Recently, a commenter to a previous post on panic attacks, Mike, started sharing his story and issues with panic attacks. In response to one of his comments, I wrote the following, which I decided to make into a full post. Here I chronicle how it was that I overcame my panic attacks. Since putting what I’m about to describe into action I have not suffered one more attack. It wasn’t easy, and I can’t promise that following these steps will work for you, but if it helps even one person then this is already more than worth it.
Have you ever spoken to anyone who suffers from panic attacks who has symptoms that are occurring daily? I mean either everyday, at night or in the morning, I feel this “body buzzing” or palpitations, and at several points throughout the day one or another types of symptoms hit me: A little dizzy, not breathing right and so-on. The only difference is that sometimes its worse than other times, and it makes it difficult to figure out what the triggers are.
First of all let’s talk about the symptoms themselves:
The body buzzing you’re talking about is called paresthesia, and it’s caused by your blood’s sudden drop in oxygen. People get panic attacks because, for one reason or another, the body suddenly produces an extremely large amount of adrenalin. (It’s as if the adrenal gland is suddenly stuck on “ON”.) This causes your body to think it’s going into exercise mode. Because nothing is happening physically yet (you’re not running around or trying to kill a bear or something), your mind kicks in the “fight or flight” response. (This is why when people have panic attacks they want to just get away from where they are.) When fight or flight kicks in, your body goes into intense physical activity mode, and because you likely haven’t been doing intense physical activities, some parts go out of whack, like increased carbon dioxide production by your body, which gets dumped into the blood and depletes the cells of oxygen, which then causes you to get that tingly sensation.
The palpitations are very similar. Palpitations are actually caused (usually, in this case) by your heart thinking it’s not beating right. Think about it this way: your heart’s pumping all the time. Inside, it’s like your heart has a battery which tells it when to pump. Your heart also has a backup battery, which kick starts the heart if the first battery, for some reason, stops pumping (like carrying an extra battery in your car, in case the first one fails). Once in a while, that second battery kicks up, like a twitch, even though the first battery’s doing fine. This causes there to be a sudden overlapping in signals, which causes the heart to go from and even (and silent) “thump… thump… thump” to an uneven “thuthump,thump, thuflomp… thump… thump… thump”. This uneven beating can last for a little while, but shouldn’t last more than a few beats. (If it does, or if it happens a lot during the day, see a cardiologist.) Thing is, most people can’t feel that irregular beating. Some people are really sensitive to stuff like this and can feel it. I’m one of those, and frankly, it scares the crap out of me when I do.
As for the other symptoms, again, they’re caused by the different effects adrenalin has on your system. Check out this Wikipedia page on panic attacks and follow the links for information. I, as a hypochondriac, have found that learning about what’s going on is rather comforting, since I know when to say “this is serious” and when to say “this is normal”. Knowing these distinctions has been one of the keys to my overcoming panic attacks, especially in the beginning.
Now, the question remains as to how we stop the adrenalin from being dumped into our system in the first place. There are two possible reasons for this happening. In the first, we have an actual physical problem with the adrenal gland. Only a doctor can tell you whether this is truly the case. In the second (which is over 20-times more common) there’s no physical problem, there’s just stress in the system. Usually this stress is caused by a specific set of triggers which, unless identified, will keep going off. The downside is that this is a pain in the ass, since it’s scary as all heck. The upside is that this is just your body trying to defend itself: it’s doing what it’s supposed to do in protecting you from all harm, real or perceived. Problem is, it’s doing it at the wrong times.
The question in hand is how to find the triggers, especially if the attacks are happening all the time.
Here’s the deal: from my experiences the triggers could only be really spotted during the big attacks, the ones where you feel like you just HAVE to run away somewhere safe. The small attacks had me thinking I was claustrophobic, since all of my attacks happened in enclosed areas and I always wanted to run outside. The big attacks provided the clue here, since they only happened when a certain precondition was met. (In my case I felt under pressure because I felt someone or something was watching or judging me.)
What I found more interesting is that at first I couldn’t identify where the attacks came from because I nothing new seemed to be happening to me. Indeed, it was as if they simply showed up one day, since I had always felt (and feared) that feeling of being watched (but hadn’t identified it as such).
To identify where this was coming from I made a list of what was going on during each attack: what I was thinking, what was going on around me, the sounds, the smells — everything. From there, I drew up a couple of possible conclusions. Of course, the actual answer wasn’t yet among these, but that didn’t matter.
First, I thought that maybe it was my relationship with The Wife that was the problem. I was hesitant to tell her this for very obvious reasons. Instead I looked at other things — unhappiness with the job, possible bodily stress from having recently lost a bunch of weight — but this was the most pressing thing. Specifically, it was involving the idea of kids, since at that time she and I had been discussing kids and the finances required to take care of one (or more), and two of the big attacks came while we were at Toys R Us (KIDS!) and when people in my office were talking about running a marathon for autistic kids (KIDS!). Also, at the time, we were having a few problems in communication, specifically dealing with our differences in modes of expression (I can talk about that later if you so desire).
For the record, the small attacks were most often triggered by me being afraid of an attack (loopback). However, often they would strike up as soon as The Wife and I got together. That wasn’t a good sign at ALL. If SHE was the cause of my attacks then… well, I’m sure you can imagine the possibilities I refuse to delve into.
Eventually I manned up and talked to her about this. While it felt good to get it out in the open, it didn’t resolve the problems. Sure, the attacks stopped for about a week, then *WHAM* another round of attacks hit.
On the bright side, it wasn’t The Wife causing my attacks. (FYI: Confrontation here helps. If you think your attacks can be attributed to a person, or rather, something about that person, then confront them with it. Be totally honest and tell them “You creep me out!” No, just kidding. Don’t tell them that. Tell them, however, that you’re trying to work through this, and you’ve narrowed down the possible reasons to something this person’s doing, so you need to let them know so they can either change that (if they can) or so you can figure out how to cope with it.)
On the down side, I still had the attacks. This is when I started wondering whether this was biological. I went to a cardiologist, got a heart monitor they stuck on me for a month, and went about it that way. The results? I was sensitive to heart palpitations, which just means I’m more in tune with my body than most people. However, this was not abnormal in any way, shape or form, and most people went through that every day. It has no adverse effects, other than being annoying and scary to those of us who can feel them.
My biggest clue came when I had an attack in my car. I was driving from the library back to work (it was my lunch hour), and while I only had 5 minutes before I had to be back, I still had to fill up the car with gas and grab lunch. I was listening to a recording of George Orwell’s “1984” (which is ALL about being watched by “Big Brother”) when it struck me. Now, up until then I had NEVER had an attack in the car. In fact, I actually looked to the car for refuge, since I feel freer when I’m driving.
I lowered the windows, went into a neighborhood road, and turned up the music. About 10 minutes later the attack subsided. (By the way, there are 2 types of attack: the big ones, which only last about 20 minutes, and the small ones, which can drag on for hours.) Was it my job or office that was the problem?
I had experienced problems at jobs before — especially during my last job, where I WAS constantly watched by the owner, who sat behind me and would yell regularly at me — but this one had been great about that. I had my own office (still do), I could work from home (still do), and I had a fairly flexible schedule (come in a little late from lunch? Make up at the end of the day, no problem). Also, while there are stressful periods in my job, this was not one of them. In fact, I was utterly relaxed.
I thought back to the idea of kids. Why kids? Money. Kids made me think about money. Jobs made me think about money. One of the attacks came in a toy store, when The Wife and I were thinking about money. So money had to be it, right?
After thinking through that, I realized that wasn’t the case. We weren’t having money problems at that time. In fact, we were saving more than ever. (Well, actually we’re saving/investing a lot more now, almost 20% of our incomes. Within a year, it’ll be 30%!) But yet, this seemed to be the tying factor.
That night, I watched Spiderman, an it hit me: with great power, comes great responsibility.
A kid means a lot of responsibility. A job is a lot of responsibility. Handling money properly is a responsibility. So was I afraid of responsibility? No, I figured that this wasn’t it, but having responsibility means you’re responsible — or accountable — to someone or something. In the case of money and kids, it’s the future: what does the future hold? The future is looking at your actions now in order to shape itself. The future, I felt, was watching me, and it wasn’t happy with what I was doing (I had at that time abandoned a long-worked at financial plan which wasn’t working out as I’d expected, but in which a lot of hope had been vested). At my job, I felt I was slacking off because I wasn’t being barked at all day long, and I felt I was being watched then, like the calm before the storm. And of course, both of these dealt with money, which is what I have to subside on now, which of course means I’m being watched by my creditors (bills). The Wife is a responsibility, and I was therefore feeling that my actions were being judged by her, as well.
I was being watched.
Once I realized this, once I put this all together, it started to make sense. I had always been a workaholic. In fact, I can’t be happy UNLESS I’m working and under some pressure (something my psychologist has been working to break me out of, for obvious reasons). This, conversely, had an effect on my stress levels, which fired up my adrenal gland, which released adrenalin and triggered the attacks. If I felt I wasn’t doing work, then I felt as if I was slacking off and my fears of failure and disappointing those who were watching me (the future, my bills, my boss, life…) would fire up an attack.
I talked about all this with a lot of people: my wife, my parents, some friends who had themselves experienced attacks, and by that time my psychologist. That last one was most important because he showed me how that tied in to everything that was going on in my life at the time, including how I handled my relationships, how I viewed myself, and how I coped with stress. He talked to me about something called over-excitabilities and positive disintegration, developed by his teacher Kazimierz Dabrowski. In short, where most people receive one amount of stimulation they’ll return one back. I was returning four-fold back.
At this point, he taught me how to meditate and calm my mind. I’m still working on this, but my recent delving into writing and reading for fun (as well as profit) has helped this immensely. No longer do I feel like I owe something to other people in excess of what I truly owe then, and no longer do I feel at the mercy of my environment, but realize fully instead that I control it.
To delve further into this, he gave me an IQ test, as well as a number of other personality tests. Almost as predicted, the tests showed that I’m prone to over-excitabilities. This was the reason my stresses got to the level they did, causing panic attacks.
I won’t guarantee that this is what’s happening to you — those of us who have attacks do so for very different reasons — but my methodology is what I want you to understand. It was that very deliberate noting and studying of observable evidence which led me to the right conclusion. It took me about 2 months to get all the evidence I needed, but once I did, once I put everything together and found the answer.
It is my sincere hope that this helps. If you read this and find this helpful, please drop me a line telling me so, and if applicable, how you may have had to modify it in order for it to work for you.