The first time I had a panic attack, I didn’t know what was happening, and neither, it seemed, did anybody else. I felt what folks who suffer from anxiety states and panic attacks will well recognize — that foggy, sticky sense of doom. Mind whirring, heart galloping, palms slick and limbs unsteady — surely I was dying, slipping over the muddy edge of my grave; or if not, I was going completely and irredeemably mad.The worst of it was, I was only a little kid at the time. In my innocence, I thought that when I grew up to be wiser and more knowledgeable, I would understand what was happening to me and know there was nothing at all to fear. I would grow up to be strong, brave, and resilient, and I would understand just how silly my childish self had been.
Instead, I grew up to have panic attacks that were even more devastating, since adulthood and knowledge had given me far more things to be afraid of and considerably more medical insight into the various ailments that could be (must be!) stalking my poor trembling body. Combine a certain amount of relevant physiological knowledge with my vivid, complex, natural story-teller imagination, and the playful nip of a neighborhood dog was transformed into a slow, agonizing death from rabies, just as every case of indigestion was either a heart attack or a dissecting aortic aneurysm.
Even though I was rational enough to understand how unlikely these scenarios of doom were, I couldn’t seem to stop the dizzying spiral of mental obsessing, nor the adrenaline surges that played such havoc with my pulse and blood pressure. And then, of course, I further worried (more reasonably) about the very real effect the physical manifestations of my mental terror were having on my heart and blood vessels.
I realize I’m speaking as if this is all in the past, but it isn’t, not entirely. I did learn to understand the neural mechanism of anxiety, and psychotherapy helped give me insight into what may have been some of the factors that increased what is probably my genetic disposition towards some easy-to-excite, slow-to-inhibit neurons. Several drugs, including Zoloft, Paxil, and Celexa among the SSRIs, and Klonopin among the benzos helped during the really bad times (some of the other benzos, like Xanax, had nasty snap-back-into-panic-while-wearing-off effects that discouraged me from using them and my doctors from prescribing them for me). Certain breathing and meditation techniques have also been helpful over the years, as has exercise.
But perhaps the most useful thing I’ve learned about anxiety/panic is that I manage these episodes better when I can just remember to let go and stop fighting. Instead of allowing that almost automatic “Oh no! It’s happening again! What if….what if….what if….” to wind its tentacles into my brain, I get through it much faster and more easily if I can go, “Yeah, yeah, big deal, I’ve seen this all before. If I’m going to faint right here in the elevator and make a scene, then so what, I’ll faint. If I’m about to drop dead, fine, so be it. If I’m about to have a stroke and crash into the tree, then goodbye world. If I’m about to start screaming, hallucinating, and crazily foaming at the mouth, then fine, I’ll be psychotic. Nothing I can do about it, is there? Come on, Fear, I dare ya. Here I am — come and get me.
Usually — not always, but usually — the not-fighting, the acceptance allows the fear to pass over and through me, leaving me shaky, but still standing, still here, still sane, and still able to summon a smile.
This article was written by Linda