Then, your heart starts beating faster, and you feel the need to sit down.
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?
HYPOGLYCEMIA: IMITATING PANIC ATTACKS SINCE…WELL, ALWAYS
The word “hypoglycemia” is just a fancypants way of saying “low blood sugar” or “low blood glucose”. And according to Edmund Bourne’s The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, hypoglycemia’s main symptoms (light-headedness, trembling, feelings of unsteadiness) overlap with the symptoms of panic.
And I can certainly vouch for that. As both a panicker and someone who sees regular dips in blood sugar, the overlap is uncanny.
Well, that spells trouble, doesn’t it? So…when you’re feeling unwell, how can you differentiate between panic and low blood sugar? How can you know that what you’re feeling is “just” a bout of low blood sugar that’ll disappear with a glass of OJ and a decent meal?
Unless you have a glucose meter, you sort of…can’t. (Although, for the record, they’re not too expensive — I bought one from CVS when it was on sale for $10. Test strips are another story, though.)
But you can calm your nerves a bit by learning about hypoglycemia, its causes, and ways to prevent it.
LOW BLOOD SUGAR: WHAT PANICKERS NEED TO KNOW
Bourne goes on for a few pages about hypoglycemia and its relationship with anxiety, but I’ve picked out the points that anyone who deals with both an anxiety disorder and hypoglycemia should keep in mind:
1. A drop in blood sugar can occur in response to stress. According to Bourne, your body “burns up sugar very rapidly” in times of stress (p. 338).
Well, isn’t that just fantastic? Not only can a high level of stress evolve into a bona fide panic attack, but it can also deplete our blood sugar to the point where the hypoglycemia’s own physiological symptoms trick us into thinking that we’re panicking.
So, not only do we need to manage our stress — but we need to make sure we’re avoiding the other causes of hypoglycemia then, too, if we don’t want it to trigger any potential panic. (More on that below.)
2. When your brain isn’t getting enough sugar, you experience an adrenaline rush. Icing on the cake, right? (Sorry for the sugar-related pun.)
But seriously, low blood sugar signals our adrenal glands to — well, I’ll just let Bourne explain it:
…your adrenal glands kick in and release adrenaline and cortisol, which causes you to feel more anxious and aroused and also has the specific purpose of causing your liver to release stored sugar in order to bring your blood sugar level back to normal.
So the subjective symptoms of hypoglycemia arise both from a deficit of blood sugar and a secondary stress response mediated by the adrenal glands.
That’s just what we need — more adrenaline in our lives, right? Hrrmph.
But, in a way, it is comforting to know that the panicky feelings caused by low blood sugar aren’t necessarily an organic panic attack — it’s our body’s way of correcting an imbalance. It’s our body working for us, not against us.
So, we’ve already learned above that stress can cause low blood sugar, and low blood sugar can cause the symptoms of panic. Dandy. Now, what the heck can we do about it?
3. You can avoid hypoglycemia by eating the right food at the right times. Eliminating simple carbs and replacing them with complex carbs are a great start, according to Bourne. His other suggestions include replacing candy with fruit, ditching foods that contain white sugar, and eating a protein or complex-carb snack between meals.
Eating food in this way can reduce hypoglycemia — and, thus, the panicky sensations that are associated with it.
(Of course, I’m not a doctor, so please don’t mistake this for medical advice. Always be sure to check with your doctor before making changes to your diet or if you are concerned about hypoglycemia.)
- Hypoglycemia (National Institute of Health): http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/tutorials/hypoglycemia/db099105.pdf
- Hypoglycemia and diet: http://www.pcrm.org/health/health-topics/hypoglycemia-and-diet
Photo: Alex Murphy (Flickr)