. SLOWLY BUT NOT SURELY Things were looking sort of bright on about half my original dosage until I tried to go and pick up a crate a vegetables a mere 2 miles away from my home: It was Tuesday, and I was driving my car to pick up my CSA share — a box full of veggies from a local farmer — just across the bridge from where I live. Easy. Close. A simple task. Agoraphobically, I’ve never really had a problem with bridges before. (And, architecturally, I’m fascinated by them!) But on that day, in the middle of this unremarkable concrete bridge, I felt a small twinge of fear brewing in the basement of my stomach. Something felt wrong — indescribably and uncomfortably wrong."
What does a panic attack and a yoga class have in common? If you're anything like me, both panic and yoga can lead you to (uncomfortably) focus on the nuances of breathing. Yes, breathing -- that thing we do, day in and day out, often without realizing it. But after my first panic attack in college, I began to realize that I was breathing -- constantly. The awareness was neverending and disturbing. I struggled with the following thoughts: What if I accidentally held my breath without realizing it? Would my body's physiology wake up and kick-start my breathing again? Is it possible to just stop breathing, randomly, and not start again? WHENEVER I BREATHE OUT, YOU'RE BREATHING IN Thoughts like this became...well, uncomfortable, to say the least. I wanted to go back to the way I'd breathed pre-panic: without awareness. I just wanted my autonomic nervous system to do its thing, to keep me alive via breathing, without making me think about it day in and day out. I just didn't want the burden of having to notice my breath any longer. And then I walk into my yoga class.
Yoga stretches can feel soooo good sometimes. Case in point: three days ago, I had a bad panic attack brought upon by low blood sugar at night. (Sometimes, I'll eat dinner early, and get so engrossed in TV or internet or writing or crafting or cleaning -- or anything, really -- that I forget to eat.) For me, low blood sugar means this: shakes, sweating, and a profound sense of dread. I get nauseous and feel like I am dying. So I ran to the kitchen, chugged a giant glass of OJ, inhaled a granola bar for good measure, and sat down on the floor. (Waiting for your blood sugar to rise is a very panic-filled waiting game.)
For the longest time, I've been trying to read Peace From Nervous Suffering by Dr. Claire Weekes. My therapist recommended it to me eons ago and, while it's certainly a great read, its reader (read: me) is prone to distraction by means of shiny objects, internet memes, that Christmas box I just had to pull down from the attic today, and...and so on. But I'm chipping my way through. Slowly, but resolutely. Nervous suffering. What a quaint little pair of words Dr. Claire Weekes uses to describe the big bad beast of anxiety. While her language might be a tad outdated, her recommendations are timeless. And the time is obviously right to share with you a few of Dr. Weekes's most valuable tidbits about recovering from "nervous illness", as she also calls the affliction that is panic disorder:
Well, it's been one of those banner weeks: I've had a panic attack just about every single day for the past seven days. Thank you, thank you. I know. Allow me to thank my triggers, without which none of this would be possible: bridges, low blood sugar, being more than ten minutes from home, and driving at night. You've all been instrumental in my lack of success this week. If only snark and sarcasm could ward off anxiety, right? That'd be perfect (for me, at least), but it can't. And you know what else isn't all that great at warding off anxiety? Well-intentioned sentiments like "just calm down" and "there's nothing wrong with you" from well-meaning friends and family members. Their intentions are noble, obviously -- but, as a panicker, you know exactly why those phrases aren't helpful. Right?